Remember your last trip to the beach, tripping over coolers and sunscreen bottles to find a piece of open sand to spread your beach towel? Well picture this: 17 miles of white sand beaches, 33,000 acres of forests, seashore, and marshes, and only 300 people. Which means if all 300 have the urge to hit the sand at the same time, you’ll have to scrunch up and try to make do with your own small 100 yard stretch of pristine beachfront to spread your towel.
One of the most beautiful legacies left by man on the island is its herd of wild horses, descendants from stock originally owned by the Carnegies. A herd of about 250 grazes the interior grasslands and the beach dunes. They are skittish and can be dangerous in the mating season but the sight of a wild stallion grazing in the dunes with the surf breaking in the background is a sight not to be forgotten. Another, less attractive legacy, is the island’s wild pigs. Like the horses, descendants of domestic herds, the pigs have become feral and roam the island’s forests and marshes. While heading back from the beach just before dusk one evening, we ran face-to-face with a large male. He eyed us warily for a second then tore through the underbrush and began to circle around behind us. Not wanting to encounter a large angry boar in the fading daylight, we made a beeline for our campsite.
The only public access to the island is by a Park Service-run ferry, which departs at least twice daily from St. Marys, Georgia for the 45 minute run to the island. Once there, there are three ways to experience Cumberland: primitive, civilized, and luxurious.
The civilized option is Sea Camp, a short jaunt from the ferry dock. Unlike the backcountry sites, Sea Camp has rest rooms, showers, and drinking water. There are no stores on the island so all supplies and food must be carried in.
The luxurious option is the Greyfield Inn, built in 1900 as a home for Lucy and Thomas Carnegie's daughter, Margaret. Since the 1960’s, Margaret’s daughter Lucy Ferguson has operated the mansion as an Inn. Walking into the lobby of the Greyfield is like walking into the past, since it is furnished as it was at the turn of the century. The air conditioned Inn provides respite from the summer heat and large stone fireplaces blaze in the living room and dining room in the winter. Dining at the Greyfield is an experience. Dinner is served in the dining room by candlelight with fresh flowers and an island sunset for accompaniment. Fresh seafood, Cornish game hen, lamb or beef tenderloin, homemade breads, fresh vegetables, desserts and a fine wine list complete the experience.
No matter how you choose to experience Cumberland Island, the slow pace of nature will govern your time on the island. Long slow walks through palm trees on flat island roads, gentle offshore breezes, golden sunsets, and dolphins playing just offshore will dominate your days. Miles of hiking trails lace through the island and the wide gently sloping beaches are also good for hiking. Beachcombing, birding, fishing, swimming, or just cooling it are the preferred pastimes on Cumberland. You’ll find yourself kicking back and just enjoying the sound of the surf and the sea birds, on an island so quiet you can hear yourself breathe.
Visitation is limited to 300 people per day. Reservations are required and are first come, first served. Reservations may be made up to six months in advance. Call 912-882-4335.
The Greyfield Inn may be reached at 8 North Second Street, P.O. Box 900, Fernandina Beach, Florida 32035-0900. Call 904-261-6408.
(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)