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)

Find Holiday Spirit on Jekyll Island

The holiday spirit is in overdrive in this beautiful, bikeable state park

You may be desperate to inject some joy into 2020’s finale. A holiday getaway that’s semi-remote with space to roam while packing some good tidings and staying COVID-safe.

Then consider Jekyll Island. 

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Never heard of Jekyll? Just north of the Florida border, this bite-sized island off the coast of Georgia is one of four beautiful barrier islands—St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island, and Jekyll Island—collectively known as the Golden Isles. Jekyll was once the wintering grounds of banking elites with surnames like Rockefeller and Morgan. Today Jekyll Island is 100 percent state park: beautiful, bikeable, and blissfully chill. Days are best spent on the island’s many bike trails, exploring maritime forests and driftwood-covered beaches, and eating all the shrimp and grits you can handle.

Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now through January 3, Jekyll packs a ton of Christmas spirit into its small acreage. And while programming looks different this year due to the pandemic, they’ve got parades, fireworks, drive-in holiday movies, and a few Santa sightings on tap. Even if you skip the events, the island’s atmosphere is straight-up magical: Its historic houses and oak-lined lanes are decked out with over a half a million twinkling lights.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Besides partaking in myriad loops of the lights drive each night, take a turn through the mini-golf course—currently adorned with sugar plums, swirly oversized lollipops, and the likeness of Frosty and friends. Honestly, after the year we’ve had, leaning into some old fashioned holiday cheer never felt more necessary.

But this quiet island hideaway is an ideal escape any time of year. Here are some highlights.

Jekyll Island Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the island’s northern end, a spacious campground shaded with enormous oaks is a dreamy spot to park an RV or pitch a tent. It sits within walking distance to Clam Creek and just across from Driftwood Beach, so-named for the ancient trees that fell there due to myriad storms and beach erosion. 179 total campsites with 167 full hook-up sites (back-in and pull-through options) and 12 primitive tent sites are spaciously located within 18 wooded acres.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bicycling has long been a favorite activity on Jekyll Island. With more than 20 miles of picturesque paths and trails, biking offers a scenic way to see all of the island’s hallmark points of interest. Paths wind around sand dunes, beaches, and historic sites while ancient oaks offer ample shade. You can rent from the Jekyll Island Bike Barn to explore the island’s coastal trails. At just seven miles long, it’s hard to get lost on Jekyll. 

Mistletoe Cottage, Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jekyll Island is home to more than a thousand acres of maritime forest, 10 miles of shoreline, and marshes filled with many wonders. Learn more about the island’s natural resources on a Park Ranger Walk. Walk down a historic trail through one of the island’s most diverse habitats viewing Jekyll Island’s active bald eagle nest. On tour with Jekyll Island Conservation staff, learn the trail’s history, identify unique vegetation communities, and see examples of active wildlife research efforts.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center is Georgia’s only sea turtle education and rehabilitation facility. The Center offers the public a chance to learn about sea turtles and see rehabilitation in action with a host of interactive exhibits and experiences. Year-round indoor and outdoor programs are also available for guests of all ages.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Jekyll’s southern tip, the Wanderer Memory Trail is a new educational experience on Jekyll Island that tells the story of America’s last known slave ship, the Wanderer. The trail is located along the banks of the Jekyll River where the ship illegally came ashore 160 years ago with more than 500 enslaved Africans. Made up of individual exhibits, the trail walks visitors through the story of Umwalla, a young African boy brought to America on the ship. Visitors of all ages will follow Umwalla’s journey from capture through freedom told through interactive exhibits along the trail.

Marshes of Glynn, Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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)