Jekyll Island - Georgia's Historic Golden Isle

Jekyll Island Is Picturesque Island Off the Coast of Georgia

Jekyll Island, Georgia Spanish Moss
••• Jekyll Island, Georgia Spanish Moss. Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

Jekyll Island is off the coast of southeast Georgia. This golden isle, one of a string of islands that stretch from the Florida border up the coast of Georgia and into South Carolina, is a fascinating port of call for small ship cruise lines cruising the Intracoastal Waterway such as American Cruise Lines or for those on driving vacations in the deep South. Visiting the same location for over 20 years has given me the opportunity to explore all there is to do and see on Jekyll Island.

I feel like my Jekyll memories are like one of those time-lapse cameras that snaps a photo periodically, only my photos are a year apart! Unlike many coastal islands that have become overgrown and overdeveloped, Jekyll has actually improved with age due to the hard work of the State of Georgia and others.

The island is covered with live oaks, Spanish moss, and palmetto. Criss-crossing the island is over 20 miles of bicycling and walking paths. You can always find a peaceful spot on the beach. Few locals come over to Jekyll from nearby Brunswick because of the "parking" fee charged to all cars entering the island. There are some year-round residents, and a handful of hotels along the beach. It's definitely not a place to visit if you are looking for nightlife!

Some small ship cruise lines visit Jekyll Island as a port of call. These cruises are during either the autumn or the spring along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Since many mainstream ships are starting to depart from nearby Jacksonville or Port Canaveral, Florida, Jekyll is also a good place to stopover for a day on your way to or from your cruise.

History of Jekyll Island

Jekyll has a fascinating history dating back to the end of the nineteenth century. The island was purchased from John Eugene duBignon in 1886 for $125,000 by some of the wealthiest men in America as a hunting resort.

His family had owned the island since 1800. The names of the owners are recognizable to most history buffs, and include J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, Marshall Field, John J. Hill, Everett Macy, William Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Richard Teller Crane. The island was prized for its "splendid isolation".

The club members commissioned architect Charles A. Alexander to design and build a sixty room Clubhouse. The Clubhouse was finished November 1, 1887, with the first official season beginning in January, 1888. In 1901, an attached annex was built to handle the expanding needs of members. A syndicate of members, including J.P. Morgan and William Rockefeller, built a six unit apartment building in 1896 they named Sans Souci--the first condominiums!

The owners would usually spend a couple of winter months at Jekyll Island, arriving by yacht from New York. (Remember, this was before Florida was developed or air conditioning invented.) The Jekyll Wharf where they tied their yachts is still used by boaters, sailors, and small ship cruise lines today. Although Jekyll was a hunting resort, it certainly didn't look like any hunting or fishing camp I've ever been to with the About fishing guide!

Between 1886 and 1928, the owners built "cottages" along the marshy side of the island where they would be protected from the ocean. Many of these beautiful cottages (mansions) have been restored or are currently a work in progress. The largest "cottage" is almost 8,000 square feet. The Jekyll Island Clubhouse is now a romantic Victorian hotel.

Throughout the Club's history, many recreational amenities were added. The first golf course was laid in 1898, with two more done in 1909. A marina to handle yachts, a swimming pool, tennis courts, bocci, croquet and other recreational facilities were also available to help members while away the time they spent on the island.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the Jekyll Island Club members became disenchanted with the island. They began traveling to European spas and elsewhere for their entertainment.

After the 1942 season, the U. S. government asked the members not to use the island for the duration of World War II due to concerns for the security of the powerful owners. They never went back. The island was sold to the State of Georgia in 1947. The state attempted, until 1972, to operate the Clubhouse, Sans Souci and Crane Cottage as a hotel complex, but its efforts were unsuccessful and the buildings were closed. In 1978, the 240-acre club district was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1985, work began to restore the Clubhouse, Annex and the Sans Souci into a world-class hotel and resort named the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. The $20 million in restoration funds have all been invested in the buildings and grounds, since the facility can only be leased. Great care was taken to create a faithful restoration while installing modern conveniences. The Club is once again a showcase, and is now available for everyone to enjoy.

Today the 240 acre National Historic Landmark is often called "Millionaire's Village."

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A one-day stopover on Jekyll Island must include a tour of the Historic District, also called the Millionaire's Village. Many of the cottages have been restored, and anyone who is fascinated by old homes will love the tour. The current restoration project is one of the largest in the Southeastern United States. If you arrive via small cruise ship on the Intracoastal Waterway, you will dock at the same Jekyll Island Wharf used by some of the most luxurious pleasure craft ever built.

From the wharf, you can see the village laid out before you. The fascinating sea of grass on the other side of the waterway is the famous Georgia "Marshes of Glynn" made famous by the poet Sidney Lanier.

