By Jemille Williams
Epoch Times recently named Cumberland Island as one of the top three secluded beaches in the world. That’s high praise when you’re only bested by Hawaii and Spain. It also appears on lists as one of America’s Most Beautiful Beaches and Best Wilderness Beach in the Southeast.
Although Georgia only has 100 miles of shoreline, we are home to 30 percent of the barrier islands along the Atlantic Seaboard. And about the size of Manhattan, Cumberland is the largest and fairest of them all with the longest expanse of unsullied littoral landscape – 17 glorious miles of deserted strands of sand. Truly, this is a bucket list destination. It’s around a 5.5 hour drive from Atlanta.
I had made a previous visit to the island before they offered the comfortable and comprehensive six-hour Lands & Legacies tour. If you are not among the fortunate few, another ranger does offer a one-hour one-way guided walk to the Dungeness ruins. You are free to meander the beach at will afterward, but don’t be late for that last ferry or you’ll have to spend the night on the porch of the visitors’ center.
This is not a cushy excursion. You carry your whole caboodle on your back, and you portage back the wrappers and containers of everything you consume with you on the ferry. No big thing for day-trippers, but a whopping big deal for campers.
There is another option besides the rough and ready camping. The Greyfield Inn runs about $500 per night and will transport you to your lodgings and lend you a bike. We had to laugh as we rode in climate-controlled (relative) comfort as we bounced and jounced over 30 miles of primitive roads, but were surprised to see we fared far better than the pricey Greyfield’s guests, roughing it in the back of a pickup truck on wooden benches out in the cold.
Although a chill wind blustered, we were cozy in the van, and also enjoyed the luxury of flushing toilets at two of our stops. For slackers like me, the L&L tour is a bargain at $39, which includes ferry and park admission. Our guide regaled us with fascinating facts as we jostled along. We paused here and there to gaze as horses grazed and lazed disinterestedly. We were warned that they may look like nice horsies, but they are feral animals, and can be downright unfriendly – so look, don’t touch.
The Carnegie mansion, Plum Orchard, was a remarkable delight. What unexpected luxury on this remote island. After we enjoyed our picnic lunches on its grand sunny stairs, our ranger led on us on an informative tour. It is the same vintage as the Biltmore House, though on a far less grand scale. I especially enjoyed the downstairs Downton Abbey-like kitchen and servant bell system.
The most unique aspect of the tour was seeing the little African Baptist Church where one of the most storied and clandestine weddings of the last century took place. John Kennedy, Jr. married Carolyn Bessette there. He had personally painted and worked on the chapel himself through the years when visiting friend Gogo Ferguson, a Carnegie descendant, and swore he’d wed there one day. And so he did — to the frustration and astonishment of paparazzi everywhere.
Summer is high season, both for tourists and insects, so be sure to reserve your spot on the ferry and the tour well in advance. There are refreshments on the ferry, but nothing on the island, so make like a Boy Scout and Be Prepared!
For more information on Cumberland Island National Seashore, visit nps.gov/cuis.