The Sea Islands are a group of barrier islands that dot the South Carolina, Georgia and North Florida Coasts. These barrier islands have their own unique charm and history. If you want to go on a longer trip, these islands can be paired with other big cities on the mainland, which can take up at least 5 days of your vacation or more. For the sake of our post, we’re starting our journey from the south in Amelia Island, and culminating in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
A Guide to Amelia and Cumberland Island
For the purposes of this post, we’re going to concentrate on only two islands: Amelia Island and Cumberland Island since we don’t have enough time to cover all the islands on one post. Here’s part one of a multi part blog series about the Sea Islands.
On the border of Florida and Georgia, Amelia Island is a gem in North Florida. Its main draw would be the beach, but of course, you can find that on all the sea islands. The main town is called Fernandina Beach, and it’s known as the only municipality in the United States that has flown eight different flags: French, Spanish, British, Patriot Republic of Florida, Green Cross of Florida, Mexican Rebel, Confederate, and the United States. While there are obscure flags that had been flown here depending on their respective occupiers, Fernandina Beach has a small historic downtown area. It overlooks the Amelia River, and has historic buildings to see, like the Nassau County Courthouse and the United States Post Office/Custom House.
However, the biggest draw to Amelia Island would have to be Fort Clinch State Park. The park is big, at 1,100 acres, and has hiking trails to enjoy. It is home to Fort Clinch, originally built in 1736, and is included in the National Register of Historic Places. It has seen many wars involving Spain, but the most notable war it has served was from the Civil War (1860s) when Confederate soldiers used it as a safe haven. But there’s a catch: the fort was made from bricks, which made it cannon fodder, quite literally. The fort was not as impenetrable as they thought, so Gen. Robert E. Lee abandoned the fort, leaving it intact for us tourists to enjoy, centuries later. There are daily demonstrations of rifle firing and even cannons, and there are park volunteers and employees who dress up in civil war-era uniforms.
You can choose to walk around the beach and try to do rock balancing, or look out for dolphins, which can be seen from the fort. Alternatively, you can take a boat tour to see the fort from the water, and even foray up north to the outskirts of Cumberland Island, where, if you’re lucky, you can see wild horses in the marshes or on the beach.
Being from Jacksonville, we do like to take occasional weekend trips up to Amelia Island when we feel like visiting the Talbots parks. It is an easy drive, with great views of the water on A1A from our house, so we do need to make a bit of an effort and additional planning to get there.
Cumberland Island is a bit of an enigma: while most islands we feature here can be accessed by land via a bridge, Cumberland can only be accessed through the water. You can kayak to Cumberland from Fernandina or the mainland, called St Mary’s, Georgia, but the most popular way to get here is through the National Park Service’s ferry. Yes, this island is protected by the National Park Services! Its past was a bit more different than the protected park that it is today. It used to be a plantation in the 1700s, and in the 1880s, the Carnegie family, the steel magnates, bought the island as their winter retreat.
There are daily ferries (the earliest one leaves at 9AM), and the latest one departs the island at 4:45PM. It takes approximately 45 minutes from St Mary’s, Georgia to the South Dock of Cumberland. Since the options to get to the island are fairly limited, it is best if you reserve your ferry tickets in advance, especially if you are doing the longer Lands and Legacies Tour. If you opt to camp, note that you’ll need to reserve in advance and there are no concessions on the island so you’ll have to bring food and gear.
If you are only on the island for a day trip, you can rent bicycles to explore on your own, but note that you do have to be on the first ferry as bicycles are limited and not in the best condition. What we would definitely recommend is to go on the Lands and Legacies tour. You can only go on the tour if you booked in advance and it is imperative that you arrive on the 9:45AM ferry. It is a 6 hour tour in a small van and is led by a park ranger. Again, if you are going to Cumberland, be it a day trip or overnight, you’ll have to pack your own food, even if you are on the tour.
You’ll get to see Plum Orchard Mansion, designed in 1898 for George Carnegie. It was emptied out and abandoned when George died and his wife left for another country, so there may not be original furnishings available in the mansion for you to view today. The house has been carefully restored, and the only way to go inside is to be part of a guided tour with a park ranger.
Another stop on the tour is the First African Baptist Church. It is a small church built in the 1890s for African American workers who lived on the island. It was a tiny church where less than 20 people can fit comfortably. It’s more notable as the site of JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bassett’s hush-hush wedding. Of course they had their reception at a very exclusive hotel called the Grayfield Inn, which to casual people like you and me is a bit out of our budget range. Grayfield Inn is a very exclusive hotel on Cumberland Island. To get there, you’ll have to get on a private boat charter from Fernandina Beach.
Dungeness was a mansion bigger than Plum Orchard, and it has a great view of the water. It was built in 1803 as a tabby mansion, until the Carnegies built a 59-room mansion on top of it in the 1880s. From the 1880s until 1925, the mansion had its fair share of Carnegie descendants live on it for a few months at a time until it was abandoned for 34 years. In 1959, most of the beautiful mansion burned to the ground, which left us only to view the shell of the foundations. Our guide at the time said that while the family was rich, over generations the children had become a bit spoiled, reckless, and lived beyond their means. To combat all that increased debt, it is alleged that the mansion was deliberately burnt to the ground. Note that Dungeness is originally not part of the Land to Legacies Tour, but our guide and driver was kind enough to include it for around 30 minutes when we went.
If you are in Cumberland Island, do look out for the wildlife, most notably the wild horses. They were left behind by the Carnegies and have found a way to survive on the island – and there were a lot of them just going about their business. These horses are curious so they may get close to you, but don’t touch them or come up suddenly to them. They do have a tendency to get spooked and may kick you! While we were on the island, we saw a few of the wild horses in the preserve on our way to Plum Orchard, as well as armadillos! They do have wild turkeys and boars on the island as well, among others!
Cumberland Island has been one of our most favorite places to visit! It’s a unique place that’s bucket-list worthy and can be paired with other stops on your road trip. Peter’s family went there and did their own bicycle tour of the island and loved it. While there may not be paved, concrete trails and can be a challenge with the dirt roads with not-so-great bicycles, we would still recommend it.
Your next stops
Since this article is getting a bit too long, we’ve decided to do another post about the other Sea Islands that we visited, and will recommend you do on your road trip. We have a related episode on Amateur Traveler all about a road trip from Jacksonville/Fernandina Beach to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Along the way, you can also stop in St Augustine (south of Jacksonville), Savannah, Georgia (close to Tybee Island), and Charleston, South Carolina, an hour or so north of Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.