Imagine historic Savannah shrunk down and tucked away on a Georgia barrier island. On one side, the tidal rivers feed beds of marsh grass filled with birds, dolphins, and even manatees. On the other, gentle waves wash along sand dunes. The real magic is in the middle, where the playground of the industrial elite transformed into a park for the people in the heart of the Golden Isles. When we went to Jekyll Island, we knew that we wanted to stay with the Jekyll Island Club, the only question we had was which property. Should we stay at the historic Island Club Cottages or the modern beachfront Ocean Club Suites? We couldn’t decide, so we tried both, and we will answer the question – “Should I stay at the Jekyll Island Club Cottages or Jekyll Ocean Club Suites?”
Where is Jekyll Island?
Jekyll Island is almost the southernmost barrier island in Georgia, about ten miles up from the Florida state line. It’s easy to reach off of I-95 but feels like you are in another world. This is precisely why the Jekyll Island Club formed in the first place. It was a little slice of paradise where the east coast elite could travel by the railroads that run along the I-95 corridor to the end of civilization. You see, back in 1886, forty years before the invention of air conditioning, Florida was too uncivilized for the likes of the Morgans, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts.
Jekyll Island is one of only four Georgia barrier islands accessible by car from the mainland. It has 5,700 acres of land, including 4,400 acres of solid earth, 1100 acres of tidal marshland, and a 200-acre Jekyll Island Club Historic District. The rest is tidal marshlands, mostly on the island’s western shore. The island is about 7 miles long by 1.5 miles wide. The west edge on the intercoastal is almost all marsh while 8 miles of wide, flat beaches line its eastern shore. The hard packed sand is easy to bike or walk on, especially during low tides. There are roughly 20 miles of biking and hiking trails around and through the island. Check out our Jekyll Island activity map for all the details.
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A Brief History of the Jekyll Island Club
Even if you’re not a history buff, you have to indulge a bit to fully appreciate Jekyll Island. Don’t worry, we’re not going to spend too long on this but, trust us, it’s better with the backstory.
Jekyll Island’s First Resident
Jekyll Island has always ebbed and flowed between the last bastion of civilization and the edge of the wilderness. Its power and influence rises and falls like the tidelands that surround it. In the 1730s, the English appointed William Horton to set up a plantation on Jekyll. He was the first permanent resident on the island.
His farm provided cattle and grains to feed Fort Frederica on nearby San Simon’s Island. By 1748, the British garrison had left Fort Frederica, and William Horton’s plantation soon followed.
In 1792, Christophe du Bignon and his family acquired the island and built a prosperous cotton plantain on the backs of African labor. In fact, the Bignon family was instrumental in the slave ship Wanderer landing on Jykell Island with their illegal cargo of slaves. In 1858, fifty years after the slave trade was outlawed, the Wander smuggled 409 captured Africans onto Jekyll Island. This was the last major slave shipment in American history, and a memorial in the Saint Andrew’s Picnic Area marks their landing on the southern shores of the island.
Bignon plantations were abandoned during the Civil War and, when the family returned after the war, they discovered they had no real interest in farming the land themselves. Instead, the innovative John Eugene Du Bignon bought out his relatives and sold the island to the Jekyll Island Club as an exclusive retreat for northern businessmen.
The Club Era
From 1888 to 1942 the Jekyll Island Club attracted the creme de la creme on American elite including Henry Hyde, Marshall Field, John Pierpont Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, and William K. Vanderbilt. Every winter for nearly half a century, Jekyll Island became the winter getaway where the wealthy gathered and conducted business under the warm Georgia sun. The first transcontinental phone call linked Jekyll Island, Washington D.C., New York City, and San Francisco. The Federal Reserve came to life in a secret Jekyll Island meeting, but who knows how many other deals were brokered on Jekyll that never saw the light of day.
Jekyll Island Authority
Just like the Civil War, WWII left Jekyll Island deserted. When the residents returned, they couldn’t re-open the club. Instead, the State of Georgia acquired the island in 1947 and opened it to the public. Now, people everywhere can experience life in the Gilded Age. In fact, through the Jekyll Island Club’s historic hotel, you can stay in the cottages of the rich and famous.
