Is tranquility the tonic you seek?
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 a high society life that most of us can only imagine.
Cumberland Island is located in southeast Georgia off the northern tip of Amelia Island. It’s one of the largest barrier islands in a chain of Atlantic coast islands stretching from the Carolinas to northeast Florida.
If you appreciate a natural setting with very few people around, treat yourself to a day on Cumberland Island. Measuring about 17.5 miles long (by half a mile to 3 miles at its widest), public access is limited to only 300 people per day. According to the NPS, there were 51,937 annual visitors to Cumberland during 2017, an island bigger than its neighbor, Amelia. For perspective, Amelia Island had 666,000 overnight visitors during the same time period (not counting day trippers).
Cumberland will have considerable appeal if you’re interested in both a beautiful, natural setting and historic sites. Visitors can expect solitary walks on miles of tranquil, deserted beachfront and so much more in the way of quiet serenity outdoors. While a perfect place for nature lovers and photographers, history buffs will enjoy it, too. Cumberland 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 and maritime forest. Critter encounters are likely — armadillos, deer, wild turkeys, gopher tortoises, shorebirds and the notorious 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.
Picture in your mind for a moment, no stores, no street lights (no paved roads for that matter), and no public transportation. As mentioned above, only 300 people a day are dispersed across this island that’s larger than New York’s Manhattan Island. NOTE: Five to six hour-long van tours taking visitors to Cumberland Island’s more remote north end are now available, the “Lands and Legacies” tour.
Cumberland is nearly uninhabited, with the exception of around 40 islanders (landowners with a long family history and some private residences on the island for many generations). It’s a wonderful place for bird watchers and other nature observation. The island’s residents include marsh rabbits, alligators, snakes, bobcats, raccoons, feral hogs and transient sea turtles that nest on the beach.
Feast For Eyes & Soul
You may not want to rush back to 21st century society after glimpsing a simpler setting and a natural paradise. It’s easy to dream about what it would be like to live on this island, so tranquil and unspoiled. Not an exaggeration, this Southern sea island is truly a feast for the eyes and soul.
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.
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).
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.
The 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 near the Dungeness dock which displays old photos and the historical facts of the island and its previous inhabitants.
The Carnegie home, Dungeness, was torched in 1959, a victim of 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.
John F. Kennedy, Jr.
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 media 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, beach combing on miles of deserted beaches, and hiking along paths and sandy roads that cut through the maritime forest of Cumberland Island are just a few things that await visitors. And a peaceful solitude, surrounded by Southern coastal nature. Even the maritime forest, with a variety of oaks, looks windswept and timeless. The natural palmetto is thick, as is the Spanish moss-laden canopy of tremendous old oaks.
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 the 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 natural state.
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, having 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 much of Cumberland Island 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 in more recent years have been turned over to the National Park Service.
The only way to get to Cumberland Island is by boat. The National Park Service ferry departure is located in St. Marys, Georgia (figure 45 minutes to an hour’s drive north from Amelia Island). Note that the NPS requests reservation holders check in an hour before ferry departure. Bicycles can be transported on ferry for $10 fee (but space is very limited), or rent a bike for $16 from ferry company (first come, first serve). The ferry ticket cost round trip per adult with tax is $30, plus $10 park entry fee. DIRECTIONS TO FERRY DOCK: For driving to St. Marys, put the Cumberland Island’s visitor center address in GPS, 113 St. Marys Street West, St. Marys, GA 31558. For Cumberland Island ferry schedule and to book ferry reservations online, see ferry concessionaire’s website.
Advice for parents: Other than the 5-to-6-hour long “Lands and Legacies” van tours, there’s no Cumberland Island transportation once you step foot on the island, so plan on lots of walking around. Those with young children need to realize that an excursion to Cumberland may not be ideal for your little ones. Plenty of parents 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.
Be sure to wear 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. 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 not 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.
Both “backcountry” camping and a more developed campground are offered on Cumberland Island. The backcountry campsites do not offer any facilities. Sea Camp Beach campground has restrooms, cold showers, and drinking water. Camp fires are permitted at Sea Camp Beach. See National Park’s page about camping permits and reservations.
There’s only one lodging establishment on Cumberland today — the lovely Greyfield Inn. If you desire a truly unique experience, consider a stay here. 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.
See related article: “Cumberland Island Tourist Tips” with answers to some frequently asked questions plus a video featuring the most popular trail on the island’s southend.