Four isles where the living is better than easy.
Jennifer Tzar
| Credit: iStockphoto

Lingering on the beach one afternoon at Sea Island's Cloister resort with my husband, Terry, and our 20-month-old son, Aidan, I spotted something shiny and red half-buried in the tousled white sand. It was a book: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens, by Sean Covey (son of Stephen Covey, who wrote The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People). We'd already been to three of Georgia's four Golden Isles and fallen in love with the blend of formality and down-home ease on these small barrier islands, cut off from the mainland by a strip of marsh and water. Here's a perfect metaphor for the allure of the South, I said to Terry: Just where the Cloister's manicured lawns meet the unruly tides, a teen discards this ode to social order and ambition to—do what, run off with a rock band?Down a bottle of Southern Comfort?Then again, Terry countered as he speed-read the first chapter, maybe the book's owner had simply dropped it in his or her zeal to abide by Habit No. 7—"Sharpen the saw. Renew yourself regularly"—via one of the Cloister Sea Island Spa's teen facials. Whatever the case, we stuffed the manual in our bag, and it became the preferred beach reading. By the end of our two-week vacation, we had come to think of the islands themselves as teen types, each beguiling in its own way.

Sea Island

Ever since it opened in the twenties, the Spanish Mediter-ranean—style Cloister resort has maintained the high-water mark for a properly Southern brand of the good life. For Terry, Aidan, and me, the resort was an antidote to life in New York. Joining us from Massachusetts for this part of our vacation were my sister Louisa; her husband, Neale; and their three kids—Carolyn, eight; Isabelle, six; and 20-month-old John Kelley. We wanted to hang out as a family but still have access to the Cloister's facilities, so we rented one of the 150 individually owned "cottages" affiliated with the resort. Ours happened to be something out of a 1970's Better Homes and Gardens, with white wall-to-wall carpet, sliding glass doors, and mustard-gold valances.

Having spent most of their childhood in Tennessee, where the Cloister is the vacation spot of choice, Isabelle and Carolyn were regulars at the resort; within hours we lost them to its children's program. We did convince the girls to join us for archery lessons and an early-morning horseback ride, but if we suggested they come with us to the beach or to visit another island, they'd look at us steadily and say, "That's when we're making friendship bracelets under the palm tree," or "That's when we have a hamburger supper—with a magic show." Who could compete?

And who could complain?With the older kids occupied, Louisa and I had time to swim and chat. Neale got to golf; Terry, to sail a Sunfish. The kids' evening activities—movies, parties in the game room—were timed to coincide with adult events and dinners, a fact that brought to mind the book's Habit No. 4: "Think win-win. Have an everyone-can-win attitude." Not to mention Habit No. 6: "Synergize. Work together to achieve more."

Our favorite night, though, was when the whole family, along with 100 or so other guests, went to the weekly plan-tation supper on an island in the marsh, arriving just as the red sunset was reflected in the watery grass around us. We drank cocktails and lemonade, ate boiled shrimp out of a rowboat full of ice, and picked boiled peanuts from a barrel of steaming, salted water. We all helped ourselves to corn on the cob, clam chowder, and fried chicken, then sat at picnic tables covered with red-and-white checked tablecloths. Everyone outside our group was Southern, it seemed; for them this was business as usual. A clapping, hollering gospel band started up. Soon everyone was dancing, and we were sold on the ways of the Deep South.

Most nights we contented ourselves with grinding peas into the carpet at our place, or taking refuge in one of the restaurants on St. Simons Island. For Carolyn's eighth birthday, however, we celebrated at the Cloister's main dining room, where black tie is recommended. Once seated, we watched mothers appear looking like brides and trailing tiny, similarly dressed, white-gloved daughters whose brothers pulled out their chairs for them—graduates, perhaps, of the resort's children's etiquette classes. Our steak and lobster were very good—though not as impressive as the gilded surroundings—and Carolyn's cake was wonderful. So was the piano player's jazzy "Happy Birthday," which he lit into at a nod from the matronly head waitress.

