Jekyll Island celebrates 75 years as “a playground for every Georgian”
Photography courtesy of JEKYLL ISLAND AUTHORITY
At the turn of the 20th century, Jekyll Island became a coveted winter retreat for New York’s wealthy elite. The Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Pulitzers, Astors and more built immodest cottages along the riverside of the island as members of the private Jekyll Island Club. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, from January to the end of March, wealthy northern families descended onto Jekyll each year. In those 90 days out of the year, perhaps the world’s largest concentration of affluence and wealth were located upon 240 acres of this discreet Georgia island.
IN 1947, THE STATE purchased Jekyll Island and the historic Clubhouse from the Jekyll Island Club under the authority of then-Governor Melvin Ernest Thompson, and for 75 years the island has been open to the public.
“Jekyll Island is every bit today a ‘playground for every Georgian’ as it was envisioned to be in 1947 by former Governor M.E. Thompson,” says Alexa Hawkins, Jekyll Island Authority director of marketing and communications. “There are few destinations along the southeastern coast, and arguably within the state, that offer extensive natural recreation coupled with a variety of modern accommodations and amenities for all ages.” Plus, the island balances conservation, history and culture with recreation, all just 90 minutes from Savannah — making it ideal for a laid-back, family-friendly summer getaway.
For the best views of the ocean, The Westin provides rooms and suites right on the beach. Fine dining is just downstairs at The Reserve, an oceanfront steakhouse that serves up the best cuts and quality seafood options, along with floor-to-ceiling windows that look over the walkway to the Atlantic. Next door to The Westin is Eighty Ocean at Jekyll Ocean Club, another dining option where patrons can enjoy a drink or small plates at the expansive bar.
Daily trolley tours of Jekyll’s historic district from The Mosaic, Jekyll Island’s museum, illuminate the island’s long history. Knowledgeable guides and the museum’s gallery take guests through the land’s timeline — from the lives of the Timucuan and Guale, the original inhabitants of the land, to European arrivals and the slave trade that brought Africans to Jekyll, through the Civil War, the Gilded Age and World War II, right up to present day.
On the historic tours, visitors learn dinner-party facts about the idyllic retreat that are sure to impress: the island was the site of Georgia’s first brewery; the first transcontinental phone call took place at the Jekyll Island Clubhouse to San Francisco; and the island, named for Sir Joseph Jekyll, was misspelled as Jekyl with one “L” by the Clubhouse and the state of Georgia for decades. Perhaps one of the more memorable facts is that once Jekyll Island Clubhouse members all but abandoned their homes on the island for other vacation spots, and before the state took over, locals “borrowed” items from the wealthy’s deserted cottages. Some light fixtures, furniture, fine china and other items went missing in the 1940s with a few of these pieces recently making their way back by way of the borrowers’ descendants. (Jekyll Island gladly accepts the returns — no questions asked.)
The historic downtown’s quaint shops have local merchandise and goodies, and the grab-and-go restaurants are a few steps away from other sites such as Faith Chapel, constructed in 1904 as a nondenominational place of worship for club members. The church continues to hold services and, on occasion, weddings. And, given the Lowcountry location, opportunities to connect with nature abound. At the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, a rehabilitation, research and education center, guests can watch turtle feedings by the staff and educators on-site. About four miles north of the historic downtown, Driftwood Beach feels like another world, offering a one-of-a-kind photo op where large, weathered trees stud the beach along a rocky shoreline. Visitors can easily park and enter the beach from multiple access points through short, tree-covered paths.
“While Jekyll Island is most notable for its Gilded Age historical milestones like the ideation of the Federal Reserve, the state era set in motion extensive goals for conservation, preservation and public access for all,” Hawkins shares. A jaunt to Jekyll offers an inviting mix, she says, of “serenity and discovery.”
St. Simons Island, the Golden Isles’ largest barrier island, is a short, 30-minute drive from Jekyll Island with plenty to see and do.
St. Simons Lighthouse Museum, Cannon’s Point Preserve, Christ Church, World War II Home Front Museum, East Beach, Gascoigne Bluff, Fort Frederica National Monument
The Park, The Cloister at Sea Island, King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, The Grey Owl Inn
Cloth + Label, Tibi, Redfern Village, Butler’s Stash, Shops at Sea Island, Anderson Fine Art Gallery, Bailey Boys
Porch, Sal’s Neighborhood Pizzeria, Cafe Frederica, Southern Soul Barbeque, Dulce Dough Donuts & Bakery, Palmer’s Village Cafe