Midway between Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida lie four majestic barrier islands that have inspired visitors for centuries with their siren call. These are the Golden Isles—St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Jekyll Island and Little St. Simons Island—which along with the scenic port city of Brunswick, make up an enchanting region of unspoiled beaches, shimmering marshlands and quaint seaside villages awash in history and dotted with centuries-old live oaks. Poets and writers throughout the ages have crafted legendary works inspired by the majesty of these captivating islands—one only needs to witness the sun’s rise over the ocean or bask in the glow of its westward descent to know that the ”Golden Isles” is a place well named.
Each of the isles has its own unique charm and appeal, from the ecologically untouched Little St. Simons Island to luxurious Sea Island, with its championship golf courses and five-star amenities.
But while the quiet calm of the Golden Isles feels worlds away from the bustling mainland, they are, in fact, among the most accessible of Georgia’s 14 barrier islands. With an extremely mild climate and three of the four isles easily reachable via car, the Golden Isles is an ideal, year-round destination.
Ready to answer the call of the Golden Isles? Read on to discover these unique, spell-binding islands for yourself.
St. Simons Island
The largest of the Golden Isles, St. Simons Island is a slow-paced haven; here, moss-draped oak trees line winding island streets and tidal salt marshes are so beguiling that American author Sidney Lanier immortalized them in his lyrical poem, “The Marshes of Glynn.” From its pristine coastal environment to its vibrant Pier Village—St. Simons’ shopping, restaurant and cultural hub—the island offers something for everyone.
To begin exploring, take a stroll along the St. Simons Island Pier and watch fishermen and crabbers reel in their day’s bounty or search for bottlenose dolphins in the ocean below. The pier serves as the epicenter for the nearby village as well as the island itself. On clear days, you can even spot Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach, so named for the gnarled timbers dotting its sands. North Atlantic right whales are also frequent visitors to the surrounding waters during winter months, as they migrate south for calving. Grab a quick bite from a local restaurant (the island has over 70 in total) before setting your sights on the towering St. Simons Lighthouse in the distance.
Built in 1872, the St. Simons Lighthouse, celebrating its 150th birthday this year, is one of five surviving light towers in Georgia. This still-active navigational aid houses rare artifacts and historical photographs detailing the island’s history in the original lightkeeper’s quarters, which now operates as a museum. For another angle on the island's nautical past, visit the World War II Home Front Museum. Tucked within the historic St. Simons Coast Guard Station, the museum brings to life coastal Georgia’s World War II efforts with immersive galleries and interactive exhibits, including the chance to test your skills as a plane spotter for enemy aircraft and a Liberty ship builder. African American heritage also plays a significant role in the island's history; each June, the long-running Georgia Sea Islands Festival celebrates coastal Georgia’s African American traditions with a bevy of crafts, foods and music. Don’t miss the Georgia Sea Island Singers, a folk music ensemble founded by descendants of enslaved people, who’ve been performing their songs and stories of Gullah heritage here since 1977.
When it comes to exploring the outdoors, St. Simons Island offers a plethora of choices—whether it’s fishing for grouper or red snapper, beachcombing at low tide on the island's East Beach, or seeking out reddish egret and Wilson’s plover at Gould’s Inlet, a birding haven. For an active afternoon, set out on the St. Simons Island Trail System; more than 30 miles of bike paths encircle the island, winding past marshlands, alongside historic markers, and even encountering the occasional St. Simons Island Tree Spirit. Local artisans hand-carved these mystical faces and creatures—about 20 in total, with 11 in public areas—into tree trunks island-wide to immortalize the countless sailors who lost their lives at sea.
While the Tree Spirits certainly are a sight to behold, they aren’t the only famous trees on the island. In 1826, the heiress to Retreat Plantation planted a double row of live oaks leading to the property. Nearly 200 years later, the trees form a magnificent tunnel that directs visitors to the present-day Sea Island Golf Club. Known as Avenue of the Oaks, the graceful branches draped with Spanish moss are a beloved icon for residents and a picturesque location for scenic strolls and memorable moments.
Impeccable service and hospitality are the calling cards of Sea Island, a private and luxurious getaway that’s just a short drive over the causeway from St. Simons Island. This lovely isle, steeped in elegance and finery, is a favorite of both world leaders (the island hosted the 2004 G8 Summit) and discerning travelers alike.
