It's like a sea-island safari down here. Southbound, we passed Savannah and stuck to the coast for another 100 miles. Deep in the Lowcountry, the Georgia Lowcountry, we drove until the road stopped at the very end of St. Simons Island, where the oak trees are hung with Spanish moss as thick as curtains. That’s where we are now, waiting at the sleepy Hampton River Marina for a boat to ferry us to our destination for the next couple of days: a former hunting lodge on Little St. Simons Island transformed into a conservation-focused getaway—no guns, just binoculars and up to 32 guests per night.
The only access to the island is by boat, so we’re making a true disconnect from the mainland. The ferry arrives, and the captain tosses our bags onto the boat himself. During the 15-minute ride over salty rivers and tidal creeks, past marshes and high banks of mud and sand, we spot egrets and herons wading in tall grass, hawks overhead, and smaller birds darting at the edge of the marsh.
As we get closer, I consider the attraction of islands. A sea island is really not much more than an overgrown sandbar, right? But that’s what makes it interesting. I’d read how in the 1830s, Frances “Fanny” Kemble—a then-famous British actress who had married into the cotton plantation family who owned the island at the time—described her visit there as exploring a “wild little sand heap covered with thick forest growth.”
That sounds perfect to me, and I’m eager to see for myself. The boat follows a winding creek to a dock where oysters are being fostered in clusters on the bank. Here, we’re greeted by staff who carry our bags and show us the way. Within minutes of walking up to the compound, we see a painted bunting at a bird feeder. On a path, there’s an ambling armadillo with a shell so dark it looks to have been dipped in the brown-green pluff mud. He doesn’t even notice us.
We step inside the 99-year-old hunting lodge, classically complete with wood-paneled rooms. The floors and walls have earned the slants of time: nothing remains plumb in this sea air environment. Bookcases, letters, vintage island photographs, and taxidermy specimens large and small—quail, owls, antlered deer—populate the walls. Among the interesting framed pieces are handwritten thank-you notes from prior guests, including presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush and Vice President Walter Mondale. The circa-1917 lodge building is the central gathering place; it houses the kitchen, dining rooms, and a number of guest rooms. The staffers inform us that along with all meals cooked by the lodge’s chef and crew, there are soft drinks, water bottles, and Georgia-brewed beers (Terrapin and SweetWater) in icy coolers on the porch, available for guests anytime.
A compound of houses and cottages surrounds the lodge, barn, and dock. We unpack in our room of the three-bedroom Helen House, a circa-1928 abode built with thick, oyster tabby walls, a screened porch, and a courtyard patio where I notice the brown ears of a rabbit twitch before he sees me, too, and hops off.
That night it’s a dinner party at the lodge. Fresh blue crabs, cleaned, steamed, and split, are piled high on a platter for guests before dinner. The crabs were caught that afternoon in the creek we traversed earlier. (The tradition is that if guests catch something, the chef will prepare it that night.) I’m not sure who lured these crustaceans in, but they’re sweet, briny, and delicious.
We all sit at long tables of our choice in two rooms. The mood is friendly: everyone’s relaxed, and some are sun-kissed from the day. Among the people at our table are four women from Atlanta on a girls’ getaway. The wine is flowing, the conversation humming, and we’re served a bountiful dinner of spring lamb, pea tendrils and blooms, and salad greens grown in the lodge’s garden. The chef, Ülfet Özyabasligil Ralph, introduces herself and tells us she’s excited to hear that we are visiting from Charleston. She previously worked in kitchens with chefs Robert Carter and Jacques Larson and says she was tremendously inspired by them and by the city itself.
Little St. Simons Island is a migration stopover for many bird species, and island naturalists lead tours on foot or by boat or truck. They also lend good binoculars to interested guests like me. As a casual bird-watcher, I’m intrigued, and the lodge’s loaner binoculars are remarkably powerful, better than any I’ve owned. It’s fun, too, to listen for the bird song when a guide is along to help you identify and understand what you’re hearing. The “chuck” part of the nocturnal chuck-will’s-widow’s song is tricky to catch until the naturalist gets you to stop walking and listen for his eponymous call: “chuck-will’s-widow, chuck-will’s-widow.”