Staying at the Jekyll Island Club
We were in awe walking past the croquet court to the front steps of the Clubhouse. I was singing “Putting on the Ritz” to myself, not knowing how apropos that was. (We hadn’t taken the historic tour yet). The plaque by the front desk announced the obvious fact that we were in a Historic Hotel of America. What I didn’t expect was to be upgraded to a suite in the Sans Souci Cottage.
The room was furnished to the era, but the air smelled fresh and clean. The bathroom was large, with two hair dryers, and great water pressure. We even had plenty of outlets for all our electronics. We loved the cool air conditioning, but part of us wished it was cold enough outside to order a load of wood for the fully operational fireplace. Sitting by a roaring fire would have added the finishing touches to a romantic weekend on Jekyll Island. I never would have expected a Historic Hotel to be filled with so many modern amenities.
What Can You Do Around the Jekyll Island Club?
- Paddle on the Marshes – We took a guided kayak tour with 4-H Tideland’s Nature Center where we saw horseshoe crabs, egrets, osprey, and a pod of twenty dolphins. The Nature Center had a small collection of local fishes, amphibians, and reptiles. Our favorite was Nugget, the Loggerhead turtle. He was just about ready to be released. Our guide Corinne said she would miss him, but not too much because he was a biter.
- Take a Sunset Dolphin Tour– Who doesn’t love boats, dolphins, and sunsets? Captain Phillips Tours launch right from the dock in front of the Jekyll Island Club. Our guide, Captain Adam, and his lovely wife Jamie kept us entertained as we searched for manatees, dolphins, spoonbills, and the Queen of the Boat People. We found our dolphins and cruised around the southern tip of Jekyll and by Raccoon Key.
- Ride the Historic Tram – The best thing about the historic tram is getting off. Not because it’s terrible, but because your guide has keys to the cottages. Our guide, Jennifer, let us into Mistletoe and Moss Cottages as well as the first cottage on the island – DuBignon Cottage. The history of the Club Era came alive with Jennifer’s narration and the exquisitely restored interiors. The Landmark Tour took us through time and followed the rise and fall of the Jekyll Island Club.
- Visit the Mosaic Museum – The historic tram is a must do on Jekyll Island that included tickets to the Jekyll Island Museum. This is a fun, little museum that complements the tour and gives you an excellent overview of Jekyll Island history.
- Enjoy the Georgia Turtle Center– You know us, we’re all about saving baby sea turtles. We didn’t have high hopes visiting right at the start of turtle season. Only three nests had been laid so far, and not a single clutch was even close to hatching. We were so glad that we went anyway. We visited with their resident turtles (our favorite was little Boomerang who loved to swim with only his back flippers like a turtle loaf and had the cutest expression eating his frozen crustacean). What blew us away was watching the resident vets patch up a terrapin that got hit on the Jekyll Island roadway. This little guy would have surely been a goner without the caring staff of the Georgia Turtle Center.
- Walk the Historic District – Wide pedestrian lanes wrap around the dozen or so mansion size cottages. Enormous 200-year-old oak trees draped in Spanish Moss line the way. In this distance, you can hear the faint clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage. Along the way, you’ll find favorites like Doc’s Snack Shop and the Island Sweet Shoppe.
- Explore the Horton Home Site – The Horton House, one of two remaining Colonial Era buildings in Georgia, gives you insight into the first permanent resident of Jekyll Island, William Horton. It’s in disrepair, but the tabby walls (a forgotten building material made from oyster shells) are still standing strong. Nearby Horton Pond is a great place to find alligators too.
- Waterfront Dining at The Wharf – The Wharf sits right in front of Jekyll Island Clubhouse. In years past, this is where the steamboats brought in the club’s patrons. Today, it offers sweet Georgia shrimp, seafood, and live music. There’s no better place for a Jekyll Island sunset.
- Splash at Summer Waves – Summer waves drifting away, oooh, into summer nights… Summer Waves is one of those small market water parks. They have eight major attractions with the standard wave pool, collection of slides, and a lazy river. I don’t know if I’d come to Jekyll Island just for Summer Waves, but it’s a great way for kids to get a break from all the history.
