There aren’t many places in the world where one can see wild horses grazing along the beach of a preserved barrier island frozen in time. A setting where the crumbling ruins of a Carnegie mansion hint of the grandeur of nineteenth century days past, and of a high society life that most of us can only imagine.
If you appreciate an untouched setting, then treat yourself to Cumberland Island, Georgia located near the Florida state line, just across the Cumberland Sound from Amelia Island. When traveling around northeast Florida, these are two barrier islands not to be missed!
A scenic wildlife habitat, Cumberland Island measures about 17.5 miles long by 3 miles wide, and reportedly is the largest “wilderness island” along America’s Eastern Seaboard. Cumberland will have considerable appeal if you’re interested in both a beautiful, natural setting and history. Visitors can expect solitary walks on miles of tranquil, deserted beachfront and so much more in the way of quiet serenity outdoors observing Southern coastal wildlife on this barrier island paradise perfect for naturalists, wildlife and landscape photographers as well as history buffs.A visit to Cumberland Island will likely be one of the most unique, natural locations you’ve ever had the opportunity to visit, and is highly recommended. Cumberland Island was a favorite secret getaway of the late John F. Kennedy, Jr. (more about that below).
Cumberland Island National Seashore features expansive windswept dunes and miles of empty beaches marked by animal tracks (armadillos, deer, wild turkeys, shorebirds and wild horses). When hiking through the trails on Cumberland, you notice the quiet stillness of the forest, interrupted only by rustling leaves in the breeze or an animal scampering in the underbrush.
A protected National Seashore, Cumberland is mostly undeveloped. Picture in your mind for a moment, no stores, no street lights (no paved roads for that matter), no public transportation, and restricted daily access by the public. To put this into perspective, only 300 people a day are allowed on the island — an island that’s larger than Manhattan. (UPDATE: Five to six hour-long van tours taking visitors to Cumberland Island’s more remote northend are now available, the “Lands and Legacies” tour.)
Cumberland is actually larger in size than its neighbor, Amelia Island, yet almost uninhabited, with the exception of a tiny number of island dwellers in a smattering of private homes that have been on the island for generations. The other island residents are marsh rabbits, alligators, snakes, nesting sea turtles, deer (and ticks), bob cats, raccoons, armadillos, feral hogs, wild horses, turkeys and so much more wildlife. It’s an amazing place for birding.
NEED TO ESCAPE? GET AWAY FROM IT ALL ON CUMBERLAND ISLAND
Cumberland is located off the southeast corner of the Georgia mainland. It’s one of the largest barrier islands in a chain of islands along the Atlantic Coast, stretching from Cape Hatteras, NC south to the Talbot Islands in northeast Florida. The Talbot Islands (Florida State Parks) sit at Amelia’s southern tip. Located adjacent to Amelia Island, Florida, Cumberland is plainly visible across the water from Fort Clinch, a pre-Civil War brick fortress perched on Amelia’s northern shoreline.
CUMBERLAND, A FEAST FOR EYES AND SOUL
You may not want to rush back to 21st century society after glimpsing a simpler time and a natural paradise. It’s easy to dream about what it would be like to live on this island frozen in time. The height of tranquility, this Southern sea island is a feast for the eyes and the soul.
SPEND A DAY ADMIRING NATURE
The dune system on the island is vast and inspires awe – primary dunes and rear dunes. Visitors walk along paths to the beach through an interdune meadow. It’s unlikely you’ve ever seen dunes like these anywhere else.
THE NOTORIOUS WILD HORSES OF CUMBERLAND ISLAND
Cumberland has a population of feral horses that roam the island freely. They subsist on the island’s natural bounty such as its marsh grasses and sea oats (about a third of Cumberland is salt marsh). The feral horses seen on Cumberland today reportedly originated from domestic stock released on the island in the early 1900s (not dating back to the Spanish colonial days as previously thought).
