Published Sept/Oct 2005

Once a retreat for billionaires, Jekyll Island offers a wealth of relaxing diversions for families today, from great golf to turtle watching.
By Patrick Martin

Top: A couple enjoying a sunset walk on the beach on Jekyll Island, located off the Georgia coast midway between Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Above: Wicker chairs welcome visitors to relax outside the stately Jekyll Island Club Hotel.

Before You Go
For additional information, contact the Jekyll Island Authority, 1-877-4JEKYLL (877-453-5955) or www.jekyllisland.com.

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Want to spend a few days hanging with the Rockefellers, Pulitzers, Vanderbilts or Morgans? Well, you missed them by about 60 years, but the welcome mat is still out at the splendid Georgia retreat where they frolicked throughout the Gilded Age.

John Eugene du Bignon, who envisioned building the most exclusive club in the world, purchased Jekyll Island, located about halfway between Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., in 1886. He sent his brother-in-law, New Yorker Newton Finney, to sell the concept to the richest men in the world.

These wealthy families bought into the idea, even though the coastal island was accessible only by ship. That didn’t bother them–they all owned yachts the size of minesweepers.

From 1888 until 1942, Jekyll Island literally was the playground of the rich and famous. And from the outset, the club was conceived as a family resort. The founding families built “cottages” of 20 to 30 rooms where they could while away the winter in the southern comfort of Georgia’s temperate climate.

The centerpiece of the Jekyll Island Club was its hotel, an enormous Victorian structure. It was a gathering place after a rousing afternoon of pheasant hunting or a morning of horseback riding, bicycling or golf.

A new era for the island

Jekyll Island went almost dark during World War II, most of its original members deceased or too old to make the annual jaunts. America was a different place after the war, with Miami, Bermuda and other more fashionable addresses grabbing the attention of the second- and third-generation heirs of the founders.

The state of Georgia bought the island in 1947 and finally opened a causeway and bridge in 1954 so that regular folks could enjoy the pine forests, shell-strewn beaches and walk in the ghostly footsteps of America’s titans of industry.

Over the past three decades, the island has redefined itself as a wildlife refuge, golf destination and quiet throwback to a gentler time. The Jekyll Island Authority oversees operation and what limited development is allowed on the state-owned island.

The original master plan of developing no more than 35 percent of the island has been honored, to the great benefit of visitors. Though just seven miles long and about a mile and a half wide at its center, the island has more than 20 miles of paved trails suitable for biking, jogging or walking.

Rental bikes are plentiful and won’t break the vacation budget. An all-day rental is about $10, and weekly rentals are $45.

Where to say, what to do

A major part of the rebirth of the island was the conversion of the grand hunting lodge into the Jekyll Island Club Hotel (371 Riverview Drive). Depending on the season, room rates are $129 for standard rooms to $399 for suites. The hotel has a AAA three diamond rating and offers discounts to AAA members.

We held a family reunion there with four adult siblings, spouses and children ranging from 8 years through early 20s. The rooms were surprisingly adaptable to accommodate four to five people. Ours had a glassed-in sunroom. Combined with 12-foot ceilings in the main room, it felt more like a suite than a room with a porch.

One of the attractions of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel is its grand, sweeping porch where Rockefellers and Carnegies may have clinked glasses to celebrate their latest deal. It’s not hard, on a warm summer’s night, to rock in one of several dozen rocking chairs and imagine those original American moguls as they sat in perhaps the same chair, wondering what the poor folks were doing.

For a few days, we had the same thoughts.

Other accommodations are available at eight other hotels or motels on the island, as well as in privately owned cottages.

While the island once was a gathering place for those who wanted to kill animals, now there is a special emphasis on saving them–particularly the loggerhead sea turtles who nest there from May through August.

The Jekyll Island Sea Turtle Project offers nightly sea turtle walks from June through August (sign up as soon as your visit dates are firm as the tours are small and fill up fast) and coordinates efforts to educate the public and preserve safe habitat for the turtles. Proceeds from these walks and other efforts on the island are being used to build the only Sea Turtle Center on the coast of Georgia.

When completed, the center will offer details about the hazardous lives of sea turtles. Indeed, it takes up to 5,000 hatchlings to produce one adult loggerhead turtle. The males who survive never come ashore. The females go on land only to lay eggs. The babies hatch and head for the sea. Each little white egg is held precious–it might be the one in 5,000.

Not so with the other little white objects that are routinely whacked around Jekyll Island’s 63 holes of golf.

Among the four courses is the historic nine-hole, links-style Great Dunes course that dates back to the billionaires. It opened for business in 1898.

We played Pine Lakes, one of the most perfectly named golf courses this duffer has trod. Cut (sensitively, of course) through a pine forest, the course takes a meandering path where not a solitary building is visible once the clubhouse fades behind you. Lakes punctuate the course, as do a multiplicity of sand traps the cumulative size of Normandy Beach.

Gazing at this expanse of sand recalls a line uttered by comedian Phil Harris, after his golfing friend, Jack Lemmon, spent a futile afternoon blasting out of traps.

“This guy,” Harris concluded, “has been in more bunkers than Eva Braun.”

We hit a few in those bunkers and a few more in the lakes, several of which are occupied by leg-sized alligators. Those were definitely lost balls.

For pure serenity and lush greenery, Pine Lakes is hard to beat.
There is another nice bonus to Jekyll Island golf. Unlike many modern courses today, the island courses were designed to be walked, though electric carts are available, too.

Sports buffs also can avail themselves of tennis courts, surf fishing, a water park, bird-watching areas and (for guests at Jekyll Island Club Hotel), croquet on the front lawn, just like those Victorian gazillionaires.

Tours are available of some of the restored “cottages,” a few of which house shops or restaurants now.

There are enough eateries, though with a decided absence of fast food and neon, to satisfy the hungriest visitor. Our favorite was Latitude 31 (1 Pier Road at Jekyll Historic Marina), a casual seafood place within walking distance of the hotel. It served cold shrimp as big as bananas. We gobbled them on a deck overlooking Jekyll Creek, the ocean connector where the yachts used to park.

We visited in early July, taking in the impressive Fourth of July fireworks display set off on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. The temperature was generally in the low 90s, but we never were without a gratifying ocean breeze.

Even the “cold months,” which the barons figured out more than a century ago, have pleasant daytime highs in the 60s.

After four days of slowing down to a 19th century pace, our clan understood exactly what kept the billionaires coming back year after year. We’ll be back, too–even without the yacht.

Patrick Martin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

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