A short ferry ride from the crowded mainland, Georgia’s Cumberland Island is a land unto itself: 17 1/2 miles of pristine woodland, marsh, and beaches, dotted with the occasional historic building or ruin. In a setting with more wildlife than people, Guy Trebay finds excellent ways to do plenty of nothing.

By Guy Trebay
January 26, 2011
Roe Ethridge Cumberland Island
| Credit: Roe Ethridge

A neurotic housewife named Peggy Gravel has murdered her husband. Or rather, her 300-pound maid, at Peggy’s urging, has pinned him to death beneath her colossal bosom. Panicked, the accomplices take off in the family car, their destination an encampment for the homeless built into a garbage dump. The road to Mortville, as the place is called, leads the wrongdoers in John Waters’s 1977 Desperate Living through a park in suburban Baltimore that the film treats as a forest primeval. As the two career down a bosky autumnal avenue, a horrified Peggy Gravel recoils. “Why did you tell me to come this way, Grizelda?You know I hate nature,” cries Peggy. “Look at all those disgusting trees, stealing my oxygen!”

This scene came to mind one day last November as I stepped aboard a small ferry headed from a sleepy north Florida town for one of the last places in the coastal United States that one might accurately term unspoiled. The largest and most southerly of Georgia’s Sea Island chain, Cumberland Island is a place known for its vast empty beaches, near total absence of development, and a version of the coastal pristine that, as a local novelist once remarked, can usually be experienced only by paying a greens fee.

I had vowed to myself before setting out that I would not succumb to Thoreau syndrome. No rhapsodies on the lesser tern would be committed to the page. There would likewise be no meditations on mortality, eternity, or the great architect of Fate. “You cannot have mountains and creeks without space,” wrote Annie Dillard, perhaps the loopiest of Thoreau’s descendants, “and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death.”

Faced with such passages, I thought, one has little choice but to side with Peggy Gravel. True, you cannot have dunes and marshes without space, and yet on five fine days at Cumberland Island I thought not once about that beauty or the blind man, never mind the portentous hound.

On Cumberland Island one can tear along on a bicycle across hard-packed shoreline stretching empty for miles; follow trails fringed with clattering low fans of saw palmetto, overhung with the fingering limbs of live oak draped with the tatters of Spanish moss that so closely resemble stage beards flung into trees; and spot winged creatures of a size and type rarely seen outside the airless gloom of a museum diorama. On Cumberland Island one can encounter the wild things unencumbered by their explanatory captions. There, they are real and palpable and too busy going about their business to nag one into ruminations on Our Vanishing World.

The reasons this place survives almost as it has always been near a coastline littered with hideous condos, ugly marinas, and preposterous nautical-themed malls are simple. Millionaires of the 19th century had an appetite for what Henry James called “conspicuous privacy.” Thomas Carnegie, the brother and business partner of the tiny Scottish-born industrialist Andrew, was one such, and it was he who purchased most of this island in 1881 and left it to his wife; she in turn bequeathed it in trust to their numerous children, who—through a chain of circumstances so ornate that the principals discuss events of a century ago as if they were breaking news—eventually transferred it into the hands of the National Park Service.

Roughly 90 percent of Cumberland Island is land protected for the public and also, one might add, protected from them, by virtue of limited access to it. Ferries to the island from Florida and Georgia carry a daily cargo of about 300 day-trippers and camping-permit holders, who can be seen from time to time trudging with their tump-strapped gear along the island’s sole road. There is a single hotel on the island, a former private house owned and managed by Carnegie descendants who carved out a piece for themselves before the place was deeded over to the government. When dusk falls and the last day visitor heads home, those fortunate enough to be lodged at Greyfield Inn experience the delightful sensation that the island is their own.

There are 10 bedrooms in the stolid, four-story colonial-style wood main house of Greyfield, and two cottages containing another six. As on oceangoing vessels, life at the inn revolves around the civilizing rituals of cocktails and meals. One eats very well on Cumberland Island, from set menus prepared by Ian Kitch, a young chef who shares the owners’ commitment to food that is grown organically and in the vicinity. One drinks well, too, from a diverse wine list, and whether because of that or a combination of salt air, physical exertion, and bracing isolation from the hubbub of civilization, one tends to sleep there as if clubbed.

Cumberland Island is longer by four miles than Manhattan. It is broader than the many more northerly islands draped like a loosely strung necklace along the coastal shelf. Unlike some of Georgia’s barrier islands, it is still a large and substantially secure place, even when the tide is high. This fact was well appreciated by successive waves of inhabitants, perhaps first among them the statuesque Timucua Indians, who long ago passed out of existence, leaving behind immense shell middens and skeletal evidence of a link between bone growth and a diet rich in protein and calcium. Spanish explorers of the 16th century marveled at the robust anatomies of these tattooed six-foot giants. Then the little bearded foreigners began the process of wiping them out.