Each trip to Cumberland is a new experience and never disappoints. During one excursion, six wild horses approached our group on the main sandy “road” cut through the island (Grand Avenue). Seemingly tame, the horses did not live up to their “wild” name, and just sauntered over to the side of the path, stepping partially into the forest. They observed us passing by with curiosity, but just stood there, using long tails to swat the mosquitoes that seemed to be hanging around them. After we went by, the horses returned to the middle of the trail and continued on their way in the opposite direction. However, do note that the Park Service warns folks not approach the feral horses or try to feed them (they reportedly can be dangerous).
RUINS OF A MANSION, DUNGENESSThe original inhabitants of the island were Indians who reportedly occupied the island for over 3,000 years, but Cumberland also had a slave population. During the 1850s, the island’s population peaked at 520 people, “65 were white, 455 were black slaves,” according to a book by Mary Bullard. History buffs will like visiting the small Ice House Museum on the island which displays old photos and the historical facts of the island and its previous inhabitants.
Probably the most frequented site on the island is the ruins of a Carnegie mansion, Dungeness. A visit to the grounds of Dungeness promises a unique look back, as your mind’s eye pictures the grand parties and famous high society families that frequented this home in the late nineteenth century, such as the Vanderbilt’s and Dupont’s. When approaching the island from the water, look carefully and you’ll see chimney stacks of Dungeness extending above the tree canopy.
A very comprehensive book, researched for more than 20 years, is “Cumberland Island, A History,” by Mary Bullard (available online.) Ms. Bullard is a descendant of the Carnegie family, the last owners of the island before the US Federal government acquired most of it in 1972, and Cumberland was designated a US National Seashore.
FIRE DESTROYS DUNGENESS IN 1959
There are only ruins left, as the Carnegie home, Dungeness, was destroyed by fire in 1959 — a fire that was intentionally set (but no one was ever charged with the arson). Previously a working plantation owned by the family Nightingale, by the 1840s, the former Dungeness was described as abandoned and going to ruin. The Carnegies actually purchased the property from a General Davis, according to Bullard’s book, in the year 1881, for the sum of $35,000. The Carnegie family built a new Dungeness mansion, starting construction in 1884 at a price reported at around $285,000 (with furnishings), according to Ms. Bullard. READ RELATED ARTICLE about special tours of Plum Orchard, circa 1898, a 22,000 square foot Carnegie mansion located further north on Cumberland Island that underwent restoration.
CUMBERLAND ISLAND, A FAVORITE PLACE OF LATE JOHN F. KENNEDY, JR.
Even though today much of Cumberland Island is a National Park (about 80% of the island), daily visitors are restricted with limited ferry service. It’s no wonder that the late John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his late wife, Carolyn Bessette, chose the magnificent natural setting and seclusion of Cumberland Island for their secretive wedding. (It took several days for the national press to find out about their trip to the altar, in a tiny, antiquated church on this island.) Cumberland reportedly was one of John’s favorite escapes, having visited this island since he was a teenager.
Picnicking, beachcombing on miles of deserted beaches, and hiking along paths and sandy, unpaved roads cut through the maritime forest of Cumberland Island are just a few things that await visitors. And the peaceful solitude of nature — and not much else. Even the forest, with a variety of oaks, looks windswept and timeless. The natural palmetto is thick, as is the Spanish moss-laden canopy of centuries-old oaks.
It’s difficult to describe the natural delight of this untouched barrier island that likely looks the same as it did a century ago. It’s a priceless jewel, and as a US National Park, has thankfully been preserved for the people.
But it may not have gone this way, if a real estate developer, Charles Fraser of Hilton Head, owner of a large parcel of Cumberland, hadn’t abandoned his plans to develop Cumberland Island. He reportedly had purchased land from Carnegie heirs in 1969. His intent was to build houses, apartments, marinas, a golf course, air strip, shopping, a hospital, and more, according to author Mary Bullard. Fraser was unsuccessful in his effort to develop the island, and Cumberland remains in its wild, natural state for eternity.
