Highlights of historic Fernandina, the beaches, and coastal nature at Florida-Georgia border.

Tour Plum Orchard Mansion on Cumberland Island

While Amelia’s next door neighbor, Cumberland Island, is so close (it’s visible with the naked eye from Fernandina’s Fort Clinch), one still must drive up to St. Marys, GA to catch the National Park concessionaire’s ferry, to access this National Seashore. It’s about a 45-minute drive north from Amelia Island to catch the public ferry service.

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.

Departing St. Marys aboard the ferry, “Cumberland Princess,” we are joined by others heading to this captivating wilderness island. On this day, northeast Florida and southeast Georgia woke to a very foggy morning. But the ferry crew is quite familiar with operating in such conditions.

Into The Fog, Cumberland Island Ferry
Into The Fog, Cumberland Island Ferry

Most on the ferry are day-trippers, heading to Cumberland for the special Plum Orchard tour. Some, though, are heavily laden with camping backpacks, coolers, and gear. They are embarking on a camping adventure at Sea Camp, Cumberland’s campground that offers minor conveniences — restrooms, cold showers, and picnic tables.

Plum Orchard C. 1898

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.

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 mankind. Cumberland 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.

Wild Horse Grazing on Amelia’s Northern Neighbor, Cumberland Island, GA

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, or taking the new “Lands & Legacies” van tour to be introduced later this year.) 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.

Sea Fog

The morning fog soon cleared to bright sunshine on the western side of the island. But the fog 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 that the sea fog can suddenly roll in and engulf the island quickly, sometimes hanging there all day long.

Ruins of Dungeness

Before heading to Plum Orchard, we first arrived at the Dungeness dock, a 45-minute 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 the home’s 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)

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