Cresting the Sidney Lanier Bridge reveals a panoramic view of Jekyll Island’s otherworldly terrain. The drive from Atlanta feels endless, but this glimpse of what’s to come feels rewarding. On Jekyll, luxury is juxtaposed with nature. Once a Gilded Age vacation haven for the wealthy, the island was sold to Georgia in 1947 and became a state park, with much of its natural beauty preserved ever since.For those seeking a getaway that balances plush poolside and beach relaxation with exploration of a landscape of marshland and driftwood, Jekyll is the place to go.
How to get there To reach Jekyll Island, you’ll need to drive about five hours southeast of Atlanta. Break up the trip with a lunch stop in Darien at Skipper’s Fish Camp for fried shrimp and possible alligator sightings. Alternatively, Brunswick Golden Isles Airport is about 30 minutes away, and Jacksonville’s airport is only about an hour’s drive. To access the island, you’ll need to pay a nominal daily parking fee (even if you pay for parking at your resort). You’ll get a receipt to scan, which allows you back on the island if you drive off.
Where to stay It’s hard to beat the Jekyll Island Club (from $249). The expansive property, with its iconic live oak–lined driveway, croquet field, and views of the river, offers 200 guest rooms and suites across five buildings. It originally opened in 1888 as a club for high society (described by one magazine as “the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible club in the world”), and today maintains that Victorian charm alongside modern amenities. The clubhouse interior recently got a facelift, and the Grand Dining Room underwent a renovation, boosting the resort’s sparkle.
Those who wish to stay beachside can do so at the resort’s sister property, the Jekyll Ocean Club (from $379) built in 2017. The laid-back yet still upscale vibe makes for a comfortable landing pad after a day of biking or boating (two popular island activities). The pool sits near the beach.
Guests staying at either the Island Club or the Ocean Club can take a shuttle and enjoy the amenities of either property.
What to eat The dining options are streamlined on Jekyll, but it’s hard to complain with choices this delightful. Zachry’s Riverhouse is that quintessential seafood shack for diners seeking locally caught shrimp, blackened mahi-mahi sandwiches, and fried oysters in a no-frills environment by the water. The Wharf, located on the river at the Jekyll Island Club, has a large, covered outdoor seating area with optimal sunset views and plenty of window-side tables for those who prefer air conditioning. Savor classics like seafood tacos with blackened catfish or the whole fried flounder with hush puppies. Whether you stay at the Island Club or not, the Pantry’s worth visiting for a morning cup of coffee and breakfast pastry enjoyed on the shaded veranda.
What to do Explore the salt marsh on a kayak, take a shrimp boat excursion, or go on a dolphin sighting tour to fully appreciate this barrier island’s beauty. Several bike paths make cycling around Jekyll easy. Families will appreciate offerings like mini golf, located across from the island’s public beach, and Summer Waves, a water park with twisty slides and a lazy river. Take a hammock over to Driftwood Beach and enjoy the sculptural beauty of gnarly fallen trees.
Insider tip Sea turtles lay their eggs on Jekyll’s beaches in the late spring. By August, the hatchlings are ready to head to the ocean. Try to catch a glimpse by participating in the Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s Dawn Patrol program, which monitors the turtles’ nests. Or visit the center itself to see turtles recovering from injuries and ailments. —Lia Picard
This gated, private island is open only to residents, members, and guests at the swanky Sea Island resort. To appreciate just how exclusive this place is, check out its memorabilia from hosting the G8 Summit in 2008. Since the original inn opened in 1928, visiting world leaders have planted commemorative live oaks (Georgia’s state tree). Look for those planted by Presidents Coolidge, Eisenhower, Carter, Clinton, and both Bushes, as well as British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
How to get there Sea Island is roughly 300 miles from Atlanta, connected by a causeway to St. Simons Island.
Where to stay Rebuilt in 2006, the Cloister (from $869) is a Mediterranean-style riverfront hotel originally designed by the legendary Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner in 1928. It was reconstructed with lavish, pre-Recession extravagance—reportedly entire Turkish villages were commissioned to weave rugs—which has now made it the world’s only resort to win five Forbes stars for 15 consecutive years. The links are a short drive away, so golfers often opt for the adjacent five-star Lodge at Sea Ialsnd (from $729), which also offers an oceanfront pool and 18-hole putting course. Other overnight options are a sporting club, cottage rentals, and, on St. Simons Island, a more affordable inn.
What to eat Dinner at the Cloister’s formal dining room has long been a bucket-list item for Georgia foodies. Unfortunately, it’s closed for renovations until later this year. When it reopens—as several distinct spaces, known collectively as the Georgian Rooms—perhaps it will regain its former title as the state’s only Forbes Five Star restaurant. Currently available dining options include family-friendly Italian fare overlooking the river, along with clubby and poolside restaurants throughout the resort.
What to do Home to the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic in November, Sea Island offers three championship golf courses and a state-of-the-art golf performance center. There is also tennis, pickleball, squash, the Forbes Five Star spa, a beach club, a shooting school, horseback riding, falconry, boating, sailing, fishing, kayaking, bowling, and guided nature excursions such as sea turtle watching, birding, coastal habitat exploration, and shelling. Not to mention children’s programming and two Topgolf simulators.