After dinner we went on a sea-turtle walk organized by the Cloister (nighttime expeditions to watch sea turtles lay eggs are held throughout the Golden Isles in May and August). On the way to our meeting spot, we passed a clutch of teens gathered for a floodlit pool party. As our group settled in front of a short video on turtles and their habitats, I thought of the crowd at the pool and wondered if the owner of our book was there. Several of the Seven Habits might come in handy—perhaps No. 1: "Be proactive," or even No. 2: "Begin with the end in mind."

I snapped out of my reverie when the guide made the unsexy announcement that it was time to "go out and hope for a turtle." The group of 25 set off down the dark beach. Our leader carried the only flashlight, covered with red film. During the hour we walked before finding a turtle, the kids kicked up sparkling phosphorescence in the tide, lay on the sand to look at a sky messy with stars, then raced to catch up with the bobbing red light. Aidan could hardly wait to "see a turtle walk." But when we finally spotted one, the craggy 300-pound creature had just finished dragging itself to the dunes. The older kids hushed, but Aidan shouted, "Walk! Walk!"—until even he was silenced by the amazing sight of the turtle in its primal ritual: sensing the right spot, digging a hole, then pushing eggs one by one into it.

St. Simons Island

The four Golden Isles are about 20 minutes away from one another by car or boat, and most guests stay on one island and make excursions to the others (using the port town of Brunswick as the mainland anchor). Inevitably visitors end up on 43-square-mile St. Simons, the largest and most developed island, attached to Sea Island by a narrow strip of land. A laid-back party vibe infuses its sunny streets, whose early-20th-century storefronts are occupied by seafood restaurants, bars, antiques shops, and art galleries. Carolyn, Isabelle, and the boys made a beeline for a toy store and sized up the Brio sand shovels, then checked out a bookstore before discovering a bait shop that happened to sell three-foot-long freezer pops. We gazed up at a brick 1872 lighthouse and ended the afternoon at a preserved slave cabin, incongruous on its patch of perfectly mowed bright green grass.

Jekyll Island

The bridge from Brunswick to Jekyll Island arches over the wide, marshy Jekyll Creek. Terry, Aidan, and I were aiming for the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, the only hotel on Jekyll's inland side; we missed a turnoff and ended up circling the seven-square-mile island instead. Most of it is covered with scruffy pine, cedar, and oak trees, with long stretches skirted by dunes and white-sand beaches. But a blocklike convention center, a water park, and a few cookie-cutter hotels punctuate the Atlantic coast. Finally finding our grand hotel—after passing the island's only private housing, mostly 1950's split-levels lined up like Monopoly houses along the road—was like landing in another, more permanent era.

Jekyll Island is where New York, Chicago, and San Francisco's most influential businessmen and their families went to escape the stuffiness of Newport, Rhode Island, between the turn of the century and World War II. The club's original 53 members, which included Rockefellers, Morgans, Pulitzers, and Astors, reputedly accounted for one-sixth of the world's wealth. They came by yacht or private train, a dozen or more trunks and a personal staff in tow, to spend the winter season. They golfed, hunted, bicycled, and picnicked in a gazebo by the ocean (though their clubhouse was sited on the creek for its sheltered harbor). The nation's first transcontinental telephone call took place here, thanks to AT&T president Theodore Vail's long stay.

But during World War II, the Jekyll Island Club began to seem like a frivolous luxury to its aging members. Several donated their yachts to the war effort, and those who had built cottages on the property handed them over to the club and never returned. The state of Georgia bought the land and buildings for just $675,000 in 1947, and transformed it into a hotel in 1954.