Food sources were apparently always plentiful on Cumberland Island, and to this day there are oyster beds dense enough to resemble prickly pavement. Wild hogs probably descended from pigs introduced by the selfsame Spaniards roam the place, or anyway skulk furtively in the underbrush, trying to dodge a Park Service biologist committed to exterminating them as destructive non-native pests. Locals call this man “a pig-killing machine,” and so he must be. I never saw the slightest hint of a hog.

Sea Island cotton, rice, and corn were all grown commercially here at one time, and archaeological evidence points to abortive attempts to establish sassafras as a crop in early times. Pine, hickory, cedar, and live oak stand thick in the interior forests; beneath them grow red bay trees whose leaves have long added savor to a low-country boil.

There are otter in the creeks and mink in the swamps and armadillos wherever it is that armadillos burrow. There are great horned owls, white ibis, ospreys, peregrine falcons, and eagles both golden and bald. There are 335 species of birds all told, 15 to 20 of which are endangered or else so direly in need of sanctuary that the United Nations has designated the island a Biosphere Reserve.

The wood stork, to name just one of the more imperiled residents of the island, is a child-size creature that roosts in rotted oaks by a lagoon turned poisonous green by duckweed. Attracted by their raucous conversation one day, I came upon 17 of them arrayed in order of size, wings tucked in a way that suggested a sinister conclave of priests. Common mockingbirds are seemingly everywhere on the island, and some suggest it was here that John James Audubon drew the pretty gray specimens he identified in Birds of America by their unfortunate Latin name: Turdus polyglottus.

In the bar at Greyfield Inn hangs an original Havell lithograph of Audubon’s mockingbirds, struck on Whatman Turkey Mill paper. In it one of the birds defends the young in its nest from a rattlesnake’s fangs. I was informed that there are rattlesnakes on the island and also alligators, but winter was coming on when I visited and so the reptiles had already bedded down in their wallows and dens. There are dolphins, I also learned, that hunt the shallows of the extensive salt marshes, but I never saw one. And here our naturalism seminar ends.

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.

Here it is probably worth saying that I returned from the trip empty-handed. I take pleasure in noting that I came back at all.

The rain was pouring by the time my search led me away from the sandy shore to a bog where abruptly I found myself plunged to my knees in mud. The soft sucking sound the muck made as it pulled me downward brought to mind Discovery Channel specials on quicksand wallows (“Dino Death Traps!”) where layers of dinosaur bones have been found. This must be how fossils get started, I thought, as I rocked delicately from one foot to the other, remembering also the mastodon effigies at the La Brea Tar Pits in L.A., their trunks raised in protest as the earth swallowed them whole.

Using moves I may have picked up in a Boy Scout manual, I was able to free one foot and anchor it on a patch of spiky grass. The slime made a hungry sound as it covered the spot where my leg had been. I extracted the other foot, and laboriously huffed toward dry land, enjoying a little laugh at myself on the way. I hosed off at the inn, got fresh clothes and a cold beer, and took myself to a porch swing with a book. And there I remained, as oblivious of nature’s mighty mysteries as Peggy Gravel was on the road to Mortville, trusty Grizelda at her side.

Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.

Getting There

Cumberland Island is accessible only by boat. Ferries operated by Greyfield Inn leave three times a day from Fernandina Beach, Fla. (866/401-8581). National Park Service ferries leave from St. Mary’s, Ga., twice a day, except December through February, when it runs every day but Tuesday and Wednesday (912/882-4335). The trip takes 45 minutes, and it’s wise to book in advance.

When to Go

Cumberland Island is at its most pleasant in March, April, and October, when temperatures are in the 70’s—however, the barrier island is accessible all year. August is the hottest month.

Where to Stay

Greyfield Inn, Cumberland Island, Ga., doubles from $575.

What to Do

There are no addresses here, but the island is not difficult to navigate—by bike or on foot; visitors’ cars are not allowed. Staff will help Greyfield Inn guests in their activities; day-trippers can rent bikes ($16) on the Georgia ferry; personal bikes are prohibited. For more information, contact the National Park Service (912/882-4336; nps.gov/cuis).

Dungeness Ruins

The remains of Thomas Carnegie’s four-story 1884 mansion.

First African Baptist Church

Part of a group of African American structures at the Settlement.

Plum Orchard

Newly restored 1898 mansion, built by the Carnegie family.