A Weekend Escape: St. Simons Island, Georgia

by Sarah Birdsong

Our relationship with Sean and Nicole Barnes seems to consist primarily of last-minute adventures. Toward the end of January, Nicole asked us if we would be interested in driving down St. Simons Island, to the coast of Georgia to visit with her grandparents. The only excuse I’ve ever needed to do anything is, “why not?”

Plus, after consuming all the seafood I could ask for in Lousiana, I was eager for more. And My!Sean? You don’t need to ask if he wants to visit the ocean. St. Simons Island rentals and hotels were in short supply on such short notice. However, we were assured our accommodations were already taken care of. Travelers looking to enjoy the Golden Coast without the benefit of extended family will need to book at least 90 days out from their intended arrival date, Hodnett Cooper reports. St. Simons Island vacation rentals are decently priced with comfortable accommodations for couples or families.

On the second weekend of February, we threw our bags in the back of Other!Sean’s truck and piled in. Irish folk music blared, naps taken, routes argued over. We arrived in St. Simons that evening, excitement bordering on road-fueled irritability.

Visiting the Golden Isles of Georgia

St. Simons is a barrier island off the coast of the port city of Brunswick. Combined with St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Jekyll Island, Little St. Simons Island, and Historic Brunswick, it forms the Golden Isles of Georgia. The Golden Isles are home to comfortable winters with great stretches of wooded marshland between the Altamaha River delta in the north and St. Simons Sound to the south. Markedly, the territory enjoys a semi-tropical climate with annual highs of 75.9 ° F and lows of 60.1 ° F.  Conversely, humidity averages 87-93% in the early morning and 59-69% in the afternoon. Despite its balmy disposition, St. Simons’ coastal breezes preclude extreme height, with sea surface temperatures close to the shore varying by several degrees by the virtue of its open water ranges.

An abundance of food is provided by these marshes and estuaries, which further attracts wildlife by land, sea, and air. This fertile region hosts a complex ecology; St. Simons Island features canopies of live oaks and hardwoods sheltering much of the island, festooned in Spanish moss. Offshore, the waters are teaming with a variety of sea life, ranging from dolphins to the occasional manatee. Indeed, even loggerhead sea turtles return to the beaches of St. Simons land to lay their eggs. Area naturalists monitor and protect the resultant eggs.

Various tribes within the Creek Nation were the first to call these great stretches of marshland to the west and inland maritime forests home before their eventual displacement by the Spaniards. Tensions between the Spaniards and the Creek rose as the Spanish continued to undermine relations between the Lower Creeks and the colonists. These relationships were already which were tenuous at best due to the colonists’ encroachment upon Creek lands in the Georgia frontier. In August 1739, the settler James Oglethorpe set out from Fort Frederica into the Lower Creek Nation to pen the “Articles of Friendship and Commerce between the Trustees for Establishing the Colony of Georgia in America and the Chief Men of the nation of the Lower Creeks.” This was the first iteration of the Treaty of Savannah.

The English would eventually cultivate the land for rice and cotton plantations by use of African slaves. The geographic location of these islands and the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and northern Florida developed a distinct culture—the Geechee—known best for their language, Gullah. Owing to the geographic isolation of these groups in the Low Country, a preservation of West African ethnic groups beyond what we see in other areas of the Upper South can be found here. There, African slaves were split into smaller groups throughout the Upper South, leading to a discordant historical and genealogical record.

There is much that can be said of the Geechee—particularly the survival of their distinct cultural pathway and its contributions to society. In brief, Gullah’s creole dialect and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) share a portion of their grammar and phonology with a number of Southern rural patois. These regionalisms, pronunciations, grammatical structures, African loanwords, and overall vocabulary lend themselves to the South’s distinctive parlance.

Things to do in St. Simons

The drive to the beach carried us down an indifferent GA-16, which might have been tolerable if not for that unimaginative and barren landscape stretching three hundred miles. Still, counting Confederate flags and Family Dollars along the way did nothing to stymie the boredom delivered by the same Georgia Frontier which had been home to a vast record of bloodshed and notoriety in centuries past. We arrived at our destination just as the sun began to dip beneath the horizon, chill heavy in the air. Packed into a four-door pickup truck for five hours made for a considerably ill-humored bunch that evening, but we were greeted warmly by our hosts—Woodra and Cecil—nonetheless.

