An hour’s drive and 45-minute ferry ride away, it took me 20 years to make it to Cumberland Island National Seashore. Since I started dating a guy who loves to travel four years ago we’ve been from Alaska to Panama and all over the Caribbean. But perhaps I will most fondly remember this piece of heaven just up the road.
In awe of the Kennedys since lurking around Democratic headquarters as a young teen when handsome Irish Catholic JFK was running for president, I was intrigued when his son got married on Cumberland Island two months after I moved to Jacksonville in July 1996. I really wanted to see that little church and what that restricted place was all about. In retirement, it finally became a priority.
What a fun trip! It’s a toss-up what’s most memorable—the pristine island, the fascinating stories of the mega-rich people who settled there or the bawdy bartender in our hotel’s saloon.
We stayed two nights at the historic Riverview Hotel in St. Mary’s, Georgia, just across the street from the ferry launch and National Park Service visitors’ center. From tales by his former boating buddies, my boyfriend is convinced it’s haunted. To his dismay and my relief, nothing spooky happened. However, this interior picture captured the stalker who shows up everywhere I go.
Although we could easily have made Cumberland Island a day trip, spending time in St. Mary’s was a bonus. It’s quaint and welcoming, with interesting shops and good restaurants and lovely homes. From our rocking chairs on the second floor porch of our old hotel we watched boats dock at Lang’s Marina and flags flap in the small park by the St. Mary’s River. A peaceful late afternoon when time seemed to stand still.
Cocktail time ended the solitude. “That’s her! She’s still here!” My boyfriend could barely contain his delight as we walked into the saloon downstairs. “WTF do you want?” snapped the sassy bartender when she saw him … just like those old boating days stories he had told me about her. Cindy the queen of the pub had not lost her charm. “Your sister you’re married to,” she said, gesturing toward me. “What does she want?” And so it went, for the most amusing happy hour—and best Bloody Mary—I’ll likely ever experience.
No bridges connect Cumberland, a barrier island, with mainland Georgia. We rode the 9 a.m. ferry to have time to take the six-hour Land and Legacies Tour. Other visitors walked trails, rode bikes or set out for their camping spots. We climbed in a 10-passenger van for a scenic ride and spellbinding history lesson, both of which have been replaying in my mind like a favorite movie. Reservations for the ferry and tour may be made through Cumberland Island National Seashore’s official website. Our tour guide, Mike Fulford, was exceptional. I suggest requesting him.
Our view through the van’s windows reminded me of the half-hour drive on A1A along the ocean from Jacksonville Beach to St. Augustine through the serene Guana Reserve. Much of the 36,000-acre Cumberland Island is maritime forest. It has 18 miles of undeveloped beach, freshwater lakes and saltwater marshes. Spanish moss drips from sprawling oak trees. Rules that visitors may leave nothing on the island are strictly enforced. Nothing is sold there.
For its entire length the island has only one road, a dirt passageway wide enough for one vehicle. The “who can find a spot to pull over” game begins early. Feral horses have the right of way. Our van followed a meandering pair for quite a while before they wandered off into the brush. About 150 horses live on the island. Even though they come close, people are warned not to touch or feed them.
Some people live on the island, but nothing like the pre-Civil War cotton plantation heydays and, afterward, when tourists flocked to the north end and the affluent Carnegies took over the south. Most of the few who remain have limited dwelling rights determined by massive sales and swaps when Congress created Cumberland Island National Seashore in 1972 to preserve the wilderness. Only one hotel—the upscale Greyfield Inn, a former Carnegie mansion—is on the island.
Throughout the often bumpy ride, Mike told stories of unfathomable wealth and how it ruled Cumberland Island. We stopped at the grave of plantation owner Robert Stafford, who taught his slaves how to read and save money. Once freed, they built homes on the northern part of the island. But it was the tales of Lucy Coleman Carnegie that kept our jaws dropping. Married to Pittsburgh steel magnate Thomas Carnegie, the pretentious Lucy wanted to winter with the wealthy in Georgia after the birth of her ninth child. Shunned by the high society of Jekyll Island because her husband’s blood was not blue enough, she got even. Her persistence and a personal tragedy finally wore down the cousin of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis who owned the Dungeness plantation she coveted. As owner, Lucy had a 6,720-square-foot mansion constructed for her family and smaller “starter home” mansions built nearby for her children when they married. Content to hunt and play on the island, including on golf courses their mother had built, none ever held a job. Only the Plum Orchard mansion remains open for public tours. Lucy had it built for her son George and his 19-year-old bride Margaret, who declared it too small and had two huge wings added before the couple moved in.
Plum Orchard mansion, built in 1898, has 30 principal rooms and numerous smaller rooms, including 12 bathrooms.
Mike describes how meals were assembled in the plating room:
One of several Tiffany lamps in Plum Orchard:
Designed by Peabody and Stearns, the same firm that renovated Dungeness, Plum Orchard featured an ingenious basement drainage system that brought floodwaters in, then out again.
The remains of Dungeness, which burned in 1959, 43 years after Lucy died at age 71:
In the1990s in New England, young descendants of Lucy’s daughter Margaret hung out with John F. Kennedy Jr., who frequently took them up on their invitations to escape to the secluded property their family still had on Cumberland Island. Loyal locals helped John pull off his paparazzi-free wedding to Carolyn Bessette in the tiny First African Baptist Church.
Built in the 1930s, the building served as a church and school:
Our tour guide passed these wedding day pictures around:
Grateful to Congress for preserving Cumberland Island nearly a half century ago, I am concerned about a current proposal to build houses on private property near the popular Sea Camp Campground. Hoping the Camden County Commissioners deny that disgrace in their upcoming vote. Find more information on that here.
Home just a week, I already hear St. Mary’s and Cumberland Island calling me back.