Cumberland Island

 - February 1, 2010, 5:29 AM

Indians, soldiers and ghosts of Camelot have docked on her marshy shores. Early 20th century millionaires built castles and commanding women protected their estates. The history of Cumberland Island reads like steamy, romantic fiction.

Now its mansions stand in ruin, with wild horses as their guests. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to see or do here–far from it.

The pristine preserve known as Cumberland belongs to Georgia’s Golden Isles, a string of small barrier islands. Cumberland, the group’s largest, rests between Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., flaunting diversity among three ecosystems: saltwater marsh, maritime forest and beach. The island, now a National Seashore, limits daily visitors to 300.

The elegant Greyfield Inn offers the only lodging other than primitive camping on an isle only slightly larger than Manhattan. Overnighters experience 19th century ambiance in a wilderness setting–just seven miles from the mainland, but remote from its hustle and bustle. No wonder John Kennedy, Jr., chose Cumberland Island as the idyllic spot for his wedding to Carolyn Bessette in 1996.

Visitors to the Southeast are attracted to Colonial Coast vacation resorts, including Jekyll, Amelia, Sea and St. Simon’s Islands to golf, swim, boat and laze. But Cumberland stands apart because its natural splendor remains untouched by modern development. There are no convenience stores, beach homes, high rises or condominiums.

Cumberland's first residents were the Timucuan Indian tribe. Then came the Spaniards, followed by Britain’s James Oglethorpe (Savannah’s founder), who renamed the area Cumberland.

After the American Revolution, plantations prospered and Caty Greene, widow of Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, remarried and constructed a four-story, 16-fireplace mansion here. Her home, Dungeness, and 12 acres of gardens became renowned as a luxurious retreat among colonial patricians.

The Civil War brought plantation lifestyles to a halt. Dungeness deteriorated and was destroyed by fire. In the 1880s, however, Thomas Carnegie, brother and business partner of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, purchased the property and constructed a far grander mansion. Carnegie died soon after its completion, but his wife Lucy and their nine children remained in the 59-room Scottish castle with turrets, an indoor pool, squash court, beauty salon, golf course and 40 out buildings.

Guests–including the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers–stayed at her retreat for a month at a time, their whims met by Lucy’s staff of 200 servants. The Carnegies threw lavish soirées, picnicked on the lawn and entertained with shooting, fishing and beachcombing parties.

When Lucy died in 1916, her trust paid for upkeep until after WWII, when higher property taxes forced the family to close Dungeness. Thirty years later, a fire burned the mansion and now viewing the ruins is a highlight of any trip to Cumberland.

In 1968 Hilton Head developer Charles Fraser wanted to purchase and develop Cumberland. The Carnegies and Candlers (Coca-Cola heirs) battled to halt commercialization and, in 1972, the government declared Cumberland a National Seashore.

Heated debates over park usage followed. Ten years later, the central tract of forest and beach were designated as “official wilderness,” a conservation class that outlaws devices like cars, bicycles and chainsaws. The Park Service now controls 90 percent of Cumberland with just 2,000 acres remaining in private hands. Political struggles continue over management and development, historic preservation and driving privileges.

Lucy Carnegie built the stucco, white-columned Greyfield in 1901 for daughter Retta, whose own daughter, Lucy R. Ferguson, opened the house as an inn in 1962. Today, Mary Ferguson, great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Carnegie, manages Greyfield, which is listed among the Historic Hotels in America.

The three-story, 11-bedroom mansion sits on 200 acres. A graceful staircase descends from the porch to the lawn.

A stay affords uncommon privacy and tranquility. Upon your arrival via Greyfield’s ferry or your own airplane , the staff will escort you through a canopy of magnolias and immense Southern oaks.

Staying in the gracious manor, where old family photographs line the walls, feels like visiting a wealthy aunt. Carnegie originals or antique furnishings decorate all the rooms and the library contains hundreds of first editions. The old gunroom became the bar. Guests pour for themselves on the honor system.

The 100-foot front porch boasts a sweeping veranda and bookend bed-like swings. Rocking chairs line the front rail and creak on the floorboards. Hors d’oeuvres are typically enjoyed with cocktails on the porch.

Jane Walsh, a guest from Palm Beach, calls Cumberland “a slice of heaven.” She and her husband Michael celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary with a return visit. Jane hopes to come back every year. 

“Don’t tell anybody about this place,” Michael whispered. “It’s total relaxation.”

Dinner here is an elegant affair. Men must wear jackets and women don dresses. The dining room features one long board, beautifully set with flowers and heirloom silver candlesticks, and two side tables. Honeymooners often sit by themselves at a side table, but most guests prefer chatting with others.

Air-conditioned rooms on the second and third floors include private baths or shared amenities. Guests may also use the state-of-the-art bathhouse behind the Inn.

The master suite includes a 15- by 20-foot sitting room, a pineapple-post king bed and views out the front, side and back of the house. A claw-foot tub dominates the bath, which also has a shower.

Complimentary fat-tired bicycles, good on the sand, are a bonus. A 10-minute pedal to the beach at sunrise makes an ideal start to the day. Cyclists often ride to the Dungeness ruins via Grand Avenue, a tree-lined dirt road. 

Don’t miss another highlight, an outing with a naturalist. Greyfielders ride in open-air seating for an exhilarating three-hour adventure. Stops include the salt marsh; the bluff (the highest point on the island at 80 feet); the shallow, 83-acre Whitney Lake (home to ’gators); the Settlement; and the First African Baptist Church.

The teensy old slave church rose to fame following the Kennedy wedding. Inside, you’ll see stark, whitewashed walls and windows and rough-hewn pews. You must stretch your imagination to envision the candlelight and flashlights used during the hush-hush Kennedy service.

The island tour stops for a peek at Plum Orchard, the Greek revival home of George Carnegie. The Park Service recently spent $5.3 million to renovate the decaying shell and interior. The extravagance of the era crystallizes with the realization that this grandiose home, built in 1898, sits in the enchanting wild, not far from Georgia’s mainland.

The forest surrounding Plum Orchard feels like a gnome’s sanctuary. Cool, dark, shadowy branches are home to mosses, lichen and emerald green resurrection ferns. The outside world seems shut out except for sounds like those from yellow-throated warblers and pileated woodpeckers. An afternoon shower presents a squawking chorus, compliments of green tree frogs.

From the dim jungle, you emerge to the flat, sandy beach that stretches as far as the eye can see. There’s not a person, umbrella or chair on a shoreline that’s almost 1,000 feet wide at low tide. What can compare?

Thousands of sandpipers, sanderlings and other shorebirds dodge waves. During raptor migration, you may see hawks and peregrine falcons. Soaring above the dunes lurk vultures and bald eagles. The entire island is on the Colonial Coast Birding Trail, with more than 277 species.

A stay at Greyfield lets you flip back the pages of history and return to the privileged days of an earlier time. Or you can camp like those first settlers who slept under a canopy of stars. Whatever adventure you choose, Cumberland is an open book, waiting for you to write a new chapter.