During America’s Golden Age at the end of the 19th century, names such as Rockefeller, Morgan and Vanderbilt were synonymous with opulence and wealth. But their large homes in New York and the US East Coast were only where they spent part of the year. During the winter months, they flocked south to a small island on the Georgia state coast. Called Jekyll, it was named after Joseph Jekyll, a friend of the state’s founder, General James Oglethorpe.
These famous names are only part of the island’s history. The Timicua people inhabited the country before the colony of Georgia was established in 1733 during the reign of King George II. The settlement prospered and the island was then purchased by a series of families until the DuBignon family purchased Jekyll in 1792, growing cotton, before John Eugene Du Bignon decided to market the island as a retreat of winter.
In 1886, the Jekyll Island Club took over ownership of the island, creating what Munsey Magazine called “the richest, most exclusive and most inaccessible club” in the world. Upper-class families were accustomed to the exclusivity of New York clubs, and Jekyll topped them all. At one time, a sixth of the world’s wealth stayed there, attending its lavish parties.
The approximately 200 members stayed in the clubhouse and some Victorian cottages, bringing with them family, friends (for up to two weeks) and household staff, including valets and maids. Here they could enjoy the privacy that the remote island offered. However, such luxury comes at a price. Club dues rose from US$100 in 1888 to $700 in 1933. Then the Great Depression reduced club attendance drastically, as the island was later evacuated for security reasons during World War II. It eventually closed before being sold to the state in 1947.
It’s now known as Jekyll Island State Park, which celebrates 75 years of public access this year and tears down the velvet ropes of what was once a millionaire’s playground for the enjoyment of all.
The adventure begins on the roadway, where signs mark where the sea turtles cross the road. A toll barrier covers your park fees and provides access to the only gas station on the island. Passing through mossy oaks, I came to the historic district that surrounds the resort, home to these Victorian cottages owned by billionaires during the club’s heyday. Visitors can now see them up close on a guided tour. The neighborhood’s tree-covered spaces also host the island’s annual Shrimp & Grits Festival, named after one of the island’s signature dishes, consisting of a polenta-like dish topped with prawns in a sauce with white wine cream. Local restaurants are all bringing their versions in search of the best prices (Driftwood Bistro and The Wharf are both top contenders for their dishes).
For my last visit, I stayed at the Jekyll Island Club Resort itself (which reopened in 1987 after being virtually abandoned for a decade). Once checked in, I grabbed a bike to ride the island’s long stretches of trails. At the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, located in the club’s former power plant, I learned about its rehabilitation and release program, getting up close and personal with the animals’ habitats. At the nearby Mosaic Museum, I admire artifacts from the island’s history, including a vintage Studebaker car that rolled down the beach and is now outfitted for photos. In 1858, a ship called the Vagabond arrived on the island, illegally transporting human cargo. Today, these people are honored with the Wanderer Memory Trail, which tells the story through educational signs.
As you wander the quiet streets of the island – which form a large loop – you’ll find that there isn’t much development, with only a handful of hotels and restaurants. Instead, you’ll see a mix of modest ranches and newer homes, not so different from styles elsewhere on the Georgian coast. About 600 private residences are scattered across Jekyll, but because the island is still a state park, residents do not own the land, but rent it out and own the structures on the property. You can still feel like Gatsby in one of Jekyll Island Club Resort’s three cabins, which are available for rental.
These days, the wealthy and notable have moved from the famous “club” to the gated mansions of Sea Island, located northeast of Jekyll Island, and the secluded homes of Cumberland Island. Sea Island is a community and resort that hosted the G8 summit in 2004, while Cumberland is home to members of the Carnegie family and was the site of John F Kennedy Jr’s wedding to Carolyn Bessette.
But if you want to relive Jekyll Island’s golden age, it won’t cost you a hefty annual fee. Instead, you can spend your days like generations of vacationers did in the post-club era: playing croquet under the oaks, soaking up the sun on sandy beaches, and enjoying a good meal, like the millionaires did.
How to get there
British Airways (ba.com), Delta (delta.com), and Virgin Atlantic (virginatlatnic.com) serve Atlanta from Heathrow; Virgin Atlantic also flies from Manchester. From there, it’s a short flight (or 4.5 hours drive) to Brunswick, the gateway to the Golden Isles.
Where to stay
The best place to stay to learn about the island’s history and claim to be a former millionaire is at Jekyll Island Club Resort, the legendary property where famous names have stayed and played. Doubles from £206
If you’d rather be right on the beach, the Westin Jekyll Island is just steps from the restaurants and shops of the Beach Village, not to mention more than 30 kilometers of bike paths. A shuttle can take you to the golf courses on the island. Doubles from £408