Island residents reportedly banned together with environmental organizations and the Department of the Interior to support the acquisition of Cumberland by the National Park Service. Their actions were a personal sacrifice too, as they were required to sell their property on Cumberland to the National Park Service in order to preserve it — an indication of how dear to the heart Cumberland was to those who knew it best. Furthermore, donations by the Carnegies and funds from supporting foundations helped to win Congressional approval to turn Cumberland into a protected National Seashore. Rights of land use and occupancy were granted to landowners, but those rights have begun to expire and some properties have recently been turned over to the Park Service.
HOW TO ACCESS CUMBERLAND ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE
You can’t drive to Cumberland Island (there’s no bridge), so you must take a ferry. From Fernandina Beach, drive north on I-95 to St. Marys, Georgia. It’s within this sleepy Georgia town that you can catch a National Park Service ferry to Cumberland.
Public access is limited to a maximum of 300 people per day. Check the latest Cumberland ferry ticket prices and book ferry reservations online (and reserve a seat on the “Lands and Legacies” van tour) by visiting the park service concessionaire running the ferry service and van tour. Be warned that missing the last ferry back to St. Marys from Cumberland at the end of a day trip will require chartering a private boat to return to the mainland.
A note of advice for parents: Other than the 5-to-6-hour long “Lands and Legacies” van tours, there’s no other Cumberland Island transportation once you step foot on the island, so plan on lots of walking around on Cumberland. There are bikes available for rent at Cumberland’s Sea Camp (first come, first serve). Check with the ferry service to rent bicycles. Those with young children need to realize that an excursion to Cumberland may not be ideal for your little ones. You’ll likely end up carrying children who tire, and it’s not really a place to be pushing strollers around. You may wish to treat yourself to some quiet time and make arrangements for childcare.
Make sure to wear sneakers or comfortable shoes, pack a lunch, snacks, drinks, sunscreen and bug spray. For daily visitors to the island, there’s no garbage cans for disposal of trash. Thus, anything you carry onto the island you must carry back off. The heat and humidity of the summer may be a less “user-friendly” time for some to visit the island (especially those who aren’t used to being outside for extended times walking around). Early spring, late fall and winter are ideal times for exploring and hiking with cooler temps and less bugs.
CAMPING ON CUMBERLAND ISLAND, GEORGIA
Both “backcountry” camping and a more developed campground are offered on Cumberland Island. The backcountry campsites do not offer any facilities, and has nearby well water that must be treated. Camp fires are not permitted in the backcountry. Sea Camp Beach campground has restrooms, cold showers, and drinking water. Camp fires are permitted at Sea Camp Beach. All camping is limited to seven days, and camping permits and reservations are required. Call 1-888-817-3421 (from 10 am to 4 pm eastern time, weekdays) for further information and camping reservations.
ROMANTIC & SECLUDED GREYFIELD INN
Apart from camping, only one public lodging establishment is located on Cumberland today — the lovely Greyfield Inn.
If you desire a truly unique experience, consider the The Greyfield Inn. Built in 1900, Greyfield Inn was previously chosen as one of the “Top 10 most romantic inns” by American Historic Inns. The home was originally built for Lucy and Thomas Carnegie’s daughter, Margaret Ricketson. In 1962, it was opened as The Greyfield Inn by Margaret’s daughter, Lucy R. Ferguson, and her family. The Greyfield Inn’s private ferry, the “Lucy R. Ferguson,” departs from the Fernandina Beach Harbor Marina, offering daily service for the inn’s guests between Cumberland and Amelia Island. For complete information and reservations, visit the Greyfield Inn’s website at www.greyfieldinn.com.
As noted earlier, a visit to Cumberland Island will likely be one of the most unique, natural locations you’ve ever had the opportunity to visit, and is highly recommended. Realize that your cell phone may not get good reception in some areas of Cumberland. You may like to immerse yourself in the tranquil setting by leaving your electronic technology at home and truly escape your boss, your business associates (and anyone else for that matter), who’s not with you on the trip. You will be visiting an undeveloped island, a preserved national seashore with no stores, no street lights, no paved roads.
Revel in this natural sanctuary. After a few days, you may not ever want to leave.