Highly recommended, it’s well worth the time and effort to take a day-cation to Cumberland Island, GA. Here’s a recap of just one wonderful excursion to this Georgia barrier island. This particular trip, touring the marvelous Plum Orchard Carnegie mansion.
Foggy Ferry Ride To Cumberland
Departing St. Marys, GA 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.
Sea fog is more typical in early morning during the cooler winter months around the Florida-Georgia border. But no worries, the ferry crew is quite familiar with operating in such foggy conditions. Once arriving on the island (it’s a 45 minute ferry ride), the morning fog eventually cleared to bright sunshine on the western side of the island. The fog did reappear later along Cumberland’s eastern shoreline and quickly reduced a miles-long beach vista to about 50 feet.
Plum Orchard Circa 1898
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 more developed campground with minor conveniences (restrooms, cold showers).
Plum Orchard, circa 1898, is one of a few homes built on Cumberland Island 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 Orchard offers an opportunity to glimpse the late 19th and early 20th century lifestyle of one of America’s most wealthy, famous families, in one of the most unusual settings. As the ferry neared the Plum Orchard dock along the Brickhill River, wild horses grazed in the marsh grass along the riverbank, like the scene of an idyllic painting. The ferry then landed at the Plum Orchard estate.
UPDATE: Note that when the “Lands & Legacies” van tours began, Plum Orchard became one of the van stops, and the once per month Plum Orchard ferry stopped operation. (For more info about the van tour, see further below.)
Walking along, visitors are greeted by Plum Orchard’s expansive grounds, dotted with ancient, stately oak trees draped in Spanish moss. With the fog gone on the western side of the island, the sun-bleached mansion gleamed brilliant white against the deep blue sky in the afternoon.
The Plum Orchard tour takes visitors through various rooms of the home (and even into the basement level). Tour guests hear lots of historic details about this beautiful Carnegie home and what life for the wealthy was like on the island back then. The mansion has 30 main rooms, 12 bathrooms plus smaller rooms. Much of the home is adorned in elegant finishes — parquet floors, intricate trim woodwork and cabinetry, and all the most modern conveniences of its era. There’s even an elevator plus an indoor swimming pool and squash court. Indeed, it was a grand home of its era, built for $50,000 when constructed in 1898.
One of the home’s highlights was the front entrance hall and its focal point – an arched alcove, the inglenook — with large fireplace flanked by benches. A cozy spot to sit by the fire. The walls are covered with burlap wallpaper featuring a griffin pattern. The room also features an authentic Tiffany lamp hanging over the front hall table (said to be valued at around $180,000).
But that seems like pocket change compared to the two Tiffany lamps, custom made to resemble the shell of a tortoise, hanging in the adjacent game room. The Park Service guide indicated the Tiffany duo are potentially worth around $5 million, each.
Ring In Joyous Remembrance
A large bell in one of the mansion’s hallways is engraved “CARNEGIE – Plum Orchard – October 6, 1898 – Ring in Joyous Remembrance.” How many times over the years did this bell ring? It beckoned the servants, was rung twice when someone approached on the driveway, and sounded violently as an alarm in an emergency.
Most will discover that a day spent on Cumberland Island will also be one worthy of joyous remembrance. No wonder those with wealth and foresight gave up their ownership rights, in order to save this barrier island from development. They enabled the National Park Service to preserve most of the island’s acreage with the creation of the Cumberland Island National Seashore.
Preserving Plum Orchard was part of the deal made with the National Park Service. However, over time the mansion also fell into disrepair. But back in 2007, over $3 million went into its restoration, and it’s fascinating to tour. Southeast Georgia’s hot, humid coastal climate, however, is harsh on structures over time, and the mansion is in need of maintenance repairs again.
Cumberland Island likely looks much the same as it did a hundred or more years ago, with its lack of development in contemporary times. This Georgia gem managed to escape the fate of most other barrier islands along America’s eastern seaboard (becoming over-developed beach resorts). But that’s another story.
Getting To Plum Orchard
Those desiring to take a day trip over to Cumberland Island National Seashore from Amelia Island must drive north about 45 minutes to catch the public ferry. The National Park ferry service is located in St. Marys, GA.
Ride Bikes Or Van Tour
Since the Plum Orchard ferry no longer runs, visitors now have two options — take the “Lands & Legacies” van tour (see info below), or ride a bike to the mansion. But it’s not a short bike ride. The logistics of getting to Plum Orchard within the limited time constraints of the Sea Camp daily ferry schedule, plus the actual Plum Orchard Tour hours (daily at 11 am, 1 pm and 2 pm), comes into play.
Bicycles can be rented at Sea Camp (or bring your own bike over on the ferry, but space is very limited to only 10 bicycles). For cyclists, it’s a 7-mile bike ride (one way) from the Sea Camp dock where ferry passengers arrive on Cumberland. Not on a paved road, but instead biking along a sandy road (hard packed in areas, but gets rougher to the north). Walking is not feasible for day trippers, a 14-mile round trip journey. See also related article about biking around Cumberland Island, the 2019 ferry tickets, ferry schedule, plus other day tripping tips, “Cumberland Island, Delightful Day Trip”. For those thinking about a camping adventure, see campsite information.
Lands & Legacies Tour 2019 Tickets
“The Lands and Legacies Tour,” was mandated by Congress, to provide greater public access to the north end of Cumberland Island. “The Lands and Legacies Tour” costs $50.85 per person (with tax and fees) in 2019. It’s a long van tour that takes 5 to 6 hours with transportation over bumpy roads with limited restroom stops. Additional costs are the round trip ferry tickets reserved online ($34.10 per adult with taxes and fees). Plus $10 National Park entry fee. Those who rent bikes pay $16 for the day. Note that the van tour does not go to the Dungeness Ruins. Featured “Lands & Legacies” tour stops are further north on the island, including Plum Orchard and The Settlement where the famed Kennedy wedding took place.
The Kennedy Wedding 1996
The Settlement received worldwide attention for its tiny First African Baptist Church, made famous when the late John F. Kennedy Jr. and the late Carolyn Bessette held their secret wedding ceremony on Cumberland Island in September 1996. The national and global media didn’t get wind of the wedding until about three days later. Thus, the Kennedy family and friends basked in the secluded privacy and Southern charm of Cumberland Island for their special gathering.
The Kennedy wedding reception was hosted by Greyfield Inn, one of the Carnegie mansions that was turned into a bed and breakfast inn. The Greyfield Inn is the only lodging establishment on Cumberland Island.
Getting to Cumberland from Amelia Island is convenient for those who book lodging, since Greyfield Inn guests can catch the Lucy R. Ferguson, the Inn’s private ferry, from the downtown Fernandina Beach Marina. Guests who stay overnight at the Greyfield Inn will also be driven over to Plum Orchard for a tour of the mansion. Note that the base room rate is all inclusive with three meals per day, and starts around $600 per night (typically requiring a 2-night minimum stay).
Explore By Foot
Most visitors to Cumberland Island do explore by walking around the barrier island. Day trippers largely remain toward the southern end of the island between Sea Camp and the Dungeness ruins. Those on foot do miss seeing the Plum Orchard mansion since it’s further north on the island, way too far for day trippers to walk.