Last updated: 11:00 PM ET, Sun May 01 2016

St. Simon’s Island: An Authentic Coastal Georgia Gem

Destination & Tourism | Susan Young | May 01, 2016

St. Simon’s Island: An Authentic Coastal Georgia Gem

PHOTO: St. Simon's Island from the air. (photos courtesy of Thinkstock)

When searching out a vacation destination, authenticity plays a big part in our decision. Living in Orlando, one would think the theme parks would be the go-to choice for a family road trip. However, the Disney, Sea World and Universal experience can grow old, especially after standing on line in high heat and humidity with crabby kids. Getting out of town in pursuit of natural flora and fauna can be just as entertaining and way more relaxing for an extended family adventure.

Recently, we discovered St. Simon’s Island, on the southeast coast of Georgia. Barely a four-hour drive from Orlando, this cluster of barrier islands includes Jekyll and Sea Islands, located between Jacksonville and Savannah. We chose to stay at the King and Prince Resort, which enjoys its own slice of history and offers everything from single rooms to villas to 4- and 5-bedroom houses. Built in 1935, the hotel holds a spot in the National Register of Historic Places.

READ MORE: Why We Love Savannah, Georgia

The resort’s oceanfront restaurant, ECHO, is named as an homage to their World War II experience as a training facility and radar station held by the Navy. In 1942, German U-boats were spotted off the coast of Georgia, creating a need for a radar facility on St. Simon’s. The resort was closed to the public to accommodate military personnel as part of an overall defense mechanism. Stories of German spies making their way through the marshes to land are incredible and there are generations of families, growing up on the island, who pass along tales of grandparents involved in private rescue efforts when two American merchant ships were sunk by the U-boats. The King and Prince Resort opened back up to the public in 1947 and has become a favorite for multi-generational vacations.

The island is easily traversed by bicycle, which is a great way to discover the historic Christ Church, Fort Frederica National Monument or the St. Simon’s Lighthouse. These landmarks hearken back to an earlier time when England and Spain were fighting over ownership of the Florida and Georgia coastlines. In the mid 1700s, British General James Oglethorpe created Fort Frederica, which held off the Spaniards during the Battle of Bloody Marsh. Remnants of building foundations, as well as the armaments fort, from the town of Frederica can be found at the national park — which is free to the public.

In 1810, the St. Simon’s Lighthouse was built, only to be destroyed by Confederate troops during the Civil War, preventing Union ships from navigating the coast. The lighthouse was rebuilt in 1872 and is still in operation today. A trek up the 129 steps is worth the effort as the view at the top is amazing and the docent’s knowledge of the lighthouse’s history is well worth a listen. Hearing about the lighthouse keeper’s duties and responsibilities will make any age appreciate our modern day amenities.

PHOTO: St. Simon's Island lighthouse.

A short ride up the road you will find Christ Church, built near the site of Fort Frederica in 1808. Damaged during the Civil War, the building was rebuilt in 1884 by Anson Dodge, Jr., dedicating it to his first wife who died while on their honeymoon in India. What a love story this is, and you’ll find their graves outside the church along with many others whose names adorn street signs throughout the island.

During the period before and after the Civil War, the island was home to several plantations, with cotton being a major industry. Until the abolition of slavery, these plantations housed many slaves who worked in the fields. However, some were used as companions and guards to look over the owners’ children.

One such slave, Neptune Small, was a faithful servant of the King family and accompanied one of their sons to war in Virginia. When King died in battle, Neptune risked his own life to find the body and carry him back home for a proper burial. The family was so appreciative of his loyalty that they deeded him property on St. Simon’s Island which is now known as Neptune Park, located adjacent to the Golden Isles visitor center. Recently a bronze sculpture of Neptune Small, by Kevin Pullen, carrying King’s body, was presented at the center with members of both families in attendance. Yet another history lesson that teaches loyalty during a dark time in our country’s past.

A couple of blocks from the Visitors’ Center lies Mallery Street in Pier Village, where we happened upon Savannah Bee Company, owned by St. Simon’s native, Ted Dennard. His shop is chock full of all things related to bees and honey. I had never heard of “Mead,” an alcoholic beverage made of honey, water and yeast. Dennard’s shop provides tastings, which offer flavors reminiscent of champagne, fruity wines and yeasty beer.

READ MORE: 5 Lighthouses You Have to See

If you’re lucky enough to drop in when Ted is around, you’ll enjoy stories of his childhood on the island and his love of bees as not only a honey producer, but a culture on which he bases his business model: “We strive to live as bees live: symbiotically with nature and in a manner that contributes positively to the world around us.” He has also created, ambitiously striving to install observational honey bee hives in 1,000 schools throughout the country with the purpose of stimulating curiosity in young people about the importance of honey bees in our lives.

The opportunities for discovery, family bonding and relaxation on St. Simon’s Island are too numerous to list here but upon arriving at the island, the best way to get an overall education about its history is to take advantage of an excursion led by a native. Our choice was Cap Fendig and his Lighthouse Trolleys Tour. Cap’s knowledge of the island comes from generations of family members’ stories handed down, which he shares graciously, dotted with humor.

So, if you’re tired of the theme park tourist scene, make a stop on the coast of Georgia.

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