From millionaires' playground to family-friendly getaway
"Stop to slow down.” That’s the mantra of Georgia’s Jekyll Island, according to restaurant owner Dan Dickerson. “It’s what we tell people when they first come to the island to explain why everything is slower, more relaxed. It’s how we approach everything here.”
Dickerson is the owner of the Driftwood Bistro, on the North end of the island, and has been in the restaurant business for several decades. Since opening the Driftwood five years ago, it has become one of the most successful and popular dining destinations for residents and visitors alike.
From a clam bisque that will melt in your mouth and savory entrées such as Stuffed Flounder and Georgia Shrimp and Grits, to the best bread pudding you’ll likely ever have (a recipe handed down from one of his employees’ grandmother), the dinner-only restaurant is packed every night, six days a week (they close on Sunday).
“It’s all about great food and great service,” he explains. “And here I think we have the best of both.”
The best of both is a theme that fits the 15-square-mile island perfectly. Home to one of the oldest settlements in the state, it was developed in the late 1800s by a group of some of the wealthiest men in the world (including names such as Rockefeller, Morgan and Pulitzer). Since the 1950s, the island has been a vacation destination for people looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
And while it did go through a down period in the past few decades, a renewed drive to modernize (especially the hotels and businesses) combined with a focus on creating a family-friendly environment, has returned Jekyll Island to its once-prominent place among vacation destinations in the region.
What makes Jekyll work is that it has combined affordable family vacations with high-end food and lodging. From beachfront hotels such as the Holiday Inn Resort (right on the Atlantic Ocean) to the Gilded Age luxury of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel (built by the millionaires as their winter home), you have your pick of places to stay to fit your budget and desires.
And the food. Oh, the food. The Driftwood Bistro is far from being the only place to sate your appetite.
Right on the main pier on the riverside of the island is Latitude 31 & The ‘Rah’ Bar, where you can eat steamed oysters and peel-and-eat shrimp under the stars or chow down on Dungeness Crab Legs or a big plate of Low County Boil inside the spacious dining room. (Not to mention enjoying a few adult beverages as well.)
Or, if you want to sample some exquisite fine dining, the Grand Dining Room in the Club Hotel has a menu to rival any four-star restaurant. The Victorian-style formal dining room features tasty temptations such as Watermelon Gazpacho, Poached White Peach & Pear Carpaccio, Smoked Rainbow Trout, Fennel & Ginger Poulet Rouge Chicken, and, of course, Jekyll Shrimp & Grits.
Naturally, there is a lot more to going on vacation beyond where you’ll stay or what you’ll eat. When it comes to things to do, Jekyll again does not disappoint.
The Historic District is in many ways the heart of the island. It was here the millionaires built their clubhouse and cottages. Their version of a “cottage” is a bit grander in scale than one would assume from such a pedestrian word. These stately residences were each built to stand out (no two are even remotely alike) and have been repurposed over the years into a wide variety of lodgings, restaurants, wedding venues, shops, offices, studios and more.
One of the best ways to experience the Historic District is by taking a carriage ride. Informative guides will take you on a horse-drawn ride through the entire district and back in time to an age when the wealthiest in the world made Jekyll their private paradise. There are also trolley tours where you can visit some of the cottages, as well as plenty of bike and walking paths for your own exploration.
Speaking of bike paths, the entire island is served by miles of paved paths. Renting a bicycle (or bringing your own) to get around is highly recommended. Or if you want something a bit peppier, you can rent a “Red Bug” electric vehicle and leave your car in the hotel parking lot.
Another major destination is the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, where dedicated staff and volunteers monitor the many sea turtles that return to the island every year to lay their eggs. They also help rescue injured or sick turtles and nurse them back to health. You can tour the center and see the many turtles undergoing rehab, with your ticket fees going to help this very worthwhile cause.
Vacation should mean relaxation (though a lot of people seem to have forgotten this), and if you enjoy fishing or golf, Jekyll has much to offer.
The waters around the island are home to some of the best fishing in the Southeast. You can book a tour with a boat captain, take a kayak and a pole into the marsh, or simply wade into the ocean and cast a line directly into the sea. No matter how you like to fish, Jekyll has something for you.
The Jekyll Island Golf Club features three 18-hole course and one nine-hole course, set in the heart of the island. Indian Mound was created by Joe Lee in 1975, Oleander is a tightly designed course with short grasses and ocean breezes, and Pine Lakes was designed by Clyde Johnson to cater to all skill levels, making it the perfect family-outing course. And the granddaddy of them all is the nine-hole Great Dunes, built by famed course designer Walter “Old Man” Travis in 1926 and laid out to reflect the island’s unique coastal terrain.
If fishing or golf isn’t your cup of tea, there are many other things to do and see on the island as well: air boat rides, coastal expeditions, dolphin tours, mini-golf, and the Summer Waves Water Park, which features six water slides, a 500,000-gallon wave pool, and a half-mile-long lazy river.
But the biggest draw of the island isn’t the food, the lodgings or the activities. It’s the pace of life. Over two thirds of the island remains undeveloped (and never will be, as the island is actually a state park), which keeps things from getting overly crowded (as is common at other beach destinations).
Everything moves slower on Jekyll. What traffic there is is slow, most people travel around by foot or bicycle, and the miles of beaches are uncrowded. (Make time to visit Driftwood Beach on the north end of the island.)
We all live in a world dominated by deadlines, smartphones, schedules, and a “get there, do that NOW” mentality. Not so on Jekyll Island. This is where you have time to really relax and unwind. It’s truly where you go to stop...and slow down.