IN THE EARLY 20th century, you’d be hard pressed to find a more elite venue than Jekyll Island, a secluded sea destination two miles off the coast of Georgia and home to a private club for some of America’s wealthiest families – Rockefellers, Astors, Pulitzers, Morgans and Vanderbilts. Away from business and social pressures, it offered a perfect fall escape to fish, golf, hunt, ride horses and bathe in the sea.
Fortunes changed dramatically for this exclusive enclave with the coming of the Great Depression, then World War II exacerbated the decline of the Jekyll Island Club Resort. It even closed for five years due to fear of offshore German submarines. After the war, the State of Georgia aggressively tried to buy the property and convert it to a state park, which it did in 1947. The first causeway to the mainland opened in 1948.
Jekyll Island today is a unique blend of history, conservation and outdoor activity. Highlights for visitors include four golf courses, a croquet lawn, a top-notch tennis facility, an equestrian center and more than 25 miles of paved bicycle and Segway trails through maritime forests, marshes and historical sites.
The island is also home to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, a rehabilitation, research and educational facility housed in the old Jekyll Island Club power plant and devoted to preserving the loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtles that nest on the Georgia coast. Among the many programs for adults and kids is a guided nighttime exploration of turtle nesting grounds during certain times in the summer.
Jekyll features 10 miles of unspoiled shoreline to explore. Driftwood Beach on the north end of the island presents a beautiful and surreal landscape of bleached and preserved fallen pine and live oak trees. Portions of the 1989 Civil War movie “Glory” were filmed on St. Andrew’s beach on the south side of the island. A long boardwalk built by the film producers provides an easy stroll across sand dunes and freshwater pools to the sandy beach.
The heart of Jekyll is the 240-acre National Historic Landmark District, featuring the restored Jekyll Island Club, now a first-class resort property, and numerous houses built by original club members. During the Christmas season, known as “Holly Jolly Jekyll,” visitors and locals come together for activities such as a tree lighting, parade, concerts, horse and carriage rides, and decorated house tours.
No more than 35% of the island can be developed, which means Jekyll retains its unique character. And you can experience all it has to offer, just like the titans of American industry did back in the day, but at a fraction of the cost!
WHERE TO DOCK
Jekyll Harbor Marina
Nestled behind old oak trees draped in Spanish moss, this full-service marina is a beautiful stop along the ICW. The only overnight transient marina on the island, amenities include a pool, hot tub, gas, pump out station, free Wi-Fi, picnic area with an outdoor kitchen and courtesy golf carts.
Jekyll Wharf Marina
Although it’s not full-service, this historic marina is located on a lovely state park where you can dock your dinghy or small boat for the day. The home of Jekyll Island Boat Tours, it’s known for hosting dolphin tours and fishing excursions.
WHERE TO DINE
Grand Dining Room
Located in the historic Jekyll Island Club Resort, the Grand Dining Room is a unique experience. Dinner is formal but relaxed and features Low Country favorites and fresh takes on Southern cuisine. The main dining room is particularly festive during the holidays. On the pricey side, but well worth it to dine like a Rockefeller, especially for a special occasion.
Jekyll’s only waterfront restaurant features casual open-air dining, live music and the best sunsets on the island. Find seafood, salads, burgers and a full bar at a reasonable price on the renovated historic wharf where club members once arrived for the season on private yachts.
The island’s gourmet grocery store on Main Street features something for all tastes including beer and wine, a sweets shop, coffee shop, bakery, deli and a BBQ joint. Sit inside or outside at this popular gathering spot that’s a great stop for bicyclists loking for a bite to eat or a little pick-me-up.