Ty Sawyer
Jekyll_4_Sawyer: Latitude 131, the restaurant on historic Jekyll Island Wharf, wakes up as the sun settle on the horizon.
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updated 8/31/2006 7:37:48 PM ET 2006-08-31T23:37:48

Saltwater taffy, beachside bonfires, grand old hotels and boardwalks — ah, the American summer. Jekyll Island, Georgia, is one U.S. island where you can retreat to the happy days.

“Can you hear them?” I turned to see a lady who’d come up behind me on the bike path. Everyone on Jekyll Island travels by bike. I was gazing into a meadow thick with massive live oaks whose branches arched to the ground, every inch dripping with curtains of Spanish moss. I’d just pulled over because I’d seen two white-tailed deer, but they’d disappeared into the thickets of saw palmetto that coat Jekyll.

“Hear who?”

“We call that Spanish moss ‘old man’s beard’ here,” she answered cryptically. “Each of those bundles holds a memory from the island’s past. It gets trapped in the filaments, like those Indian dreamcatchers. You can hear the voices whisper when the wind blows through them.”

“Whose memories?”

“Indians, colonists, yours, mine, the millionaires who lived here, everyone who has ever set foot on the island … these trees are like libraries in charge of keeping the island’s archives.” We both looked up at the branches. If there were memories woven into the pale, delicate filaments of these trembling epiphytes, then each tree held volumes.

“It’s the island’s secret history. You might not believe me, but you’ve got to listen. Slow down and listen.” Then she smiled, mounted her bike and continued on down the path.

“And don’t leave the island without watching the sun rise on Driftwood Beach,” she called back. “It’s unforgettable.”

I watched her round the corner, hardly believing I’d just had that conversation. I’d been on Jekyll Island, just off the coast of Georgia, for less than 24 hours, and everywhere I went someone was telling me about something I shouldn’t miss, some cherished corner of this tiny island.

Ty Sawyer
You can feel the tug of yesterday from the moment you pass through the twin gate towers on the Downing Musgrove Causeway that leads from the mainland to Jekyll. The island exudes history and time slows to a murmur in the thick Georgia air. There are no stoplights on Jekyll. No fast-food restaurants, either; life centers around the beach and the manicured, oak-shaded grounds of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. Twenty miles of bike paths meander around the 7.5-mile-long island, connecting the past to the present.

Travelers usually prefer to revel in the past on Jekyll; it’s a truly secret history, since the place was once one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. A place that did not welcome the curious eyes of the common man. Or even the uncommon man, since it has been said that during the 56 years the Club was in existence “no unwanted foot ever touched the island.”

Jekyll was once the private playground of the families that controlled one-sixth of the world’s wealth. The island came alive at a time when all things seemed possible; people now come for a touch of the magic of this enchanting era.

Jekyll Island and its salt marshes, palmetto-thick forests and empty beaches spilled into our nation’s collective imagination about 1888, when a group of millionaires whose names have not dimmed with time — Rockefeller, Morgan, Pulitzer, Goodyear, Vanderbilt — decided to build a club and a few “cottages” so they could escape the hard winters and relentless business pressure of the north, so they could socialize and so they could live lives, even if in small measures, of gentlemanly ease, without scrutiny.

They came to Jekyll for “the season,” January to March, from 1888 until 1942, when the threat of German U-boats off the coast during WWII brought the revels to an end. After that, most of the homes, the island and the club were abandoned; their patrons’ attentions turned elsewhere. In 1947, the island was purchased by the state of Georgia from the Jekyll Island Club, and in 1954 it was opened to the public via a new drawbridge. Since then, just a few homes have even been built on land leased by the state.

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The Jekyll Island Club, two cottages and some of the first apartments from the original club were renovated, converted into a hotel and reopened in 1986. The season now stretches year-round, with the visitors’ population swelling in the sultry Georgia summer.

I’d come, like many others, to revel in the opulence and slow pace of another era, and I felt it from the moment I turned my car down the riverfront drive that winds past the small manses that are quaintly called Goodyear Cottage, Mistletoe Cottage, Moss Cottage and Indian Mound Cottage, which was owned by the Rockefellers. As I pulled up to the Club, with its high turret that defines the building, and passed the croquet pitch, it was like a scene from a movie where you peer into a cracked, stained old sepia photograph and the setting instantly comes alive as you are transported to another age.

I met a couple in the hotel’s richly wood-paneled lounge that afternoon who remembered the island before it became a living museum. The man had grown up on Jekyll Island and told me that as a kid he had prowled through the old homes playing hide and seek with his friends. The doors were never locked, he recalled. But no one dared go inside at night, as shadows, creaking floorboards and overactive imaginations brought the past to ghostly life. Where affluence, order, unabashed grandeur and the strict rules of behavior between servants and masters once held sway, the chaos of  kids and the entropy of time swept in and took over. Then somebody said, “Hey, people might like a peek into the lifestyle of the rich and famous.” And the renovation of the club and cottages began. And the doors were locked again.

Now it’s a quiet, beach-swept wilderness for those of us who want to bask in the same glow, walk the same paths, sleep in the same rooms, eat in the same opulence as those who once passed for American royalty. So, on my first night, I tied a double Windsor knot on my silk Armani tie, donned a freshly pressed suit, walked from my fourth-floor room down the same winding wooden staircase that once felt the custom-made shoes of a river of millionaires, to the elegant Grand Dining Room. The room has changed little since the Club’s heyday. I was seated in front of the fireplace — the same fireplace where Vanderbilt and Rockefeller may have gazed into the flames in a moment of peaceful thought. And for the unhurried course of the sumptuous meal — from the slow bottle of California Syrah to the she-crab bisque and buttery filet mignon to the tangy perfection of the Key lime pie and a glass of port — I felt the exquisite and expansive tug of gentlemanly ease.

“I know why they came to Jekyll,” whispered a bird watcher named Jim, a willowy 72-year-old from Syracuse, New York, whom I met the next morning along a path that skirted the edge of the salt marsh. “It’s unpredictable, wild and serene all at once. Despite those big beaches, restored mansions with their manicured lawns and croquet and all the bike routes — take five steps off the path and you’ll run smack into raw wilderness. I’ve seen everything from crocs to woodpeckers livin’ their lives right in front of my nose. That’s why I come down here every year and have now for 20 years. And guess what I saw this morning?”

“What?”

“A bald eagle. How ’bout that?”

On Jekyll, the past beats like a second heart. I found it in strange and wonderful places on this island off the coast of Georgia. It comes out of a gauzy, distant memory in the twilight of an evening, just as the lights of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel illuminate rooms that once felt the tread of the wealthiest men in the world. It escapes in faint breaths from the echoes and creaks of the wooden staircase. It comes alive in the slow clop of horses’ hooves along the 10 miles of hard-sand beach. And it whispered to me as I wandered among massive live oaks that give this island an ancient weight, dripping with a thousand Spanish-moss dreamcatchers.

Each issue of ISLANDS Magazine explores the most beautiful island destinations in the world, from tropical island outposts to the sophisticated gems of the Mediterranean. Our top-rate photographers and writers discover the quiet beaches, boutique hotels, and unique cultural experiences that make island travel unique.

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