It’s a long post, heavy with photos but if you stick around I think you’ll really enjoy the trip!
We recently traveled to Cumberland Island for a bit of R&R, a bit of work and to visit the First African Baptist Church on the north end. The island itself is absolutely amazing. Owned by the National Park Service with a few landhold families who live there for varied terms and arrangements many are the descendants of the original Carnegie and Candler owners of the Island. Cumberland Island limits daily visitors to 300 and arriving on the island takes place by ferry out of St. Mary’s Georgia and contracted through the NPS on the Cumberland Island website.
Cumberland Island is approximately 18 miles long and between one-half and 3 miles wide—or about 40 square miles.
Most visitors are day visitors although there is camping at several sites as well as lodging at the Greyfield Inn. The ferry leaves at 9 and most visitors head back to the mainland on the 4:45 ferry although there is an earlier one for quick visits and to return campers and residents to St. Mary’s. On any day you could see jumping sting rays, manatee, or even a submarine from nearby Kings Bay!
You’re at the mercy of the elements and must carry on your own water and food as none is available. Pack it on, pack it off. Restrooms are few and far between but clearly marked on the map provided by the NPS. Most day visitors travel to the ruins of the Carnegie mansion, Dungeness, and it’s remarkable grounds. Wandering around the perimeter of the ruins, along sandy paths shaded by enormous live oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss and out to the beach along a couple long boardwalks over the marsh and over hot white sand is a once in a lifetime experience. While bicycles are available to rent, in all honesty they aren’t maintained very well and are useful only to travel the short walk to Dungeness. Biking further north is very VERY difficult due to the deep sand and intermittent washboard surface of the roads—- ask us how we know! Our first trip to Cumberland was with the thought we’d bike up to the church where JFK Jr. married Carolyn Bessette. We were wrong and actually made it just a bit further than the Stafford Cemetery. But this trip the focus was on reaching the church……. and focused we were. Arranging for a tour (after hours on the phone waiting to make a reservation), and arriving at Sea Camp, we boarded a van with 6 other guests of the island and had the opportunity to tour another unoccupied mansion on Cumberland, Plum Orchard. Enormous, magnificent, still showing off Tiffany lamps, beautiful wallpaper as well as many features ahead of it’s time (ice makers, elevator driven by water pressure and gorgeous bathrooms) touring the mansion and having lunch on the grounds with the wild horses was a treat.
Did I mention that approximately 140 wild horses have the freedom to wander all over the island and are seen everywhere? They aren’t terribly skittish around humans but approaching them is definitely not recommended!
Plum Orchard was amazing, I was so glad it was open for touring on our visit. Dedicated in 1898, it’s remarkable to me that tourists can take in just about every nook and cranny & find it is wonderful shape!
The mansion had lots of unique ‘tech’ that was not seen in ‘regular’ homes for many years such as the heated towel racks in the bathrooms, the bells that summoned the servants in the basement, and plumbing in the bathrooms that was so modern it was not hidden from view. Note one of the children’s dollhouse in the lower left! The bell on the lower right is engraved with the names George Carnegie and his wife Margaret who built the mansion. It was rung only when visitors were coming up the long drive or in case of an emergency.
There is still a squash tennis court as well as an (empty) indoor pool 9 feet at the deepest and quite large!
The kitchen was ENORMOUS taking up a huge space in the basement. Recently renovated with fresh pennyround tile and a fresh coat of paint I felt as if I could move right in and begin work!
Check out the electronic board on the upper left. A bell in each of the rooms of Plum Orchard could be rung and the staff summoned to exactly the right place! I got a kick out of one of the sinks in the kitchen on the lower right— it would be gorgeous in a kitchen today!
Moving out past Plum Orchard after having lunch on the grounds we stopped at Stafford Cemetery, and drove out past the Stafford mansion. The road got MUCH worse as the van moved through the center of the island past pig traps and the occasional camping sites well off the road. Once arrival at the north end of the island it was more than clear to me that there was no way in the world that we would have made the trip on bikes during our first trip over to Cumberland. The roads were that grueling, the rental bikes that bad.
That brings me to an iconic site, historic on it’s own yet having an attraction for today’s bride and all visitors! This remote location is 12 miles from the Sea Camp dock, the second stop of the ferry into the island, the ferry ride itself is 45 minutes long. The ride from Sea Camp is easily an hour, maybe more for horses in the road, trees blocking the way or any number of hazards. I’d love to go back again and stay on at the Greyfield Inn!
The church sits at the end of the island before a river separates Cumberland Island from Little Cumberland Island, not accessible to tourists and privately owned. I have SUCH a hankering to go and see the lighthouse there! “This small, one-room church on the north end of Cumberland Island is where John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married on September 21, 1996. Constructed of whitewashed logs, it’s simply adorned with a cross made of sticks tied together with string and 11 handmade pews seating 40 people. It was built in 1937 to replace a cruder 1893 structure used by former slaves from the High Point–Half Moon Bluff community. The Kennedy–Bessette wedding party stayed at the Greyfield Inn, built on the south end of the island in 1900 by the Carnegie family.” (Fodors)
Goosebump stuff indeed.
Doesn’t everyone know the iconic photograph of JFK Jr. and his bride Carolyn Bessette Kennedy leaving the church?
- © 1996 Denis Reggie
The wedding planned by Cumberland Island resident and Carnegie descendant Gogo Ferguson, “Carolyn walked down the aisle in a $40,000 pearl-colored silk crepe floor-length gown, hand-rolled tulle silk veil and long silk gloves by Narcisco Rodriguez. She also wore beaded satin Manolo Blahnik sandals. Her hair was pulled back away from her face and styled by George Kyriakos. A bun at the nape of her neck was pinned with a clip belonging to Jackie Kennedy. She clutched a lily of the valley bouquet, arranged by Rachel “Bunny” Melon, the same woman who designed the White House rose garden. The groom wore a single-breasted, midnight-blue wool suit, with a white piqué vest by Gordon Henderson and his father’s wristwatch. Following the ceremony, guests retreated to the Greyfield Inn for a reception. Dinner included shrimp, artichokes, grilled swordfish and lemon-raspberry ice cream. There was also a traditional three-tier white wedding cake covered with vanilla butter cream frosting and flowers.” (celebritybrideguide.com)
Normally you’d never be able to squeeze in a trip to the southerly Dungeness ruins but our tour driver was kind enough to drop us off so that we could tour there and catch the ferry back from the main dock and not Sea Camp. I’d been before but it was no less magical!
Revolutionary War Hero General Nathanael Greene purchased land on Cumberland Island in 1783. Following his death, his widow Catherine Greene, constructed a four-story tabby home that she named Dungeness. Thomas Carnegie and his wife Lucy began building another Dungeness on the original foundation in 1884. The Carnegie’s Dungeness burned in 1959 and today only the ruins remain on the site. (NPS)
No doubt I’ll go back again to magical Cumberland Island