Thanks to Mother Nature — and to remarkable conservation efforts — there’s certainly no shortage of far-flung eco-travel destinations. From the Central Suriname Nature Reserve to Trinidad’s Asa Wright Nature Center, remote HGs (hidden gems) are filled with exotic eco-allure but can also be prohibitive to the more casual traveler given that they aren’t always a breeze to access. And then there’s that rare HG that, in essence, is worlds away — wild, undisturbed, beautiful — but geographically sits right under your nose. Such is the case with Little St. Simons Island, Ga.

As one of Georgia’s famed Golden Isles — located conveniently equidistant between Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla. — Little St. Simons Island (LSSI) is overshadowed by its developed neighbors, Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island and Sea Island. And those who know and love LSSI would rather keep it that way.

Part rustic inn and part Deep South safari (the island often gets dubbed as an exclusive “adult summer camp”), Little St. Simons Island is an island of extremes. With no more than 32 overnight guests allowed on the privately owned, 10,000-acre coastal barrier island at a time, LSSI is ideal for unwinding, escaping, disappearing. Or, rather than lose yourself in off-the-grid solitude, partake in a host of outdoor adventures that range from hikes through primeval maritime forests to outings in a skiff along a network of tidal creeks.

So whether you’re curled up on a hammock with a book for hours on end or getting down and dirty with a crackerjack naturalist in a gator-filled pond, Little St. Simons Island is what you want it to be: do nothing, do everything — it’s all up to you at this very special HG. Just make sure to keep an ear cocked for the dinner bell when supper is ready.

Roughing it LSSI-style

Although environmental stewardship is the raison d’etre on Little St. Simons, there’s no shortage of Southern hospitality. Once you arrive on the island via private ferry and receive a brief orientation — make yourself right at home but please don’t provoke the gators and rattlesnakes — settle down in one of the island’s guest houses that make up a charming riverfront compound, The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island, on the west end of the island.

While comfortable (yes, rooms are air conditioned), don’t expect full-blown luxury on Little St. Simons. Or televisions. Or in-room phones. As one of only two Green Globe 21 Benchmarked properties in the U.S., LSSI’s commitment to low-impact lodging exceeds standard leave-your-bath-towel-on-the-floor-if-you-want-it-laundered practices: Three of the guest houses, Tom House, Cedar House and River Lodge, feature geothermal HVAC systems; rain barrels are a common site throughout the island; the recycling/composting program is comprehensive; and you won’t find a single plastic water bottle on the entire island since guests are provided with their own Camelback reusable bottles. Additionally, to keep a somewhat notorious bug population at bay, the island has instituted an eco-friendly, larvicide-based mosquito control program. However, if you’re skittish around bats take heed: There are bat houses in place to help keep the mosquito population in check.

Since waking up and swimming laps in a pristine, spring-fed junior Olympic swimming pool before you ride a bike through unspoiled marshlands to a completely deserted beach can be a draining experience, sustenance is of utmost importance on Little St. Simons. Prepared by head chef Dave Butler, meals are served three times a day (plus cocktail hour), family-style, in the Hunting Lodge, the historic, taxidermy-filled “heart” of the island. Emphasis is on hearty, lowcountry cuisine with much of the produce coming from the island’s very own USDA-certified organic garden, overseen by head gardener Amy Schuster. And yep, breakfast, lunch and supper are announced with the ringing of a bell.

Meals on the island are unique, especially if you aren’t accustomed to communal-style dining. However, since life on LSSI revolves around chilled-out seclusion and outdoor immersion, sitting down to a civilized meal with a group of fellow travelers is a refreshing experience. Although guests tend to come from all over, the fellow guests on this author’s visit hailed directly from the region (northern Florida, the Carolinas and Florida). Some were repeat visitors and some were first-timers who lived only miles away and had heard about the island’s charms via word of mouth. One thing’s for certain: This author was the only “Yankee Boy” during his visit to LSSI. 

A tradition of environmental stewardship

Once the site of an extensive cotton plantation owned by Founding Father Pierce Butler and his descendants, Little St. Simons Island was purchased in 1908 by pencil baron and New York City parks commissioner Philip Berolzheimer. Used as a back-to-nature hideaway for the Berolzheimer clan and a tight-knit gang of “bandits” (Berolzheimer’s highfalutin fishing- and hunting-obsessed buddies) throughout the years, LSSI instituted its guest program in 1979. To this day, the island is still owned by the Berolzheimer family and not much has changed aside from a few environmentally sensitive additions here and there.

Outdoor recreation that doesn’t disturb the island’s natural ecosystems is still the focus on LSSI as it was decades ago. Boating, fishing, hiking, biking, swimming, kayaking, beachcombing, exploring and birding (a biggie on the island as more than 280 species of birds call the island home during the year) are among just some of the ways guests pass the time on LSSI.

Although guests are allowed to venture out into the wild on their own, LSSI’s team of naturalists — most of whom live and work full-time on the island — is on-hand for daily guided adventures, making the island a living, interactive classroom of sorts where adults and children alike learn about biological diversity, the importance of environmental preservation and the unique history of Georgia’s coastal islands. And you needn’t travel too far into the maritime forests or marshlands to spot a critter. Just in and around Lodge, this Yankee Boy spotted a host of birds, armadillos, raccoons, rabbits, snakes and European fallow deer.

Moving forward with minimal impact

Little St. Simons Island is an accessible, bucket list-worthy hidden gem of a destination, and as long as Philip Berolzheimer’s legacy of preservation is honored, little on the island will change. Much more of a nature preserve than a resort (the word “experience” trumps “vacation” here), LSSI is the kind of place where there’s a turtle technician in lieu of a bellboy, the bartender has a degree in ecology and where the biggest celebrity spotting you’ll have is of a 14-foot alligator named Norm. And by kind of place, we mean the only place.

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.

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