Wild to mild
The Greyfield Inn is as elegant as it is famous. It is a genuine robber-baron mansion, after all, built in 1901 by the Carnegie family on Georgia’s Cumberland Island. Still in family hands, it has been a celebrated luxury hotel since the 1960s, collecting top honors from Conde Nast, Travel + Leisure and National Geographic. It reached A-list glory in 1996 when John F. Kennedy Jr. came here to get married.
From the soap (French) to the soup (fantastic), the place is … fancy.
So I felt a little funny arriving at Greyfield on a sweltering summer afternoon, dropping a sweat-soaked backpack and shedding the dirt and sand of a three-day camping trip on the spotless veranda.
“Are we the first people ever to arrive carrying our own garbage?” I asked innkeeper Mary Ferguson as Ann and the kids offloaded similarly grubby kits. It had been a blisteringly hot three-mile hike from the island camp spot where we had lived in tents for three days; the glistening vat of fresh lemonade shone like a mirage on the Sahara.
“Oh gosh, not at all,” Ferguson said with a laugh, waving at a staffer to come tend to our packs as if they were Louis Vuitton instead of REI. She grabbed the bag of camp trash tied on my pack herself, ready to drop it in the bins that are hauled daily to the mainland. “A lot of folks come here after camping. That’s just Cumberland.”
That’s just Cumberland Island, one of the country’s most unspoiled relics of antebellum coastal beauty, where the live oaks drip with Spanish moss and the empty beaches feature more tracks left by turtles and wild horses than by tourists. And that’s just Greyfield, Cumberland’s unlikely enclave of top-shelf pampering within a wilderness welcome. In 30 years of writing about hotels from Monaco to Guatemala, I’ve never found a more inviting combo of the mild and the wild than this moody, maritime hideaway on the Georgia marsh.
Photo: the ruins of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie's Dungeness mansion are now home to wild horses and other wildlife.
My family has gone backpacking on Cumberland for years, hiking four or five miles from the ferry dock to spend a few days swimming from a people-less beach and watching hawks hunt over cotton fields that have been idle since the Civil War. The island was declared a National Seashore in 1972.
This year, we finally paired the outside adventures of camping with the Inn-side delights of a Greyfield stay. Roughing it and then smoothing it, as only silky sheets, good wine and ferocious air conditioning can smooth.
“People like the contrast I think,” said Ferguson, who manages the inn with her husband, Mitty, one of the Carnegie cousins who own Greyfield. “After few days, it’s nice to experience the island in a different way.”
The string of barrier islands lining the 100-mile Georgia coast was the playground of the super-rich in the early 20th century. From the Carnegies of Cumberland to the Rockefellers of Jekyll to the tobacco Reynoldses of Sapelo, the plutocracy loved its winters to be framed by moss swaying moodily in the balmy Southern breeze. Eventually, many donated or sold their islands into various states of protective status, saving the heirs a fortune in taxes and leaving behind a remarkably unspoiled coast for the rest of us. Each in its special way, the islands strung between South Carolina and Florida boast some of the most pristine maritime habitat in the country.
None are more inviting than Cumberland, 16 miles of empty beach and unbuilt interior with a resident population of fewer than 50. Four historic mansions (one in dramatic ruins) and a scattering of hidden houses are the only structures on the island. One sandy lane serves as the island road network, and the traffic is limited to a few vehicles belonging to Greyfield, the National Park Service and a handful of residents.
Photo: A wild horse grazes along the seashore on Cumberland Island. Cathy Seith/AJC file
We arrived last summer as we always do, after a 45-minute ferry ride from St. Mary’s, Georgia, accompanied by dolphins cruising the St. Mary’s River. The Park Service allows only about 300 tourists a day onto Cumberland, mostly day trippers. And of those staying overnight, the vast majority trundled their coolers and boogie boards straight to the campground, a short slog from the ferry dock.
But we, after getting our backcountry permits, headed into the dappled morning of that sandy lane and Cumberland’s less-peopled parts.
Within minutes, the silence was nearly absolute. A buzzard stared impassively from the arcade of oak branches arching over the road. It swooped languidly down to his roadkill armadillo as soon as we passed.
