When you think of an island, you probably think of tiki huts and jet skis and rum drinks with little pink umbrellas served up by smiling locals. But you won’t find any of that on Cumberland Island – not even the locals. And that’s what makes it so magical.
Imagine an island that was once inhabited by one of the wealthiest families in the country, whose enormous mansion now sits in open ruins. Imagine a canopy of palms and green branches and Spanish moss arching over you as you bike along a sandy path, its insects calling out to you in a cacophony of chirps and its greenery hiding the wildlife that could be just mere feet away from you inside it. Imagine winding through a trail just to find four wild horses and a baby horse feeding on grass, with little care that you have found them. Imagine crossing over sand dunes until your eyes are filled with miles and miles of untouched beaches and dolphins swimming in the distance.
That is Cumberland Island.
Traveling during the coronovirus pandemic is no easy feat. But there is likely no safer place, no place more full of opportunities to social distance, than the Cumberland Island National Seashore. With its rich history, unexpected wildlife and 17 acres of untouched beaches, a visit there will make you feel as if you are an ancient explorer, descending upon a forgotten, preserved paradise.
A LAYERED HISTORY
For over 4,000 years, humans have utilized the island for settlement and supplies. According to the National Park Service, a Timucuan tribe was the first known inhabitants of the island, and Spanish priests and soldiers occupied the land in 1587 with the mission to convert the native population to Christianity and form an alliance against the British.
When South Carolina was colonized in 1670, conflicts amongst the Spanish and the British increased. James Oglethorpe, founder of Savannah, commissioned the construction of two forts on Cumberland Island in 1736. Fort St. Andrews was located at the northwest end of the island and Fort Prince William was at the southern end. King George’s War in 1740 forced James Oglethorpe to hand over Cumberland Island, along with the forts, to the Spanish.
The island remained a no-man’s-land from 1748 to 1763, when the Spanish ceded Florida to the British. At this time, a planter from South Carolina purchased 7,500 acres to market and sell as quality land for plantations. The plantations produced cash crops for export, including citrus fruit and olives.
By the 1840s, most of the island was cleared for production. The plantations were prosperous until the Civil War. During the Civil War, plantation owners abandoned their lands and slaves. The Union occupied the island and the waters around it from 1862 until the end of the war. Most of the African American population fled to nearby islands. Those that chose to stay created the settlement on the north end. Following the war and short-lived efforts to redistribute confiscated land to freed slaves, many of the landholdings on Cumberland Island reverted to their pre-war owners.
In the 1870s, the island served as a type of resort to tourists traveling to Florida by way of train. A steamboat route brought visitors to the island, where they stayed at two hotels located at the north end. The Orient Hotel was located on the river, and the High Point Hotel was later built on the ocean side. Wealthy industrialist families were also drawn to the Sea Islands for winter homes.
In 1881, the Carnegies - of the well-known Pittsburgh steel manufacturing family - arrived on the island and constructed the Dungeness Mansion in 1884 on the site of the plantation era house, transforming the previously agricultural site on the south end into a private estate of gardens, lawns, outbuildings, and a service area. The family employed over 200 people to run their estate and their 90 percent of the island. Dungeness was left vacant in 1925 and fell into ruins in 1959 after a fire.
KEEPING THE (DEVELOPMENT) WOLVES AT BAY
Threats of development loomed until the 1970s, when the Georgia Conservancy fought in the 1960s and 70s to have the land designated Cumberland Island National Seashore by the National Park Service. On October 23, 1972, it became just that when President Nixon signed the legislation, including Georgia Conservancy-supported provisions that required the Department of the Interior to conduct a wilderness feasibility study for the newly-created National Seashore, which prohibited the building of a causeway to the island.
However, the conservancy was still facing a tangled web of private property and retained rights agreements. The conservancy worked with the National Parks Service to provide greater ecological protection of the island, and thus keep it “wild.” In 1982, these efforts paid off when Congressman Bo Ginn, along with Senators Mack Mattingly and Sam Nunn, helped shepherd legislation designating 8,840 acres of Cumberland Island as Federal Wilderness.