The second evening before dinner, I follow paths and boardwalks behind the lodge to the saltwater pool and stretch out in a lawn chair. The pool is unheated, and no one is swimming. Wait, there is a swimmer—I spy a blackbird bathing in a sunlit section. Its feet clasp onto the safety rope as its wings flap and splash. A few minutes later, I hear a rustle and see a raccoon moving quickly through the woods outside the pool’s fence.
It’s almost the weekend, and more serious birders have checked in. One couple, who’d traveled from Indiana, have walked around the island all day wearing straps and harnesses to help them carry cameras with long and heavy-looking high-powered lenses. Armed with tripods and foot-long telephoto gear, they report a prized sighting—an uncommon, shell-pink, roseate spoonbill. I’ve never seen one before, and at that moment, I feel a little envious.
In our exploring, I’d noticed several different types of wading birds, including what I believe was a snowy egret that resembled a ballerina slowly stretching in a tutu. But this couple’s checklist of species is truly impressive. In all, they tell us they observed 70 different kinds of birds during their three-day stay. They even have images ready in a slide show on their laptop, if we’d like to see. One is a close-up of the pink-as-a-flamingo spoonbill. It has long, stick-like legs and a wide bill that, yes, looks like a flattened spoon.
Wildlife sightings happen again and again during our stay. While walking on the beach, we see a couple of guests standing on the shore, swimsuits dripping, watching the water as a dark, triangular fin surfaces. There’s a shark out there, just kind of cruising. We ask at the lodge and are told it was surely a spinner shark, commonly found in shallow water.
There’s another amazing moment the next morning when we gather for a tour and one of the guides scoops up a handful of what he tells us are the eggs of horseshoe crabs. Incredibly tiny, they are much smaller than a garden pea, and I’m particularly fascinated because it’s the second time in 24 hours that the helmet-with-a-tail-looking crabs have been the focus of conversation. The prior evening, the staff announced that an educational talk about the prehistoric creatures would take place after dinner in the renovated barn. Remarkably, at this luxury-level resort for relaxing, at least half of us went, and we learned about the ancient crustaceans that happen to have bright blue blood and a need for healthy, wild environments—just like what we’ve all been exploring on this Georgia island getaway.
One of the Golden
Like the South Carolina Lowcountry, Georgia’s coast is a maze of islands, creeks, marshes, and tidal rivers with a history of battles, rice plantations, and Gullah-Geechee culture. Today, Little St. Simons is considered part of the “Golden Isles” of the Georgia coast. The nickname is a nod to the region’s Colonial history, when European explorers came looking for gold and instead found sunshine. Besides Little St. Simons, the Golden Isles include: Sea Island, Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island, and the port of Brunswick.
There are numerous trails to explore on St. Simons Island, including these suggested round-trip hikes from the Lodge:
• North End Road/Old House Trail (4.7 miles)
• North End Road/Backbone Trail/Old House Trail
• Middle Woods Road/Marsh Road/Beach Road (3 miles)
• Beach Road to Main Beach and back (4.6 miles)
• North End Road/Pond Trail (4 miles)
In 2003, frequent lodge guests Hank and Wendy Paulson purchased Little St. Simons and worked with The Nature Conservancy to secure a conservation easement. Ecotourism is an integral part of the conservation plan for this 11,000-plus-acre island of forest and marshland with an undeveloped beachfront on the Atlantic Ocean. Here are just a few of the island’s inhabitants
Heron (three types)
Little St. Simons Island: (888) 733-5774; www.littlestsimonsisland.com
Rates are all-inclusive (boat transportation, meals and beverages, guided trips, and accommodations) and start at $600 per night for double occupancy, September 18, 2016 to January 1, 2017.