Insider tip Each evening at sunset, a resident bagpiper officially closes the golf courses. Grab a cocktail at the Lodge, settle into an Adirondack chair to listen, and plan your trip to St Andrews. —Betsy Riley
St. Simons Island
St. Simons moves at a quicker pace than its Golden Isle neighbors and calls to those who crave a little luxury. Historical sites like the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum and Fort Frederica add an interesting element to the island, while dining and shopping options abound, not to mention miles of sandy beaches.
How to get there The drive takes a little less than five hours from Atlanta, all along major highways. If you’re flying, the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport is about 90 minutes north of St. Simons.
Where to stay The historic King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort (from $233) is well-suited for family vacations or romantic getaways. Built in 1935, the stately property is the island’s only beachfront hotel. There are about 200 rooms, many with spectacular ocean views, as well as villas for those traveling in large groups and guests who want the comforts of home. The resort has five spacious pools adjacent to the beach and an off-property golf course with a shuttle provided by the hotel.
What to eat With a relaxed atmosphere and sweeping views of the ocean, the resort’s restaurant Echo invites you to take your time. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served here, but dinner stands out, with dishes like jumbo lump crab cakes, refreshing salads, and spaghettini with Sapelo clams. Afterwards, stroll over to the resort’s treat shop, the Cottage Custard + Coffee.
What to do In addition to the resort amenities, St. Simons Island is home to historical destinations like a lighthouse museum and the World War II Home Front Museum. The town itself offers plenty of shopping and dining opportunities.
Insider tip According to Roland Biron, the resort’s director of sales and marketing, the cooler months are a great time to visit the property, especially with the help of lower rates. “November weather is traditionally mild in the Golden Isles—and, better yet, our pool is heated. We host beautiful Thanksgiving and Christmas Day brunch buffets each year and have a variety of festive, family-friendly holiday programming throughout the month of December.” —Lia Picard
People are drawn to the Lodge on Little St. Simons Island (LSSI) to savor the surrounding 11,000 acres of wilderness and seven miles of beaches, not far but oh so different from its neighbor St. Simons Island. LSSI is a wildlife refuge with the vibe of an upscale summer camp, since visitors stay in rustic lodges and eat meals family-style in the main inn.
How to get there A ferry on St. Simons Island is dedicated to guests of LSSI, so part of the fun is the windswept ride from dock to dock.
Where to stay No more than 32 guests can be accommodated in the cottages dotted around the wooded property, so stays here offer a quiet escape from regular life. A historic barn serves as a gathering spot, and makes the island popular for family reunions, weddings, and company retreats, where the entire place is rented out. (From $675, double occupancy, all-inclusive).
Where to eat The island’s original structure, a 1917-built hunting lodge, is home base for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as snacks throughout the day. Guests can get to know each other at family-style meals, while they dig into big platters of locally sourced food and hear about activities for the next day.
What to do Guests can grab a bike or kayak and wander off on their own, or participate in twice-daily activities. LSSI general manager Jamie Pazur recommends some specifics: truck safaris with a resident naturalist, walks through the ancient maritime forests, or just looking for sand dollars on the (empty) beaches. Birders can borrow a set of binoculars and expect to see dozens of species—from roseate spoonbills to painted buntings. “We also have special events throughout the year, such as Shark Days, where guests can tag along and participate with shark researchers,” says Pazur.
Insider tip LSSI offers day trips (by reservation, includes picnic lunch, $200 per person) with similar activities minus the dinners and overnight accommodations. “A day trip is all about being immersed in nature, learning about barrier island ecology, and discovering the beauty of this special island,” says Pazur. —Lisa Mowry
As if the island itself isn’t enough—enchanting and mysterious Cumberland Island, with its majestic live oak trees, wild horses, and 18 miles of beachfront—the Greyfield Inn (from $745, all-inclusive) mixes in a bit of Gilded Age glamour. Although people can ferry over and camp at other parts of Cumberland island, a Greyfield stay merges creature comforts with nature.
How to get there Greyfield Inn has its own private ferry from Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, and the 45-minute ride is a primer on the ecology of the island.
Where to stay This grand country estate was built in 1890 for the Carnegie family, so staying here feels like you’re a private guest at a monied estate. The colonial revival house has a wide, welcoming staircase, paneled library, and spacious porches. Guests can stay in the inn itself or small cottages on the property. Despite the opulence, the overall vibe is relaxed, with plenty of time to ride bikes and explore other parts of the island. In the evening, guests usually dress up a bit for cocktails and dinner in the main house.
Where to eat At around 7 p.m., the dinner bell is rung, and a seated meal begins in one of the dining areas. Menus often include vegetables and herbs grown in the gardens on-site, as well as locally caught fish and Southern specialties. For lunch, guests pick up a picnic basket to enjoy anywhere they’d like, while breakfast is a hearty Southern-style treat.
What to do In addition to enjoying all the outdoor offerings—naturalist tours, kayaking, and bird-watching—guests can visit the haunting ruins of Dungeness, another former Carnegie mansion, and the intact, period-perfect Plum Orchard Mansion, with its 22,000 square feet of Edwardian interior furnishings that provide a glimpse into the 19th century.
Insider tip The First African Baptist Church, built in 1893, is only a five-mile bicycle ride from Greyfield Inn. It was here at this modest, one-room church that John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette secretly married in 1996 (requiring caterers and other staff to sign confidentiality agreements). —Lisa Mowry
Many resorts now use dynamic pricing. Rates cited were the cheapest available online in August at press time.
This article appears in our August 2023 issue.