For visitors looking to enjoy exclusive access to five miles of pristine beach, there’s the elegant Forbes Five-Star award-winning Cloister at Sea Island, a secluded Mediterranean-style resort set on 50 lush acres, brimming with manicured gardens, tennis and pickleball courts. For a home-away-from-home feel, the Sea Island Cottages offer fully furnished spaces, perfect for group gatherings; almost all are located on the island itself.
Just a short drive away on St. Simons Island, The Lodge at Sea Island offers another Forbes Five-Star award-winning experience; the 43-guest room boutique hotel includes ocean views and a secluded environment. Here, guests can savor the sounds of the Lodge bagpiper just before sunset each evening—an experience that’s especially rewarding while sipping a cocktail on one of the property’s handcrafted Adirondack chairs. For a more casual stay, The Inn at Sea Island (also a short drive away on St. Simons Island) embodies the area's charm and hospitality, making it an ideal base for exploring the Golden Isles.
Whether it's playing a round or two at one of Sea Island’s three championship golf courses or perfecting your game with personalized coaching by world-renowned golf instructors at its 17,000 square-foot Golf Performance Center, you’ll find plenty of ways to relax and unwind. The 65,000-square-foot Spa at Sea Island boasts its own extensive offerings, from hydrotherapy soaks to soothing body masks and massages.
Sea Island’s lush, natural landscape is equally as remarkable as the island’s amenities. Embark on a horseback ride through marsh grasses where wild herons and bald eagles reside or take in the local waters from an open-air sunset cruise aboard the multi-level yacht, Sea Island Explorer. For a deeper connection with the pristine environment, book a naturalist-guided Hobie Cat® getaway to learn the ins and outs of coastal Georgia’s geography and wildlife, all while gliding over azure waters.
Thanks to a dedicated team of outstanding executive chefs, Sea Island is a top-tier culinary destination. Dining ranges from local seafood at the casually elegant Southern Tide, to the intimate Cloister Wine Cellar, where five-course meals come served in a private dining room tucked away amid Old and New World vintages.
Visitors who reach the end of the causeway to Jekyll Island are transported to another world. On this 5,550-acre stretch of land, located at the southernmost point of the Golden Isles, swaths of green and remnants of an illustrious past welcome visitors with a mesmerizing grace. This is a place where the ability to recharge goes hand-in-hand with discovery: a popular family-friendly escape of rich greenery, marshes teeming with wildlife and secluded beaches first inhabited by Native Americans some 3,500 years ago.
General James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia and Jekyll Island in 1773, and by the early 1900s it had become a private retreat among the wealthy. The state purchased the isle in 1947, and today 65 percent of its land is dedicated to preserving the natural ecosystem.
Continue to explore the rich culture and history of the island with a visit to Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museum, a can’t-miss destination that transports visitors across centuries-old stories of Georgia’s most unique barrier islands. Constructed completely within the existing footprint of the historic stables building, visit the Mosaic Gallery featuring in-depth and interactive exhibits with stunning visuals and audio that tell the tales of Jekyll Island. Then, hop aboard a guided trolley tour of Jekyll’s 240-acre historic district, originally constructed for the world’s wealthiest families. As if traveling through time, step inside the gilded-age cottages of names like Rockefeller, Morgan and Goodyear, to experience their grand lifestyles.
From wide-open beaches (the island boasts ten miles of shorelines, including Driftwood Beach and St. Andrews Beach, a white sand stretch with spectacular sunsets and historic markers detailing the area’s slave trade) to expansive marshlands, you’ll find Jekyll Island’s abounding peace and serenity.
Along with over 20 miles of bicycling trails and three 18-hole golf courses, Jekyll Island is home to all-age attractions like the Summer Waves Water Park, where water rides range from thrilling tube slides to a narrated Jekyll Island Boat Tour, which cruises along the isle’s scenic waterways, inviting visitors to keep an eye out for bottlenose dolphins and learn about the local ecosystem. Jekyll Island’s Georgia Sea Turtle Center offers an opportunity to experience turtle rehabilitation firsthand through activities like sunrise turtle walks and morning rides with sea turtle field biologists.
