Spring is beautiful in Atlanta, with cherry blossoms and dogwood trees in bloom. And as spring clothes replace sweaters, it’s easy to yearn for full-on summer. That’s why so many spring breaks unfold on the beach. You can escape to a sandy wonderland where sunsets give way to moonlit surf, casual beach bars serve frosty drinks and fresh seafood, and kids can learn the fine art of avoiding sunburns while building sandcastles and riding Boogie boards.
Atlanta’s closest beaches are on the barrier islands off the Georgia coast. The four clustered around Brunswick are known as the “golden isles.” It’s a five-hour drive or a 60-minute flight via Delta Connection, which has three daily nonstop flights to Brunswick Golden Isles Airport.
There are exclusive resorts (Sea Island) and serene eco-retreats (Little St. Simons), but if you desire a family friendly spot affordable enough to become a yearly tradition, St. Simons and Jekyll islands are the best options.
St. Simons Island
There’s an anecdotal story told about the Timacuan Indians, who lived here under Spanish rule for almost 200 years. They finally rebelled, it is said, because the Catholic priests insisted the men take only one wife. Whether that’s true, you still get the feeling that these island inhabitants would rebel if someone tried to stop them from having a good time.
For more than 75 years, the center of the island’s social life has been the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort (800-342-0212), which began as an open-air oceanfront dance pavilion. The hotel grew up around the pavilion — now the Delegal Dining Room. It’s next to the King’s Tavern, a legendary watering hole added to the property in the 1980s. Accommodations range from traditional hotel rooms and multi-bedroom condo units with full kitchens to private homes with rooftop patios. Guests can rent bikes or kayaks, ride horseback on the beach, or learn how to play tennis, shoot sporting clays or fish.
Golf is a big deal here, and the King and Prince Course (912-634-0255) is quite scenic. Wild marsh grass cuts the field of play between the tee box and fairway on one hole, golf cart paths are elevated over marshland, wild birds soar overhead and gators nap inches from the greens under oak trees. The Sea Palms Golf & Tennis Resort (800-841-6268) offers guests three courses and suite-style accommodations, three clay tennis courts, three swimming pools and an array of family friendly activities.
The Lighthouse Trolley (912-638-3333) is a fun way to learn about the island’s history. It is owned by Cap Fendig, a local character and sometime politician, whose family has been here since the 1800s. You can take a narrated tour or hop on and off the trolley at scheduled stops. At Fort Frederica National Monument, you’ll see where Spanish and British troops clashed in 1742. Graves of their descendants are found in the historic graveyard surrounding Christ Church. The Maritime Center at the Historic Coast Guard Station has interactive, kid-friendly exhibits explaining the role the U.S. Coast Guard has played in the region before, during and since World War II. There’s also the famous St. Simons Island Lighthouse Museum (912-638-4666), where you can enjoy the best view in town. Fendig’s company offers dolphin tours, bird-watching trips and real-estate services — in case you need a permanent local address.
The Georgia coast is only 100 miles long, but it contains one-third of this country’s salt marshes, which replenish the Atlantic Ocean’s ecosystem. Learn about the barrier island’s marine life aboard the Lady Jane (912-265-5711). Piloted by Captain Credle, the vessel takes passengers into St. Simons Sound, where marine biologists sort shrimp from the other creatures caught in nets and explain what guests are seeing. The ship’s first mate serves up a shrimp boil as the boat heads back to the dock.
As you’ll learn on the Lady Jane, you’re not eating just any shrimp. The salt marsh grasses available to Wild Georgia Shrimp™ grazing here make them particularly sweet. Shrimping season begins between April and June and runs through December. And thanks to the large local sturgeon population, this region also is known for quality caviar, harvested in January and February and said to be superior to Russia’s.
St. Simons doesn’t lack for good restaurants. Saltwater Cowboy (912-634-2102) is a relaxed steak and seafood eatery with live entertainment near the King and Prince Resort. Further inland is Southern Soul Barbeque (912-638-SOUL), featuring award-winning Brunswick stew. If people-watching is high on your agenda, try breakfast or lunch in the village at the Sandcastle Café & Grill (912-638-8883), where you’ll rub elbows with police officers, politicos and other characters.
Legislation requires that at least 66 percent of Jekyll Island remain in its natural state. The island is part of Georgia’s park system, so there is a small fee for all cars ($5/day or $25/week). On the island’s east coast, where the beaches are, an ongoing revitalization project has added budget hotels and a 20-acre oceanfront park with picnic pavilions and wheelchair-friendly beach access points. New shopping and dining outlets are under construction, but old favorites like Blackbeard’s Restaurant (912-635-3522) offer hearty fare and spectacular ocean and sunset views.
The Intracoastal Waterway borders the island’s west coast. Dine waterfront in the Jekyll Island Marina at Sea Jay’s Waterfront Cafe & Pub (912-635-3200) and on the Jekyll Island Pier at sister restaurants Latitude 31 (dinner only) and the Rah Bar (912-635-3800), where live music plays three to four nights a week and oysters and shrimp are available by the pound.
The Jekyll Island Club Hotel (800-535-9547), at the heart of the island’s historic district, is a short walk from the pier. Built at the turn of the 20th century for vacationing millionaires, the club was described in a 1904 edition of Munsey’s Magazine as “the richest, most exclusive, most inaccessible club in the world.” After Georgia bought Jekyll Island in 1947, the club became a luxury hotel. Several of the surrounding millionaires’ “cottages” are now gift shops, restaurants, event facilities and atmospheric accommodations for small groups.
The resort can help you explore what life was like for the millionaires of the Gilded Age through a walking tour of the historic district. Learn how the Federal Reserve System was planned by a select group of bankers and politicians at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. See the island by bicycle or on horseback. Play croquet or sign up for a geocaching game for a treasure hunt around Jekyll. Also available: dolphin cruises, kayak tours or visits to nearby Cumberland or Sapelo island.
Four golf courses on the island’s interior use natural sand barriers, inland lakes and pine forests to create challenging links-style play. The best course for multigenerational groups is Pine Lakes, which has family friendly tee boxes and winds its way through prime bird-watching territory. From Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, a lazy river and waterslides beckon at the Summer Waves water park; the adjacent Tidelands Nature Center offers nature tours and watercraft rentals. Another prime attraction is the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, a rehabilitation, research and educational center that has special programs for kids.