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On Little St. Simons, a taste of island life

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / December 22, 2004

LITTLE ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- You don't have to go to Florida or the Caribbean for the island life. A trip to Georgia will do the trick.

Little St. Simons Island, about 75 miles south of Savannah, is a 10-minute boat ride from crowded St. Simons Island and a universe away. The minute your chartered boat leaves the dock at Hampton River Club Marina, at the northern tip of St. Simons, you're in a world of marsh and water. Rounding the final corner, the boat stops at a small dock in front of a weathered lodge, the center of guest activities.

The island, 6 miles long and up to 3 miles wide, is privately owned. Since 1979, it has been open to paying guests -- but only 30 at a time. Spread those folks out over the 10,000 acres of maritime forest, tidal creeks, and 7 miles of undeveloped beach, and you've got what some would call heaven.

The Mocama Indians first inhabited the island, and traces of their time here can be seen in the middens, or shell piles, left behind. The current owners are members of the Berolzheimer family. In 1908, Eagle Pencil Co. bought the land for its cedar, which turned out to be inadequate for pencil making.

Philip Berolzheimer, the company's owner, took over the island as a retreat for family and friends, for which it is still used. The day after I visited in March, family members were arriving from New York for a weekend-long birthday celebration. How long the island will stay in the family and be open to the public is uncertain.

Though Little St. Simons made it onto the top 10 ''luxury world's greatest escapes" in the Robb Report this year, it is more ''escape" than ''luxury," assuming luxury connotes modern-day amenities.

Instead, the compound is more like a Maine sporting camp. There are no telephones or televisions, and the five guest buildings, though beautifully constructed, are not new. It's the same for the rooms, many of which are decorated with original furnishings. A few rooms are in the lodge, but most are in the nearby Helen House, built in 1928, or separate newer houses that aren't so new that they spoil the look.

Nature and relaxation are the draws here, along with fine dining from the resident chef. I shared the lunch table with three middle-age couples, all soon departing to make way for the Berolzheimer party. Two were Georgia business owners taking a break from work, and the third was escaping the Michigan winter. After three days of hiking, biking, boating, and horseback riding, no one seemed eager to leave. Over clam chowder and gourmet tuna salad, they joked like old friends while trading contact information and saying their goodbyes.

As a day-tripper (day trips are sometimes offered), I could have fished, hiked, trail biked, gone to the beach, taken a nature tour, swum in the refurbished pool, or sat on the wide porch all afternoon gazing at the marsh, water, and moss-laden oaks. (Horseback riding is only for overnight guests. The horses are free to roam the island at night and are corralled in the morning when they return to eat.)

I opted for a driving and walking tour with Brian Morse, naturalist supervisor.

Morse, 24, came to Little St. Simons a few months after graduating from North Carolina State University in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in fisheries and wildlife science. He and 20 or so employees live on the grounds, in quaint wooden cottages that tilt with age.

''I came here from the biggest school in North Carolina, and with a big social life, to an island with a few people where you have to get to anything by boat. It's a big difference," said Morse. ''I like working with the people as well as with the critters."

Critters include fallow deer, sea turtles, alligators, armadillos, and rattlesnakes. We saw one gator and many armadillos during a two-hour tour. In a pickup truck, we bumped over the island's network of dirt trails and roads, stopping first in the maritime forest to examine the saw palmettos, resurrection ferns, and Tarzan-worthy muscadine vines. The island is home to several rare Georgia species, such as the green-fly orchid. You'll find checklists of plants and birds at the lodge, along with information on surf, creek, and fly fishing.

Birds are a huge draw here, and the island is said to contain 283 species. We stopped at a favorite spot of Morse's. (He became interested in birding in his junior year of college.) Looking through binoculars into a faraway eagle's nest, he exclaimed, ''I see a chick, it's a chick. Oh, man, that is so cool." We then walked along Pond Trail to a bird tower that overlooks a 95-acre pond the naturalists manage with a freshwater well to attract wading birds, ducks, and other fowl.

Our last stop was the beach, probably the most pristine I have ever seen in this country. Gentle dunes separate land from sea, and you might spot brown pelicans, piping plovers, and a host of other shorebirds that must love this place as much as the human guests do.

Diane Daniel can be reached at ddaniel@globe.com.

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