We took dinner at Barbara Jean’s, a favorite of our hosts’. It’s a small, cozy little restaurant with a blend of traditional homestyle cooking and seafood flair. While waiting for seating, you can stroll along Pier Village’s assortment of antique and nautical shops, where you’re sure to find a treasure or two. In fact, Frederica Antiques proved to be my favorite shop. I managed to unearth a pair of teapot salt and pepper shakers, which now proudly sit on our dining room table. Any seasoned antiquer knows that you’re hardly going to find a matching pair of anything. As such, your collection will always be somewhat eclectic. Mine is no different.

The next morning saw us to the primary reason for our weekend escape: the beach.

Now, because My!Sean will spontaneously burst into flame at the slightest solar provocation, the Barnes decided to bring along their sunshade. And because nothing can come easy to my pack of degenerate fools, it took us almost half as long to set up camp as it did to enjoy the ocean. Before long, though, we were feeding the coastal grackles and gulls, commanding a small flock of hungry and loud beggars. Even the pigeons came for a few morsels, though I had to crush up their fare considerably for their tiny beaks to even find purchase.

While we strolled the beach, the Barnes took us to the far eastern reach of the beach to show us something special: the St. Simons Beach Christmas Tree. A totem composed of washed up driftwood, the locals adorn it with garland and random ornaments comprised either of holiday cheer or photos of loved ones. Being that it was now February, this tradition doesn’t seem to find itself constrained by the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas calendar of propriety. Each time the tree is reclaimed by the ocean, a new effigy is created, trimmed with new adornments. Unfortunately for me and my blog, I foolishly failed to catalog this ritual for posterity. However, a quick search on Google with the words “St. Simons Christmas Tree” will pick up where I left off.

As the evening rolled in, we packed up our beach camp and decided it was time to sample the seafood. I did, anyway—in fact, only myself and Other!Sean enjoy seafood. My!Sean and Nicole regard it as little more than garbage. Which is fine by us! We don’t have to share.

We enjoyed our first round of cocktails at Iguana’s, which entailed more than our fair share of daiquiri’s and Guinness floats. Afterward, we enjoyed a massive platter of seafood at The Blue Water. At least, myself and Other!Sean did. Fortunately, there was no shortage of alternative options for those among us who do not enjoy the ocean’s bounty. The remainder of the evening saw us to the pier, where My!Sean spent well over an hour working for the perfect shot of the ocean, the lighthouse, and Sidney Lanier Bridge. Found on the southern tip of the island, the St. Simons Island Light, Georgia, was built in 1810. It still guides ships along the Sound today and features a gift shop for anyone seeking souvenirs.

Visiting Jekyll Island and Driftwood Beach

We started the day off at the Coastal Kitchen and Raw Bar. Here, one of my prized shrimp somehow managed to get the best of me and land on the floor. To commemorate this loss, I wrote the following haiku written just for him:

O, sizeable shrimp once on my plate
I wish you were in me right now
But here you lie on the cold, hard ground

Lunch disasters aside, we embarked on our journey to  Jekyll Island. Although you can see the island from St. Simons Pier, to get to the island, you must first trek back to the mainland. From there, you take US-17 onto GA-520 to the Downing Musgrove Causeway bridge to reach Jekyll. The elevated roadway passes through a salt marsh prairie, spanning the distance on either side of the road. Herons and wood storks dot the prairie, milling about for food. Passing Cedar Creek, you will continue along the Causeway, with no shortage of terrapins crossing the road intermittently. The traffic on this road owes itself to thoughtful and kindly travelers assisting these wayward reptiles across the road.

This wouldn’t be my blog without random and nonsensical sprinklings of information. To that end, the name “terrapin” is derived from torope, an Algonquian word referring to the species as a whole. We find similar words such as turepe from the Abenaki and tolpew from the Munsee Delaware. However, only torope became immortalized as terrapin in standardized taxonomic language. There—from the annals of my brain to yours, that is something you now know. It makes for great pub banter.

