While I was sifting through the hoards of conch shells, disc clams, and horseshoe crab remnants left on Cumberland Island National Seashore by a generous surf, something in the distance caught my eye: two majestic creatures at water’s edge, standing so close together that they appeared as one hulking beast. Hoping to snap a photo of these iconic islanders, my boyfriend and I crept closer, unsure of the safest distance. A shrimp boat out in the ocean was the only sign of human life for miles.
As a city girl whose interaction with animals tops out at pets and zoos, I was mesmerized. We waited as they approached and eventually separated into distinct entities. Unfazed by our presence, the wild horses paused—for what turned out to be a bathroom break, ten feet from our toes. Lovely.
Manure aside, this closeness to nature is what Cumberland Island is all about. Perhaps it’s what Lucy Carnegie craved when she convinced husband Thomas (brother of fellow steel magnate Andrew) to purchase more than 10,000 acres here in the 1880s. (Native Americans, Spanish missionaries, plantation owners, and freed African American slaves had all inhabited the island before.) Today guests can tour the ruins of the Carnegie mansion, Dungeness , allegedly set ablaze in 1959 by a poacher; the Ice House Museum , a collection of local artifacts housed in an outbuilding that once stored 300-pound frozen blocks; and the humble cemetery where General Robert E. Lee’s father, General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, once was buried.
Getting here is no easy task, though. There are no bridges from the mainland, and ferry and camping reservations must be made at least six weeks early by phone or fax, since the park service doesn’t have an online booking system. During peak season (March to September), a passenger-only ferry ($20/adult; no bikes, kayaks, or pets) departs twice daily from the visitors center in St. Marys. If you’re on the early departure, consider making the five-hour drive from Atlanta the day before and staying overnight at the Spencer House Inn, built in 1872 and now operated by the gracious and always helpful Mary and Mike Neff.
Once docked at Cumberland, there are rickshaw-style carts for hauling gear to Sea Camp ($4/person per night), which offers sites with fire rings, food cages, and picnic tables, plus boardwalk beach access, restrooms, cold showers, and water fountains. Rent a bike from ferry deckhands as well ($16/day).
While landmarks on the island’s southern tip (including Dungeness) are easily accessible, Plum Orchard (another Carnegie mansion) and the First African Baptist Church (site of the clandestine John F. Kennedy Jr.–Carolyn Bessette wedding in 1996) are ten miles north of camp. Book the Lands and Legacies Tour ($15/person) for van transportation and guided narration of these sites. Another option is St. Marys–based Up the Creek Xpeditions, which offers half-day kayak trips to Plum Orchard.
We took a break from campfire grub, donned our best dinner attire, and cycled down a path flanked by bright green saw palmetto and moss-draped oak trees to the Greyfield Inn. The white, four-story Greyfield, former home of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie’s daughter Margaret, has hosted many notable guests over the years: Author Stuart Woods penned his novel Palindrome from one of its cottages, and the Kennedy wedding reception was here. Though we were only staying for a four-course dinner ($120/person, which includes round-trip boat fare, a history walk, appetizers, and tip) and not paying the steep nightly rate of our fellow diners (rooms start at $425/night), staffer Dylan Gruby insisted that “Greyfield is your home now too” and implored us to help ourselves to tall “island pours” from a self-serve bar. Enrapt, we followed Dylan around rooms appointed with black-and-white family photos, bookcases full of first-edition tomes, and furniture that was already antique when the home was built in 1900.
It was hard to envision this almost-10,000-acre haven of federally protected wilderness as the private retreat of America’s wealthiest industrialists. The island’s raw beauty and tranquility entice you to wander lost in thought. Just remember to watch your step—wild horses, and what they leave behind, are everywhere.
This article originally appeared in our May 2013 issue.