I may complain about the south, Florida, the heat, the flatness and the list goes on. But I appreciate that there are some absolutely beautiful places in the Southeast. While much of the Atlantic shoreline from Maine to Miami is developed, with huge mansions, small shacks and condos galore lining the beaches, there’s an occasional spot where developers have been driven out.
After experiencing the beauty of St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island during our honeymoon, I was interested in checking out the southernmost and largest of Georgia’s coastal islands (or Golden Isles as they call them), Cumberland Island. I even added it to my summer bucket list. So Joel called up the reservation line for the ferry to the island (yes, a ferry is required) and after an hour of waiting, finally was able to make reservations for August 16th. Yes, it was for the hottest, most miserable part of the year, but we’re troopers.
The National Park Service took over the island in 1972, preserving the undeveloped portions of the island so they’d stay that way. There’s still a few buildings on the island: a few private residences, the Ice House Museum, the Greyfield Inn (a super expensive inn, the only one on the island), an old African American church, Plum Orchard and the ruins of Dungeness. The Dungeness Mansion, built by business magnate Andrew Carnegie’s brother Thomas in the late 1800s, must have been absolutely gorgeous in its heyday. Arsonists burned it down in 1959, after the Carnegies left the island. The ruins that remain are still absolutely magnificent — the remaining stone and brick are hints at the beauty of the long-gone Queen Anne-style mansion. The Plum Orchard fared better — the mansion on the northern half of the island still remains intact.
We got up at 6:30 am to give us enough time to get ready, eat a good breakfast and drive to St. Marys, Georgia, where we would catch the 9am ferry to the island. We got there at 8:30 to check-in and listen to orientation before getting on the boat. There was probably about 75 people max on the 146-person ferry. I read reviews about standing room only on the ferry, but luckily we had a sparser boat and were able to sit and enjoy the 45-minute ride.
Cumberland Island is not your typical “hey, let’s go to the beach” destination. The orientation mentioned the need for lots of sunscreen and lots of bug spray. They weren’t kidding. Luckily I brought two cans of spray sunscreen and one tube of lather sunscreen, plus a can of Deep Woods Off. We packed plenty of water, a few snacks and a few containers of pasta salad for lunch. Of course you have to carry off everything you carry on — no garbage cans on this island.
We got to the island a little after 9:30 and disembarked at the first dock, on the southern end of the island. The second dock is a little farther north and is where the campers get off, to get their permits and hear the camping orientation. There’s a large camping area near there, Sea Camp, with running, treated water and carved out spots complete with picnic benches and a raised box to store your food where racoons and bobcats can’t get it. Farther north, there’s “backcountry” camping that, according to the park ranger we chatted up, you can only tell it’s a camping spot because there’s a sign that says so. Gators are a bigger threat in that camping area. No thanks.
As soon as you get off the ferry, you can tell you’ve entered a southern slice of paradise. A line of huge, arching live oaks line the path to the “main road.” I think they use the term road loosely.
We first wandered over to the Duck Pond. Mostly because it was the first sign we encountered and pointed down another dirt path. There wasn’t too much to see there, besides an old pond, some wild turkeys and a private residence. We hung out there for a bit, while Joel took some pictures and realized we left the zoom lens home (boo). Then we moved on.
Not far from there was the Dungeness Ruins.
The ruins were amazing. It was interesting to see what looked like steel reinforcements on certain sections of the building. Fire + time takes a toll on a building. I would have loved to see the building when it was intact. It’s one of those buildings that has something special about it. There were other ruins in there area, I’m guessing buildings that were constructed as part of the grounds.
I imagine building the mansions and accompanying buildings must have been quite the task. With access only by boat, coupled with the dense nature of the island, I’d hope that the builders were paid well, but considering it was the south in the 1800s, I imagine it didn’t quite work like that.
The island is famous for its wild horses. Technically they’re feral, because they were once domesticated. I think I read that Lucy Carnegie requested they be released into the wild upon her death. The NPS can’t interfere with the horses. Some of them look a little mangy. All I know is that you can find their waste EVERYWHERE. When we were there, we saw a bunch just hanging out on the Dungeness grounds, eatin grass.
I used the opportunity to be in such a beautiful place to practice my photography skills.
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!!