We paused, as always, at the fork that leads toward the Greyfield Inn on the island’s marsh side. We could see the noble white house rising in the shade. Three of Cumberland’s wild horses nibbled grass in the wide field.
“I wish we could … ” said Isabel, 18.
“Stay there,” finished Tyrie, 16, in the same wistful tone. As they always do.
“Wouldn’t that be great,” I said with a blank face. Only Ann and I knew about the reservations we already had in hand. We hiked on.
Photo: A breezy morning walk along Cumberland's Beach Creek on the island's south end.
Two hours later, we dropped our burden at Stafford Beach, a backcountry camp just behind the towering beach dunes. Our favorite spot, a wide clearing tucked between the octopus arms of a massive live oak, was free. In fact, none of the sites were occupied. We’ve rarely had much company on Cumberland.
The site was nothing but a shady clearing and a fire ring. But a frame bathhouse provided cold showers and water 50 yards away. There are places for true wilderness camping elsewhere on the island, but I do love the chance to rinse off at the beach.
“Let’s go ahead and pitch the…” I said, straightening up. But it was too late. The girls and Harry, 9, were already on their way to the breakers we could hear crashing on the far side of the dunes. “… tents.”
I turned to Ann. “Well, you and I can …”
She gave a sweet smile as she pulled her own suit from her pack and stepped behind the oak trunk.
And thus resumed our inviolate Cumberland routine. I delighted in the chores of camping, pitching tents, building fires, working what magic I could with dried beans, summer sausage and minute rice on a stove the size of a paperweight. My family swam and sand-castled and scrounged the tide line for seashells and shark teeth.
In truth, they did all the camp chores I asked and more. But I love the toys and tricks of backpacking more than I love hours in the sun, so this division of labor served us perfectly. I consumed one of my stints on the beach by rigging a shade awning with a tent fly and some driftwood, a contraption that whipped about our heads like a ripped mainsail in a hurricane.
We hopped waves for hours, read for hours, Bananagrammed for hours. We walked to the ancient graveyard of antebellum planters, crossing fields spotted with Cumberland’s abundant feral horses. Ann read aloud from “Catherine, Called Birdy” while I cut onions. Harry made a map of the whole area, and we used it to run scavenger hunts through the “Scalding Cauldron,” the “Poky Man Palmetto” and his other newly minted landmarks.
One night we went out at midnight with red filters on our lights to search for egg-laying sea turtles. (Hundreds of their carefully monitored nests lined the upper beach.) Isabel and I rose before dawn on our last morning to watch the day break over the Atlantic, unveiling a string of shrimp boats trawling just offshore.
In short, it was the same sandy, sublime outing it always is. But this time, with more to come.
Finally, after a particularly unsuccessful experiment in camp-stove cheesecake, we broke the surprise: Instead of leaving next morning for the ferry and on to a family visit in Savannah, we would be hiking over for a two-night, seven-meal stay at Greyfield.
Amid the general happy pandemonium, Tyrie whispered with awe: “Air conditioning!”
Photo: Cumberland Island's gorgeous fauna can nearly overwhelm a visitor.
In fact, it was the AC that would mark the greatest divide between the sweet life of Greyfield and the sweat life of camp. The main inn, built at the turn of the last century as a retreat for Carnegie daughter Margaret Ricketson, relies on soaring ceilings and the Atlantic cross breeze to keep visitors fresh. But stepping into our nearby low-country cottage, a true meat-locker blast stripped away the humidity like a power washer.
After sardine-ing on a tent floor for three nights, everyone bolted through the four-bedroom cottage to claim one of the four beds, each a high altar of marshmallow pillows and creamy linen. We peeled off wood-smoky clothes and steamed ourselves clean with L’Occitane soaps and shampoos.
My favorite shower was the outdoor one, a handsome timber booth on the private back deck boasting the same top-shelf toiletries as the four indoor baths. A baby armadillo snoofled past as I toweled myself back to a civilized sheen.
The kids hadn’t noticed the extra green bag we’d left in the care of the park rangers at the dock, where a Greyfield staffer had picked it up for us. Now they were delighted to swap the backpack duds for clean underwear and a few Inn-suitable outfits.
