Despite being hammered by 2016 and 2017 hurricanes, St. Simons is doing just fine. Named for a Spanish monk, this gorgeous and historic island is located just off the coast of Georgia.
It is the largest of a chain of Georgia barrier islands known as the Golden Isles. Other islands in the chain are Jekyll, Little St. Simons and Sea Island.
Accessible by highway from the mainland, the St. Simons of today is a peaceful resort town with its streets sheltered by a mature canopy of moss-draped coastal live oaks and full of quaint shops and restaurants. Its earlier history, however, was far from peaceful.
For at least two millennia, it was a Native American fishing ground. In the 18th century, it was the venue for the rival imperialisms of the new British colony of Georgia and the Spanish in Florida, based in St. Augustine. The area was known as the debatable land so Georgia’s founder, James Oglethorpe, established Fort Frederica in 1736 on St. Simons to control the shipping lanes.
During the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1742, Spanish and British forces clashed on the island. Fort Frederica’s troops defeated the Spanish, ensuring Georgia’s future as a British colony. Today, the archeological remnants of Fort Frederica are protected by the National Park Service. Rangers conduct a fascinating tour there.
The island was also home to nine slavery-era rice and cotton plantations and, in the 20th century, developed into a shrimping and tourist mecca. Over the years, it has attracted preachers John and Charles Wesley, U.S. presidents, the G8 international conference, the super-rich and a cohort of smart travelers seeking a relaxing getaway.
Twenty-first century St. Simons attractions include friendly people, a great waterfront hotel, scores of restaurants, a public pier, a historic lighthouse and museum, parks, golf courses, and a shopping village. It also boasts extensive marshes, 8- to 10-foot tides, an impressive tree canopy and fine beaches with almost universal public access. A zoning ordinance that permits no building taller than its surrounding tree canopy has kept the island free of high-rise hotels and condos and gives visitors the feel of returning to an earlier era of American leisure.
Before You Go:
St. Simons is just offshore from Brunswick, Ga. Accessible by car off Interstate 95 and U.S. 17, it is an hour’s drive north of Jacksonville, Fla. There is a large private jetport on the island and nearby Brunswick (BQK) Airport, a former naval air station, is served by Delta Air Lines. Jacksonville (JAX) and Savannah (SAV) airports are both less than an hour and a half away and have extensive connections. The closest Amtrak stations are in Jacksonville (78 miles) and Jessup (48 miles), offering Florida-to- New York service. The King and Prince Hotel can arrange for airport and train station pickups with advance notice.
There is no island public transportation system but there are taxis and trolley services conducting island tours. Renting a bike is great because rental places and bike paths are almost everywhere.
Must-Sees for a Short Stay:
- Stay at the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort for oceanfront luxury. The hotel started as a dance club in the Roaring ’20s, became an upscale hotel in 1941 and was taken over by the Navy in World War II after a German U-boat torpedoed shipping just offshore. It was an officer’s billet and home to a top-secret radar development station, hence the name Echo for the hotel’s gourmet-quality water-view restaurant. After the war, it resumed its role as a luxury hotel, and today is the lodging crown jewel of St. Simons. Renovated in 2014 and totally repaired after 2017’s Hurricane Irma, the property blends a classic historical look with contemporary fixtures, conveniences and amenities.
- Enjoy an Atlantic Ocean sunrise from the beach or pier.
- Take a trolley tour of the island (lighthousetrolleys.com).
If You Have Several Days:
In addition to the above:
- Enjoy the costal ambiance on board a sunset cruise, dolphin cruise or inshore fishing trip with Cap Fendig of Lighthouse Trolleys.
- Visit the old Coast Guard station, Bloody Marsh Battlefield, Fort Frederica, historic Christ Church and the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum.
- Explore the shops and galleries near the pier.
- Explore Brunswick and adjacent Jekyll Island.
- Rent a bicycle and explore the island’s many bike paths.
- Play the King and Prince Golf Course and enjoy greens built on small marsh islands and connected by boardwalks.
- Have breakfast at The Sandcastle near the pier.
- Have lunch at Southern Soul, Delaney’s Bistro, Gnat’s Landing or Café Frederica and enjoy dinner at Echo, the island’s only waterfront restaurant and/or Georgia Sea Grill.
This Destination at a Glance:
Mobility Level: All mobility levels will do fine as long as they can enter and exit a car or touring trolley.
Senior Travel Advantages: Upscale and unfrenzied ambiance. The King and Prince has elevators. The island has something for all ages and is recommended for over-50 travelers and for extended-family vacations.
When to Go: St. Simons has a year-round good climate. August and September are usually hot, but winter is mild and a great time to celebrate the holidays island-style. October and March are usually superb.
Where to Stay: The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort is the only beachfront hotel on the island. Elsewhere, there are a few chain hotels, a golf resort and some bed-and-breakfast properties, but none can hold a candle to the beachfront ambiance of the King and Prince.
Special Travel Interests: Beach, history, shrimping, local sea life and golf.
Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Fla.