The rinky-dink ferry from St. Simons Island to its undeveloped sister travels about fifteen minutes up the Hampton River through the shimmering, spring-green marsh. On it, a handful of the newest guests chatter introductions, as you’re about to spend your stay in close proximity—sharing three meals a day, fishing, kayaking, and sipping sunset cocktails together.
Fortunately, Little St. Simons Island, 10,000 privately owned wilderness acres, tends to attract like-minded folks who come for nature, a rustic but comfortable setting, and an adventure far removed from the typical beachside-condo experience. The all-inclusive Lodge on Little St. Simons maintains access to the entire island, owned by the Berolzheimer family from 1911 until 2003, when former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and his wife, Wendy, bought a majority stake. The Lodge has been hosting guests since the seventies. The Paulsons, conservationists and regular visitors, have made minor upgrades (changing the pool to saltwater, rehabbing the old barn) but mostly left it be. The island still hosts just thirty-two overnight guests at a time.
The ferry lands at the dock, and a cheerful staffer in a fishing shirt with the inn logo leads you down a shell-stippled path for an orientation. Right away, the bugs come. They flock your eyes; they latch onto your calves; they’ll be swept into your lungs if you breathe too deeply. Little St. Simons is wild—gators! snakes!—and thus it’s not for everyone. If your idea of a vacation includes manicured lawns, spa treatments, swanky restaurants—don’t go. In fact, those in the know tend to thank the bugs for keeping that crowd at bay.
But for nature lovers and active families, Little St. Simons is paradise—an untouched sanctuary where wildlife thrives, and using the Internet is possible but seems thankfully frivolous. (The staff thoughtfully prints the New York Times headlines each morning.) There is no TV. Serenity comes with a seven-mile beach (a two-mile bike or open-air truck ride away), completely deserted but for sand dollars and an old washed-up tugboat. Pristine dunes are habitat for rare shorebirds, which naturalists wielding binoculars eagerly point out. Take a guided ecological tour of the maritime forest; go on an “owl prowl” at dark; lie supine on your kayak beneath a low-slung canopy of live oaks. Use a seine to haul in a bounty of small fish and other sea creatures, then select a mullet to reel in a six-foot shark or a thirty-two-inch redfish right from the shore. At the end of the day, jump off the dock into the brackish river and float lazily with the moving tide to a ladder downstream. (LSSI people aren’t really pool people, anyway.)
The gracious staff, including six naturalists, is ever-present but not pushy, offering guided activities from morning to night. Meals—served family style at large dining tables, hearty but sophisticated with ingredients from the organic garden—arrive at scheduled times, marked with a ringing bell. There’s cocktail hour, too.
The inn itself is a collection of cottages of various eras—some set up to be booked by the room, others to be rented as a whole by a group. Home base is the 1917 hunting lodge, which is perhaps the definition of cozy: gnarly wood surrounds a rocking-chair porch; inside, a large stone fireplace is topped by taxidermy from decades past. The color scheme is all hunter greens and sepia, and historic photos line the walls. Cabinets of curiosities hold found objects like fossils, arrowheads, little critter skulls, and shed snakeskins. Large, worn leather sofas beckon, warm low light emanating from lamps on either side.
Little St. Simons has changing charms with the seasons. In winter, suck down just-shucked oysters at a fireside roast, and enjoy the stars when the bugs aren’t so bad. In summer, rise early to watch a loggerhead sea turtle nest erupt with little ones making their way to the sea, or cast a line right into a passing pod of tarpon. Of course, you may find yourself relaxing with a book by the pool or stretching out in the sun on the wide beach. But that’s not why you came.
Tip: There are two single rooms in the lodge, but we recommend one of the en suite rooms just across the yard in the Helen House, a 1920s gray tabby with original wood floors and fireplaces.
This article originally appeared in our November 2014 issue.