You can fit it in a weekend, but it’s worth a week.
The Golden Isles of Georgia — including Jekyll, St. Simons and Cumberland islands — and the surrounding area are in full swing. There’s outdoor concerts, art exhibits, food festivals and more. For those willing to explore this stretch of Georgia’s golden coast, it's a perfect blend of nature and culture.
Fort Frederica at St. Simons Island
The island has a lighthouse, a water park and several golf courses, but the highlight is Fort Frederica. The circa 1736 British stronghold has trails, town ruins, period costumes you can try on and ancient graves. Stop by the visitors center and find out how little privates made — eight pence. And don’t forget to play bagatelle; it’s an 18th-century version of pinball and highly addictive.
Shrimpin’ in Brunswick
It’s the ultimate lunch and learn. Climb aboard Lady Jane and you’ll get closer to marine life than ever before. Here, Captain Larry Credle’s son, Clifford, shows off a sting ray. How’d he hold him? By the nostrils. That’s how I held him, too. Slimy.
You can also spot a couple horseshoe crabs, a squid and a bonnethead shark on its side.
After you’re done with the live creatures, try some fresh shrimp. The crew catches and boils them on board and it’s delicious. If you don’t like cocktail sauce, bring your own dip. They provide free water bottles, and there’s an air-conditioned cabin and restroom.
Right next to Lady Jane’s dock is the Marshes of Glynn Overlook Park, the site which inspired poet Sydney Lanier. Grab a picnic table and enjoy the view.
Tidelands Nature Center on Jekyll Island
Jekyll Island is all about ecology. From the strikingly scenic Driftwood Beach to The Georgia Sea Turtle Center, it’s an outdoor, hands-on place. At Tidelands, you can tour the marshes on a kayak, see and touch marine life, take a guided nature walk or idle away an hour on the lake in a canoe or paddle boat. Part of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, it’s inexpensive and educational.
It costs $5 to get on the island. Once there, you can see the elegant mansions and shops of the historic district for free.
Crooked River State Park in St. Marys
St. Marys, Ga., is the point of access for secluded Cumberland Island. It’s also home to a 500-acre state park situated on a bluff overlooking a jagged, eight-mile river. You may catch a glimpse of a heron, alligator or gopher tortoise as you survey the scenery. Stay in a cottage and you’ll be right on the river with all the comforts of home. Camping, fishing and miniature golf are also available.
A few miles from the park are tabby ruins of an 1820s sugar mill. You can walk through the ruins, read the mill’s history and picnic there, too.
If you only see one of the Golden Isles, make it Cumberland Island. This natural wonderland has ruins of a Carnegie estate, wild horses, sand dunes, deserted beaches, live oaks ideal for climbing, a wetlands boardwalk and more. There's restrooms and water, but you must bring all other supplies.
Worth the detour
If you're driving home from St. Marys, Ga., you'll pass through Folkston, Ga., and Waycross, Ga. Both are gateways to the famed Okefenokee Swamp.
Encompassing roughly 402,000 acres, the refuge has bears, bobcats, alligators, cranes, turkeys, turtles and more.
To get out on the water, check out Okefenokee Adventures. They'll take you on a guided motorboat tour where you'll see and learn about the environment.
My guide, Joe, a seventh-generation swamper, regaled us with surprising trivia, like the fact that there's around 20,000 gators — from the Spanish for "big lizard," he said — in the swamp. Water levels right now are low. That means those big lizards are easy to spot, and there's no admission fee.
Where to stay
The eternal question: Go local or stay with a chain? When it comes to lodging, both have their advantages.
St. Simons Island is a good home base for activities in the Brunswick, Jekyll and St. Simons regions. It’s not typically as expensive as Jekyll Island, but you’re still close to a beach.
If you want romance and luxury, stay at the Village Inn and Pub, a brisk walk away from the lighthouse and shoreline. Rooms are well-appointed, and private balconies are available. Downstairs, you can sip a drink at the mahogany English bar and, on some nights, enjoy free live music.
For families, try the Best Western Island Inn. Rates start at $109 in the summer. The breakfast is expansive, and there’s a pool and hot tub.