Just south of Sea Island, Cumberland Island was once a retreat for the Carnegie family. Their chief home there was a mansion called Dungeness, which was destroyed by a fire in 1959. Thomas Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, built another house, Greyfield, for their daughter, Margaret Ricketson. Her daughter, Lucy Ferguson, converted it to an inn in 1962. In the late ’70s, the Carnegies sold most of the island to the government, and it is now a national seashore.
Cumberland Island was never widely settled, and under the care of the National Park Service, it remains little touched by the modern world. As cars are not permitted, we left ours at a lot operated by the inn in Fernandina Beach, Florida, just south of the Georgia border and 45 minutes from the Jacksonville airport. A short walk brought us to a dock, from where a launch transfers guests to Greyfield three times a day.
Cumberland Island was never widely settled, and remains little touched by the modern world.
After a pleasant 45-minute trip, much of which was spent watching dolphins ride the bow wave of the boat, we arrived at the heavily wooded island. There, we caught our first sight of the stately white-pillared inn, surrounded by expanses of green lawn and live oaks draped with tendrils of Spanish moss. Our room, the Porch Suite, proved to be somewhat narrow, but was delightfully decorated with beadboard wainscoting, period furniture and an imposing four-poster bed provided with small steps. An adjoining sitting room came with a built-in armoire and daybed, while the compact, charmingly old-fashioned bath was dominated by a large claw-foot tub with a shower (and a somewhat awkward curtain). To preserve its period character, the suite did not contain a television; the telephone was only for emergencies; and there was no Internet. Each of the 16 rooms, including those in two outlying cottages, is individual in character and décor.
After a martini in the small honor bar next to the library, we wandered into the gracious living room, which struck a rare balance between formality and comfort. Dinner was served downstairs at tables set with crystal, silver and china. In general, guests dine together family style. Young staff members served us with professional aplomb. The food was exceptional, with perfectly cooked halibut in a herb dressing accompanied by baby vegetables being a standout.
Cumberland Island does not offer resort activities such as golf and tennis. Rather, the emphasis is on its cultural heritage and natural riches. Morning and afternoon excursions are led by naturalist guides, one of which took us to the forlorn ruins of Dungeness and then along a boardwalk through marshland — where we spotted an alligator — to impressive dunes and an untouched beach. On another occasion, after heading through dense maritime forest of pine, oak, holly and palmetto, we stopped at Plum Orchard, a lavish 20,000-square-foot mansion built by Lucy Carnegie for her son, George, and now carefully maintained by the National Park Service. Nearby, an area known as the Settlement was once a community of freed slaves. There, the small First African Baptist Church served as the wedding venue for the ill-fated John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette (who wanted to escape the attentions of the paparazzi).
During the drive, we saw more than two dozen bird species — including the pileated woodpecker — several of Cumberland’s resident feral horses, an alligator and some white-tailed deer. If you have ever wondered what life must have been like at a gracious Southern manor in bygone days, this is the place to find out.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The atmosphere of complete relaxation; there is no pressure whatever to forsake a rocking chair on the front porch.
DISLIKE: As charming as it is to have authentic plumbing fixtures, the encircling shower curtain around our combined tub/shower proved a challenge.
GOOD TO KNOW: Six of the rooms in the main inn, lovely as they are, have shared baths. They are: the Master Suite, Marsh, North Marsh, South Marsh, Marsh West and South Porch.
Greyfield Inn 92 Porch Suite, $635, all meals included; Two-night minimum stay. Cumberland Island, Georgia. Tel. (904) 261-6408.