Every year my father-in-law rents a beach house large enough to accommodate 11 family members for an entire week. We have been to Jamaica, Mont Tremblant in Canada, the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and a large majority spent in Pawleys Island over the years, which by the way, has the best selection of beachfront homes. This past year, however, there were no homes available during the week we agreed to get together so we tried something new. We went further south to the incredibly charming St. Simons Georgia. Just 3.5 hours south of Charleston, we found ourselves in the arms of a gracefully quaint time warp. Driving in over the causeway in the late afternoon was quite a site. The sky greeted us with a slow sunset of lazy shades of pink, peach, and lavender overlooking a rich velvety green marsh.
We drove into town following the friendly voice of Google Maps. The main intersection is a roundabout and sits near most of the local shopping. We took the route that passes the old private airport toward the beach. This airport is nothing to sneeze at. It’s tiny but lands lear jets and private helicopters without a hitch. First class service all the way. You can also take helicopter rides and plane tours of the island from this airport. And it’s close to everything, yet you would never know it’s there it’s so inconspicuous.
As we drove into the residential area near the beach, we noticed immediately that no home was the same. Each home had its own look, its own elevation and style. Unlike some of the North and South Carolina Beaches where sometimes it can be hard to tell which home is yours after a long walk on the beach, especially at night or after you’ve had a couple of glasses of wine, these homes all have a distinctly unique look. You’d have to be pretty sauced to miss your home.
Our rental was recently renovated and had a rustic elegance about it with spectacular views of the ocean as well as a an unusually large pool for a residential home. In August the water recedes making for a longer walk through the sand to the beach. It was approximately one fourth a mile with lots of little biting flying critters through the dunes along the way. In Pawleys the ocean is just off of your back porch. The other noticeable difference was the stillness of the ocean. Quiet, peaceful, and almost completely still. One morning after taking photos of the sunrise, I floated in the water and hardly moved, a completely new experience for me as the Carolinas can sometimes give a good beating.
Shopping and restaurants can be found all over the island, but there is one main strip where both tourists and locals frequent on Mallery Street. Here you will find restaurants and beautiful little shops owned and runned by locals. At the end of the street you can take a leisurely walk or take a shot a fishing on the pier. You can play at the water park or visit the lighthouse. The food is hit or miss although my two favorite places were Del Sur, an intimate Italian restaurant, and The Half Shell for oysters. Music can be heard throughout the week a small venues all over the island. Palm Coast Coffee is notorious for live music in a relaxing environment. Tennis and golf are mainstream activities in St. Simons and have some of the most well appointed tennis courts and scenic golf courses in the south.
In town, meaning closer to the roundabout, there are more hotels, restaurants, shops, and yoga studios. One of my favorite stops was Redfern Village, an inviting little courtyard of small restaurants and boutique shops. After visiting Wine, Body and Soul, a wine shop that sells fun wine paraphernalia, I went next door to the Crystal Earth Metaphysical Supply Store where I met owner, Sherri Altenbach, who stopped what she was doing to help me choose a couple of crystals to help me on my journey. I was so captivated by her, I went back to talk with her five more times during our stay. We have become close friends connect frequently.
Just a few doors down you will find Fancy Q Sushi Bar and Grill, an excellent Sushi restaurant that is reasonable priced. If you want jewelry with some meaning, visit GoGoJewelry. The beautifully hand crafted delicate gold and silver pieces come from the bones and shells of Cumberland Islands wild landscape. Cumberland Island is known for its wild horses and the wedding of J.F.K. Junior and Carolyn Bessette although the island was originally developed for the Carnegie family. All the Redfern shops have something to offer. Bathing suits, cards and gifts, great food, jewelry, good wine and beer, whatever you fancy. You can find it there.
A few interesting day trips to consider are Jekyll Island, Fernandina Beach, and Cumberland Island. I don’t include Cumberland Island as a beach town as it is more of a historic island worth a day day trip from the St. Mary’s When you think of Jekyll Island, think Federal Reserve. That’s where it all started. The museum was closed for restoration while we were there, but we managed to take a tram tour around the island where we learned about high society and how the elite lived not so long ago.
You will hear big names like Oglethrope, Jekyll, Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Pulitzer just to name a few. The first known inhabitants of Jekyll Island date back to the 1500’s when Native Americans came to fish, hunt, and gather natural resources from the island for survival. It was colonized in the 1700’s and endured its fair share of war. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that an exclusive hunting club was built. The Jekyll Island Club was privy to private members like the Rockefellers, Morgans, and Vanderbilts. It was considered the most exclusive club in the world. A secret meeting took place in the early 1900’s later evolving into what we now know as the Federal Reserve. After the depression and World War II, however, the hunt club did not survive. It is now a state park, resort, museum, and one of the most interesting destinations in the south. While there are several affordable hotels on the island, beautiful beaches, trails, and restaurants, it still has an exclusive feel.
Fernandina Beach is approximately 50 minutes south of St. Simon’s Island. It is also known as Amelia Island, a small scenic beauty perfect for weddings, golf, tennis, or a nice quiet getaway. The island is divided into two parts. On the north side of the island you will find an outdoor skate park, plenty of beachfront condominiums, a recreation center, lot’s of residential homes and Bed and Breakfasts some of which date back to the 1700’s. Adorable shops, restaurants and live oaks lace Atlantic Avenue, the main street in Fernandina. You can also access Fort Clinch State Park. While this fort never fired a hostile shot, it is great for camping, bicycle riding, and enjoying private beaches.
One of my favorite restaurants on this side of Fernandina is Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro. It sits just one block from the marina and is quite intimate. When I think of a name like Joe’s, I think of a sandwich shop or some type of pub. Don’t let the name fool you. White table clothes, decadent mouth watering meals and a fabulous wine list will leave you wanting to come back for more. The outdoor patio is a favorite as it is surrounded by nice foliage, lighting, and a fountain. Amelia Island Coffee is also a fun place to lounge in the morning while you sip your coffee and people watch. If you fancy a little tour, you can hop on the old trolley at the end of Atlantic Avenue near the water. The trolley will take you all over this side of the island and share some fun facts about Fernandina’s history. There are also water tours through Amelia River Cruises and Charters as well as water sports with Backwater Cat Adventure if you want to explore on your own. The Amelia River Cruise toward Cumberland Island was picturesque ad extremely informative, but if you are thinking of catching the wild horses on camera, you will need a good lens. The boat does not get close enough for your iphone or normal camera lens to get a good clear pic. Excellent zoom capability is a must.
The south side of the island is known for luxury. The Ritz Carlton and the Omni are notorious for large events such as weddings and business meetings. While the Ritz is beautiful, the food was questionable when I was there. The service, however, was spot on. When a friend ordered a veggie burger that was served on a frozen bun, management was quick to resolve the issue with a hot free meal and drinks on the house. Both hotels have vast views of the ocean. The beach is quiet, clean and is known for its colorful shells. If you like live music, tennis, golf, or want to pamper yourself with luxurious spa treatments, there is plenty available at both hotels.