ST. MARYS -- There is a gem hidden in the southeastern corner of the state of Georgia.
It's not a populous urban center like Atlanta. It's not a city that has been portrayed in countless books and films like Savannah. It's not a nightlife mecca like Athens. It's not even an agricultural hub like Albany. But it's a treasure to the state nonetheless.
The St. Marys/Cumberland Island area may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Peach State vacation spots, but if your goal is privacy, relaxation and solitude, you couldn't find a better locale.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" asks a smiling elderly woman as she and her husband walk hand-in-hand down the sidewalk next to the river at the town's waterfront park around sunset one June evening. "We moved here from Atlanta seven years ago. Best thing we ever did."
It's clear to see why someone would say that.
An easy 3 1/2-hour drive from Albany, through Tifton, Waycross and Folkston, downtown St. Marys is a picturesque area filled with history and friendly residents. Homes and businesses built from the 1800s to the 1940s still line the main road, Osborne Street, which dead-ends at the sparkling St. Marys River.
The river is really the lifeblood of the town, providing scenic views and becoming the highway to the biggest attraction in the area, Cumberland Island.
Cumberland Island is probably best known as the location of the wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Bissett in September 1996. But long before the celebrity wedding, Cumberland was home to one of the most prominent business families in the United States, the Carnegies.
INHABITED BY NATIVE Americans for centuries, Cumberland Island saw its first European inhabitants in the 1500s when the Spanish attempted to build settlements on the shores. James Olgethorpe built forts on the island, and by the 1750s planters began to arrive, bringing slaves to harvest the crops that were plentiful. Nathaniel Greene staked a claim in the 1780s, and the Carnegies came to the island in the 1880s. In the 1960s, the National Parks Service began to take control of the island, a process that is still in progress today.
The trip from St. Marys to the island via The Cumberland Island Ferry is as much a part of the adventure as the island itself. The river is the border between Florida and Georgia, so people sitting on opposite sides of the ferry see two different states. During the trip, you're likely to see all kinds of wildlife, including pelicans, seagulls and many varieties of fish up close. It's also a great opportunity to get to know the others taking the journey with you.
The ferry departs from St. Marys at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. and reservations are recommended in advance. Tickets are $17. Deciding which time to leave would depend on your plans. The boat back to St. Marys doesn't leave the island until 4:45, so if you take the 9 a.m. trip, you will be there for eight hours. The four-hour option, leaving the mainland at 11:45, is a sufficient amount of time to explore and see the sights without taking up your entire day. The more adventurous travelers may appreciate the longer excursion or even take the opportunity to camp on the island, which is an option for a minimal fee.
On the island, you have a chance to take a tour with a knowledgeable guide from the national parks service. These guides are a wealth of information about the natural and man-made sights on the island. While some visitors choose to forego the tour, it is not recommended to do so on a first trip. To truly understand the beauty of the island, it is important to get the whole story.
THERE IS NO air conditioning, no restaurants or food vendors and only a few restroom areas on the island, so you must be prepared for the trip. Several shops in St. Marys offer a sack lunch for your trip, as do many of the hotels and bed & breakfasts. Take advantage of this; you will need enough food and water to last you the entire day.
The time of year you go will affect your need for extra bottles of water, which are of the utmost importance in the middle of summer. You will also need sunscreen, a hat, bug spray and comfortable walking shoes. Spring and fall are probably the best times to tour Cumberland Island due to the comfortable South Georgia weather during those seasons.
The sights on the island are unlike anything anywhere else on earth. There are natural sights, such as hundreds-of-years-old oak trees, lush maritime forests and pristine beaches that are untouched by souvenir shops and beach bars. There is also an abundance of animals roaming around. A recent trip allowed for up-close encounters with wild turkeys, armadillos, manatees, raccoons and wild horses, of which there are 130 on the island. The horses are one of the biggest draws to the island and have no fear of humans, allowing for great photo ops. But keep your distance; as the guides will tell you, the horses will kick and bite. They may not be afraid of humans, but they are far from tame.
There are also man-made sights, most notably the ruins of Thomas Morrison Carnegie's mansion, Dungeness, which burned in 1959. The ruins overlook lush grounds and fountains that make it easy to imagine the privileged society of yesteryear wandering around, enjoying the view during a garden party or playing croquet only steps from picturesque marshlands.
Upon the return trip on the ferry back up the St. Marys River into town, you can choose to visit one of several eating establishments that line the street which runs parallel to the river. Seafood, Greek, steaks, Italian and burgers are available at restaurants such as the Riverside Cafe, Pauly's Cafe and the Silver Star Steakhouse. Friendliness seems to be the rule in this town, as a meal is rarely prepared and delivered without a smile.
AFTER YOU'VE FILLED your stomach with a delicious meal, order some dessert to go and head over to the Howard Gilman Waterfront Park to watch the boats come into the marina and dock for the evening. The beautifully designed park allows for the best views in town, and has more than enough benches and swings for you to sit and enjoy the dessert you picked up earlier and take in the setting sun and the breeze blowing in off the river.
Take a walk back up to Osborne Street and return to your accommodations for the night. The downtown area boasts three bed and breakfasts: Emma's, The GoodBread House, and the Spencer House Inn. There are also several hotels in the area.
Mary Neff, one of the owners of the Spencer House Inn, says most visitors to the area have one goal in mind: "Cumberland Island is a draw unto itself. Lots of people come [to St. Marys] because of the island and its pristineness. It's a step back in time.
"The fact that we're so close to I-95, but it's still so historic, draws a lot of people."
March/April and October/November are peak seasons for visitors to the area. Spring allows for perfect weather, and families often come for spring break and Easter. Fall also boasts good weather and the St. Marys Rock Shrimp Festival. The annual Georgia-Florida football game takes place in Jacksonville, which is a mere 45-minute drive, so crowds increase that weekend as well, Neff added.
Visitors come from all over. "Mostly from Atlanta, but also from all over the country and from Europe," Neff said.
THE INN ITSELF is a charming home away from home, perfect for a relaxing weekend. Built in 1872, it is filled with beautiful antiques and boasts 14 guest rooms and two shady verandahs. The innkeepers and staff are more than willing to go the extra mile in order to ensure that you have a pleasant stay.
Antiques stores, book stores and gift shops abound in the downtown area, allowing for unique purchases. The St. Marys Submarine Museum gives visitors an up-close look at the submarines that are housed at the nearby King's Bay Naval Base. Orange Hall, considered "The Grand Dame of St. Marys," was a home built in the 1830s and now serves as a museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
There is no shortage of things to do in the St. Marys/Cumberland Island area, but the peace and quiet of a friendly coastal Southern town may be the best reason of all to visit this hidden gem.
Who knows? A weekend visit could turn into seven years.