This East Coast Island Has Undeveloped Beaches, Nature Trails — and Mansions Left By Rockefellers and Vanderbilts
Something shifts when you drive across the causeway and through the imposing pillars that mark your arrival on Jekyll Island. The roads empty out, the wide skies of the marshland give way to gnarled red cedars and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the air becomes dense and quiet. The world seems to be holding its breath. Hang a left and you’ll eventually come to the end of the road, to a grand, pale yellow building with a gingerbread-house portico and a flagpole-topped tower rising like a beacon: the Jekyll Island Club Resort.
In the grand old days of Jekyll Island — from the club’s founding in 1888 to its final season in 1942 — men who have since given their names to colleges and banks and cultural institutions would pack up their families each winter for the long journey south. Carnegies, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Pulitzers would land in the Golden Isles come January and spend the next three months living the simple life, far from the flash of Newport or New York.
The simple life, when you were a Gilded Age gazillionaire, looked like this: A private club whose members collectively held one-sixth of the world’s wealth. William Morris wallpaper in your dining room and Tiffany stained glass in the church. Italian Renaissance and Shingle Style mansions that you called "cottages" without a trace of irony. Black-tie attire every night at the Jekyll Island Club, with not a single reworn ball gown all winter long.
The island fell out of fashion in the 1940s — U-boats loitering off the coast put something of a damper on the festivities — and the Jekyll Island Club and the assorted mansion-cottages built by its members sank into opulent disrepair. Five of the 16 cottages succumbed to fire or neglect — all that remains of one are a pair of marble lions guarding the entry, nearly swallowed by greenery. Resort concierge Sherri Zacher, who fell in love with the island during visits as a kid in the 1970s, recalls sneaking into the dilapidated dining room and finding the original club ledger still in place, covered in dust and mold. “The clubhouse was a thing of beauty, but she was going to be high-maintenance,” Zacher said. “She needed someone to come and love up on her.”
The historic buildings held on long enough to be bought up and restored, and in 1985, the Jekyll Island Club Resort opened its doors. In 2017, new management added a beachfront sister property, the 40-suite Jekyll Ocean Club, and began a revamp of the main building. This year, the resort will unveil updates to the cottage suites and marquee spaces in the clubhouse, including the dining room.
When folks tell you what to do and see on Jekyll, they’ll rattle off a handful of well-loved attractions. The freshly overhauled Mosaic Museum, a small but thoughtful collection that explores Jekyll’s history and ecology, runs tours through the historic district surrounding the resort. A rogue guide let my friend Eléonore and me peek at the off-limits upstairs of one cottage, cluttered with turn-of-the-century relics — a spinning wheel here, a cane wheelchair there. We visited the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, a rehabilitation clinic and museum, and wandered through the old servant’s quarters, now home to tiny shops selling fudge and wind chimes. But the real attraction of the island, my favorite part of the whole weekend, was this: I ran out of things to do.
Not really, of course. I could have gone golfing or played tennis, if I knew how to golf or play tennis. There’s a water park, and kayak tours through the marsh. But after years of inadvertently turning my travels into a to-do list — hopping from must-visit restaurant to trendy boutique to noteworthy site, hungrily packing each day for fear of missing out — it was disarming to be in a place whose charms are rooted in just being there, waking up to what surrounds you. The island is only about nine square miles, all of which is state parkland, and strict regulations save it from overdevelopment. Beyond the resort, cell service is spotty-to-nonexistent. There are few organized activities. The calm sharpened my attention ever so slightly, and the world came alive.
On a nature walk with park ranger Ray Emerson, I learned to distinguish cabbage palmettos from saw palmettos, and attuned my ear to the scrabbling shout of an angry kingfisher. Eléonore and I borrowed bikes and pedaled all over the island, past dunes and marshes, on some of the 20 miles of trails laid over the former carriage paths. Riding along the intracoastal waterway in silence, flocks of tiny sand crabs scurrying before me, my senses felt heightened, and I thought of Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing, and her case for attuning oneself to the natural world as a way to carve out meaning amid the frenzy of modernity. “It may only be among the most elaborate web of the nonhuman that we can fully experience our own humanity,” she writes. When we were still, I could hear the tide receding over the mudflats, fizzing like Pop Rocks. Life was everywhere: rabbits on the grass, bald eagles overhead, alligators and turtles floating listlessly in Horton Pond. In the forest, we rounded a bend and found a pair of white-tailed deer blocking our path, so close I could see the sheen of their wet noses.
One evening, just before sunset, we drove up the island to Driftwood Beach, where the bleached skeletons of enormous oak trees litter the shore. A group of kids chased each other, leaping over fallen trunks and swinging from branches, and a young Mennonite couple walked at the water’s edge, his pants rolled up to his ankles, the hem of her long skirt ringed with saltwater. I thought of the railroad tycoons and steel barons who’d once made this a playground for the powerful. Perhaps, between all the formal balls and political machinations, they, too, made time to walk along the sand under an orange-painted sky, hearing only laughter and the sea.
A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Gold Standard."