Secret spot off the beaten path: Jekyll Island

Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

Sometimes you have to find your own secret spot within a bustling and decidedly un-secret location. This could mean going to a certain area, at a certain hour or season, perhaps even by a certain mode of transport. On Jekyll Island — once the cloistered resort of the fabulously wealthy, but today a popular destination for families of every stripe — solitude will not occur by accident.

I was privileged to accompany some friends when they rented a beach house on Jekyll for a week. I’d been to the island before but only as a day-trip, so it was a whole new experience making a home of it; we stayed just a few steps from one of the boardwalk “crossovers” that span high, scrub-covered dunes to arrive at the sea. Every morning I’d get up before dawn, make a cup of tea and carry it down to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic. It had been so long since I’d witnessed this spectacle of a flaming red orb shimmering on the horizon that I’d almost forgotten the sun really is exactly what it looks like: a giant ball of fire. Way out there with it were a dozen shrimp boats combing their nets on the lonely fringes. 

My friends were not up at this hour so I put in the time exploring Jekyll by bike. Paths wound through maritime forest, already a steaming, humming jungle; in and out of the marsh, where egrets rose from baking mud; and of course, down to the beach, including the beloved “Driftwood Beach,” very inaptly named because none of that wood drifted there. It is a bone-yard beach, created when encroaching salt tides kill the trees and leave their “bones” to bleach most picturesquely in the sand. Despite the early hour I would always see other vacationers walking their dogs, taking pictures or getting that early-bird exercise before the heat set in. 

Later, when my friends mobilized to action, we explored the island by golf cart, visiting the historic district and T-shirts shops before spending the afternoon with books and lounge chairs at the beach. Evening meant seafood dinners followed by a constitutional around the neighborhood, admiring flowers in bloom and our favorite beach cottages, perhaps seeing the tiny island deer doing their nightly rampages through people’s ornamental plantings. 

It was all quite easy and tame, the sort of vacation that actually relaxes you.

One morning on my ride I took a new tack and ended up at a beach on the underdeveloped south end of the island. After coming through a tunnel-like path in the dune scrub, I emerged at a long, deserted stretch such as I had only seen on bridgeless islands like Sapelo or Cumberland. It was magnificent. Early golden sun lit up the white sand, and a muddy blue Atlantic lay warm and flat as a blanket. Great flocks of terns let out their shrill cries, a sound so oddly comforting like sticky heat and tidal flat smells — coastal ease through all the senses. 

I leaned my bike against the twisted skeleton of a red cedar tree and went down for a swim. There was nobody. After rolling the bike along another mile or so, skirting the tern flocks and rounding a point to the inlet side, I exited via another boardwalk and got back on the paved road. Now I knew the deal at Jekyll Island: just get up early and ride my bike to this exact beach, and it will be my own secret spot where for a few precious moments I can pretend I’m not an ordinary tourist. After that, I can get frozen yogurt by the T-shirt shops.

If you go

Location: Coastal Georgia, just south of Brunswick

Mode of transport: Bike

Cost: $8 for a vehicle day-pass onto the island

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