Right off the coast of St. Mary’s, Georgia, buried among the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean, lies a treasure that many have never heard of– Cumberland Island. Accessible only by ferry, the island has very few cars and no paved roads. This might seem inconvenient to the modern traveler, but the quiet of the wild woods on the island allows for you to really hear the soft sounds of the sea, and the complete lack of air pollution makes for the brightest night sky I’ve ever seen.
I visited Cumberland Island this past weekend with my boyfriend Daniel. We were giddy to visit– to see the wild horses, armadillo, turkeys and deer. We packed very little, only one change of shirt each, some extra wool socks, lantern, tent, sleeping bag, and food. We knew we would be carrying our food with us on the hike to our campsite, so we packed only the essentials– hot dogs, sausage balls, hobo stew pre-wrapped in aluminum, protein bars, and powerades. We felt young and alive and unstoppable.
The ferry ride was pleasant, only lasting thirty minutes. The air was crisp and cold in January, and we sat on the roof of the ferry, letting the wind scour our faces till we were red and shivering. We finally arrived, lugging our backpacks and tent off of the dock with considerable exhaustion. We decided upon a seaside camp site, as opposed to the back-country site we had originally booked. The island has two very different, equally breathtaking landscapes: lush green woods filled with Spanish moss and sweeping tree limbs, and pale, deserted beaches, covered in the finest, white sand I have ever dug my toes into. Our campsite was nestled among the trees, hidden from the dirt road, and equipped with food cage, lantern pole, and wooden picnic table. We set up our tent quickly– the reward of a nap in the sweet warmth of the tent awaited. We finally collapsed in the tent and immediately fell asleep.
That night we walked the sandy path to the Dungeness, a gorgeous and unbelievably well-kept site of stone ruins. The sun was setting behind the ruins, wild horses happened to be passing through the deserted field, and the trees were washed in golden glow. We stopped, mouths agape, catching our breath from the hike and overwhelmed by the undisturbed beauty before us.
The following day, we were lucky enough to catch the arriving ferry on the island’s beach and rent bikes for the day. (Be warned that the island staff and rangers are not responsible for renting bikes, so if you don’t catch the ferry captain during one of his daily stops, you are $*%# out of luck.) The bikes were $16 dollars each per day, and completely worth the money. We pedaled off excitedly toward Plum Orchard Mansion, the extravagant home of one of Andrew Carnagie’s nine children, and made it to the mansion just in time to receive a free tour. The tour guide was extraordinarily friendly, gracious, and informative. We visited the family’s indoor cricket court, heated swimming pool, many bathrooms with indoor plumbing (an unusual luxury at the time, even for the richest American citizens), extensive laundry rooms and servant’s quarters, and lavish dining halls with hand stenciled wall decor. The tour and the mansion itself were captivating, to say the least.
Bicycling back to the campsite, we took the route of the beach. We were instructed upon renting the bikes not to ride them on the seashore, but a ranger later confided in us that no one really cared all that much, and the ride would be much more pleasant. After hours of bouncing along rough, unpaved roads, the smooth, sandy shoulder of the sea was delightful. We stopped periodically to hunt for seashells, also finding serpents skin, jellyfish, sting rays, and coral that had washed upon the shore.
We arrived back at the campsite just as dusk was settling, and hurried to light the kindling for a bonfire. For dinner that night we had hobo stew that Daniel had prepared at his house. Hobo stew is the fond nickname for a hodge podge of vegetables, spices, meats, and/or cheeses thrown raw into aluminum and cooked over a bonfire. It is perfect for starved and exhausted campers, because it is hearty and flavorful, and takes almost no time to cook on site. This particular “stew” was comprised of yellow squash, ochrea, blanched potatoes, corn, cheese, ample butter, and a variety of spices. Although the cheese and corn were perishable items, they had been stored in a small cooler, packed in with frozen hotdogs, and had remained at a safe-to-eat temperature.
After we had eaten (encountering, during our meal, the glowing eyes of at least four envious raccoons), we strolled to the beach to gaze up at the stars. We spread the blanket on the sand and huddled close– the beach was much closer than the back-wilderness because its flat terrain was not shielded from the wintry winds. Fortunately, we had brought some champagne, so with a sip, a gulp, a bubble, and a fizz, we warmed our chests and our bellies while counting constellations.
The next morning, we groggily packed our belongings and headed back to the seashore to await the morning ferry. Our shoulders slumped, imagining returning to our lives in the city– the smog clouded air and noisy whir of traffic. But we know now of a secret paradise, and we are waiting for the chance to escape again to it’s deep green forests and deserted shores.