Unless you are a resident, you have to pay to enter Jekyll Island. However, all proceeds go towards maintaining the beaches and animal conservation. Don’t forget to stop by the Jekyll Island Welcome Center if you need to get oriented.  Hotels in Jekyll Island, Georgia, find themselves at a slightly higher premium than their St. Simons counterparts due to the location. However, if this is the primary reason for your visit to the Golden Coast, the premium may be worth your while.

However, we knew exactly where we were going and how to get there, thanks to our hosts. Located on the northern end of the island, Driftwood Beach resembles a graveyard of the ocean’s perennial offerings lining the waterfront. Bleached by the sun and preserved by salt air, the ancient pines and live oaks stand ponderously against the steady erosion of their barrier island. It creates a romantic backdrop despite their mortal implications. An estimated 1,000ft of Jekyll’s beaches have been taken by erosion since 1900. This doesn’t bode well for the future of Driftwood Beach.

Don’t let these gloomy deliberations prevent you from enjoying the natural beauty of Driftwood Beach, however! Nicole and I got to work entertaining our shutterbug sensibilities, documenting every square inch of worn and gnarled length of tree we could find. I became so engrossed in my work that I managed to earn a sizeable goose-egg on my forehead while not paying attention to the rooted overhang above me, searching for the perfect angle for my next shot. With a smarting forehead and a hot afternoon sun bearing down on me, I had to hang back for awhile until my senses fully returned.

After exhausting ourselves in an unforgiving afternoon sun, darting through the driftwood graveyard, we made our way to the Clam Creek Picnic Area. We intended to use this time to refuel our bodies and compare shots from the beach. But we found something rather more entertaining to occupy our time: the grackles and squirrels. It is a known fact about my company that if I am anywhere near small animals begging for food, they will receive everything I have on my person.

This was no different. We spent the better part of an hour working up a swarm of feathered and furred beggars, some of which were bold enough to eat from our own hands. This may have been my favorite part of the trip, because honestly, who doesn’t love to channel their inner Disney princess?

Shopping in Pier Village Market on St. Simons

By all accounts, we ran ourselves ragged exploring the Golden Isles of Georgia. As such, our last day we vowed to take it easy on ourselves. Our hosts started the day by preparing us an old family favorite: Dutch baby pancakes. Similar to crepes in taste in texture, they are a staple in the Barnes maternal line and the old country. And as soon as I took a bite, I could see why Nicole looked forward to them whenever she came to visit her grandparents. Sweet and rolled with sugar or jam, they are the perfect way to start any day—waistline be damned.

The whole of this day was to be spent unwinding over food and drink, shopping, and sharing stories. In the afternoon we toured the Village, perusing the shops. At Viola’s Market, I found a blown glass buoy for My!Sean to replace one of his father’s heirlooms. The village also hosts a stand-alone shop for the Savannah Bee Company, which I was quite happy to patron!

When it was finally time to turn in for the evening, I found that my head hadn’t been in contact with the pillow long before I was sound asleep. The weekend was over, but the Georgia coast had definitely found itself on my list of locations to revisit.

ADDITIONAL READING

I have compiled a list of additional resources regarding this entry and its contents for researching the topics therein:

Hodnett Cooper Realty: if you’re keen to visit the Golden Isles, begin the process of booking your rental home in advance!

Lodging in Jekyll Island: if you’d like a central place to stay right on Jekyll Island, start here.

Explore St. Simons Island: if you’re interested in planning a trip of your own to St. Simons, this is a good place to start!

Pier Village: refer to this handy guide in terms of where to eat and what shops to visit in the Village!

Jekyll Island: a handy resource for any questions you may have regarding Jekyll Island and its programs.

Driftwood Beach: interested in learning more about Driftwood Island? You can find it here!

Jekyll Island Conservation Center: if you’re interested in knowing more or getting involved in the conservation efforts going on at Jekyll Island, you will find a wealth of information contained here.

St. Simons Lighthouse Museum: a comprehensive place to visit for those seeking history and souvenirs from the Island.

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