By Wendy Lawson
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. (March 3, 2011) — It’s an easy 40-minute drive from Amelia Island to catch the ferry that transports folks directly to Cumberland Island, Georgia departing St. Marys. Aboard the National Park Service’s ferry, the “Cumberland Princess,” we are joined by others heading to this captivating wilderness island located just to the north of Amelia Island, Florida. Although Northeast Florida and southeast Georgia woke to a very foggy morning on this 27th day of February, the Cumberland ferry crew is quite familiar with operating in such conditions. (See more photos below.)
It’s a special day at Cumberland, this Sunday, as the Plum Orchard mansion can be toured (one of just two days each month when the Plum Orchard tour is available, but more accessibility is coming with “Lands and Legacies” van tours to start daily later this year). Plum Orchard, circa 1898, is one of a few mansions built on Cumberland by Lucy Carnegie. A magnificent “Classical Revival” mansion of 22,000 square feet, step through the grand entry into another era of southern comfort. (See Cumberland Island photo gallery slideshow below, click on photos to slow down the images).
Waiting for the ferry to depart from St. Marys, sand gnats (also called “no-see-ums”) were present. (Here in the south, gnats and marshes go together like salt and pepper.) We wondered whether it would be a brutal, buggy day over at the island. Most on the ferry are day-trippers. Some, though, are heavily laden with camping backpacks, coolers, and gear, heading to Cumberland’s campground that offers minor conveniences — restrooms, cold showers, and picnic tables (Sea Camp).
Plum offers an opportunity to glimpse the late 19th and early 20th century lifestyle of one of America’s most wealthy and famous families, in one of the most unusual settings. It’s an absolutely splendid barrier island, largely untouched by man’s hand. Cumberland Island looks very much the same as it did a hundred or more years ago, with its lack of development in contemporary times. However, this Georgia gem almost didn’t escape the fate of most coastal property along the eastern seaboard. But that’s another story.
Understand that once day-trippers land on Cumberland Island, putting one foot in front of the other is the main mode of transportation. There are no paved roads, no vehicular traffic (the only other option is renting a bicycle at Sea Camp.) Also pack all food and beverages for the day, and anything (including trash) brought onto the island goes back to the mainland with you on the return ferry.
One often hears of the critters on Cumberland — wild horses, pigs, deer, armadillos, turkeys, sea turtles, and the bugs. Insects can put a damper on a visit, especially if you forgot repellent. However, we were pleasantly surprised with a bug-free day. (Although a camper, who had already spent a few nights there, did mention flies were bothersome at Sea Camp). Also good to know, the island has been colonized by ticks — something to be aware of, especially when camping.
The morning fog soon cleared to bright sunshine on the western side of the island (although it did reappear along Cumberland’s eastern beachfront and quickly reduced a miles-long shoreline vista to about 50 feet.) Those who visit Cumberland Island, particularly in winter months, know the sea fog can suddenly roll in and engulf the island quickly, sometimes hanging there all day long.
Before heading to Plum Orchard, we first arrived at the Dungeness dock, a 45-munute ferry ride from St. Marys. The ruins of Dungeness are not to be missed. It’s in this area where one can often see the wild horses grazing around the mansion grounds. Dungeness, a Carnegie mansion, burned to the ground in 1959. Brick chimneys and a stone skeleton remains with a huge, dry fountain, like a monument of tragedy that stands overlooking vast marshland — a reminder of its grand past. The mansion’s recreational building that housed a billiard room, a gym, squash courts, guest rooms and indoor swimming pool, is a pile of rotting wood (not touched by fire, but rather time and neglect).
It’s the same tale for other structures on this island – fallen into the ground from years gone by unattended – carriage houses, greenhouses, cottages and buildings. Fingers point to the National Park Service’s absence of care and funding. Before it became a National Seashore, around 90% of Cumberland was owned by the Carnegies. In the Dungeness area, it was a small village requiring a large staff that lived on the island to keep the homes and gardens operational. (READ MORE, CONTINUED ON PAGE 2)