There’s a local saying that, once your feet touch the sand of Jekyll Island, you’ll always come back. With 10-miles of sprawling beaches, historic ruins, and an abundance of wildlife, it’s easy to see why so many people throughout history have fallen in love with the island.
Situated within the chain of the Golden Isles off Georgia’s coast, Jekyll Island is just a few miles away from St. Simons Island, Sea Island, and Brunswick. From the moment you turn down the long, marsh-lined drive you know you’ve arrived somewhere special. Wandering under a canopy made from the twisting limbs of live oak trees, so large and so old their branches have often grown into the ground and back up again, it’s easy to believe that you’re walking with the shadows of guests from another era.
Prior to British colonization, the islands’ first inhabitants were Native Americans. After the founding of Savannah in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe, the island was named for Sir Joseph Jekyll, a financial supporter of the colony, and was home to prosperous plantations until the end of the Civil War.
In 1886, Jekyll Island was purchased by a group of wealthy families as a retreat. By 1900, the island functioned as a private hunting club and winter getaway for the who’s who of American tycoons: William Rockefeller, William K. Vanderbilt, J. P. Morgan, and Joseph Pulitzer just to name a few.
Designed by Architect Charles Alexander, the Jekyll Island Club officially opened its doors in 1888. The Queen Anne structure featured superb detailing that included hardwood paneling, stained glass windows, gas chandeliers, and indoor plumbing. Up to 100 guests, members and their families, gathered here to dine, play cards, and share stories of the hunt.
Members prized the island for its beautiful landscape, moderate climate, and sense of isolation. They would arrive in the winter by private rail cars and luxurious yachts to their own little paradise, an exceptional way to avoid a cold and snowy winter in the North. The islands’ trees, ornamented with Spanish moss and the deep greens of Resurrection Ferns after the rain, adorned the same landscape they once walked, silent sentinels in the passing of time.
Club members enjoyed a wide selection of outdoor activities, several of which are still available for visiting guests today, including golf, tennis, croquet, and horseback riding. Several members built “cottages,” which they considered simple, but typically had 15 to 25 rooms. Moss Cottage, for example, has 13 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms (just imagine trying to clean that on the weekend!), while the Italian Renaissance revival style Cherokee Cottage has 12 bedrooms and two kitchens. Several of these homes are available to stay in, and two are explored during our tour.
The Jekyll Island Club flourished through the 1930s, but World War I and the Great Depression took their toll and the Club’s membership fell away. During World War II, the government ordered the evacuation of the island due to the threat of submarines off the coast and effectively brought an end to the Millionaire’s Club.
While the state purchased the island in 1947 and opened it to the public as a state park in 1948, several of the cottages fell to ruin. After a decade of neglect and abandonment, two friends, one a lawyer and the other an architect, climbed through an unlocked window and fell in love with the deteriorating Clubhouse. They painstakingly restored the Clubhouse to its original splendor and re-opened it as a hotel.
Once you visit Jekyll Island, you’ll want to go back and spend more time there. There’s a quiet calm there not easily found amidst the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. Step away from it all on a day trip that includes a narrated tram tour of Millionaire’s Village with stops at two of the homes, a visit to the Jekyll Island Museum, and some time learning about the rehabilitation and rescue efforts of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. While you’re exploring the island, don’t miss the Plantation Oak, estimated to be 350 years old, it’s the largest and oldest tree on Jekyll Island.