Wanderlusting: The Golden Isles

The Brunwick Courthouse; John Wesley Memorial Garden; Jekyll Island Club Hotel
The Brunwick Courthouse; John Wesley Memorial Garden; Jekyll Island Club Hotel

by Jeff Waters

I’m not sure what to say about a place that has been the source of my refuge and solace for so many years.  There is a peace I find when I come into coastal Georgia. When the marshes of Glynn come into view, I have to immediately roll down my windows and smell the fresh air.  It’s aromatherapy for my soul. You might be very familiar with the area. In case you aren’t though, please allow me to introduce you.

The Golden Isles consists of four barrier islands and Brunswick. Most visitors stay on St. Simons or Jekyll Island. Sea Island and Little St. Simons Island are privately owned.


Island residents will invariably (if not reluctantly) have to leave to go to the “mainland.” Fortunately, Brunswick, in addition to the big box stores, has a beautifully quaint downtown area that is on the rise. As of this writing, Ben Affleck was in town filming a movie. The downtown area was transformed into historic Ybor City giving locals and visitors alike a glimpse of what Brunswick could be. A port town settled in the early 18th Century, Brunswick’s history is evident. Many island visitors skip Brunswick. I think that’s their loss. The town is filled with a warm group of shop owners, artists, and restaurants that absolutely warrant a visit. I typically skip the chains surrounding the Interstate and dine in the historic district. Start with lunch at Indigo Coastal Shanty. The food is fresh and very well prepared. If it’s pretty out, sit under the live oaks.

For some sightseeing, visit the old Courthouse and the old City Hall. Walking down Newcastle Street will give you a solid tour of the shops and galleries. Once you’ve worked up a thirst, or another appetite, stop at Tipsy McSway’s. I was hooked my first time here. Think local bar/live music venue with really great service and food. If Tipsy’s was on the Marietta Square it would stay packed. Friendly service, no microwaves to be found, and fresh great food and fun. For lodging options, you will not find better Southern hospitality than at The Brunswick Manor. The proprietors Jay and Stacy are some of the hardest working people I know in the area. If you stay around Christmas time you will be rewarded with seeing what I think is one of the largest collections of Christmas ornaments around. Their Brunswick restaurants, The Southern Table and Bar, has brought fine dining back to Historic Brunswick. For a more farm to table experience, The Farmer & The Larder is a solid choice.

St. Simons

Once I get on the causeway, I know I am home. Traveling over the series of rivers and salt marshes connecting St. Simons to the mainland I immediately feel calmer.  Even though I have lived here full time for a year and a half, I still marvel at the beauty surrounding the island. When I pass by the boats at the Marina, I know to slow down. You’re now on Island time.  Some people come here for vacation, some for conferences, and some for golf. Because really, why wouldn’t you? For good or bad, St. Simons has been found. Each summer and holiday draws seemingly more and more people.

Most visits to the Island include at least one trip to the Village. This quaint village is the Island’s version of downtown. Filled with restaurants, shops, bars, it also includes the Pier, a boardwalk area, playground, and a water park (open seasonally). After filling up on one of the many good breakfast spots (Palmer’s Village Cafe and Sandcastle Cafe & Grill are my favorites), visit the Lighthouse and Museum. If you want to burn some calories, climb up the 129 steps to the top of the lighthouse and you’ll be rewarded with the best view of the Island. The Lighthouse is also home to many outdoor concerts throughout the year.  If you are in town for one of the concerts, I highly recommend packing some food and wine and making a night of it. With the ocean breeze and live music under a lighthouse, you will think you stepped into a Nicholas Sparks novel. For Dinner, I love The Half Shell or Georgia Sea Grill. Iguanas is also a great choice for families and is known for their fabulous local shrimp. Also check for happy hour specials, because Happy Hours are done here.

The Island features well marked public beach access areas. The largest facilities are Massengale Park and the Coast Guard Station. If you’re not staying within walking distance of the beach, these two spots offer the most parking as well as restrooms. My favorite thing to do is to grab some BBQ from Southern Soul BBQ and take it to the beach. BBQ and the beach, yes, you really can have it all.

Heading North on the island you will find spots of solitude not as easily found on the South end. Home to Fort Frederica and Christ Church, it also features my favorite place on the island, the John Wesley Memorial Garden. Across the street from the gorgeous Christ Church the garden is the most peaceful spot I can imagine. I go here to think, pray, plan. If you spend some time on the North end of the island, take a walk through Christ Church and the Garden. It’s a wonderful side trip. This might be the respite you need from meals, shopping, and golf.

There is no shortage of restaurants on St. Simons. From casual to fine dining, the island has everything to offer. If you are planning a trip in December, Sea Island restaurants will be open to the public (with a reservation) and will offer prix-fixed options. For a nightcap, my favorite place is Village Inn and Pub. It’s charming and often features live music.

Jekyll Island:

Jekyll Island is famous for being a playground for the wealthy in the late 19th and early 20th Century. The historic area of Jekyll surrounding the Jekyll Island Club Hotel feature cottages that housed some of the wealthiest people in the world. I love to walk the historic district of Jekyll and admire the ‘cottages’ that the elite built. (Hollybourne and Villa Ospo are my favorites). The hotel is a beautiful blend of old and new. They often feature specials and events so check their website for dining options, cooking classes, kids programs, etc. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center is also a crowd pleaser and located in the historic area as well. Jekyll is well known for its beaches (particularly Driftwood Beach), bike and walking trails, and a water park. Jekyll is being responsibly redeveloped with a new shopping district, beautiful convention center, and a new Westin hotel. Jekyll has significantly more dining and lodging options than in years past. The new development is charming and is exactly what the island needed. Those that are in fear that Jekyll will become overdeveloped can thank a State law regulating the development while preserving the historical and natural areas. Jekyll also features a nice campground across the street from the beach. The Spanish moss draped trees provide a great canopy over your tent or RV. If you are visiting at Christmas time, Jekyll offers many themed events including a Christmas tree lightings, Christmas movies on the village green, Santa visits, and new for this year is an ice skating rink ocean side.

If you come to the area in December, you will see Christmas at the beach in all of its glory. If you can’t make it down by then, the area is magical any time of the year. Warm smiles, beaches, great food, and an array of hotels to choose from, it’s a perfect setting for a weekend or a lifetime. I still look around and say “Thank You.”


Golden Isles Festivals and Events





In between visits back to Marietta and beyond, Jeff is a Realtor on St. Simons Island.