Blue Turtle Cruising

Cumberland Island, Georgia’s remote and wild barrier island

Once we left Fernandina Beach, we motored 9.5 miles to St. Mary’s, GA. It was a Sunday and we learned that most businesses and even some restaurants are closed on Sundays. We took the dinghy to shore with Sophie to check out the little town. We explored the wonderful waterfront park and some of the streets. While taking video in the park, I managed to twist my ankle pretty badly so we headed back to the boat so I could put some ice on it. I was very bummed since I knew this would put a damper on us exploring all the trails on Cumberland Island. I iced it and rested it the whole next day and by the time we arrived at Cumberland Island, I was able to walk ok again.

About Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island is the largest and southernmost barrier island in Georgia. The island is 17.5 miles of saltwater marshes, mud flats, maritime forests and beaches. The wildlife is abundant: feral horses, wild turkeys and pigs, armadillos, deer, loggerhead turtles and sea birds. Managed by the National Park Service, you can only get to the remote island by ferry or private boat. Early natives, explorers, slaves, and wealthy industrialists once walked here.

In the early 1800’s, Thomas and Lucy Carnegie began building one of several mansions that belonged to the Carnegie family. The 59-room castle, called Dungeness, included pools, a golf course, and 40 smaller buildings to house the 200 servants who worked at the mansion. The house was destroyed by fire in 1959, alleged to arson. The ruins of the mansion still remain to view and wild horses graze the lands around them.

Lucy Carnegie had additional estates built on Cumberland for her children. They include:

  • Greyfield – built in 1900, now a private inn owned by the Carnegie family
  • Plum Orchard – donated to the National Park Service, which maintains it and gives daily tours.
  • Stafford Plantation – privately owned by members of the Carnegie family.

South end – Dungeness Ruins

As we arrived at the Cumberland anchorage near the south end of the Island, I could visibly see wild horses and couldn’t wait to get to shore! We dinghied to the Sea Camp Ranger Station public dock with Sophie (dogs are allowed on the island) and took the scenic River Trail further south to the Dungeness Ruins. We walked through huge canopies of moss-covered oaks while watching the wild horses graze. We ended up spending about 4 hours or so exploring the Dungeness mansion ruins and surrounding areas. Horses were everywhere, including a few young colts. We had an encounter with a small deer that acted more like a dog. It walked right up to me and other visitors. We were later told that the ferry guide mentioned the deer on the trip over and that it had become “too friendly” and may need to be removed. Several times throughout the day, we would sit at a picnic table for a break and just watch the horses. It truly was a gorgeous day and an amazing place to spend it.

Mid-island – Plum Orchard Mansion

The next morning, Randy and I took the dinghy 7 miles north to the Plum Orchard docks. We left Sophie on Blue Turtle since we planned to make the 11:00am tour of the Plum Orchard Mansion. The Plum Orchard mansion was built in 1898 by Lucy Carnegie for her son George and his new wife. The 22,000 square foot mansion had all the luxuries one would expect today, however, this was in the late 1800’s on a remote island. The home had full electricity (powered by generator), an indoor squash court, indoor pool, refrigeration system and even steam powered heated towel racks. It was amazing to see the luxury and amount of money and detail that went into this winter home for the Carnegie son, on an island no less.

After the tour, we headed back to the boat to get Sophie and went back to shore on the south end of the island to walk and explore. We headed back to the Dungeness Ruins and stopped at the Duck Pond where we saw a few groups of wild horses. We decided to head toward the beach but accidentally bypassed one of the boardwalks and ended up having to walk quite a way through very soft sandy dunes. The beach was huge, beautiful and deserted but for 2 other people. We headed back to the bay side of the island and spotted a few armadillos nosing their way through leaves looking for food. After chatting with our tour guide at the mansion earlier, we decided the next day to head to the north end of the island to check out The Settlement.

North end – The Settlement & First African Baptist Church

To get to the north end of the island, we pulled anchor and motored 17 miles north to the Brickhill River anchorage. Once anchored, we took Sophie and dinghied to the Brickhill Bluff campground where we were told by the park guide we could beach our dinghy. The plan was to hike approximately 2 miles to The Settlement to check out the area. The Settlement is the name given to this area at the northern end of the island that was settled by former slaves in the early 1890s. It includes the First African Baptist Church where John F. Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Bessette.

In true Kalisik style, we miscalculated the walking mileage and it turned out to be almost 4 miles there and 4 back. We took Sophie knowing it would be 4 miles total since she can do 2 or so on her own and she enjoys the walking and “sniffies”. We did not expect the 8 miler and so Randy and I had to carry her most of the way (minus a couple miles). We were a bit surprised that the only wildlife we saw was one lone horse. We figured being north of where most people are there would be more animals but we were wrong. We literally saw not one person from the time we dropped our anchor until the time we pulled anchor the next day (not a soul on the island). Talk about remote! There isn’t a whole lot to see at The Settlement. There’s an old slave home (Alberty House) that also has restrooms in it and the one-room church. While the trail was scenic, it was very warm that day and we were exhausted by the time we got back to the dinghy. When we saw the dinghy we couldn’t believe our eyes. It was beached high and dry which we did expect due to the tides, but we didn’t expect it to be sitting on a muddy oyster bed. Randy was the hero and picked up as many of the oysters as possible and dragged the dinghy into the water. Both of us were in mud up to our shins (with our shoes on) getting to the dinghy. Needless to say, we had a huge mess to clean up when we got back to Blue Turtle….I guess it can’t always be cocktails and sunsets with this lifestyle!

I have to say that Cumberland Island has been one our favorite stops so far. With its isolation and remoteness, only being able to get to it by ferry or private boat, it reminds us of The Dry Tortugas. As hikers and nature and wildlife lovers, we loved exploring the island and liked the fact that there weren’t masses of people there. Since the ferry only brings people over 2-3 times a day, even at peak time of day it never seemed crowded and you were able to explore in relative quietness. If you plan to cruise the ICW or even drive to the area, this is a must-see.

Fernandina to St. Marys = 9.5 nm
St. Marys to Cumberland Island (south end) =7.5 nm
Cumberland South end to Cumberland North end = 17 nm
TOTAL miles: = 656 nm

Bridges = 0
Total Bridges = 19

10 thoughts on “Cumberland Island, Georgia’s remote and wild barrier island”

  1. We had a little “old dog” that could do a mile long walk and we started taking a North Face back pack and when he got tired we would put him in it and he was just as happy as can be. So very much love your pictures and narrative!

    Reply
  2. Love all the gorgeous photos. You guys really got to see a lot more of the island than we ever have.

    Hope you enjoyed Savannah too. Looking forward to your post.

    Danielle

    Reply
  3. Kim, really enjoying your blog and great videos. You guys really know how to maximize exploration and have seen so much more of Cumberland on one visit than we have four! Check out Cumberland and Sapelo when you head south in the fall for the white deer. They are so beautiful. Looking forward to your Savannah experience.
    Fair winds. Danielle and Kirk

    Reply
    • Thank you Danielle! We loved Cumberland so much we stayed 3 days. We’ll definitely stop there again. We skipped Savannah this time (we’re in NC now) because it’s been so hot. We just wanted to get north as soon as possible. It’s definitely on my list to stop there though.

      Reply
  4. Thank you so much for sharing your story and photos. I have lived in Georgia my whole life and did not know about this island. We visit Jekyll island most every year. I am excited to plan a family visit. Thank you again

    Reply

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