Sea islands

When you want an alternative to the theme park in Orlando, Georgia has it all.


By Rupert Parker, June 12, 2014
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I'm standing by the jetty on Cumberland Island waiting for the ferry back to St Marys and can see dolphins and manatees frolicking off the coast.

It's less than three hours' drive from SeaWorld in Orlando, but here I'm seeing animals in their natural habitat.

Across the island, the 18-mile undeveloped beach is one of the most important loggerhead sea turtle nesting areas with almost 2000 recorded in the last three seasons. I don't see any of them but catch sight of wild horses, originally brought by 16th century Spanish missionaries who gave their name to the flowering plant draped over the trees - British settlers were reminded of their long beards and christened it Spanish Moss.

Cumberland is the largest and most southernmost of the Sea Islands and is only accessible by boat from St Marys.

Getting there

Package: Bon Voyage offer a nine-night fly/drive Georgia Discovery from £1525 per person. Includes flights to Atlanta, car hire, four-star hotels.

It's now a protected area but the ghosts of the Carnegie family haunt their ruined mansions.

Dungeness was designed as a 59-room Scottish castle, but after the stock market crash, it was abandoned and finally succumbed to fire in 1959.

These days it's a ruin surrounded by servants' quarters, utility buildings, laundries, cisterns and a variety of other structures. Still intact is the 1898 Georgian revival mansion, Plum Orchard, in the north. Think of Tara in Gone with the Wind and you get the picture.

Further up the coast are the four Golden Isles, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island, St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island, all connected to the mainland by road so there's no need to take a ferry.

They also attracted the rich and Jekyll was bought in 1886 by a group of wealthy families to create the exclusive Jekyll Island Club. By 1900, membership included the Rockefellers, Morgans, Cranes and Goulds and represented over one-sixth of the world's wealth. The war took its toll, as German submarines made it too risky to sail down the coast, and the Club closed its doors in 1942. Today, it's re-opened as a hotel and, as you sit in the grand dining room, you can still savour what life must have been like.

You can take a trolley tour of the historic district, marvelling at the opulent mansions their millionaire owners called "cottages." If you're more interested in wildlife, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, a hospital for these sick and injured creatures, is worth a visit. To the north of the island, Driftwood Beach, at low tide, is worth a look, as it reveals stark skeletons of trees, victims of land erosion, a trunk graveyard emerging from the sea.

Half an hour's drive away is St Simon's, the largest of the Golden Isles, its town streets lined with moss draped oaks. Peaceful now, but in the 18th century it was the venue for imperial war games between the new British colony of Georgia and the Spanish in Florida.

The area was known as the debatable land so Georgia's founder, James Oglethorpe, established Fort Frederica in 1736 to control the shipping lanes.

During the war of Jenkins Ear in 1742, he saw off the Spanish and confirmed Georgia for the British. Apart from an earthen rampart and outlines of where wooden buildings once stood, there's not much to see here now, but you can appreciate its strategic importance.James Oglethorpe was also responsible for the layout of Savannah, Georgia's oldest city and the first state capital. He created over 25 squares, 22 of which still remain, most lined with historic mansions, built by plantation owners before the civil war. It's a reminder of its majestic past and, as you wander round some of these mansions, you realise what life must have been like. The Owens-Thomas House, completed in 1819, is furnished in the English Regency style. The guided tour starts in the slave quarters, crammed full of original artefacts reminding you of a darker side to history.

There's Jewish interest here too, as 42 Sephardi immigrants arrived in Georgia from London in 1733, months after the colony's founding. Congregation Mickve Israel, is one of the oldest in the United States and the current synagogue, located on Monterey Square, was consecrated in 1878.

It's the only purely Gothic revival synagogue in the United States and contains a museum with the temple's original 15th century Torah and letters to the congregation from presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.

Most things in Savannah are within walking distance and some historic houses have been converted to boutique hotels. You can eat good honest southern cooking and the cobbled streets by the river, are crammed with taverns and bars. It merits a few days soaking up the atmosphere.

If you want something completely different from the theme parks in Orlando then this could be a useful add-on or an enjoyable stand-alone fly/drive holiday.

    Last updated: 11:45am, June 12 2014