Discover the Golden Isles: Rich in History and Beauty

Warm Atlantic waters, miles of winding marshland, and magnificent beaches

Georgia‘s Atlantic Coastline is only about 100 miles long but along this green corridor, you’ll see some of America’s most breathtaking natural landscapes.

This is a region woven with many cultures, notably the coastal Gullah with origins in West Africa. Their traditions include sweetgrass baskets, quilting, and knitting fishing nets.

Folklore, stories, and songs have also been handed down over the years.

Traditional recipes include seafood dishes and Low Country favorites such as hoppin’ john (brown fried peas cooked with rice; eaten for good luck), sweet potato pie, and benne wafers (cookie made with sesame seeds and eaten for good luck).

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden Isles

Nestled on the Georgia coast, midway between Savannah (Georgia) and Jacksonville (Florida) lies the mainland city of Brunswick and a series of barrier islands.

The most visited of the barrier islands are Sapelo, Jekyll, Cumberland, and St. Simons. Sea Island and Little St. Simons Island are exclusive. Little St. Simons, Sapelo, and Cumberland must be reached by boat, while St. Simons, Sea Island, and Jekyll have causeways connecting them to the mainland.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Simons and Jekyll islands straddle the Marshes of Glynn, made familiar by Sidney Lanier’s poem of the same name.

The 5.9-mile causeway that leads to Jekyll is flanked by tidal marshes, home to waterfowl and migrating birds.

Related: Spotlight on Georgia: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

Four of the beautiful isles—St. Simons, Little St. Simons, Jekyll, and Sea—and a nearby coastal town are known collectively as Brunswick and the Golden Isles of Georgia.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These coastal isles have long served as refuges for wildlife, havens for millionaires, and bastions of history.

Voodoo, alligators, wild horses, African culture, and the wealthiest families in the United States are all part of the history of the Golden Isles.

The state has only 100 miles of coastline, but nearly 800 miles of shoreline. Seventeen barrier islands are in this complex.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spanish explorers seeking gold originally descended upon the territory more than 400 years ago, only to find astonishing beauty, mild weather, and a natural radiance that inspired the area’s name, the Golden Isles.

Pristine stretches of marshland, punctuated by small islands known as hammocks, define the breathtaking landscape and create the appearance of a continuous stretch of land reaching out to the barrier islands. These vast marshes turn a beautiful golden color in the fall, especially dramatic when lit by the setting sun.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Golden Isles are also heralded as a destination where the gentleman’s game of golf meets Southern hospitality in a seaside setting with a rich and storied history. The area’s beauty and world-class golf courses, facilities, and instructors have earned the Golden Isles its reputation as a golfer’s paradise.

Sydney Lanier Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jekyll Island alone boasts four public courses situated along and through a state park—the 18-hole Pine Lakes, Oleander, and Indian Mound courses and 9-hole Great Dunes. Joining the Seaside Course at Sea Island are two other full-length tracks, the Plantation and the Retreat, while Heritage Oaks in Brunswick is known for its conditioning.

Related: Celebrating 75 Years of Jekyll Island State Park: 1947-2022

Not only do the Golden Isles provide a rich golf experience but they also come alive as nature’s playground with acres of undeveloped land, marshes, and rivers along with the vast expanse of ocean.

St. Simons Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Simons Island

The largest of The Golden Isles, St. Simons Island continues to reveal the beauty and fascinating history of what 16th-century Spanish explorers called San Simeon.

Visitors come year round to swim, stroll, and sail along its miles of lovely beaches, to challenge its 99 holes of superb golf and numerous tennis courts, and to explore its countless shops and restaurants.

Marshes of Glenn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Simons Island lies across the immortalized Marshes of Glynn, made famous by English poet Sidney Lanier. Moss-draped oaks line the winding island streets, creating a picture-perfect image worthy of a William Faulkner novel.

The island’s villages offer a charming and unique selection of shops, plus a variety of restaurants. Visitors and residents alike enjoy outdoor recreation at Neptune Park and its Fun Zone which includes a public pool, miniature golf, and a fishing pier.

Marshes of Glenn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As I discovered during our visit, St. Simons Island is dotted with historic sites and attractions, from the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum—a working lighthouse built in 1872—to the Bloody Marsh Battle Site, where, in July 1742, British and Scottish soldiers protecting colonial Georgia defeated a larger Spanish force in a battle that helped end Spanish incursions north of Florida. 

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Frederica National Monument which preserves archaeological remnants of the local British colony and its defense against Spain and historic Christ Church, Frederica—one of the oldest churches in Georgia with worship held continuously since 1736—are located on the island’s north end.  Fort Frederica, Georgia’s first military outpost was established by British General James Oglethorpe. A visitor’s center and museum are also located on the site.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Live oaks, the same trees that overshadow Frederica Road, were milled for use in Revolutionary warships including Old Ironsides, also known as the USS Constitution. Because the trunks and branches of this tree naturally bend, they were perfect for forming the hulls of boats.

Related: 10 of the Best Places to Visit in Georgia

Toward the southern tip, the Maritime Center, in the restored U.S. Coast Guard Station provides fascinating glimpses of the area’s natural evolution while highlighting some of its maritime and military history.

Year round warm weather in the Golden Isles allows visitors to enjoy a variety of outdoor activities such as kayaking, fishing, biking, golfing, or relaxing on East Beach.