Oh, the drill here was more cushy by far, but the coddling was all spiced with the briny, piney essence of Cumberland. At cocktail hour, no one blinked at my semi-appropriate attire: a creased sport coat I’d pulled from the hidden bag, a pair of rock-climbing pants rolled at the cuff and a pair of flip-flops. Some of the dozen other guests were in bright resort wear, and Brooks Brothers abounded. But the Fergusons made clear that as long as men scraped together some kind of coat for the dining room, the ancient Code of the Carnegies was satisfied.
“Be comfortable,” advised Mitty, pointing to a portrait of his grandmother Lucy Ferguson wearing a bandanna on her head and a knife at her belt.
Greyfield’s nightly cocktail ritual sprawls across the veranda and the stately main floor. A well-stocked honor bar sits between the dark-paneled library and the half acre of living room, a noble space featuring the game trophies and turtle skulls collected by generations of Carnegies and filled with the elegant, if elephantine, furniture of an earlier age. It’s a Tiffany, Chippendale, Hemingway space; many a first edition lines the wall.
“Try this one, it’s my new favorite,” Mitty Ferguson said, reaching a bottle of Old Speckled Hen from the glass cooler. He’d found the British ale on a recent trip and persuaded his beer guy to carry the line. It’s good to be the innkeeper.
The perfectly grilled skirt steak with the red pepper chimichurri we were voraciously eating an hour later was succulent and superb. As was the next night’s sweet corn with Dungeness crab, all of it cooked by Whitney Otawka, a onetime “Top Chef” contestant.
But I’m not sure any of that was better than the boxed lunch of country bread and fresh ham sandwiches, fruit and cookies that was waiting for us at lunch. Picked them up each day, labeled with our names, in a kind of common mud room where enormous self-service crocks of sweet tea and lemonade were always full and cold.
And no meal could have been better than the cornmeal pancakes and thick bacon that made the breakfast tables groan each morning.
All those indoor pleasures! They were same as our camp fun, but now the games were played on the cushioned porch swings, the reading in deep club chairs, the meals cooked by someone with Food Channel skills, a real stove and an acre of house garden next door. There were as many televisions here as there were in camp - none.
The outdoor fun was also pretty similar. But now we rode Greyfield bikes across the island to the beach. We paddled Greyfield kayaks in the back river. And we rambled the island in the back of a Greyfield pickup, tricked out with tour benches.
A guided drive to the north end featured an hour at Plum Orchard, another Carnegie mansion preserved by the Park Service, and the ancient one-room Baptist chapel where Jackie Onassis watched her son get married. We drove back, laughing in the wind, along the empty beach.
We spent our last morning happily failing to catch any fish off the dock. The morning light slanted prettily on the wide field of marsh grass beyond. A tail smacked the water, and we turned too lazily to see whether it was a dolphin or one of the manatees that love these tidal rivers.
A manatee! I would say that a manatee would have made it a perfect Cumberland trip. Except that it already was.
Photo: A wild horse grazes among the trees on Cumberland Island. William Berry/AJC file
The island is a protected National Seashore, meaning most of it is managed by the National Park Service. The feds allow up to 300 tourists a day to visit the island, transporting them by ferry from the town of St. Mary’s, Georgia.
Most visitors make a day trip of the sites clustered around the island’s southern tip, including Dungeness (the original Carnegie Mansion destroyed by fire), numerous walking trails through the maritime forest and the utterly pristine beach. The park service also runs guided tours of the Plum Orchard Mansion and sites at the north end.
Where to stay
Cumberland Island, 877-860-6787. www.nps.gov/cuis/planyourvisit/index.htm
For campers, a busy and popular site is within a few hundred yards of the ferry dock, costing $4 per person a night. We prefer the four different sites that require backpacking between four and 10 miles and costing $2 per person. The ferry, which makes two morning and two afternoon runs, costs $25 per person.
4 N. Second St. No. 300, 866-401-8581, www.greyfieldinn.com
The most popular seasons are from fall through early spring, but the Greyfield Inn does run a popular “Island Camp” slate of outdoor programs for kids in July. The inn runs its own ferry for guests from Fernandina Beach, Florida, about 40 minutes from Jacksonville International Airport. Rooms at Greyfield are priced per couple and range from $425 for the main house to $735 for the detached cottages. Rates include meals and recreation, except alcohol.