Before you start wondering about the reasons to visit Cumberland Island, you may be asking where on Earth IS Cumberland Island? Well, there’s a story in itself. Cumberland Island is a barrier island and is off the coast of Georgia. As well as being the biggest US barrier island, it also marks the westernmost point of shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean in the US. With an area of just 56.25 square miles, you may be wondering just how many reasons to visit Cumberland Island there can be. Hop on the ferry at St. Mary’s and find out!
One of the most compelling reasons to visit Cumberland Island is the history, parts of which are still visible. Most prominent of these monuments to the opulent lifestyle once present on the island is site of the Dungeness Ruins. The ruins are the remains of a large mansion built in 1884 by Thomas Carnegie and his wife Lucy, on the site of an even older mansion, built in 1783 by the Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene. The mansion burned in 1959. The house comprises a part of the Dungeness Historical District, which includes outbuildings, servant’s quarters, cisterns, and other structures, including the Tabby House, a house built for Nathanael Greene’s widow, Catherine. Plum Orchard Mansion, a home built by Lucy Carnegie for her son George, the mansion sits intact and has been beautifully restored. Be sure to visit the first African church, a tiny building with pews to support only about 20 or so people.
If you want a little more insight into the history of the area, take one of the tours offered by the National Park Service rangers. Instead of walking to every attraction, the park service uses a van and travels to historic locations around the seashore, including the Plum Orchard Mansion, the Settlement, the first African church, and other interesting places along the main road. Tours are offered daily and depart from the Sea Camp Ranger Station. Tours last 5 to 6 hours and arrive back at the station in time for the departing ferry. It’s better to make reservations because seating is limited. Shorter Footsteps tours are walking tours that last only about an hour and cover the Dungeness Historic District. Self-guided cell phone tours are also available.
There are a number of cemeteries on the island, but the Greene-Miller Cemetery is perhaps the best known. It’s named for General Nathanael Greene, a major figure in the Revolutionary War, and Phineas Miller, who at one time tutored the Greene children, managed the farm, and was Catherine’s husband after Nathanael died. A marker also exists for Henry "Light-horse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War general and father of the famed Robert E. Lee. He was once interred at the cemetery but was later moved to Lexington. Other graveyards, such as the Stafford Graveyard and High Point Cemetery, offer interesting historic gravesites.
This museum is located in what was once the ice house right as you arrive on the island by ferry. The museum is one of the big attractions of Cumberland Island and has displays that explain the island history, from the time of the Timucuans through the Plantation Age and the Gilded Age. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday and is staffed by volunteers.
Wildlife is another of the attractions of Cumberland Island. Some of the most exciting members of the diverse wildlife are the feral horses. These feral equines are decedents of horses brought to the island by the English in the 18th century. Currently there are about 150 to 200 horses on the island and they roam freely, even where there are a number of people. Other diverse offerings are sea turtles, armadillos, wild turkeys, bobcats, vultures, manatees, otters, and white tailed deer.
The 17-mile stretch of white, undeveloped beaches is virtually empty most of the time, since only so many people are permitted on the island at one time. These pristine beaches have none of the trappings of some beaches - there are no watersports or crowds, so you can enjoy the quiet wonders of nature. From time to time you may even see horses running on the beach.
Although RVs aren’t allowed and cannot be transported to the island, you can camp at one of many campsites, including Sea Camp, Stafford Beach, Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise, and Brickhill Bluff. If camping isn’t for you, enjoy the luxurious Greyfield Inn, owned by Middy Ferguson, a descendant of the Carnegies. The mansion was built by Thomas and Lucy Carnegie for their daughter Margaret. The regally appointed rooms and cottages can go for as much as $635.00 per night.
If you’re looking for a getaway that’s a bit of a hideaway, Cumberland Island is a good choice. Anyone among the readers been? Do tell!
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