ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA –Despite the impressive efforts by Stewie Griffin on the animated show “Family Guy,” no one else has been able to successfully build a time machine.
If you love traveling, though, you’re probably aware that you don’t need one to feel like you’ve managed to escape to another period in history. Most likely, you’ve joined the ranks of time wrap vacationers who long for destinations that offer a stunning glimpse of days gone by.
Having lived in Florida for more than a decade, I know that kind of rich history is hard to find here, where the state’s booming population tends to encourage rapid development – old and historic? Nah, we want new, modern, highly efficient.
Yes, the historic treasures of St. Augustine are beautifully preserved, but my home city of Orlando feels more like the norm here: newly built apartment towers in downtown, and just a short drive from massive theme parks that keep replacing older riders with spiffy new high tech ones. Modern! Contemporary! Current!
I was actually quite surprised – and pleased – to discover that I wasn’t far from a stunning gem in the Time Warp Travel agenda. Orlando is just about three hours away from a place I fell in love with quite quickly, known as St. Simons Island.
Located in South Georgia and part of the Golden Isles, it’s an island that’s only 18 miles from one end to the other, not exactly Manhattan or Long Island; but so much of it doesn’t look, or feel, like Today’s Big Modern South, with massive urban development popping up everywhere.
It felt more like pure nivrana, especially for those of us into the Time Wrap Traveling.
What’s on St. Simons Island?
St. Simons Island is a barrier island close to Brunswick, and located on the southeast Georgia coast, midway between Savannah and Jacksonville. It has everything that tourists love: beaches, golf courses and resorts, shops and restaurants, historical sites and monuments, and outdoor activities that include nature walks and plenty of marshlands to explore. Popular activities here include boating, fishing, kayaking, deep sea diving, and more.
Tourism is the primary economic driver here on St. Simons Island, and major industries, not surprisingly, include hospitality, food service, and retail.
But if it sounds like a tourist trap, you’re wrong. It doesn’t resemble anything like, say, the theme park experience.
This place feels more like a quiet, laid back, got-charm-to-spare oasis.
I instantly developed a passion for quite a bit about this island. There’s no heavy car traffic here. In fact, if you go to the Pier Village – consider it St. Simons’ downtown shopping area – you’re more likely to see people getting around on bicycle or by golf carts, which are both easy to rent in the village.
You can check out the antique shops and other specialty stores here; I find myself attracted to any downtown area with a spacious used bookstore, Beachview Books, which gave me another reason to be excited to have discovered St. Simons Island. I have a complete inability to walk past a bookstore and not go inside, but used bookstores in particular entice me like bees to honey.
And you can stroll down to the pier and taking in some breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean, and just relax there and watch the ships sailing by. The cool breeze off the ocean felt nicer than any air conditioner I’ve ever installed.
But what I really loved on St. Simons Island was how historic it is. To find an island with this one with a history that dates back to before European settlers arrived, and with so much of it beautifully preserved, I found it as enchanting as anything I’ve explored in Europe.
Yes, there are parts of St. Simons where it feels like time came to a stand still and the clock stopped ticking.
And there’s a lot of quite fascinating history here, involving the Civil War, slavery and emancipation, even World War II. And you can appreciate a lot of by taking a trolley ride from Saint Simons Colonial Island Tours that takes you to all the best ones, including
- the St. Simons Lighthouse that stands along the coast as both a monument and a museum, and dates back to 1811;
- the Bloody Marsh Battle Site, named after the fierce battle fought there on July 7, 1742 when Spanish troops landed on the south end of the island and got pushed back by the British;
- the First African Baptist Church, a two-story frame structure built in 1869 by former slaves of the St. Simons plantations;
- and Fort Frederica National Monument, established in 1736 to protect the southern boundary of the new colony of Georgia.
All of this on an island that’s, yes, just 18 miles long.
And in October, the island will become home to The World War II Home Front Museum, which will explore the role that St. Simons Island played in the second world war, including protecting our coast from German submarines, and where fighter pilots got trained and Liberty Ships got built.
What’s Available on St. Simons for Nature Lovers?
Something else I loved is finding nature all around me. Yes, St. Simons Island has hotels and resorts for tourists; it has beautiful single family homes, condominiums and beach cottages constructed by the builder Palmetto Building Group.
But it also has a diverse ecology that stands alongside those residential units. There are sandy beaches on the ocean side, marshes to the west and maritime forests further inland — not to mention live oak everywhere, and hardwoods draped in gorgeous Spanish moss.
I stayed at a golfing resort on the island, the Sea Palms Resort, and found lots to keep me busy and enthusiastic. The restaurants are mostly family-run and unique to the island; there are no chains around here. Ice cream parlors are easy to find, and so are seafood restaurants, which also is something that appeals to me.
The Pier Village offers much the same: a main street with shops that are unique to the island, and surprisingly diverse for either window shopping or real shopping, including jewelry stores, dog and pet shops, art galleries, gift shops and plenty of antiques.
Mainly, though, I loved how much there was to explore on this island: the downtown, the historic and historical monuments, the southern cooking and downhome recipes of the restaurants, the beaches, the nature trails, and so much more.
How did they get so much on the island and still have all those amazing ecosystems completely untouched?
St. Simons Island is someplace you need to discover if you haven’t already; if you’ve been there already, you know it doesn’t need a tough sell by any means. (I need to go back there myself: there’s a Ghost Walk of St. Simons, a 60 minute lamplight walking tour of Olde St. Simons and the waterfront, with some lessons about the ghosts who still haunt the island, and I definitely need to check that out.)
My best piece of advice: folks, don’t expect to do it all in a day. You need far more time on this island to fully appreciate all its charms.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.