Visitors can tour the island’s historic sites on a variety of transportation options.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sea Island

Reached by causeway from St. Simons Island, Sea Island is an internationally acclaimed resort. The Sea Island Company features two of the world’s most-exceptional destinations: the Forbes Five-Star Cloisture on Sea Island and The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club, a Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond property located on the southern end of St. Simons Island. 

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though much of Sea Island is residential, Island life centers round The Cloister, perennially honored as one of the world’s great hotels. Golf club, beach club, gun club, horseback riding, fine dining, and numerous other activities are among the amenities enjoyed by its guests.

Guests of Sea Island who enjoy the game of golf can appreciate the Golf Learning Center and three championship golf courses at Sea Island Golf Club.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Seaside Course, home to the PGA TOUR’s McGladrey Classic, is a links course graced by majestic ocean vistas in the tradition of St. Andrews.

The Plantation Course winds enticingly through marsh and forest while the Retreat Course offers a uniquely dramatic and challenging design cultivated by Davis Love III and Mark Love. 

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If golfing is not your game, enjoy the Sea Island Beach Club, Tennis Center, Yacht Club, Shooting School, and Forbes Five-Star Cloister Spa.

Sea Island offers cuisine to satisfy any taste with seven exceptional dining venues, including the renowned Forbes Five-Star Georgian Room which offers “Refined Southern” cuisine amidst grand décor.

Related: Holly Jolly Jekyll

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did You Know?

Eugenia Price’s trilogy LighthouseNew Moon Rising, and Beloved Invader chronicle the history of St. Simons Island and Christ Church.

Worth Pondering…

The Marshes of Glynn

Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven

With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven

Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,

Emerald twilights,

Virginal shy lights,

The wide sea-marshes of Glynn.

—Sidney Lanier (1842–1881)

What’s in a Name? Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary or Great Swamp Sanctuary

Take a break from I-95 and walk on the wild side

There is a beautiful wildlife sanctuary located in the middle of the historic and picturesque city of Walterboro, South Carolina. Easily reached from I-95, the Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary is a great place to leave the traffic behind, stretch your legs, and enjoy nature. The sanctuary contains a network of boardwalks, hiking, biking, and canoe trails that are perfect for viewing a diversity of a black water bottomland habitat.

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Great Swamp Sanctuary) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History, culture, recreation, and educational opportunities are abundant. The 600-acre sanctuary features a “braided creek” swamp which divides into an interlocking or tangled network of several small branching and reuniting creeks resembling a braid. The 3.5-mile loop is paved and well maintained.

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Great Swamp Sanctuary) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most historically significant path here follows the Colonial-era Charleston-to-Savannah Stagecoach Road still bearing the cypress remnants of long-fallen bridges. Waltersboro was the southernmost spot where this wagon road was built likely since a more southern route would be far too swampy. The former road still bears the remains of cypress built and long-fallen bridges.

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Great Swamp Sanctuary) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perpendicular canals with tannic water had been carved decades or more before to drain the swamp and levees could have provided narrow-gauge access for loggers to remove the cypress. A few old specimens have hollows in their trunks or are double-trunked.

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Great Swamp Sanctuary) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s in a name? Much, it seems. Names give a place meaning. So it was, on our trip through the Lowcountry in December 2012 we visited the 600-acre Great Swamp Sanctuary at Walterboro. Located within the ACE Basin, the East Coast’s largest estuarine preserve, the Great Swamp Sanctuary charmed us.

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Great Swamp Sanctuary) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known as the ACE Basin—for the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers—this part of South Carolina is where floodplains merge feeding the estuaries of the Lowcountry. In fact, it’s from this very swamp where the Ashepoo River rises.

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Great Swamp Sanctuary) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife is abundant with native populations of wild turkey, deer, raccoons, beaver, otter, mink, opossum, squirrels, fox, and wildcats. More than 80 species of birds have been observed here. The park’s four-mile network of boardwalks, hiking, biking, and nature trails provide visitors vantage points for observing the diversity of wildlife inhabiting the black water bottomland.

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Great Swamp Sanctuary) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now here’s the twist. It seems that the folks in Walterboro having built such a beautiful showcase of this natural feature decided a few years back that it wasn’t a good thing to call it what it is—a swamp—and renamed the sanctuary to the Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary. Their rationale? In part, “The word ‘Swamp’ has negative connotations, especially to our more urban friends.”

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Great Swamp Sanctuary) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Well, folks, that’s not your market for nature-based tourism. We love swamps (especially ones with boardwalks) and our fellow nature-lovers do too.

Embrace your heritage! You have a lovely swamp here with a rich history. Sure, it will be wet part of the year and there’s certain to be mosquitoes, but a swamp by any other name is still a swamp. And if it weren’t for that name (Great Swamp Sanctuary), we wouldn’t have stopped to discover the good work the city has done in preserving this land and making it accessible for residents and visitors alike.

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Great Swamp Sanctuary) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From I-95, take Exit 53 and head into Walterboro. The first entrance is located to the left at the corner of S. Jefferies & Ivanhoe Roads. There is also parking at 399 Detreville Street and Washington Street.

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Great Swamp Sanctuary) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bikes and dogs on leashes are welcome on the pathways of the sanctuary, so load up the family and make your way to this nature-based tourism gem that Trip Advisor gives 4.5 stars.

New Green Acres RV Park, Walterboro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dubbed the “Front Porch of the Lowcountry,” Walterboro offers a lot to enjoy, just down the road. Enjoy a day trip to Edisto Island and Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve. At the end of the day return to your home base at New Green Acres RV Park conveniently located at I-95, Exit 53 (Waterboro exit).

Worth Pondering…

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau