The first sign that we were traveling someplace unusual came when we spotted the 40-foot Lucy R. Ferguson.
Docked at the marina of Fernandina Beach on the northern tip of Amelia Island, Fla., the ferry looked like a cross between a shrimp boat and one of those vessels they use to transport you around Disney World.
It was neither, but it was quite effective. Its open-air seats gave us a spectacular view of the Intracoastal Waterway as my wife Mary and I made the 40-minute trip to Cumberland Island.
Passing by unspoiled salt marshes and driftwood-covered beaches, we landed on a remote dock that signaled our arrival at the southernmost and largest of Georgia’s barrier islands.
What we saw next could be described only as other-worldly. We saw the island that time forgot.
Some 18 miles long and three miles wide at its thickest point, Cumberland today looks pretty much like it did 210 years ago, when George Washington’s top major general, Nathanael Green, built the first tabby home on the island. It still stands today.
You can’t drive to Cumberland. It is accessible only by ferry, from either Fernandina or St. Mary’s on the Georgia side. But once you set foot on the 36,415-acre island, you are sure to see its appeal: immaculately preserved salt marshes, mudflats and tidal creeks, along with all the wildlife that thrive there.
White-tailed, deer, raccoons, loggerhead sea turtles, alligators, turkeys, bobcats and wild horses all roam free along this federally protected seashore. If you’re really lucky – and willing to stay up late – you might even catch one of the turtles making its stroll from the Atlantic Ocean up to the sand dunes to lay its nest of eggs.
We weren’t so fortunate, but we did manage to spot several newly laid nests, which have been carefully marked and covered by the volunteer “turtle girls” who help give the young turtles a fighting chance at survival.
Giant, majestic oak trees draped in Spanish moss cover the island, along with the ubiquitous palmetto plants, providing constant shade to the walker, jogger, backpacker or bicyclist.
But wildlife isn’t the island’s only drawing card. For the lover of historic inns, there is the Greyfield. Built in 1900 by Lucy Carnegie for her children, the romantic luxury hotel features 16 elegantly appointed guest rooms.
Guests at the inn enjoy three delicious meals a day, including a candlelight dinner served in the fine dining room decorated daily with fresh flowers grown in the garden just behind the hotel.
While one might be tempted to settle for strolls along the secluded beaches and quiet bike rides down the oak-covered dirt roads, nature lovers will also want to take advantage of the daily bird tour and island history lesson. Taken in from the bed of a pickup truck, the history tour is well worth the four-hour bumpy ride, because it is led by an island naturalist who literally wrote the book on Cumberland.
Stops along the way include a visit to the First African Baptist Church on the northern end of the island, where the late John F. Kennedy Jr. exchanged vows with his wife. You will also see Plum Orchard, the expansive estate home built for George Lauder Carnegie in 1898.
You will see where the Timucua Indians once roamed the seashore and towered over the much smaller Spanish soldiers who timidly made their way up the beaches. Standing seven feet tall, many of them, these Native Americans were the giants of the earth in the 16th and 17th centuries.
While they hunted and lived off the land, guests at Greyfield Inn today get to enjoy the finest cuisine, from Kobe beef and fresh grouper to zucchini omelets and buttermilk pancakes.
For the heartier sort, there is the Sea Camp Beach on the south shore of Cumberland, but you must bring your own tent (and plenty of Off!).
For nature enthusiasts of all stripes, however, Cumberland is an oasis of peace on an Eastern Seaboard of otherwise bustling beach towns. For that alone, it deserves its own special place atop my personal list of favorite getaway destinations.