I had heard of Cumberland Island. After all, I am a Georgia native. I just never got around to going there, until now. We spent a whirlwind thirty hours on the island and I loved every minute of it.
The largest barrier island off the coast of Georgia, Cumberland is 18-miles long and ranges between 3/4 to 2½ miles wide. The Atlantic Ocean bounds the east. Tidal estuaries and salt marshes flow along the west. The St. Mary’s river separates Cumberland’s southern tip from the northern tip of Amelia Island Florida. In 1972 the island received a National Seashore designation, preserving most of this pristine and history rich land.
The National Park Service owns 40,000 acres on the island. The remaining 1,000 acres are split between 22 fee simple private owners. The 1,000 fee simple acres are not under the park’s jurisdiction. Recently, one of the fee simple owners (Lumar, LLC composed of Coca-Cola Company heirs) has been seeking permission to subdivide its land into multiple houses. Their acreage is located on one of the narrowest parts of the island, just north of the popular Sea Camp campsite. Negotiations have been ongoing. I sure hope heart conquers greed. The quiet regal beauty of this unspoiled island is a true treasure.
There are two public options for overnight stays: the Greyfield Inn or camping in one of four campgrounds. Either way, reservations are required. If you come for the day, or opt for overnight camping, take the Cumberland Island Ferry from St. Mary’s Check the rules and costs for bringing your own bicycle. The ferry has a first come – first serve policy with a limit on the number of bicycles allowed. Arrive early. Only one of the campgrounds has potable water. Make sure you have access to plenty!
Rather than camping, we opted for the Greyfield Inn. A couple of weeks before our NE Florida trip, we decided to visit Cumberland. We didn’t know the inn fills up months in advance. As luck would have it, they had one room for one night. A rare last-minute score. The cost to stay there is exorbitant. After catching our breaths and rationalizing, (the cost includes parking in Fernandina, transportation on the Inn’s private ferry, full breakfasts, lunches, dinners, kayaks, bicycles and guided tours), we bit the bullet. You only live once. Right? No regrets for me! When we arrived at the Inn’s private ferry dock, we were greeted by staff and taken on a tour and orientation. I kept thinking, “welcome to fantasy island.”
Carnegie family roots run deep on Cumberland. One could spend hours reading about their influence, both positive and negative, on the island. Here are the basics. In 1881 steel magnate Thomas Carnegie and his wife Lucy purchased a huge part of the island. In 1916 Lucy died, leaving the lands to her nine children. Her will included a very complex and restrictive trust fund. The trust restrictions ended in 1962 after the death of Lucy’s last child. The Carnegie property was divided among heirs in 1965.
Between 1881 and 1965 the Carnegie family built 5 sprawling mansions, including Greyfield and Plum Orchard, for family members. The family lived in Pittsburg during summers and on Cumberland in winters. It was a social honor to be invited to stay with them. The lifestyle was rich and famous east coast blue-blood.
Each generation of Carnegie heirs have lived at least part of their lives on Cumberland Island. Greyfield was converted to an inn in 1962 by descendant Lucy Ferguson. The Inn is still managed by the family. The sprawling estate is well-run and maintained respectfully with care. During our short time on the island we met several Carnegie descendants in chance encounters. We chatted with Lucy’s granddaughter on the beach. A sister-in law who manages the Inn was found in the Greyfield kitchen accompanied by her sweet terrier. When leaving, we rode the ferry with one of Lucy’s great-granddaughters and her toddler daughter. All were friendly and seemed pretty normal to me.
Long before the Carnegies, Cumberland island was occupied by humans. Aboriginal shell mounds evidence occupation as long as 4,000 years ago. Much later, the island was used by the Spaniards, who built missions. The British used it as a military outpost. There are African slave villages. The first African-American church on the island still stands. John Kennedy, Jr. was married there. It is open to the public.
Over recent years, most areas used for agriculture and grazing have been allowed to return to mature oak and pine forests. It is quiet and the birds play songs in surround-sound. The air smells of the sea, pine trees and horse poop. Nature offers adventure around every corner. Wild turkeys, boar, and armadillos roam freely. For a more structured visit, the National Park Service offers interesting activities and tours.
We even enjoyed dressing up for dinner. Sitting at communal tables, plied with ample food and wine, we chatted with interesting folks. Georgia accents were all around. How many syllables are in the word “four?” I eased back into my old roots, fittin’ right on in.
Thanks for joining my adventures.
See you next time!