Correction to This Article
The writer of this article mentioned viewing the lights across the St. Johns River. She meant the St. Marys River.
The Long Weekend: Exploring Cumberland Island, Ga.

By Amy Reinink
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 30, 2009

Between the thrum of the engine of the Cumberland Queen, the salt-marsh breeze on the ferry's deck and the slow-motion passage of rural Atlantic coastline, it's hard to feel anything but relaxed on the ferry from St. Marys, Ga., to Cumberland Island, a mostly undeveloped barrier island off the coast of southern Georgia.

The 45-minute ferry ride, the only way to access Cumberland Island without a private boat or private plane, serves as a fitting start for a trip to Georgia's largest and southernmost barrier island, a place defined less by what it has than what it doesn't: vehicular traffic, high-rise hotels and crowds.

I traveled to Cumberland Island seeking a Southern experience marked by Spanish moss and palmetto fronds rather than sweet tea and shrimp and grits. I found it in abundance on the island's 50 miles of hiking trails and 17 miles of undeveloped shoreline, where I spotted such wildlife as pelicans and wild horses on a recent weekend escape.

And make no mistake about it: This is, and always has been, a place to escape, as evidenced by the ruins and historic structures visible to anyone willing to hike a few miles on the island's pancake-flat, moss-draped trails.

There's Dungeness, the remains of the home first built by Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene's widow, Catharine, which dates from 1802-03. The house burned to the ground in the 1860s. Thomas Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, began building another home in the same spot in 1884, but it burned down in 1959, leaving only ruins today.

Then there's the Plum Orchard Mansion, also built by the Carnegie family, which donated the grand, Greek Revival-style mansion to the National Park Foundation in 1971. Descendants of the Carnegies still own the tony but low-key Greyfield Inn, a 1900-era mansion that serves as the island's sole hotel.

The hotel retains the trappings of a fine Southern escape, with heirloom silver candlesticks at the inn's long dinner table, plus a personal library and family scrapbooks open to visitors. Guests of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette stayed there in September 1996, when the couple dodged paparazzi on the mainland and married in the island's one-room First African Baptist Church. The tiny church was built in 1937 to replace the original 1893 structure.

Rooms at the Greyfield Inn don't come cheap, starting at $395. My husband and I opted to camp out instead, paying $4 per person, per night for one of the island's developed campsites.

Outdoors enthusiasts leery of crowded, noisy public campgrounds will find these spacious and private, protected by a canopy of gnarled oak trees. Less-experienced campers will like that they offer public restrooms, showers, access to fresh water and proximity to a boardwalk leading to the beach. Backpackers can stake out a spot for even cheaper, paying just $2 per person, per night to stay at one of several hike-to campsites throughout the park.

Day-trippers and overnight campers alike will want to spend time exploring the island by foot. Though 50 miles of trails wind through the maritime forests, ranger Pauline Wentworth said it's possible to get a great sampling of the island's charms on ranger-led tours that can run three-quarters of a mile to 3.5 miles.

"The nice thing is, you don't necessarily have to do major hiking to see a little of everything," Wentworth said. "You can join a ranger for a walk, or pick up a self-guided trail brochure and wander at a leisurely pace on your own."

We planned to hike several miles at a brisk pace our first morning on the island to make sure we made it to all of its historic structures. But we found the cool green-gray beauty of the trails themselves to be the island's most enchanting attraction, and we spent most of our time exploring the woods. After a few miles under the thick oak canopy, we veered onto the beach, where sharks' teeth, coquinas and heart cockle shells speckled the shoreline.

Rangers say they frequently spot dolphins and manatees there, but our most exciting wildlife sighting was the brood of feral horses that call the island home. How the horses got to the island is one of its great mysteries. Wentworth said documentation suggests Spanish explorers brought horses with them when they landed on the island in the mid-1500s. But she said the horses on the island now most likely descend from those owned by the Carnegie clan in the early- to mid-1900s.

We spotted out first horse meandering along the shoreline around lunchtime, and we took the opportunity to stop for a midday picnic while we watched the horse graze.

It was the closest we came to having contact with another living being all day. As if the ferry ride and prohibition on vehicular traffic weren't enough to keep away crowds, the island caps the number of daily visitors to the island at 300. There are no restaurants or convenience stores, so unless you're staying at the Greyfield Inn, which will pack you a picnic lunch, you'll need to bring your own food.

We packed oatmeal for breakfast, trail mix and energy bars for lunch and freeze-dried meals and s'mores to prepare at our campsite's fire ring for dinner.

Two ferries to and from the island each day make it easy to plan a day trip, but that would mean missing out on a walk on the beach after sunset, when the shoreline is transformed into a duotone fantasy world.

Our last night on the island, a full moon shed a soft white light on the seascape. Driftwood cast shadows on the sand. Stars shined like spotlights, waves lapped at the shoreline and the lights across the St. Johns River reminded us that getting away from such comforts can be a very comforting thing indeed.

Amy Reinink is a freelance writer who lives in Silver Spring.

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