We arrived to see two bellhops poised at the entrance to the Queen Anne—style main building. A horse and carriage waited for anyone who might desire a tour of the island, a tradition dating back to the club's first season, in 1888. Tea was about to be served on a veranda, and a game of croquet was set up on the lawn. But we immediately learned that this was more a reenactment of grandeur than grandeur itself. The bellhops, busy complaining about their scant vacation time, hardly glanced at us. And just when we thought they were going to take notice of our bags, they turned their backs and started tossing pebbles at the stairs.

Our rooms, however, did not disappoint us. We settled into what was once J. P. Morgan's apartment: two large rooms joined by a shared entry and covered porch, the perfect family suite. The dark wood floors, dusky green walls trimmed in paler green, and mahogany fireplace mantels had an intrinsic grace that most successful hotels can only imitate.

We spent our afternoons on bikes careening around 20 miles of trails, through forest and past creeks, tantalizingly near deer and mink and a few alligators. One day, we took a two-hour tour of the historic cottages, which we all loved. But the guide's frequent references to "the millionaires" made us feel like impoverished gawkers, especially as we trod on the Rockefellers' signature red carpet, past armchairs and dolls and china that the family had abandoned.

Little St. Simons Island

We eased out of resort life by spending a weekend on family-owned Little St. Simons. The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island, which never books more than 30 guests at a time, operates small motorboats to ferry people to the 10,000-acre, virtually undeveloped island.

Our room was in a cedar house set in the woods, off a vast common space with a fieldstone fireplace. When we dropped off our bags, an armadillo was standing by the door wagging its long nose through the brush. The creek that meandered by our porch amplified the sounds of frogs, cicadas, and birds.

In the resort's 1917 Hunting Lodge, the evening cocktail party was beginning. We met the other guests: a few families, and a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with their children. A 14-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother filled us in on the children's program. They had used a wide net to haul in mullets for an ecology lesson; they'd clammed, crabbed, and made fish-print T-shirts. And they'd ridden the horses, which, surprisingly enough, are allowed to roam free all night and yet always return to the barn for breakfast. We moved to three long tables for a dinner of veal roast, red potatoes, and asparagus—the best meal we'd had on our trip.

The next day we filled our bag with oatmeal cookies and fruit that had been laid out on the dining room sideboard and ventured to the pristine 11-mile beach in the back of a pickup truck with wooden boards for seats. As the view of the blue Atlantic opened up ahead, our driver stopped to hold out a black-and-green cottonmouth snake for Aidan to touch. Only afterward did he mention that the snake was poisonous; but, like everyone else working on the island, he seemed a trustworthy guide—an obvious believer in Habit No. 5: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Okefenokee Swamp

It's a bit of a shock to leave the Cloister and Jekyll for the raw, natural world (and mosquitoes) of Little St. Simons Island. But it's a much harder fall from the rustic comfort of the Lodge to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a 396,000-acre swamp that starts southwest of Brunswick and stretches 25 miles inland. Still, this is where we ended our trip: in a watery forest and fertile-smelling shallow lake with enough methane gas in it to cause the peat on the bottom to bubble to the surface.

A week before we left New York, a park ranger had called to advise that, due to a serious drought, there would be no boat rentals, and the alligators were getting ornery. Since then Terry had grown increasingly preoccupied with the lack of wisdom in taking a 20-month-old child anywhere near alligators that were getting ornery. He and I vaguely recalled stories about alligators running 30 miles an hour if provoked. The secret, I seemed to remember, is to zigzag: alligators can't zigzag, I reminded Terry. But neither can Aidan.

Still, we stuck to the itinerary, spending the last night of our trip in one of nine two-bedroom houses run by the Stephen C. Foster State Park, about two hours from Brunswick. We knew that the park closed between sundown and sunrise, and expected to be trapped in a cabin sinking into muck filled with gators, their eyes red (alligators' eyes, when the light catches them at night, glow like cigarettes). But the house had a living room with a television, and a full kitchen with frilly curtains—a suburban bungalow on the edge of a reptilian world. A quiet landscape extended as far as the eye could see: tea-colored water; pine, cypress, tupelo, and bay trees; sandhill cranes circling overhead. We'd read that farther in, there were ponds and rivers and fields full of wildflowers. But with the park's fleet of silver motorboats out of commission, getting there was impossible.

