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Natural Splendor on Cumberland Island

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Photo: Roe Ethridge

To say one has little to do on Cumberland Island is perhaps misleading. Vacant as the island appears, even when interesting fauna are active, it is studded with old houses and ruins, in particular a stone pile put up by Thomas Carnegie at the end of the 19th century. Bicycling among these old structures seemed a fine way to pass a cool autumn day.

Dungeness, the main structure, now ruined, is typical of the gargantuan playpens of the period’s nouveaux riches, if conspicuously homelier than those put up on nearby Jekyll Island by Carnegie’s peers. A popular canard holds that Thomas Carnegie settled on Cumberland after being snubbed as new money by Jekyll Island gratin like the Goulds, the Goelets, and the Fricks. Whatever the reason, he and his wife, Lucy, proceeded to buy up most of the place and to erect there a series of grand houses for their nine children. Carnegie’s tenure at Dungeness was brief, and so was his earthly existence. He lived there just two years before he died of pneumonia at 43. The house, not destined to last much longer, burned in a fire said to have been set by a poacher from across St. Mary’s Bay. Caught mid-theft by a caretaker, he was peppered with buckshot; understandably miffed, he returned by boat that night to set fire to the house.

Whether this story is verifiable hardly matters. It is more fun to believe it than not. Islands, anyway, lend themselves to apocrypha and legend. The billion-dollar franchise built around Johnny Depp as a Blackbeard in mascara is hardly the first example of popular entertainment capitalizing on islands as backdrops for male juvenile fantasy. I fell into this myself at Cumberland Island, bashing around on the beaches and in the woods and salt marshes, cultivating an illusion of isolation like an eight-year-old.

This was a willed exercise, naturally; from any number of points on the island the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Mary’s, Georgia, can clearly be seen. And, as it happens, the suggestive prehistoric shark’s teeth scattered around the island were most likely imported, dumped in mud dredged to make channels for the ships.

“Just look down on the paths and you’ll find them,” said an earnest young woman who worked at the inn. Hanging from a silk cord around her neck was a palm-size tooth from an ocean predator dating to the mid-Miocene period, about 16 million years ago. This megalodon, as I later learned, was the size of a Greyhound bus and had rows of serrate teeth as big as a wedge of pie. According to one of many mysterious Internet sites where ancient shark’s teeth are traded, a mature megalodon was “capable of swallowing a rhinoceros whole.” Apparently rhinoceros roamed the deep in those days.

“The small ones’ teeth turn up everywhere,” she added. “The big ones come from a secret place.”

That it required no particular sleuthing to discover the secret was one of the delights of my visit, akin to the feeling one has at Greyfield of having been inducted into a private club. Partly this results from the owners’ decision to maintain the hotel as much as possible the way it was when still a family house, preserving its Cheeveresque charm while subtly introducing the amenities requisite to a fine hotel.

Thus the portraits on the walls are of family members, the deep mohair velvet sofas reconditioned originals. The bleached horse and tortoise skulls placed in the deep window reveals were found locally and not in a shop selling props for Ralph Lauren. The staff, as overseen by Carnegie descendant Mitty Ferguson and his wife, Mary, are genuinely courteous, which is to say that a “Thank you” is answered with “You’re welcome” and not “No problem,’’ the now universal expression that always strikes me as signaling thinly veiled contempt. The general sense at Greyfield Inn is that a visitor counts as more than a placeholder in a costly bed, and when someone told me, “Ask Fred’’ about the shark’s teeth, it was with the conviction that Fred Whitehead, the inn’s resident naturalist, would be glad to oblige.

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