By Debi Lander
Jekyll Island, one of Georgia’s Golden Isles, rests about 90 minutes north of Jacksonville. The island is owned and operated as a Georgia state park and becomes a relaxing getaway any time of the year.
Before 1954, the only way to reach Jekyll was by boat — but the history of the seven-mile long isle goes back much farther and proves quite interesting. An Indian mound testifies the first inhabitants: the Guale and Mocama tribes. Then in 1747, British General Oglethorpe sent Major William Horton to build an outpost to help protect Fort Frederica. With the help of indentured servants, he made a home. The remains of Horton’s House stand off-road, open for visitors. There’s a Spanish moss-draped trail to hike and signage across the road to fill you in on the early history.
Next came the DuBignon family, and in 1879 their descendants established a private hunting club that aimed to attract wealthy patrons. The barons of industry and finance (think Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Astor, Pulitzer, Biddle, Whitney, Morgan) were enticed and brought their families. In fact, by 1886, the Jekyll Island Club became, according to Munsey’s Magazine, “the richest, most exclusive, inaccessible club in the world.”
Some families built winter “cottages” (mansions), and many still stand. But these wealthy figures didn’t just come to Jekyll for hunting and relaxation; they came to meet secretly. Together they formed what became the Federal Reserve System.
The club continued to prosper with the addition of the Great Dunes Golf Course, which opened in 1926; however, when WWII descended, the threat of German submarine activity along the coast caused the US government to evacuate the island.
The 7,500-acre isle sat unused until Georgia purchased it in 1948 for $675,000. For comparison, in 2020 dollars, that amount would be $7.8 million, a bargain purchase likened to the sale of Manhattan. The state opened the park in 1954 after constructing the causeway bridge to allow more public access.
The abandoned Jekyll Island Club was eventually renovated and reopened as a hotel in 1987. An overnight getaway at the resort still remains a splurge, but promises grand memories.
A stroll around the luxury property and National Historic District is a must; it’s free. Walk down Millionaire’s Row, past the restored cottages from the Gilded Age. Again, signage helps you understand the buildings of the former era. You can also tour this district via a tram; check for times and pricing. History buffs may also enjoy a look through the Mosaic Jekyll Island Museum.
You’ll find 20 miles of safe biking paths, especially nice since they sit off the main road. Naturally, there is a mini-golf course and hiking trails. A full-size waterpark may surprise you, considering the zoning restrictions, but kids love it.
Indulge in eight miles of uncrowded beaches, my favorite being Driftwood Beach. For decades, the location suffered from erosion, so what was once a stately maritime forest is now a petrified tree toppled expanse. The beach lies covered by what looks like giant pieces of driftwood — a photographer’s delight; however, watch for tidal changes.
The Georgia Sea Turtle Center, a hospital for the injured species, makes an excellent educational experience for the whole family. You can look through a glass wall and watch the veterinary staff working on an animal if lucky.
If a stay at the Jekyll Island Club Resort doesn’t fit your budget, consider the Beachview Club Hotel, Holiday Inn, or a lovely Westin directly on the beach. Even less costly is the RV and tent camp park. Whichever, you’ll escape traffic, crowded beaches and indulge in open green space.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander