Despite its moneyed past, the island offers affordable luxury
Beginning in the late 1800s, Georgia’s barrier islands were the playgrounds of wealthy Northern industrialists seeking refuge from brutal winter weather. Carnegie steel scions put down roots on Cumberland. Auto magnate Howard Coffin lived on Sapelo and started the Cloisters on Sea Island.
But, first, there was Jekyll Island. During its turn-of-the-century heyday, Jekyll contained the country’s greatest concentration of tycoons, socialites and wealth.
It all started in 1879, when a well-connected speculator began courting investors to buy into an exclusive hunt club on the 5,700-acre, cleaver-shaped island off the coast of Brunswick.
By the time the turreted Queen Anne-style club opened in 1888, it had 53 members, including Marshall Field, Henry Hyde, J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer and William K. Vanderbilt. The island was such a seat of wealth and power, the Federal Reserve was first conceived here and Theodore Vail, president of AT&T, participated in the first transcontinental telephone call from the island.
Today, Jekyll is a lovely, well-preserved historic resort run by the state, and is surprisingly affordable, considering its luxurious touches and moneyed past.
Operated by a state-appointed authority, similar to the one that manages Stone Mountain, Jekyll Island has a park-like feel to it. In addition to the sprawling 157-room Jekyll Island Club Hotel overlooking Jekyll River, there are a number of spectacular Victorian-era “cottages,” horse stables, a museum, shops and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center spread out over 240 acres of manicured grounds within the Jekyll Island National Historic District.
Photo: A visitor takes in the north end beach by bicycle at the fishing pier on Jekyll Island.
Beyond the district are 20 miles of paved bike trails, a massive covered pier, a shady campground, the ruins of a 1743 tabby house made from oyster shells and wide, gorgeous beaches, including Jekyll’s famous Driftwood Beach, a stretch of shore littered with fallen, twisted, sun-bleached trees. About 60 percent of the island is undeveloped and protected by the Georgia Conservancy.
Rooms at Jekyll Island Club Hotel start as low as $167, and among the dining options are the Pub and Club Cafe, serving soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas and burgers for a pittance compared with the resort’s fine-dining options. Bikes can be rented for less than $20 a day, or guests can bring their own. And a free shuttle provides transportation to the Jekyll Island Club beach pavilion, complete with restrooms and a snack bar. Even families on a budget could have a pretty plush stay here without going broke.
But there are plenty of opportunities to splurge, too. Pay $499 a night for the Clubhouse Presidential Suite, and you get a two-room suite with views of the ocean, a wood-burning fireplace, a garden tub and a spiral staircase that leads to the crow’s nest inside the hotel’s famous turret, offering 360-degree views of the island.
For a culinary treat, guests can dine on grilled wild boar chop in the Grand Dining Room or the catch of the day at Courtyard at Crane (photo by Suzanne Van Atten), a 1917 Italian Renaissance villa-style cottage on the grounds.
For those in need of pampering, the spa offers an array of services, including seaweed facials and sea salt body scrubs.
Despite all those modern touches, Jekyll Island retains much of its original 19th century charm. For a taste of the lifestyle enjoyed by the island’s wealthy club members, take a leisurely horse-drawn carriage ride (photo by Suzanne Van Atten) through the grounds and admire the grand Victorian homes and Spanish moss-framed views of the river along the way. The best part is, at $15 a pop, it’s accessible to most anyone.
IF YOU GO
Approach Jekyll Island from St. Simons via the Sidney Lanier Bridge for a glorious view of the vast salt marshes of Glynn County.
Visitors must pay a $6 fee per vehicle to enter Jekyll island.
Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Visitors can observe as marine biologists and technicians care for and rehabilitate rescued sea turtles. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $7, $6 seniors 62 and older, $5 children ages 4-12, free for children 3 and younger. 214 Stable Road. 912-635-4444,jekyllisland.com/activities/georgia-sea-turtle-center.
Jekyll Island Museum. Learn about the island’s history, beginning with Native Americans and spanning the Revolutionary War and antebellum eras to the heyday of the Jekyll Island Club. Free. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 100 Stable Road. 912-635-4036, jekyllisland.com/history/museum.
The Rockefeller Experience Tour. Tour the restored home of William and Almira Rockefeller. $10, $5 children ages 7-15, free for children 6 and younger. Includes a tour of Faith Chapel, appointed with Tiffany stained glass windows and terra cotta gargoyles. Tour begins at the Jekyll Island Museum, 100 Stable Road. 912-635-4036, jekyllisland.com/history/the-rockefeller-experience-tour.
Passport to the Century Tour. Guided tram tour of the Jekyll Island Historic District. $16, $7 children ages 7-15, free for children 6 and younger. Tour begins at the Jekyll Island Museum, 100 Stable Road. 912-635-4036, jekyllisland.com/history/passport-to-the-century-tour.
Golf. Jekyll Island Club Hotel has three 18-hole courses as well as the historic 9-hole Great Dunes course laid out in 1910 by the ocean. There is also a pro shop and a driving range, and one-on-one instruction can be arranged. 855-743-4416, jekyllclub.com/activities/golf.
Summer Waves Water Park. Slides, pools, fountains and more. Open May to mid-September. $19.95, $15.95 children under 48 inches, $10.95, age 60 and older, children 3 and younger free with approved swim diaper. Group rates and season passes available. 210 S. Riverview Drive. 912-635-2074, jekyllisland.com/activities-category/summer-waves.
Three Oaks Farm. Group or private horseback rides on the beach, $58-$265, depending on length and options. Minimum age, 5. Historic daytime carriage ride $15, private evening carriage ride $45. 100 Stable Road. 912-635-9500, threeoaksfarm.org.
Bicycles. Bike the island’s 20 miles of paved paths. Guests of Jekyll Island Club Hotel can rent bikes for $10 a half-day, $18 a full day from the front desk. jekyllclub.com/activities/bicycle-rentals.
Jekyll Island Club Hotel. Accommodations available in the Clubhouse, the Annex, Sans Souci, Crane cottage and Cherokee cottage. $167-$499. A new facility, the Jekyll Island Ocean Suites, featuring one- and two-bedroom suites on the ocean, is scheduled to open in spring 2017. 855-743-4416, jekyllclub.com.
Jekyll Island Campground. 175 campsites on 18 shady acres for primitive tent campers and full-hookup RVs. Pets allowed. $24-$38 a day. Restrooms, showers, laundry, store and bike rentals. 1197 Riverview Drive. 912-635-3021, .jekyllisland.com/lodging/jekyll-island-campground.
There are also several chain hotel options outside the Jekyll Island Historic District, including a Westin, Holiday Inn, Hampton Inn and Days Inn.
Jekyll Island Guest Information Center. 901 Downing Musgrove Parkway. 912-635-3636, jekyllisland.com.