The beauty and peacefulness are broken only by the memories that the island holds, memories of four thousand years of life, a presidential family, plantations, slave villages, and military outposts. Welcome to Cumberland Island, roughly 18 miles long by 2 miles wide, off the coast of Florida and Georgia.
To get to the island, tourists have only two options, visit the Cumberland Island National Seashore Park or stay at the Greyfield Inn. If visitors choose the National Park, they must travel by ferry from St. Mary’s Island. Visitors will need reservations since only 300 people are admitted per day. The 45-minute ride leaves twice daily with the first one being at 9:00 a.m. and the last returning at 4:45 p.m. (Check the National Park Service website for specific and updated information.) To camp overnight, visitors must pack in everything including water and pack out everything they bring. Potable drinking water and restrooms are available only at certain places on the island.
The pristine white beaches are wonderful to simply stroll or look for shells. With only 300 visitors each day, the beaches are generally deserted except for an occasional sea gull or wild horse. Other options include walking along the sandy roads and watching for wildlife. (There are no paved roads on the island.)
Visitors generally want more than to simply enjoy the beach, so they head for one of several attractions on the island. To access the sites, visitors can go on their own via bicycle, on foot, or take a tour.
Plum Orchard Mansion was built for George Carnegie and wife by his mother and donated to the National Park Service by the family in 1971. (Much of the island has reverted from the hands of wealthy landholders to the National Park Service. Only 10% is still owned by individuals.) The large house, built in 1898, contains conveniences that were scarce in that time period including an indoor swimming pool, an elevator, and an indoor squash court. Even though the mansion has long been vacant, visitors can see the rich opulence in the beautiful woodwork and unusual features. With the majestic oak trees draped with Spanish moss, the grounds surrounding the mansion and over all the island reminded me of an old South novel. (Tours of the house are available at specific times. Check the website for more information.)
Cumberland Island is familiar to Kennedy family followers as the wedding venue for John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette in 1996. The couple married secretly in the First African Baptist Church. Their reception was held at Greyfield Inn.
My favorite place to visit was the Dungeness Ruins, another Carnegie mansion. The house burned in 1959, but the ruins still hold a magical feel. As we approached from the tree-lined road, we took care to keep our distance from the many wild horses grazing nearby. We were intrigued as we tried to identify where the indoor pool, the squash courts, and the gym once stood. Other less majestic residential ruins stand near the main building as testament to the number of staff members needed to maintain the house in its heyday.
If visitors choose to stay at the Greyfield Inn, another Carnegie home, they step back in time to a different pace of living. The almost all-inclusive inn is still operated by the Carnegie family, but it is not an inexpensive stay. They do have naturalists on staff who give tours of the island and provide ideas of places to go. A stay here is for those who want to experience the life of the rich and famous.
Visiting Cumberland Island is an opportunity to step back to a less crowded, less rushed time with natural beauty and quiet that gives visitors time to reflect and enjoy.
Have you been to Cumberland Island or another of the islands off the Georgia coast? If so, please share your thoughts and your favorite island with us!
– Candace Ahlfinger has loved traveling since she was little and has always been on the go whenever possible. Now she is retired and gets to do what she loves best… TRAVEL! Whether it’s traveling with her wonderful husband, or our children and grandchildren, traveling is a great experience that enriches her life. Because she always enjoys reading and hearing about others’ travel experiences, she wants to share her travels with the Ellis DownHome readers.