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Southern comfort

Starting with indigenous people, tourists are the latest tribe to land on an island like Eden

By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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CUMBERLAND ISLAND, Georgia — On a sunny January morning we find biologist Carol Ruckdeschel outside her cabin, on the lonely north end of the island, in what is known as the Settlement. Freed slaves built houses here after the Civil War, but no African-American lives here now. In 1996 John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married in the tiny First African Baptist Church, steps away from Ruckdeschel’s back door.

She wears shrimping boots and a fleece vest that looks like it may have washed up on the beach. Her long gray hair is braided and tied with pieces of yarn. Someone says, “I hear you have some animal bones.’’ Ruckdeschel smiles and replies, “I have a museum.’’

She leads us through her yard, past citrus trees and vegetable gardens, past buckets and flotsam coolers filled with decaying remains of this dolphin and that seabird. She leads us into a room packed floor to ceiling with island curiosities, with loggerhead sea turtle shells and alligator skulls, with jars of preserved songbirds and rattlesnakes, with sea turtle hatchlings halfway out of their shells and a baby sperm whale: the Cumberland Island Museum.

Ruckdeschel has the bones and bodies, but the entire island may as well be a museum. Southernmost of Georgia’s Sea Is lands, Cumberland is an 18-mile-long, subtropical eden of old growth live oak trees and palmettos, of sand dunes and surf, of wild ponies and giant alligators, of burned out mansions and crumbling slave quarters. Most of the island is a national seashore run by the US Park Service, which operates a ferry out of St. Mary’s, Ga., and maintains campsites on the island. Descendants of Thomas M. Carnegie (brother of Andrew) own most of the rest of the island. Carnegie heirs run the Greyfield Inn, a grand old family mansion on the south end.

At first, camping seemed the best and most economical way to visit Cumberland. But then we heard about the inn’s fireplaces, and generous front porch, and 4x4 nature tours along the roads and beaches. The idea of soft sheets and cocktails under the live oaks seemed too good to pass up.

It’s 45 minutes on the inn’s lobster boat from mainland Florida to Cumberland Island. We leave behind the stink-spewing paper mills of Fernandina Beach and chug into the foggy night.

Off the boat, we walk to the inn under a canopy oaks. The trees sprawl and sway, they are carpeted in resurrection fern and are dripping with beards of Spanish moss, they seem to whisper.

Our room had been the master suite. Linens are luxurious and the bed frame is hand-carved mahogany. There is a clawfoot tub and many windows facing the marsh. We dress for dinner. Jackets are required for men.

The dinner bell sounds. On the way downstairs we mix martinis at the honor bar. Guests have free reign of the house, decorated as it always has been with Audubon prints on the walls, mohair velvet sofas, and the bleached skulls and bones of island wildlife.

Dinner is served at a communal table. There are bottles of wine on the credenza and a fire in the fireplace. Dishes are plated individually and elegantly; a green salad with a poached farm egg and bacon vinaigrette, coq au vin, crème caramel. Everything is perfect. After dinner we drink whiskey in the library and read the Sunday newspapers.

We sleep with the windows open and in the morning wake up early to smells of wood smoke and frying bacon. Outside it’s cool enough for sweaters. We walk to the beach under the oaks. The sun comes up over breaking waves.

Breakfast is served at 8:30. The fire is still going. We eat sheep’s milk yogurt, a fruit drink with berries, scrambled eggs, smoky bacon, good cheese grits.

After breakfast we take the nature tour with the inn’s naturalist. The Carnegie heirs retain the right to drive on the island and over the sand dunes to the seemingly endless beach. We sit on cushioned benches in the back of a Ford pickup and head north on prehistoric-shark-tooth-and-oyster-shell-lined Grand Avenue, the main road.

Human history on Cumberland goes back at least 4,000 years to the time of the Timucua Indians whose men were nearly 7 feet tall and covered in tattoos. French Huguenots came in the 1560s, then Spaniards, then British colonists, then plantation owners, and then, in the 1880s, Thomas and Lucy Carnegie. For a hundred years the Carnegies and their offspring treated the island as a back-to-nature paradise. When the money shrank and development pressures became impossible to ignore, the Park Service came in to relieve the burden. The Carnegies kept some land and most of the rest was opened to the public.

A few miles north of the inn we get our first good look at the wild ponies. About 250 steeds roam the island, fighting off parasites and chowing down on marsh grass and sea oats. Tourists love them. Conservationists would prefer that they (along with the wild pigs and all other introduced species) be removed.

The first stop is Plum Orchard, a 20,000-square-foot Carnegie mansion built in the 1890s. A Park Service volunteer leads a surreal tour of the house: the hand-painted wallpaper, the taxidermy, the indoor pool.

Back in the truck we bounce along dirt roads. In the Settlement we visit Ruckdeschel and the Baptist church, now known to many as the Kennedy church — a major draw to the island.

The naturalist switches the truck into four-wheel drive and we barrel over dunes and down to the beach to drive along miles and miles of shore back to the inn.

There’s hot soup and coffee waiting for us. Ponies graze on the lawn. In the room we take a bath. The water smells like sulfur. We pretend it’s a therapeutic hot spring.

In the morning we’re up before the sun for birding. We pile into the truck and head south toward the ruins of Dungeness — a seemingtly cursed former Carnegie mansion that burned and was rebuilt at least twice. Outside the ruin we spot a rare white stag, haunted-looking and beautiful.

On the way down to the boat, we run into Donn Cooper, a newspaper reporter turned Greyfield Inn gardener tasked with growing flowers and vegetables in sand. In the old days island gardeners used rich marsh mud to fertilize their Sea Island cotton, rice, and corn. Cooper has tried horse manure, leaves, and seaweed. “I’m trying to use what we have here,’’ he says. “To grow what grows best here. This place is different.’’

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at jon.levitt@gmail.com.

If You Go

US Park Service ferries leave from St. Marys, Ga. A round-trip adult ticket $20. Park entrance fee $4. Developed campsites $4 per person per day; backcountry sites $2. Reservations are recommended. www.nps.gov
Greyfield Inn
904-261-6408
www.greyfieldinn.com
Rooms $395-$595 for single or double occupancy; includes three meals a day, canapés at the bar, bicycles, guided tours, and private ferry transportation from Fernandina Beach, Fla.