Southern Living’s Shrimp & Grits Festival runs Sept. 14 to 16. Why do I mention this, besides the fact that it involves two of life’s favorite things? Because it’s just another excuse to visit Jekyll Island, a historic piece of Georgia coastline — or, as a friend put it: “Nantucket on a budget.”
It wasn’t always for the budget-conscious.
In fact, the island, just a short drive from Jacksonville International Airport, was once the winter getaway for the “One Percent.” From the late 1800s, Rockefeller, Pulitzer and Morgan were just a few of the big names who wintered at the “Club” (now a hotel) and the cottages around it. In was in this Victorian-era milieu that Sen. Nelson Aldrich convened the best financiers of the day. The eventual fruit of that 1910 powwow? The Federal Reserve System.
Fast-forward to 2018. The island’s historic district, where the Jekyll Island Club Resort’s flag still waves, reeks of the exclusivity of its past.
But thanks to limited — but strategic — commercial development, Jekyll Island is definitely a family destination for the masses, most evident by the Summer Waves water park. Its giant waterslide looms large in the island’s skyline.
Jekyll Island seduces you with its mystical past and modernized present without working too hard. The water fowl, sunsets and quietude do the selling.
You’re more likely to spot a manatee — as I did on my sunset kayak cruise through the salt marshes with Kingfisher Paddleventures — than you are a Starbucks. (There is, however, a charming little Dairy Queen that’s been there for five years. And you have to cross a bridge to Brunswick, Georgia, to see a Target or a large department store.)
If you’re traveling with children, or looking for a good bargain (who isn’t?), you won’t do much better than the new Holiday Inn Resort, the most centrally located hotel on the island. Your balcony faces the beach, there’s a Jacuzzi and a pool within a flip-flop stroll from your room and the suites are large enough to host a mini-family reunion.
Okay, so you may not get the fancy bath products you’re used to, but at this price and location, you can overlook the minor details of luxury.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the hotel’s eatery, the Beach House Restaurant, open all day. Tip: try the pancakes for breakfast and the risotto for dinner. Carbs don’t count on vacation.
Your meals are not included in your hotel rate, and neither is the bike rental, but, trust me, this island was made for biking.
There is a lovely bike trail down to Driftwood Beach, referred to as a “tree graveyard” for the unique way the island erodes on the north end and deposits tree limbs on the south end. A popular wedding destination, this beach is often included among the South’s most romantic beaches.
Nature lovers will get a kick out of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, where you’ll see the most charming creatures being nursed back to health by dedicated staff members. There’s a nominal fee to enter, but all proceeds from ticket sales and the gift shop go directly to the center’s work and programs.
From there, you can walk around those Victorian cottages I mentioned earlier. If you’re a fan of Spanish moss and huge porches, you’re in the right place. Nothing conjures antebellum grace like this part of the island, which you can drink in while on a horse-drawn carriage.
The Shrimp & Grits Festival is another way the island celebrates its Southern roots. Rained out last year due to Hurricane Irma, the festival is back with good eats, live music, markets and family fun. But, if you miss it, Jekyll Island is a festival of the senses anytime.