My 10-year-old daughter, Anna, and I first saw the beauty of Georgia’s vast tidal salt marshes while driving white-knuckled over a cable-stayed bridge. We felt like we’d stumbled upon another world, and immediately disagreed on how to explore it. I suggested kayaking its serene low-lying waterways, gliding past dolphins and manatees, as well as swaying reeds.
“Alligators,” she reminded me. It was the South, after all, and we’d brought our Northern fears along.
I sighed. It’d been a long travel day.
It was our first time traveling alone together. As the youngest of three, Anna had spent much of her good-natured life buckled in the back seat of her brothers’ carpools. This trip was her chance to drive the agenda, while I, as a 40-something mother, attempted to freeze my youngest in time. But she loved the land; I loved the sea. Would our travel styles sync up?
The Golden Isles sit on Georgia’s southeast coast almost halfway between Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah, Ga. Every fall, the vibrant green Spartina grass turns gold, setting the marshes that separate the mainland from the coast aglow. Anna had chosen the isles for our mother-daughter trip due to their sea turtle conservation efforts. She wanted to join biologists on a dawn beach patrol to learn how nest tracking was done.
We checked into the Cloister, an exclusive Mediterranean-style resort surrounded by palmettos and oak trees on tiny Sea Island. It was hard not to feel like royalty. The blond, blue-eyed valet opened our car door and asked, “Where y’all from?”
“Minn-a-sota?” he repeated after me, and Anna grinned at his Southern drawl.
We stayed in the Garden Wing. Anna gasped at the size of the room, which neither of us wanted to leave. Exposed beams adorned the ceiling. Sunlight streamed through glass doors that led to a private balcony overlooking lush gardens below. It was too early to retire for the night, though, so we took a stroll to the resort’s 5 miles of private bright white beach. I dug in the sand with my toes while Anna took in the Atlantic Ocean and flipped over a dead horseshoe crab that had washed up on shore.
The next day, we drove 24 miles south to state-owned Jekyll Island to see the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. In 1978, the federal government classified loggerhead turtles as a threatened species. Today, though the sea turtle population is showing promising signs of recovering, only one in 4,000 hatchlings make it to adulthood. Anna fretted over a turtle named Tsunami, who swam in circles in a big blue tank while recovering from a boat strike to the head.
To get her mind off the turtles, we drove to Driftwood Beach. Beach erosion had uprooted miles of gnarly trees. Sun-bleached, they lay strewn across the beach like a felled forest. Anna kicked off her shoes and climbed their decaying limbs while their roots fanned out behind her; she was enjoying the peaceful rhythm of the ocean waves that rolled in. Meanwhile, red ants stung my feet and I ran to the water to wash them off.
Since she’d mentioned alligators, I took her to the observation deck on Horton Pond to see them in the wild. A large alligator lurked utterly still, with only its eyes and back visible above the murky surface, while three babies crisscrossed the freshwater pond with the energy only youth possesses. We watched them play for a while, and then hiked the roughly half-mile Tupelo Trail, where live oak trees dripped with Spanish moss.
From the time of the Gilded Age until World War II hit, Jekyll Island served as a private hunting preserve for Northern millionaires like the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. After lunch, I forced a stop at the 240-acre historic district to get a glimpse of the turreted 1888 Jekyll Island Club Hotel, where membership eventually topped out at 56 millionaires (now it’s a luxury resort open to the public). Anna’s feet had begun to hurt, so bored and uninterested, she rode on my back while I checked out the Southern architecture.
Previous trips had taught me to go slow while traveling with kids, so the next day we stuck close to home to conserve energy. Sea Island, which is private and open only to members and guests (including hotel guests), offers an array of activities like horseback riding, boat trips and falconry, but they come at a steep price. We settled on one activity, an air rifle class for beginners at the 90-year-old Shooting School.
While Anna diligently cleared a row of metal silhouettes, her instructor, Jimmy, shared Georgia’s coastal history with me. There was Sapelo Island, where Gullah-speaking descendants of once-enslaved rice growers have preserved their way of life, he said. Wild horses roam free on Cumberland Island, while the notorious 19th-century pirate’s treasure is rumored to be buried on Blackbeard Island.
If only we had time to visit it all.
But the clock was ticking, and there was a limit to how much energy Anna and I had left. Plus, darkening skies meant Tropical Storm Nestor was about to roll in, bringing much-needed rains to a drought-stricken area.
When the sheets of rain began to fall, we found shelter in our rental car. We drove to nearby St. Simons Island, a buzzing tourist destination, and much to Anna’s delight, wandered through the souvenir shops at Pier Village.
History of the isles
The next morning, we woke to a bright sun and a blue sky, so we returned to St. Simons Island to explore its history. We parked in front of the 129-step lighthouse. A waterfront trail led us through Neptune Park to the pier where we could see the 656-foot carrier ship that had capsized in St. Simons Sound a few weeks earlier, spilling fuel into the waters.
After breakfast, we visited the 1736 Fort Frederica National Monument to get a glimpse of pre-Revolutionary life. Broken oyster shells, used as part of a recipe for building material, formed footprints where the tabby structures once stood, housing up to 1,500 people. Old black cannons pointed out over a bend in the Frederica River beside the fort’s ruins to protect the then-British colony from Spanish invasion.
After a long day, Anna asked for another piggyback ride, and we carried on that way beneath the canopying oak trees. At picturesque Christ Church, we did a quick tour of the old graveyard where settlers dating as far back as 1803 lay.
On our last night, we were tired, so we cuddled up in bed to watch a movie. It seemed like the perfect, cozy ending to the perfect trip. Every island brought on a new experience, and Anna, to my surprise, asked if we could return with her adventure-seeking brothers.
Jennifer Jeanne Patterson lives in Edina; find her online at unplannedcooking.com.