Georgia's lush barrier islands meander down the Atlantic coast from Savannah to the Florida border. Notable for their subtropical beauty and abundant wildlife, the isles strike a unique balance between some of the country's wealthiest communities and some of its most jealously protected nature preserves. Until recently, large segments of the coast were in private hands, and as a result much of the region remains as it was when the first Europeans set eyes on it 450 years ago. Though the islands have long been a favorite getaway of the rich and famous, they no longer cater only to the well-heeled.
St. Simons, Jekyll, Little St. Simons, and Sea islands are known collectively as Georgia's Golden Isles. And while even today Little St. Simons Island and Sea Island remain privately owned, each with its own exclusive resort catering to the very wealthy, St. Simons and Jekyll islands have morphed into relaxed beach communities. These more developed islands—although by Georgia law, only 35% of Jekyll's land can be developed—have become diverse havens with something for everyone, from beach bums to family vacationers to the suit-and-tie crowd.
Sapelo Island and the Cumberland Island National Seashore are the least developed and, as protected nature preserves, the most ecologically intact of all the islands. With their miles of untouched beaches, forests of gnarly live-oak trees draped with Spanish moss, and rich swamps and marshlands, both islands are ideal camping destinations, with sites ranging from primitive to (relatively) sophisticated. Noncamping accommodations are available, but limited, and require booking well in advance. More commonly, many visitors opt to stay on the mainland and make day trips by ferry, private boat, or kayak.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, 60 miles inland from St. Marys, near Folkston, is one of the largest freshwater wetlands in the United States. Spread over 700 square miles of southeastern Georgia and northeastern Florida, the swamp is a trove of flora and fauna that naturalist William Bartram called a "terrestrial paradise" when he visited in the 1770s. From towering cypress swamps to alligator- and snake-infested waters and prairielike wetlands, the Okefenokee is a mosaic of ecosystems, much of which has never been visited by humans.