CUMBERLAND ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE, Ga. -- Imagine a beach as unspoiled as the Cape Cod National Seashore. For miles you see no buildings and only a handful of people. Shore birds dance with the waves, and if you're lucky, a wild horse canters by. Then, in the distance, two pickup trucks barrel along on the packed sand. Talk about a mood buster.
As they get closer, you realize they don't belong to the National Park Service, which controls the area. Perhaps they are relatives of the island's wealthy landowners, exercising their contractual right to take their vehicles along the barrier island's 16 miles of beach or down its interior dirt roads.
Away from the water, down a narrow footpath through the woods, you are totally alone. The maritime forest looks the way much of the coastal South did before it was developed. From the sandy ground sprouts a carpet of low-lying saw palmetto. Above is a ceiling of massive gnarled oaks draped heavily with Spanish moss and resurrection ferns. You see and hear nothing but the natural world. At a junction, signs to each side read "Private Residence." Look, but don't trespass.
Welcome to Cumberland Island, a place as odd and unsettling as it is overwhelmingly beautiful and peaceful. It's a little like touring the Newport, R.I., mansions where the families still reside on the premises; 21 private properties remain on the island.
The island, north of Jacksonville, Fla., was established as a national seashore in 1972. For the price of a ferry ride and park admission, anyone can see where the rich and famous congregated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and where in 1996, the late John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette pulled off their secret wedding.
Owners sold their land to the National Park Service in exchange for the right to stay there for specified periods of time. Only 300 park visitors are allowed per day; public facilities are scant and there is no food service. No bicycles or vehicles are allowed on the ferry, though they can be used on the island by residents and by guests at the Greyfield Inn, the only lodging other than campgrounds.
In 1982, a large tract of land and beach were designated a national wilderness area, the legalities and technicalities of which are fought over to this day. Read all about it in the fascinating "Cumberland Island: Strong Women, Wild Horses" by Charles Seabrook a juicy chronicle of the island that also colorfully details the Kennedy-Bessette wedding.
If you want a taste of privilege, stay or arrange a day visit at the stately Greyfield Inn. It was built in 1900 by Thomas and Lucy Carnegie as a home for their daughter, and is now famous for being the site of the Kennedy wedding reception. The inn is filled with antiques and Carnegie memorabilia and has a wide veranda overlooking the estate ($395-$575 for two nights, plus meals; 904-261-6408 or www.greyfieldinn.com).
I did what most day-trippers do and took the 9 a.m. ferry from the charming
mainland town of St. Marys. This is an easy detour from Interstate 95, though ferry reservations are essential during high tourist times. After a 45-minute ride, I got off at Dungeness Dock, at the southern end of the island. About 35 of us took a ranger's tour through the forest and to what is now called the Dungeness Ruins, while others wandered off on their own. One of Cumberland's first Colonial residents was Nathaniel Greene, a New Englander and Revolutionary War hero. Though he died before seeing his mansion go up, his wife carried out the plan. Later, Thomas Carnegie, brother of Andrew, bought the property for a winter retreat. The mansion later burned, and its remains stand, an eerie reminder of past glory. A more intact mansion, Plum Orchard, occasionally is open for tours.
From Dungeness, walk over gentle sand dunes to the nearly remote beach, a great spot for shell collecting and bird watching. From the heavily wooded campsite at Sea Camp Beach, walk up the Parallel Trail, a nicer option than the main road where you might encounter vehicles from the inn, the park service, or residents. Despite the island's quiet beauty, this sometimes intrusive presence of private properties can feel unsettling.
Back on the mainland, St. Marys, which calls itself "Gateway to Cumberland Island," provides a taste of Southern hospitality. The area is growing fast, with strip malls off the highway, but the historic downtown district remains. Start off on the main street, Osborne Street, with its shops and cafes, and crisscross through neighborhoods to the lovely waterfront park that overlooks the St. Marys River.
Despite the historic architecture here, it took a new building to triple the traffic at the St. Marys Visitors Center, said tourism director Janet Brinko. That would be the 2004 HGTV Dream Home, a furnished $1.2 million home given away in a contest by the home and garden cable network. Through April 24, the public can tour the house, which overlooks salt marshes and the intracoastal waterway.
From the welcome center in town, narrated tram tours operate with a minimum of six people, or you can pick up a walking tour map. You'll see the town's oldest house, built in 1801; four historic churches; and Orange Hall House Museum, a Greek Revival antebellum mansion from 1829. On a side street is the site of the country's first pecan tree, planted in 1840 by Captain Samuel Flood, who was said to have found pecans in a barrel floating at sea.
Diane Daniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.