Staying at the Jekyll Ocean Club
When we first walked into our room at the Jekyll Ocean Club, we couldn’t believe it. We had a suite overlooking the pool and ocean. It turns out that the Jekyll Ocean Club is an all-suite hotel where every room looks over the pool onto the sea. The room was super clean and modern with a walk in shower and huge wrap-around couch in the living room. We especially loved the balcony where we could relax with our own private view. The bed was super comfy with perfect pillows, just like our cottage room at San Souci.
What set Jekyll Ocean Club apart was that it is a true ocean hotel where the only thing separating you from the beach was 5′ of bike trail. There’s no beach hotel closer in all of the Golden Isles. You could easily travel to the beach and back all day long. The water at Jekyll Island was filled with nutrients from the marshes, which makes it slightly brownish. The water quality for swimming was best at high tide. Low tide exposed a lot of hard packed sand, which was perfect for walking along the ocean. The windswept sand dunes were beautiful to photograph. After playing in the water, you can relax in their gorgeous pool or stunning hot tub.
What Can You Do Around the Jekyll Ocean Club?
- Discover the Wanderer Site – Located in Saint Andrew’s Picnic Area, the Wanderer Landing Site commemorates the last major slave smuggling ship to land in America. An interpretive trail takes you along the voyage from the ships auspicious beginnings in a New York shipyard, along the clandestine journey that made it famous, and ultimately, it’s role as a Union warship in the Civil War. Jenn’s eyes were watering reading the very human stories of the slaves it brought over.
- Visit the Southern Beaches – You can see to Cumberland Island from Glory Beach (where they filmed the movie Glory) and South Dunes Beach. Both of these beaches are wide open and lines with tall sand dunes. During our dolphin tour, we noticed large flocks of sea birds on these beaches.
- Bike the Boardwalk – From the Jekyll Ocean Club in the south to Tortuga Flats in the north, the boardwalk takes you by Corsair Beach Park, Great Dunes Beach Park, and Ocean View Beach Park. Hotel guests get special rates at Jekyll Wheels.
- Ride around Jekyll Island – Why stop at the boardwalk? 20 miles of trails crisscross and circle this beautiful land. The dedicated paths mean you don’t have to worry about traffic and, between the beach, the marsh, and the historic district, there are plenty of sights to see.
- Play a Round of Golf – Jekyll Island features four distinct golf courses: Oleander, Pine Lakes, Indian Mound, and Great Dunes. Of course, you could always just stick to a round of putting at Jekyll Mini Golf. We won’t judge you.
- Discover Driftwood Beach – This beach sits on the north end of the Island. You can see San Simon Lighthouse from its shores. It’s a great place to find Knobby Whelks, but gathering live whelks isn’t allowed. Besides, they would stink up your car anyway. What really sets this beach apart is the driftwood. You’ll find an endless array of photo-ops to play with. Bring your camera and create a memory.
- Fine Dining at Eighty Ocean Kitchen and Bar – We met several couples who came to Jekyll for its unique combination of nature and nurture. You could boat, shrimp, and fish in the tidelands all day and then enjoy fine dining in the evening. We had a fabulous fondue and flatbread at Eighty Ocean. Next trip we’ll have to try the Victorian Tea at the Grand Dining Room over at the Historic Clubhouse.
Should you Stay at the Jekyll Island Club or the Jekyll Ocean Club?
Over on the Jekyll Island Club, you can stay in the clubhouse or one of the historic cottages. The Island Club properties are centrally located in the historic district with easy access to the croquet lawn and Grand Dining Room. We think the Island Cottages made a perfect romantic getaway complete with working fireplaces. The Ocean Club is an all-suite hotel with beautiful beach views and easy ocean access. This is the perfect property for families that want to travel together because of the strategic separation of the living room with sleeper sofas and the master bedroom. We do have to admit, there is something about sitting on the patio in the evening overlooking the sea with the one you love and a glass of wine to also inspire a bit of romance 😉 Hmmmm…….
Of course, you don’t have to choose. Being a guest of either property gives you access to all the amenities of both. You can wake up under the oaks in the historic district in the morning and roast marshmallows over the beach property fire pit in the evening. They even have a complimentary shuttle to make the trip super easy. It’s really the combination of the beach, the tidelands, and the history that makes Jekyll Island so unique.
As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, and we only recommend brands and destinations that we 100% stand behind.
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