Georgia's Cumberland offers a side trip to solitude

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cumberland Island has miles of white sand beaches, cool pine forests and wildlife galore. But the Georgia island's real magic is in what it lacks: cars, towns and crowds of people.

Rather than being remote or hostile, however, Cumberland Island National Seashore is easy to reach, accessible just off Interstate 95. For Marylanders driving to Florida for the winter, it's a quick side trip to solitude.

For my wife and me, the day trip to Cumberland happened to be on Thanksgiving. Away from our families during a cross-country trip, we spent the holiday, usually devoted to family togetherness, communing and feasting with nature.

Cumberland, the most unspoiled of the Golden Isles and once the private domain of the Carnegie family, is now run by the National Park Service, which ferries a maximum of 300 tourists a day. Considering that at 17 miles long and 3 miles wide Cumberland is larger than Manhattan, that limit guarantees seclusion.

The ferry leaves from St. Marys, Ga. Our boat carried a mix of people, from a retired couple looking forward to strolling along the beach, to a family with young children eager to see Cumberland's wild horses, to hikers outfitted for a week of camping.

For us, Cumberland was an impromptu stop between historic Savannah, Ga., and sunny Florida.

There are no stores or restaurants on Cumberland, so packing supplies is a must unless you are staying at the only hotel, the Greyfield Inn. It charges $275 a night per couple for a room and all meals. (Non-guests cannot eat there.)

Being budget travelers, we picked up a Thanksgiving picnic of turkey sandwiches, fruit, cookies and bottled water before catching the ferry.

The ride took about 45 minutes. Just off the dock, a visitor center explains Cumberland's geology, flora and fauna. The island is home to white-tailed deer, armadillos, raccoons, 300 species of birds -- including wild turkeys -- as well as about 30 elusive bobcats and about 200 feral horses.

Not wanting to wait for the naturalist-guided walk, we quickly consulted a map of the 30 miles of trails and struck out on our own. The island is so flat that most of the trails are easy.

We walked south toward Dungeness, the ruins of a mansion built for Thomas Carnegie, brother and partner of Andrew Carnegie. A park ranger had told us that was the best place to spot horses in the afternoon.

The rustling we heard occasionally just off the shady trail turned out to be armadillos, of which we spotted three during our 30-minute walk to Dungeness. These armor-plated critters --ed off with surprising speed when we strained for closer looks.

Christine, my wife, thought Dungeness' ruins -- with ivy creeping its decaying brick sides and a turkey vulture perched on the crumbling chimney -- resembled the burned-out mansion in the dark final scene of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca." In the bright November sun, though, I found the ruins more interesting than eerie.

Although evidence of horses was plentiful, we heard nary a whinny. With no horses to distract us, we read about the mansion, built in 1884 and unused since the death of Thomas Carnegie's widow, Lucy, in 1916. It burned in 1959.

Trust stipulations

Mrs. Carnegie's trust stipulated that the family's Cumberland holdings, practically the entire island, could not be sold until all nine of the couple's children had died. Carnegie grandchildren began selling it to developers in the 1960s.

At the urging of other Carnegie heirs, who wanted Cumberland preserved, the Mellon Foundation gave the National Park Service $10 million to acquire the island. The government now holds 90 percent, while Carnegie descendants own most of the rest.

We followed the trail east, and the forests of magnolia, oak, palmetto and pine soon gave way to sand dunes rising before the broad beach. Just before the dunes, we spotted the first of about a dozen horses we were to see, grazing on a shady hill.

The difference between feral and wild horses, we had learned, is that feral horses are descendants of domesticated equines, in this case probably from the Carnegie stock.

My image of horses free in the wild came from Western movies, where they run in mighty herds. I expected galloping, muscular stallions racing free down the beach. Maybe this is another difference between wild and feral horses, because what we saw were slightly overweight horses grazing with gusto, then ambling off, presumably in search of more food.

That Michael Murphy song didn't exactly spring to mind. In fact, I think we would have had to set a "Wildfire" to get one of these animals to stop eating. (We learned later that the park service is considering thinning the herd, which by its over-grazing is hastening erosion.)

Equine charm

We were charmed by the horses nonetheless, especially by a young one on the beach that managed to investigate our picnic without straying too far from its mother.

The setting for our Thanksgiving feast was sublime. The sun's warm rays broke through gathering clouds as we sat on the shell-strewn beach, watching the waves. As we ate, the horses kept their eyes on us, presumably to see if we'd finish those turkey sandwiches.

After lunch, we strolled in a leisurely fashion along the beach, watching a few fishermen and hundreds of sea birds. Then the 4-mile loop trail turned inland, taking us past Sea Camp, the island's only developed campground. Campers' stays are limited a week.

Time was short for us, too, so we cut quickly across the island's mid-section. At the gravel Main Road, which runs practically the length of the island, we turned north for a look at the Greyfield Inn.

Only Cumberland's 130 residents are allowed to have cars (and most of those people live there only part of the year). We saw a single Jeep in our hourlong walk to and from Greyfield.

Southern mansion

Ignoring the "no trespassing" sign, we roamed the grounds of this turn-of-the-century Southern mansion, with its wraparound porch and magnificent columns. The nine-room inn, run by Carnegie heirs, is filled with family furnishings.

As we walked back to the dock, rain tapped lightly overhead, but the trees and their branches draped with Spanish moss formed a canopy over the road. Barely a raindrop touched us. From the road, we spied a few white-tailed deer.

Considering the visitor limits on this island, it was no surprise that we saw more wildlife than people during our half-day trip. Although that was enough time to get a feel for the island, we would have loved to stay longer.

Consolation

As a consolation, the ferry ride back to St. Marys offered a final thrill, the sight of two dolphins swimming about 100 feet from the boat.

On a day steeped in the tradition of turnips, the Macy's parade and football games on the tube, we spent ours with armadillos, feral horses, deer, birds and dolphins.

It wasn't exactly a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving -- which is exactly why we'll always remember it.

IF YOU GO . . .

* Contact: The National Park Service, Cumberland Island National Seashore, Box 806, St. Marys, Ga. 31558; (912) 882-4335. Reservations -- required for camping and highly recommended for the ferry -- can be made 11 months in advance.

* How to get there: The ferry dock in St. Marys, Ga., is easily accessible from Interstate 95, the main north-south route. From I-95, take U.S. Highway 40 east 11 miles until the road ends.

The Cumberland Queen ferry departs twice a day -- at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.. Return trips leave the Cumberland dock at 10:15 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. From October to March, there is no ferry service on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; the rest of the year it runs seven days a week. A round-trip ticket, including tax, costs $10.07 for adults, $5.99 for children 12 years old and under, and $7.95 for senior citizens 65 years old and up.

* Where to stay: On Cumberland, there are two options: camping or the Greyfield Inn. Cumberland has one developed campground and four primitive sites. Camping is free, but permits and reservations are required. Contact the park service. Rates at the Greyfield Inn start at $275 a night per couple and include all meals. The inn is closed in August. (Greyfield Inn, Drawer B, Fernandina Beach, Fla. 32024; [904] 261-6408).

If camping isn't your thing but neither is $275 a night, the Charter House Inn in St. Marys offers a clean, comfortable alternative for about $40 a night. (Charter House Inn, 2710 Osborne St., St. Marys, Ga. 31558; [800] 768-6250.)

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