Southern comforts

It was the solitude that first enticed the wealthy Carnegie family to Cumberland. Nowadays, it is the rare commodity of serenity that draws the lucky few tourists to what is the most remote and the largest of Georgia’s barrier islands.

In the first half of the 20th century, the descendants of the steel dynasty had the place pretty much to themselves. Andrew’s brother Thomas and his wife Mary gave their nine offspring money to buy their own mansions or, to use their parlance, cottages. Forty years ago, the Carnegies sold most of the land to the US National Park Service (NPS), which has designated the island a protected wilderness area. It is this special status that makes Cumberland unique in a region long since lost to the gauche symbols of globalised wealth: flash hotels, country clubs and golf courses. It was the intriguing blend of old northern wealth, southern charm and British colonial influence that drew me to this island and to the Georgian coast.

What makes Cumberland astonishing is its size. At 18 miles long, its land mass is, as the locals like to brag, one third bigger than Manhattan’s. Yet on any given day no more than 300 people are allowed on to the island, alongside the roughly two dozen residents. There is no bridge from the mainland and the NPS, which runs the twice daily commercial ferry service, requires advance booking, thereby keeping a strict check on numbers. Most are day-trippers but a tiny hardy band are allowed to stay at either of two designated camp areas, where they must bring all of their supplies with them as there are no facilities. Otherwise, the only place to stay is at the Greyfield Inn. With a maximum capacity of 33 and its own private boat, this delightful clapboard home has remained part of the Carnegie dynasty.

The restored Plum Orchard mansion

Most of the other properties have fallen into rack and ruin. However, Plum Orchard, which was sold in 1971 to the NPS, has been restored to its former glory, an Edwardian mansion with a squash court and an indoor swimming pool where visitors are given guided tours by volunteers from the mainland.

Greyfield, built in 1901, is a study in sumptuous, understated elegance. Here, in the middle of nowhere, with wild horses and turkeys roaming the garden, men are required to wear jackets for dinner. Guests are transported back into a world of rocking chairs on the veranda, a well-stocked library and not a phone or a computer in sight. On the two nights I was there, I met only five other guests, our solitude temporarily punctured by a couple from Atlanta fulminating over the evils of Barack Obama and big government.

I sought to cover as much of the island as possible. It is not easy. Bicycles can topple over on the sandy track, while the hotel’s 4x4 felt out of place in the setting. Bejan, Greyfield’s resident environmentalist, showed me a clearing with a neat row of small chimneys, all that was left of a series of slave dwellings that were burnt down in the mid-19th century.

At the top end of the island, past a closed-off area that is home to the Candler family (of Coca-Cola fame), Bejan pointed out an African Baptist church, a tiny adobe structure built in 1893 for the island’s black workers, who were segregated from the better-paid whites to the south. In 1996, the church was the venue for the wedding of John F Kennedy Jr to Carolyn Bessette.

The inland shore consists of miles of inaccessible marshland, the salt marshes merging into maritime forest, which gives way dramatically to an altogether different vista. On the Atlantic side is an unchanging flat expanse of 17 miles of beach, with gulls and gannets swooping to the ocean. It is both barren and beguiling.

The next day, I explored the marshland in a canoe. I delved inside the warren of creeks in search of alligators. I failed to find any but I did spot dolphins, their chirpy greeting drowned out by pelicans and vultures. The rest of the time I spent ambling down paths and in the forest, looking out for armadillos, wild boar and raccoons.

The ruins of Dungeness mansion

The only area of the island that could be considered busy (a relative term here) is Dungeness on the southern tip. It was named after the Kent coastal outpost by General James Oglethorpe and the English colonisers who arrived on the Georgia coast in 1733. The name Cumberland is after a duke of that name. It was originally called San Pedro by Spanish missionaries who came ashore in 1566 before being forced off a century later by French pirates.

The history of the island, from its original Timucua inhabitants to the present day, is set out in a building on the western shore that was once an ice house. This has been an island of glamour and galas and yet also sinister and remote. The mansion at Dungeness was said to have been burned down in 1959 by a poacher who had been shot in the leg a few days earlier by one of the servants.

Each of the barrier islands has a distinctive character. My next stop Jekyll, two island clusters further north, shares a similar topography. The Carnegies used their Cumberland hide-outs for lavish parties but most of the time they sought solitude. The industrialists who came to Jekyll, such as the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers, built a club in 1886 where they would entertain: sailing in the summer, hunting in the winter and making deals.

It was here, in 1910, that a group of bankers, including JP Morgan, meeting under the ruse of a duck-shooting excursion, hatched the idea of the Federal Reserve. Sitting on the veranda of the Jekyll Island Club, I could picture these men showing off their yachts and indulging in gossip from Wall Street over martinis.

Due to its road bridge and weaker development rules, Jekyll has suffered some unsightly development. A convention centre under construction at the island’s eastern end is a particular eyesore. Yet the island retains much of its old charm. Two-thirds of it is still virgin land, a beguiling mix of cedar and pine forest.

The final stop on my journey is to Savannah, a city that encapsulates southern charm and a colonial inheritance. The river front, with the guided boat tours and gift shops, is the heart of tourist Savannah. Less heralded but far more appealing, are the small shops, private galleries and unsung museums, such as the childhood home of the writer Flannery O’Connor.

England meets the Deep South everywhere here. When Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733, he wanted a place with symmetrical squares, so carriages would have to slow down. The city’s 22 squares remain architectural gems, a delight of fountains and fancy townhouses that allow visitors to imagine a bygone era. From the wild horses and creeks of Cumberland, to the tales of high living in Jekyll, to the dreaminess of Savannah, I did just that.


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