Although Jekyll Island is a neighbor of Little St. Simons Island — an exclusive, undeveloped “adult summer camp” where a distinct Deep South safari vibe reigns supreme — more civilized, on-the-grid amenities (Cars! Cable television! Golf!) can be found on this storied getaway on the Georgia seacoast. But despite the presence of paved roads and chain hotels, the main event on Jekyll Island, like on Little St. Simons Island, is none other than Mother Nature herself.
A state park overseen by the Jekyll Island Authority, the 5,700-acre island paradise more than delivers on the nature front: Visitors can aimlessly stroll along 10 miles of pristine beaches, cruise along 20 miles of bike paths, or explore ancient maritime forests, critter-filled dune systems and tidal marshes — we recommend hooking up with an eco-guide from the Tidelands Nature Center for an optimum experience — and partake in pretty much every recreational outdoor activity imaginable from kayaking to croquet.
Moving forward with a revitalization project that includes the construction of a LEED-certified convention center, big — and somewhat controversial among locals — changes are afoot on Jekyll Island. But thanks to the elaborate Jekyll Island Conservation Plan and the fact that development is limited to 35 percent of available land on the island, Mother Nature isn’t exactly taking a back seat.
Historic resorts, green hotels and local delicacies
Even though new development is currently the talk of the island on Jekyll, it’s a much older building — completed in 1888 to be exact — that has long defined island life: The Jekyll Island Club Hotel. Built as a super-exclusive hunting and recreational club for some of the Northeast’s most highfalutin last names — think Rockefeller, Pulitzer, Morgan and Vanderbilt — the immaculately restored Jekyll Island Club Hotel is now the centerpiece of the 240-acre, 33-building Jekyll Island Historic District. Although overnight guests at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel may not find themselves engaged in the same activities that took place during the club’s 54-year run like drafting the Federal Reserve (1910) or making the first transcontinental phone call (1915), many old-school traditions like croquet on the great lawn, carriage rides through the historic district and Victorian tea service in the Grand Dining Room continue.
For those who prefer more modern digs, the 138-room Hampton Inn & Suites was completed in 2010 as the first hotel built on the island since 1974. A member of the Green Hotels Association, the hotel features solar water heating and other eco-friendly features that are in line with Jekyll Island’s conservation efforts. Prefer to sleep under the stars? There’s an 18-acre campground on the north end of the island.
There are several dining options for all tastes and budgets on Jekyll Island but locally caught seafood, particularly wild Georgia shrimp, dominates most menus. Both situated on the Jekyll Island Wharf, Latitude 31 and The “Rah” Bar are solid bets for fishy fare. Adjacent to the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, the Courtyard at Crane is located in perhaps the most stunning building in the entire historic district, the Crane Cottage, and offers a more eclectic, upscale menu including lobster and shrimp spring rolls and killer roasted corn and crab chowder. And it’s no surprise that the biggest annual event on Jekyll Island revolves around seafood: The Shrimp and Grits Festival.
Birds, gators, and sea turtles … oh, my
Coming face to face with wildlife on Jekyll Island isn’t exactly a rarity. Osprey, deer and alligators are a frequent sight on the greens of the island’s four highly esteemed golf courses — Pine Lakes Golf Course received certification in Environmental Planning from the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses in 2010 — giving the courses a unique “play 18 holes in the wild” experience. In addition to golfing among gators, birding is a popular year-round activity on Jekyll. Located on the Atlantic migratory flyway, two viewing platforms offer birders primo views, while the Georgia Coast Birding and Nature Festival directed by naturalist and artist Lydia Thompson is a must-attend event for watchers of waterfowl and warblers. Or, direct your attention from the sky to the sea and board one of Captain Phillip Kempton’s dolphin tours or educational ECO shrimping tours that depart from the Jekyll Island Wharf.
Sure, there’s plenty of outdoor critter-spotting to be had on Jekyll, but it’s an indoor animal attraction that’s perhaps the most memorable: The Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Opened in 2007 under the leadership of Dr. Terry Norton, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center is not an aquarium — although there is a kid-friendly, interactive aspect to the center — but a state-of-the-art rehabilitation and research facility dedicated to treating sick and injured sea turtles found stranded on Georgia’s beaches. A majority of the center’s patients are loggerhead, Kemps Ridley or green sea turtles but Norton and his dedicated team also care for terrapins and tortoises. It’s a must-visit for adults and children alike.
Revitalization project LEEDs the way
Although the construction of the Jekyll Island Convention Center and other revitalization projects have resulted in some minor disturbances (mostly in the form of road closures) on this mostly undisturbed island, the new 128,000-square-foot oceanfront building is designed to have minimal environmental impact. Expected to achieve LEED Silver certification, the HHCP-designed facility is being constructed on the footprint of an old convention center and includes solar water heating, electricity generated by solar photovoltaics and wind turbines, rainwater collection and other eco-friendly features. Additionally, some building materials salvaged from the old convention center will be recycled and incorporated into the new building or be used to build artificial reefs. A $500,000 tree relocation and rehabilitation initiative was also enacted to ensure that trees in and around the construction site were not in harm’s way.
Adjacent to the new convention center will be two new hotels, condos, restaurants, shops and the Great Dunes Park, completed in October 2010. During the construction of the Jekyll Island Convention Center, the J.P. Morgan Tennis Court, a historic indoor tennis facility, has been reborn as the Morgan Center, a convention and meeting facility, in a stunning example of adaptive reuse.
With the beachfront revitalization project due to be completed in 2012, historic Jekyll Island is currently a resort in transition. But still, no time is a bad time to visit Jekyll, a laid-back gem of a destination — after all, the island’s official slogan is “It’s All Good!” — with a gilded past and a green future.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
Photos: Jekyll Island Club Hotel, Georgia Sea Turtle Center/Matt Hickman; tree salvaging/Jekyll Island Authority; MNN homepage photo: L. Henderson/Flickr