Instead we tried the Okefenokee Swamp Park, back near Brunswick, which is something like an outdoor zoo with theme music and a reptile show. Aidan, of course, adored it. We took the park's guided ride in a small motorboat—the only boating allowed during the drought—through glassy black water spiked with reeds and thin cypress trees. Alligators, water snakes, and snapping turtles hovered at the surface. I asked our skipper, a dignified old man in overalls and a plaid shirt, if you could cross the entire swamp by, say, canoe. Sure, he said, but it would take two weeks, maybe even a month. And then he chuckled. It occurred to me that The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens would be no help here: this was a place where "sharpen the saw" would have to be taken literally. That afternoon, as we sped along the highway to the Jacksonville airport, the image of Georgia I took away with me was a place of startling contrasts: the beautifully untamed, barely knowable swamp tempered by the inviting, open beach and ease of life on the Golden Isles.

Island Highlights

These barrier isles are within easy reach of one another. You can hit all of them in a busy day or spend a vacation browsing.

The Cloister 800/732-4752 or 912/638-3611, fax 912/638-5823; doubles from $416; two-room suites $1,046, including all meals. The newest rooms and suites are the nicest; there are condos at one remove from the beach. A great alternative to the main dining room is the Beach Club buffet.

Sea Island Cottage Rentals 800/732-4752 or 912/638-5112, fax 912/638-5824; cottages $5,000 to $15,000 for two weeks. A rental house affords more privacy, but check that it's the better value—the least expensive Cloister room may be less costly, since it comes with maid service and meals.

Jekyll Island Club Hotel 371 Riverview Dr.; 800/535-9547 or 912/635-2600, fax 912/635-2818; family of four $189. Club Kids (for 5- to 12-year-olds; summer only) offers crafts, tennis, and visits to the water park. Try the dining room's plantation-style shrimp.

Latitude 31o 1 Pier Rd.; 912/635-3800; dinner for four $60. Probably the area's best family restaurant, on a pier overlooking the creek—watch for gators. Go for any of the seafood dishes.

Zachary's 44 Beach View Dr.; 912/635-3128; lunch or dinner for four $40. A standout seafood joint, owned by a former shrimper, in the strip mall across from the beach.

Jekyll Island Tours Jekyll Island Museum Visitor's Center, 375 Riverview Dr.; 912/635-4036, fax 912/635-4004. Tours daily at 10 a.m.

King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort 201 Arnold Rd.; 800/342-0212 or 912/638-3631, fax 912/638-7699; family of four $199. A charming 1935 hotel, less carefully renovated than the other resorts, yet fun and right on the beach.

Golden Isles Realty 330 Mallery St.; 800/337-3106 or 912/638-8623, fax 912/638-6925; two-bedroom cottages from $575 per week.

Bennie's Red Barn 5514 Frederica Rd.; 912/638-2844. Fifties dining hall, still going strong. Order steak and baked potatoes.

Village Creek Landing 526 S. Harrington Rd.; 912/634-9054. A true clam-and-shrimp shack, with the best hush puppies in town.

Lodge on Little St. Simons Island 912/638-7472, fax 912/634-1811; two-bedroom cottages from $950 per night. Open to children during late spring and summer only.

Stephen C. Foster State Park Fargo; 800/864-7275 or 912/637-5274, fax 912/637-5587; family of four $71 per night. The cottages are a terrific value for those who want to explore by boat.

Inn at Folkston 509 W. Main St., Folkston; 888/509-6246 or 912/496-6256; family of four $145. A Craftsman-style inn near the swamp's eastern end. Young children are welcome, but may not be the best match for the antiques.