My wife's oldest friend, a Manhattan native and cosmopolite who has lived in Atlanta these past dozen years, once warned me about travels in Georgia. "Prepare to be disappointed," she said. Her words were on my mind recently as we turned off Interstate 95 at Route 17 and headed east toward Jekyll Island, a path that leads first past Ga. Pig Barbecue, over Fancy Bluff Creek, and across the Marshes of Glynn, a soggy tract that was celebrated by the 19th century poet Sidney Lanier but today lies next to smelly pulp mills.
A century ago, after J.P. Morgan and a few dozen other tycoons bought Jekyll and began wintering together there, no one arrived this way. Morgan came by Corsair, his yacht, and others by ferry after taking a train to nearby Brunswick. They formed the Jekyll Island Club, a Gilded Era version of the Sun Valley (Idaho) retreats financier Herbert Allen now puts on each summer for Bill Gates, Michael Eisner, and other corporate leaders of today's Digital Era. One winter, Jekyll club members sat around and drew up plans for what became the Federal Reserve. A few years later, AT&T President Theodore Vail placed the first transcontinental call from the island.
Abandoned during World War II by its wealthy patrons, Jekyll since 1947 has been owned by the state of Georgia. Now, if you persist along Route 17 to its intersection with Route 520, take that to the toll booth, and pay $2, you will find yourself amid the most curious combination of nature and society in the barrier group known here as the Golden Isles. Despite my friend's warning, I was far from disappointed.
You may have become aware of this part of the world a couple of years back when John F. Kennedy Jr. married on nearby Cumberland Island, which guards Georgia's southernmost flank and once was owned by Andrew Carnegie. It's famously remote: Accessible only by ferry, it offers some National Seashore campsites (912 882-4335) or 15 rooms at Greyfield Inn (904 261-6408).
RITZY ENCLAVE. North of Cumberland lies Jekyll, and north of Jekyll is St. Simons Island, which is another scene altogether. With busy boutiques, dining districts, art galleries, and plentiful weekly rentals, St. Simons is to Atlanta as the Hamptons are to New York City. Still further, hugging the northern shore of St. Simons, are two smaller islands. By car, you can reach Sea Island, an enclave of luxurious homes that lured the likes of Coca-Cola's late chief, Roberto Goizueta, and which boasts an equally luxe hotel, The Cloister (912 638-3611). Another ferry trip beyond that is Little St. Simons, a private, undeveloped territory with no cars and just one hotel, the Lodge at Little St. Simons Island (888 733-5774). It offers canoeing, horseback riding, and outings with staff naturalists.
Each of the Golden Isles has obvious appeal, but by virtue of its history, Jekyll is a place apart. Called Ospo by the natives, the island was invaded by the Spanish in 1566. They gave way 70 years later to the British, who renamed it Jekyll after one of Georgia founder James Oglethorpe's British sponsors. Some 9 miles long by 1 1/2 miles wide, it faces the Atlantic with a long, broad beach. It has dunes, grasslands, and most strikingly, forests of pine, palms, and dramatic oaks, twisted by the wind into bonsai-like shapes.
This is the landscape that Morgan & Co. found appealing enough to pay $125,000 for in 1886. Amid the oaks on the leeside, they first built a huge common building, a rambling Victorian. Today, as the Jekyll Island Club Hotel (800 535-9547), it's the island's main accommodation, and while several familiar chain hotels jostle along the beach, it serves as a hub. Check out the boar's head, with its pink tongue jutting out, that peers into the dining room from above the drawing-room mantle. In spring and summer, posted rates for a double room run from $119 to $259 a night.
Several club members, Goulds and Goodyears among them, went on to build what they called "cottages," which were in fact lavishly furnished dormitories three stories tall. Many have been renovated, and walking tours are offered daily. My dream house is the coral-colored Villa Marianna: 15 rooms, six baths, plus a bell tower terrace with view.
The best way to see the island, more than two-thirds of which remains untouched despite 63 holes of golf, is by bike. Our 15-mile tour of Jekyll took us along the island's marshy west side, where the trail takes winding turns beneath canopies of moss-draped oaks, past an old plantation graveyard, and by ruins of "tabby," the indigenous building material of sand, lime, and oyster shell. Traveling amid these sights, and listening to the birds and the wind in the grass, you might think this is paradise--until the northwest breeze arrives, carrying an odor from the pulp mills that only a timber executive could love. Seeing the marsh, I also imagined how large the mosquitoes might grow by summer, and learned later that sand gnats, too, bedevil visitors in spring and fall.
Pedaling on, at Jekyll's north end we headed toward a fishing pier at Clam Creek Picnic Area (which offers horseback riding) and gazed across the harbor's mouth toward St. Simons and its lighthouse. Rounding Jekyll to its east side, we found the Atlantic, which had been laid flat by a stiff offshore wind and now lapped gently along miles of broad, sandy beach. As we headed south, the trail edged further inland, skirting first the beach hotels and then a ridge of dunes where shade was hard to find. Next was a boardwalk named Glory, after the Civil War-era movie filmed there a few years back. Here, the elements seem to have beaten the vegetation down to smaller varieties--wax myrtles, cypresses, and sea oats--and traversing the isolated dunes via the boardwalk toward the ocean grew spooky.
As we swung around the island's narrow south end, the bike trail ended at St. Andrews Picnic Area, which faces west and looked like a good spot to catch the sunset. It was just past lunchtime, though, so we headed back toward the island's marina and a restaurant there.
VICTORIAN TEA. Sitting on a deck beneath the green-and-white awning, I looked out and saw the Rhumba, a yacht from Wilmington, Del., and learned that some people still arrive at Jekyll by boat along the Intracoastal Waterway. Others fly in to the 3,700-foot airstrip, sometimes just for lunch or the Victorian tea served daily at 4 p.m. at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. Most people now drive here, of course, some after flying by commuter plane to Brunswick, about 20 minutes away, or by bigger jets to Jacksonville, Fla., 60 miles south on I-95. Few people, I imagine, depart disappointed.