PHOTOS: Mary Ann DeSantis
November is a great time to drive to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where history and tradition have captivated visitors for generations.
A cool morning walk along the windswept beach on St. Simons Island is a perfect time to count your blessings.
The peacefulness is interrupted only by seagulls calling to one another as they gently glide overhead, seemingly announcing the peak summer crowds of people have gone. An orange-and-gold sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean welcomes the day on the largest of Georgia’s Golden Isles and is a perfect example why 45 percent of Americans prefer to take offseason vacations, according to a new AAA survey.
The ocean water may be a little cooler than most Floridians like, but St. Simons has so much more to offer than a beach. The history and tradition lend themselves to a family-style Thanksgiving getaway. The natural landscapes and the old-South environment make the island, which is only a four-hour drive from Central Florida, a relaxing retreat.
“St. Simons Island has a much different look than the Gulf Coast,” said Gaines Sturdivant, whose family has owned the island’s historic King and Prince Resort since 1980. “The marshes bring in a lot of wildlife you don’t see in other places. It also has great sailing and all kinds of paddle sports.”
The coastal community has a rich history that draws tourists from across the nation. The area was important to the British, who established Fort Frederica in the 1730s as a buttress against Spanish invaders from Florida. Georgia’s future as an original British colony was ensured when British forces defeated the Spanish in the Battle of the Bloody Marsh in 1742. Today, the National Park Service protects the archeological remnants of Fort Frederica, which has a museum, demonstrations of settlement life, historical tours and hiking trails.
One of the more popular attractions is the St. Simons Lighthouse, on the southern end in the town of St. Simons. Visitors can climb the 129 spiral steps to the top of the 104-foot brick tower for a panoramic view of the island. The original structure opened in 1810 but was destroyed in 1862 by retreating Confederate forces, who did not want the important navigational aid to fall into the hands of the Union. Rebuilt in 1872, the operational lighthouse still casts a beam 23 miles out to sea, guiding ships and freighters into the St. Simons Sound.
The island’s history is best explained at the Maritime Center, a Roosevelt-era Coast Guard station now operated by the Coastal Georgia Historical Society. Explained through the eyes of a “Coastie,” the center’s exhibits offer an informative and entertaining look at both the natural and maritime history of the area. Be sure to read the memorials just outside the entrance to learn about two merchant ships, the SS Oklahoma and the Esso Baton Rouge, which were torpedoed by a German submarine in 1942 just off the St. Simons coast.
Head to the less-developed northern end of the island to visit Christ Church, the site where brothers John and Charles Wesley, considered the fathers of Methodism in America, first preached to natives beneath a giant oak tree. With its beautiful stained-glass windows and heavily wooded grounds, Christ Church is one of St. Simons Island’s treasured landmarks. The present structure was built in 1884 by Anson Phelps Dodge Jr., in memory of his young wife who died during their honeymoon. Their story captured writer Eugenia Price’s imagination after she decided to take a spontaneous side trip to St. Simons Island on her way to Jacksonville in 1961. Her book, “The Beloved Invader,” was the first in her popular St. Simons Trilogy written after she moved to the island permanently.
Parking can be a challenge on the island but you don’t have to drive to all the attractions. Lighthouse Trolleys, operated by island native son Cap Fendig, stop at every historical site with plenty of time at each. From Dec. 13–24, Lighthouse Trolleys will offer a 90-minute Christmas Tour of Lights.
Finally, a sunset cruise around the local waters is the perfect way to end your visit to St. Simons Island. Circle the inland and marshland waters for a look at natural habitats that look much as they did when the first inhabitants — Mocama, Timucua, and Guale Indians — fished and hunted in the area.