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Skip the gap — we've got the island

Explore the unspoilt splendor of Cumberland Island


August 09, 2016

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    Though I haven’t really been alive that long at 21 years of age, I’ve found that there are places in this world that, for some reason, you just can’t help coming back to. They’ve entranced you, somehow, and you never get tired of them. For me, a lot of those places lie out west, in the mountains of Colorado or the deserts of New Mexico — but not all. There are a few places in my native state of Georgia that keep pulling me back in. One of those places is Cumberland Island National Seashore.
    I first visited in fifth grade, back when schools still did field trips, and I loved it. This wasn’t just an afternoon thing but a whole weekend which, to a fifth-grader, means “the greatest adventure of my life yet.” Mostly, I was excited to see the horses. Though I was what my family might call a raging tomboy, I did not escape the little girl’s fascination with all things equine. Cumberland is one of several Atlantic barrier islands with a feral horse herd, and I was going to see them. I don’t think I slept for a week.
    Cumberland is accessed from the mainland through the town of St. Marys, Georgia. It’s a tiny town right on the Georgia-Florida border, owing most of its existence to tourism and the adjacent Kings Bay Naval Base. The ferries to Cumberland depart from the Visitor’s Center at 9 and 11:45 every morning, March through November, and return from the island at 10:15, 2:45 and 4:45. The 10:15 departure is for those who opted to spend the night at one of the park’s five designated campgrounds. The ferry crossing takes 45 minutes and it’s gorgeous, traveling down the St. Marys River and gliding past the shore birds inhabiting the marshy southern tip of the island. Dolphins also make frequent appearances, leaping and racing the boat.
    A trip to Cumberland is like going to the beach without all of the people. Granted, there are a lot of people on these ferries, but the beauty of Cumberland is that it is so surprisingly large. You can turn around and find that there isn’t another soul in sight. The island has a staggering 50 miles of walking trails winding through arching, shady maritime forests full of Spanish moss. Armadillos and other wildlife scurry among the sawtooth palmetto that makes up the underbrush, and the occasional deer may dash through.
    The winding paths will also take you to the salt marshes, which are literally teeming with plant and animal life. Small crabs eat and battle in the mud and stately white egrets stalk the waterline or try to blend into the tall grasses. You might find yourself walking under the largest and most magnificent live oaks you’ve ever seen, emerging between sand dunes to an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic — sky, sea and sand, without a beach umbrella in sight.*
    Despite having been consistently inhabited for much of its history, Cumberland still has this feeling of wildness. It’s what I love most about it, and what keeps me coming back every few years. The second incentive for me is the island’s rich history. The island was originally inhabited by the Macama tribe. When the Spanish arrived in the New World, they built a fort and mission on the island. Frequent attacks by pirates caused the island to be abandoned until James Oglethorpe arrived, naming it after the English prince William, Duke of Cumberland. Oglethorpe had several forts built, along with a hunting lodge he called Dungeness, which would be the first of three structures on the island of that name. After the Revolutionary War, the island fell to war hero Nathaniel Greene but was only occupied after his death by his wife and her second husband, Phineas Miller. The Millers established a plantation on Cumberland and built a mansion, which would be the second Dungeness. The 1880s brought new owners to Cumberland: the Carnegie family. Thomas Carnegie, the brother and business partner of the famous steel tycoon, built a third Dungeness modeled after a Scottish castle. The Carnegies left the island as a result of the Great Depression and the family turned it over to the National Park Service in 1971. It was declared a National Seashore in the following year.

    Tips for those who want to see it all: The Carnegie’s mansion burned down in the 50s, but the shell remains and is called “the Ruins.” The feral horse herd that roams the island likes to spend time there thanks to the spring in the field nearby. The park service gives them minimal care, but they are wild animals, not pets. That being said, they are used to visitors and will allow you to get reasonably close before snorting and galloping away.
    Also nearby is a small walled cemetery containing the marker of Revolutionary War general “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, though his body was reinterred in Virginia in the early 1900s next to his son, Robert E. Lee. Access to the marsh boardwalks is just down the hill, and they will eventually lead you to the 18 mile-long beach.
    Only two and a half hours from Statesboro, Cumberland has something to offer everyone. It saw me through my horse phase, my middle school history phase and provided some much-needed relaxation on subsequent high school and college age trips. Whatever my interests at all the various times in my life, Cumberland has never disappointed me. So whatever draws you — whether it’s the history, the wildlife, or the pristine beauty of a place that has seen hundreds of years of history yet still seems untouched  — I bet you’ll find what you’re looking for.

    (*Disclaimer: If you visit and someone decided to schlep a beach umbrella halfway across an island, I apologize. This is not common.)   

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