The Conservancy continues to preserve the island as a refuge rather than a resort, making its conservation one of its top priorities. For now, though, visitors can take a 45-minute ferry from St. Mary’s to the island and back four times a day, or even camp on the island at its campgrounds. Many have even found the beauty and seclusion the perfect backdrop for their weddings, including John F. Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette.
VISITING THE ISLAND
The island is only accessible by boat. The ferry leaves from nearby St. Mary’s, and the schedule for the 45-minute trip varies, so be sure to check cumberlandislandferry.com for dates and times.
There, you can also find information on tours, things to do and how to reserve a spot for camping. Some of the campsites even offer showers (though cold), restrooms, grills and treated drinking water. More primitive spots offer less of those types of amenities, but offer more opportunities to see manatees, dolphins and other wildlife.
The Lands and Legacies Tour lasts five to six hours and costs $45, but offerS a motorized tour of island highlights such as Plum Orchard Mansion, First African Baptist Church in the settlement area (also where Kennedy and Bessette exchanged their vows), and the wilder side of the islands that you might not be able to get to in time on bike or foot.
The roundtrip ferry costs $30 for adults and $28 for children, departing St. Mary’s at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m and Cumberland Island 10:15 a.m., 2:45 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. You can bring your bike on the ferry for $10, or rent one on the island for $16.
Of course, what you do when you get there is up to you. Take in the beach for hours or explore as much as possible – the beauty of the island is only magnified by deciding how you want to enjoy it.
TIPS FOR A GREAT DAY ON CUMBERLAND ISLAND
• There are no restaurants or stores on the island, so bring as much water and snacks as you think you might need, such as nuts and fruit, to keep you going throughout the day. During the summer months, the island is HOT and you will be doing plenty of exploring, so water is especially key. There are spots with water fountains but it might take you a while to find them.
• No trash is allowed to stay on the island, so refillable water bottles and items that can easily be kept in a backpack or fanny pack until you get back to your car are key.
• Pack or wear a bathing suit, if you plan to get in the ocean, and a small towel helps, too. The pristine, untouched 17 miles of beaches are alluring and, after hours of exploring, a dip in the water feels wonderful. There are campground bathrooms nearby if you’d rather change into a bathing suit and later change out instead of wearing one all day.
• If you want to do as much exploring as possible, bring or rent a bicycle on the island. For $10, you can bring your own bicycle on the ferry or, for $16, you can rent one of the bicycles on the island. The ones on the island aren’t anything fancy – no gear shifts – but the island is pretty level and they make exploring a breeze. Speaking of breeze, you’ll need one from the bike to beat the heat!
• Sunscreen and bug spray are key. Be sure to put both on before you load the ferry, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to carry some travel sized sprays and lotions with you onto the island.
• Grab a map when you get there, but don’t feel beholden to it. One of the best parts about exploring the island is just that – exploring. You never know which path will lead you to a hidden group of wild horses or a stretch of beach that you weren’t planning to see. Just make sure you don’t try to explore private land, which is marked by signs.
• Keep track of the time – the ferry only leaves twice a day. If you miss it, guess what? You’re camping. Explore the south side of the island first, where the ruins are, then hit the beach. The north side of the island has its own beauty and charms, but it will take you about 7 miles along the roadway before you get to anything see-worthy, so going there and back will take a large chunk of your time.
• For now, face masks are still required on the ferry for all passengers. Sit up on the top deck for the best views and breezes, as well as maximized spacing. You will not be allowed to board the ferry from St. Mary’s nor Cumberland Island without wearing a face mask.
• DO NOT TOUCH THE WILDLIFE. That should probably be self-explanatory but, while the horses seem docile and don’t really seem to notice that you’re there at all, they will bite and will be hostile if you get too much in their space or if they feel threatened. The same goes for deer, turkey and the many other creatures inhabiting the island. They are called “wildlife” for a reason.