The tours run from 10 am to 3 pm at the National Historic District Welcome Center, which is located on Shell Road a short walk from the wharf. Be sure to check for the times before you go. Tours are offered every day except Christmas and New Year's Day, and the phone number is 912-635-4036. Inside the welcome center, you might first view an 8-minute video presentation on Jekyll Island's history and obtain tickets for a tram tour of the District, The narrated tram tour will take you around the village, stopping at least 4 of the restored cottages. Thirty-three of the original buildings still stand. The narrated tour lasts about 90 minutes, but you can easily spend a few hours or half a day exploring the few small shops and houses not on the guided tour or just wandering the village on foot.

You can also do a self-guided walking tour of the 240 acre village. Walking gives you an opportunity to see the village at the slow pace it should be visited.

One warning--don't forget to use bug spray when wandering the island! The mosquitoes can be pretty ferocious in South Georgia! After you've toured the cottages and the historic district, there's still time to rent a bike or explore the rest of the island by car or tour bus.

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Bike Riding

One of my favorite shore activities on Jekyll Island is bicycle riding. The island is flat and has over 20 miles of biking and hiking trails. There are numerous places to rent bicycles, and all will provide a map of the island with the bike paths marked. In my opinion, the best riding on the island is a big circle loop that starts at the Millionaire's Village (historic district) of the island and goes north to the Jekyll fishing pier at the far north end of the island.

Leaving the pier, you ride across the foot bridge, through the marsh, and down the bike path by the beach road to the convention center, cut through the forest and end back up at the Welcome Center for the Millionaire's Village. This circle tour takes at least 2 hours of steady pedaling, but you can shorten it by cutting across the island by the golf course or using the road rather than the twisting bike path.

There are many other fascinating routes to take. Just get a map when you rent your bike and plot your own trail. You can ride all the way around the island, but the south end of the island near the water park is not shaded, and can get very hot! I usually criss-cross the island, following the bike trails or quiet streets, stopping often to look for alligators in the marsh.

Beach Walking

The Jekyll Island beach is quiet and unspoiled. You can walk for hours and see only a handful of other people.

If you go to the south end of the island near the South Dunes picnic area to walk, you might not see another person! I love walking on the beach at Jekyll because it is so uncrowded and peaceful. Because of the heat, Ronnie and I often walk at night in June with our red-beamed flashlight looking for sea turtles who have come ashore to lay their eggs.

These lumbering creatures are protected, and there is quite an active sea turtle patrol out at night on their 4-wheelers. We've never been willing to stay up all night looking for turtles, so have yet to see one on Jekyll. However, I've often seen their tracks from the sea up to the sand dunes. They're very distinctive! The sea turtle patrol marks and numbers each nest, warning everyone to keep their distance. Those who love sea turtles will enjoy a visit to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.

When you look at a map, you'll see that Jekyll is located at the mouth of 2 large rivers. These rivers dump rich soil offshore and the currents carry it onto some areas of the beach. Because of this phenomenon, you might find the ocean bottom covered with mud rather than sand when you go swimming at low tide. The sand on the beach and at high tide is a golden color and is quite lovely. It's just NOT the snowy white powdery beach you'll find on the Gulf Coast. However, the richness of the offshore mud means you'll find numerous sand dollars and other beautiful shells buried in the mud or washed ashore. There is also a large sand bar stretching way out into the sea. This sand bar is fun to explore during low tide.

(It's covered at high tide.)

Jekyll's unique salt marsh ecosystem, its beaches and shore birds are the focus of walks led by Coastal Encounters Nature Center. Year round walks are scheduled and last 1 -2 hours. They also have night time turtle walks during the summer laying season.

Other Activities on Jekyll

If bike riding or beach walking is too tame for you, Jekyll also has 63 holes for golfers and 13 fast-dry clay tennis courts. Horseback riding is available at the fishing pier, and beach and trail riding is another great way to explore this fascinating piece of Georgia. An 11-acre water park is fun for all ages. Deep-sea charters and offshore boating and cruising the marshes are available from the Jekyll Harbor Marina south of the village on the Intracoastal Waterway. Dolphin watching trips are also popular.

We watch dolphins cruise the beach almost every morning when the ocean is calm, so they must be plentiful in the rich seas off Jekyll.

For "culture" lovers, the outdoor Jekyll Island Theater runs musicals during June and July. Aspiring actors from Valdosta State University make up the cast, and tickets are reasonable. (Don't forget the bug spray for the outdoor theater!) For such a small island, there's a lot to do! Jekyll Island, Georgia is a great place to spend the day while on your cruise up the Intracoastal Waterway. Visit the Historic District and explore the trails, beaches, and marsh areas. Since Jekyll is owned by the State and the land is managed, I hope it will continue to change for the better, or not change at all. I hope you have an opportunity to visit the island. I think you will find that one day is not nearly enough!