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The Coastal Isles and the Okefenokee Travel Guide

  • Photo: Paula Stephens / Shutterstock

Plan Your Coastal Isles and the Okefenokee Vacation

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.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. Saltwater marshes Fringing the coastline, waist-high grasses transform both sunlight and shadow with their lyrical textures and shapes.
  2. Geechee culture Vestiges of Georgia's Black Republic, an independent state of freed slaves established on the barrier islands in the mid-19th century, remain at the Sapelo Island settlement of Hog Hammock.
  3. Horses of Cumberland Some 200 feral horses, descendants of horses abandoned by the Spanish in the 1500s, roam the wilderness of Cumberland Island.
  4. Jekyll Island Originally the exclusive winter retreat of America's exceptionally rich, this village of mansion-size "cottages" is now open to all.
  5. Go for a ride Jekyll Island has 20 miles of paved bike paths that traverse salt marshes, maritime forests, beaches, and the island's National Historic Landmark District.

When To Go

When to Go

Early spring and late fall are ideal for visiting the coastal isles and the Okefenokee. By February, temperatures often reach into the 70s,...

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