The island also features a plethora of restaurants to suit any traveler’s tastes. Opt for craft beers and locally sourced seafood at the Beach House Restaurant + Taproom, or savor casual Baja Mexican cuisine with beachfront views at Tortuga Jack's. Lodgings are equally as varied, whether it’s bedding down in the refurbished Gilded Age guestrooms of the historic Jekyll Island Club Resort or pitching a tent among Jekyll Island Campground’s 18 wooded acres.
November’s annual Jekyll Island Shrimp & Grits Festival is a local favorite, celebrating the classic Southern dish with everything from guest chef demos to an artisan market and food vendors sharing their own recipes.
Little St. Simons Island
Nature abounds on the Golden Isles’ most undeveloped isle, Little St. Simons Island—a private conservation oasis nestled off the northern end of St. Simons Island. With 11,000 acres of exquisite maritime forests, beaches and diverse wetland ecosystems, Little St. Simons Island is also an undisputed wildlife haven. In fact, more than 300 migrating and permanent bird species, as well as sea turtles, armadillos and even alligators can be found here. The only access to the island is via boat from St. Simons Island’s Hampton River Marina, providing an opportunity for peaceful solitude.
The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island includes six historic cottages that can host a maximum of 32 guests at a time. It’s the island’s only lodging, and staying here directly supports the Center for Coastal Conservation’s efforts to preserve the island's ecosystem. But while overnight accommodations are highly coveted, both day-trippers to Little St. Simons Island and overnight guests alike have an opportunity to partake in naturalist-led programs such as exploring the island’s maritime forests, kayaking glassy waters where dolphins and elusive marsh wrens reside, and beachcombing for sand dollars and whelk shells along a seven-mile stretch of unspoiled beaches.
The lodge’s team of professional chefs serves up three meals daily using mostly local ingredients, many of them coming from on-site gardens, ensuring meals are as utterly fresh as they are delicious.
The gateway to the Golden Isles, Brunswick calls to mind the country’s earliest days. Founded in 1771, the city was one of the five original ports of entry for the American colonies. Even today, Historic Downtown Brunswick remains a grid of wide streets and Signature Squares, and touts more than a dozen reclaimed and beautified parks still bearing their colonial names, and each with its own unique story.
Downtown is known for its lovely Victorian architecture, donning authentic features like wraparound porches and front-facing gables. Take a self-guided tour of Historic Downtown Brunswick’s fully restored 1888 Old City Hall, easily recognizable by its distinctive clock tower, or catch a performance at the Historic Ritz Theatre. Originally built in 1899 as the city’s Grand Opera House, this renovated and restored beauty now hosts everything from classic films to live music. Historic Downtown Brunswick is also the site of the Lover’s Oak, an enormous 900-year-old oak tree that legend says was a meeting place for young Native American sweethearts.
Shrimping is a thriving local enterprise, and the city’s wharf is often teeming with local shrimp boats readying their nets for a day’s trawling, and ocean vessels returning with their daily catch of triple tail and flounder. Charter a fishing boat for your own deep-sea excursion, or try fly fishing along Brunswick’s coastal marshes or seine netting from the beach. For a truly authentic experience, set out aboard The Lady Jane, a retired shrimp trawler that can carry up to 49 passengers.
The bulk of Brunswick’s larger events take place at the city’s Mary Ross Waterfront Park. These include the time-honored Mayfair Festival, an Old-World processional of brightly decorated shrimp boats that parade past the Sidney Lanier Bridge—the state’s tallest cable-stayed suspension bridge—prior to the shrimping season.
Nearby, the Altamaha, Georgia’s largest river, finishes its tremendous 137-mile journey, spilling out over 100,000 gallons of fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean near Brunswick daily. Nicknamed “Georgia’s little Amazon,” the river is the country’s third largest watershed and plays a significant role in supporting the area’s thriving biodiversity. Day-trippers can rent a kayak to explore the Altamaha Regional Park, or more seasoned adventurers can plan a paddling trip to cover some or all of the river’s mileage.
While much has changed in the centuries since the area was first named the “Golden Isles,” spectacular sunsets continue to capture the hearts and minds of all who set foot on these enchanting barrier islands. From unrivaled natural beauty and friendly beachside communities to its picturesque streets lined with live oaks and awash in history, the only thing that remains is to explore the Golden Isles for yourself.