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Jekyll Island a sensory, historical experience for families wanting to get away this springcomment (0)

April 10, 2008

By Linda Holloway

It is time to dust off the suitcases and plan a spring vacation. If you enjoy surf and sand but would like to avoid the crowds, then historic Jekyll Island, Ga., is a perfect option. Located midway between Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., Jekyll Island is one of Georgia’s pristine barrier islands.

The Downing Musgrove Causeway is your path to peer into the windows of history. But first enjoy the journey by rolling down the car windows and smelling the salty aroma from the swaying green marshes.

When my family visited Jekyll Island, my grandson declared that the small species of marsh rabbit along the causeway was there to welcome us. Counting the rabbits became a favorite pastime with as many as 50 lining the pavement.

We slowed down for diamondback turtles and watched as osprey, talons extended, dipped into the marshes for their fresh catch of the day. Where the 6-mile causeway ended, our family found a relaxing respite from everyday life on an island that is only 7.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide.

There are seven hotels on the island, but the historic Jekyll Island Club Hotel is where the tourist industry was born.

The Victorian treasure is listed as a National Historic Landmark and sits at the center of the island’s 240-acre National Historic Landmark District. The imposing structure with its famed turret is also designated as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America.

Its story began in 1888, when the island served as an exclusive hunting retreat for the nation’s wealthiest financiers and industrialists. Accessible only by water, the elite group arrived aboard yachts to escape the harsh Northern winters.

By 1900, the Jekyll Island Club members included those with names like Rockefeller, Morgan, Pulitzer and Vanderbilt. The club’s membership dwindled during the Great Depression, and the 1942 season was effectively its final one. In 1947, the state of Georgia purchased the island, and soon after, it became a state park. The club, annex and Sans Souci buildings were renovated and transformed into a resort in the late 1980s by a group of investors, who continue to operate the hotel today.

The Jekyll Island State Park Authority has preserved the natural beauty and environment of the entire island by limiting the development of available land.

Everyone can now enjoy the beauty of Jekyll Island that was once an exclusive retreat for America’s wealthiest families.

To absorb the island’s history, begin your visit at the Jekyll Island History Center. Here you will find displays of the club era and a short film that will feed your curiosity for exploration.

Whether you set out on foot, on a tram or by horse-drawn carriage, the National Historic Landmark District will reveal a century of intriguing facts. We boarded a tram that stops at various interesting landmarks, while the guide tells stories of the past. Many of the club members built cottages, and several of them are also open to the public.

If you enjoy art, then view the exhibits at the Goodyear Cottage that houses the Jekyll Island Arts Association. Other interesting cottages are Hollybourne, Moss and Mistletoe. Be sure to tour Faith Chapel, where one of the stunning stained glass windows was the work of Louis C. Tiffany.

You will want to make reservations for the Jekyll Island Club’s walking history tour.

During the tour, you will stand in the room where a secret meeting was held to devise a plan for a centralized banking structure for the county in the early 1900s. Although Congress did not pass the plan, it was used as the basis for the act that would establish the Federal Reserve System. Notice also the hotel’s unique architecture, including shiny heart pine floors and ornate frieze plaster in the Grand Dining Room.

You will want to spend time under the shade of the huge live oak trees and observe the Jekyll Island croquet team practicing on the front lawn of the hotel.

An interesting fact in Jekyll Island history is that the first transcontinental telephone call was made here in 1915.

It is the common view that the call was placed from inside the hotel. Theodore Vail, president of AT&T, presided over the call connecting him to Alexander Graham Bell in New York, Thomas Watson in San Francisco and President Woodrow Wilson in Washington.

The hotel also served as a backdrop to movies "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "Glory."

For those who want to try their own hand at golf, Jekyll Island boasts four golf courses and a miniature golf course to enjoy with the family.

Other recreational opportunities include a tennis center, Summer Waves Water Park and biking and jogging trails. The island offers more than 20 miles of paved bike paths that wrap around salt marshes, maritime forests, beaches and the historic landmark district.

Children and adults will enjoy Tidelands Nature Center, where you can visit a corn snake, fish, alligators and other species native to Georgia’s coast.

The favorite pastime for most visitors is simply a day at the beach. At the north end of the island, explore Driftwood Beach, where the unusually large pieces of tangled driftwood make for a great photo opportunity. Here the water is bustling with local shrimp boats seeking fresh delicacies from the deep.

Many of the 15 restaurants have menus featuring local seafood items. The island also has three public picnic areas.

Near the expansive fishing pier, I relaxed under the shade of the pavilion, a perfect spot to watch amateurs with string and bait in hand, crabbing over the small wooden bridge. I noticed a group meandering along on horseback guiding their horses to wade along the shoreline.

The clicking of my camera was all I needed to satisfy my sense of adventure on this sunny day on Jekyll Island. On the last day of our vacation, we spent the afternoon visiting an education center and unique hospital, where the patients prefer tanks to hospital beds.

The loggerhead turtle is the most common sea turtle found along the Georgia coast, and Jekyll Island is a prime nesting destination. Though the loggerheads’ average life span is 80 to 100 years, only 1 in 4,000 survives to adulthood, and before the Georgia Sea Turtle Center opened on the island in June 2007, the sick and injured had to be transported to centers in Florida and South Carolina.

Housed in a renovated 1903 power plant located just east of the Jekyll Island Club, Georgia’s first state-of-the-art emergency care facility also provides opportunities for scientific research and long-term treatment. More than 51,000 people have visited the center since it opened.

When we arrived, our family began the journey into the world of sea turtles with exhibits and educational stations in the exhibit gallery. Each of us was given a sea turtle journal to help us live the amazing journey from egg to adulthood.

Last on the tour was a visit to the hospital in the rear of the facility. One of the more popular patients is Dylan, a 9-year-old loggerhead that was once cared for at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Recently, through blood samples, the center found that Dylan is a female. She will be outfitted with a satellite transmitter and released back into the wild sometime this spring.

You can track those turtles that have been released on the center’s Web site, www.georgiaseaturtlecenter.org.

The highlight of our visit was feeding time during which the injured turtles come up to the surface of large tanks long enough to snack on live prey, including blue and horseshoe crabs.

If you visit during the summer months, then you will want to sign up for the nightly Turtle Walks so that you can search for turtles exiting the ocean to nest. This summer, the center will also host camps for children.

For Jekyll Island tourist information, call 1-877-4JEKYLL (1-877-453-5955) or visit www.jekyllisland.com.

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