Jekyll Island was only half an hour from our campground at Blythe Island. The weather was right, so we decided to hop on over. What a lovely place! We were pleasantly surprised by its beauty and tranquility. We started our visit with an early lunch at the Wharf Restaurant and then walked over to the Jekyll Island Club Resort and Historic District.
During the Gilded Age, the island was a winter playground for the super rich. We recognized many of their names (Vanderbilts, Astors, Lorillards) from our trip to Newport RI. Turns out that some of the same families who made Newport their summer home also spent their winters in Jekyll Island.
In 1886, the island was purchased by the Jekyll Island Club, which was a turn-of-the century vacation resort patronized by 55 of the nation’s wealthiest families. Membership was very exclusive, and included such prominent figures as J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, William K. Vanderbilt, Marshall Field, Jay Gould, and William Rockefeller. Morgan used to visit the island on his 300 foot yacht, the Corsair, and dock at the Club’s wharf. When asked how much it cost to operate the yacht, he famously said, “if you have to ask that question, you can’t afford it.”
The Jekyll Island Club has an illustrious history. Following the Panic of 1907, Morgan along with several other banking and government leaders met at the Club and devised a plan that resulted in the creation of the Federal Reserve System.
The Club fell on lean times during the Depression, and the entire island was abandoned at the beginning of World War II, since members felt it was vulnerable to enemy submarine attack. After the war, the State of Georgia purchased the island from the Club, and opened it to the general public. Fortunately, many remnants of the Gilded Age still exist, most notably the Jekyll Island Club Resort.
There are also several beautifully restored mansions, called “cottages”, that some of the families built around the clubhouse, along with a number of smaller service buildings. The clubhouse and surrounding buildings form a Historic District of 33 structures situated in a park-like setting. The clubhouse has been restored as a luxury hotel, the cottages are mostly museums or part of the hotel, and the service buildings are mostly shops.
The Historic District is fenced in, and closed to automobile traffic. This makes walking the landscaped grounds a pleasure. After we had explored the Historic District thoroughly on foot, we drove off to see the rest of the island.
Our first stop was Driftwood Beach, which is at the north end of the island. We were amazed by the huge driftwood and fallen trees that resemble a giant tree graveyard. The north end of the island is slowly eroding away and being deposited on the south end of the island, which causes the trees on the north end to collapse into the sea. Recent hurricanes have accelerated the destruction.
Driftwood Beach is beautiful, but has a lot of debris, so it is not the best beach for sunbathing. However, it is a wonderful location for picture taking, and we took a lot. It’s also a very popular site for weddings. When we were there we saw what we thought was a wedding, but on closer inspection it appeared to be a photo shoot for wedding gowns.
Next we drove to Beach Village, which is a newer commercial area on the beach in the center of the island. This is where most of the modern hotels are located. There’s a long sandy beach in front of the hotels as well as a convention center nearby. And finally, we drove toward the south end of the island, and stopped at Great Dunes Beach, which is a broad public sand beach with a huge parking lot.
Sadly, there was a lot of damage from Hurricane Irma over much of the island, especially on the north end. This was the second year in a row that a hurricane has hit the island (Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017).
But despite the damage, the impression we came away with is that Jekyll Island is a gem, mostly unspoiled, elegant yet affordable. We can only hope it stays that way, especially when you compare it to many other East Coast beaches that are overbuilt, overcrowded, and overpriced. We loved it.