Combine the magic of Christmas with miles of sandy beaches, oceanfront promenades, birding, hiking, biking, ancient maritime forest, historic homes, and a sea turtle rehab center: This is Jekyll Island!
The tiny island, approximately seven miles long and two miles across, is located off the Georgia coastline, halfway between Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida.
Rich in natural resources, Jekyll Island was at first used as hunting and fishing grounds by the Guale and Timucua peoples. The Spanish were the first European settlers back in the 16th century, and they established a chain of missions along the Georgia Coast. Early in the 18th century, the English established an outpost on the island. Ownership fell to various individuals throughout most of the 19th century.
Then, in 1886, the island was purchased by the Jekyll Island Millionaire’s Club, an exclusive club of the nation’s hundred wealthiest people. Coined “The Millionaire Village,” folks such as the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Pulitzers, and Morgans escaped to Jekyll Island for annual three-month winter retreats. During the Depression, many members left the island, and it fell into disrepair. In 1942, the area was evacuated when German submarines were detected off the coast. The state of Georgia purchased the island in 1947.
Jekyll Island is now a state park and designated as a National Historic Landmark. The state of Georgia has adopted strict conservation rules to limit future development. Under state law, 65 percent of the island must remain in its original habitat.
Jekyll Island is a National Trust for Historic Preservation-recognized historic destination. In 2008, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation recognized the historic district with the Marguerite William Award for Preservation.
Recently, my friends and I spent Christmas on the island. Here are nine fantastic experiences for you to enjoy.
1. Tour The Historic District
At 240 acres, Jekyll Island Club Historic District is one of the nation’s largest historic districts. There are trolley tours and a Christmas Twilight Tour. The 90-minute Landmark Historic Trolley Tour departs from Mosaic (the museum) and includes entry to one cottage, the museum, and Faith Chapel.
The Historic District consists of 10 historic cottages, the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, the Clubhouse Annex, the marina, and support buildings. The cottages certainly are not like what we think of as cottages. They are more mansion-like than cottage-like. Dressed in Christmas finery, we particularly enjoyed Indian Mound, the Rockefeller home. The 25 rooms are restored in exquisite period furniture and have family photos and placards with family history.
Spend a few hours exploring artifacts and photos at the Jekyll Island Museum called Mosaic. Historical moments that took place on the island and are documented at the museum include the Federal Reserve’s first meeting and the site of the first international phone call in 1915.
Step inside Faith Chapel, the nondenominational chapel constructed in 1904. Pause to marvel at the Tiffany and Armstrong windows. On the outside, note the gargoyles patterned after those at Notre-Dame de Paris.
2. Bird Watching
Jekyll Island is located along the Atlantic Migratory Flyway, so the island is a candy store for birds and bird lovers. There are three designated birding areas on the island: Amphitheater Pond, Bird Sanctuary at the Jekyll Island Campground, and St. Andrews Beach Park. Here is a link to the Jekyll Island Audubon webpage, where you’ll find more information and birds’ descriptions. There is also a bird banding and research station on the island. To date, over 40,000 birds have been banded.
3. Visit The Turtle Center And Rehabilitation Facility
Follow the turtle icons and watch for the turtle crossing signs in the historic district to arrive at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Spend at least a morning touring the center and hospital pavilion. Step inside the Learning Center and follow the interactive exhibits. Start with the Journey Card to learn about the life and trials of the sea turtle.
The most common species here is the loggerhead. The breeding season is in April. We chuckled as our guide cautioned, “That is the only legal sex on the beach!” Unlike other turtles, sea turtles lay their eggs during the daytime. After laying her eggs, the female covers them by making “turtle angels.” Then she swims back into the ocean for the next six to eight years. Only one turtle baby in 4000 lives to adulthood.
Next, join the guided tour into the hospital pavilion, a rehabilitation center for injured sea turtles. Here, meet some of the patients and learn about their histories, injuries, and treatments. It’s interesting to note that approximately 40 percent of patients suffer from boat strikes.
Take time to explore the gift shop for unique turtle-friendly mementos. Profits from the gift shop help fund the center. Consider “adopting” an injured turtle -- you will find all the details at the center.
Pro Tip: Help save sea turtles by not purchasing any jewelry made with tortoise shells.
4. Tour The Island
To get the lay of the land, spend a few hours orienting yourself to the island. Tour by car or by the trolley tour and discover the golf course route, north loop, south loop, and ocean view route. Look for the picnic areas, beach areas, dunes, and Beach Village -- a mini shopping and dining area with gift shops, coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, and a market. You may obtain an island map at the Visitor Center or online here.
5. Enjoy Fine Dining And Exquisite Lodging
Built initially as the Clubhouse in 1888, the Jekyll Island Club Resort has been refurbished yet keeps its original charm. It is the epicenter of the historic district. Rooms range from traditional guest rooms to suites and parlors. The annex also has a lending library and a small boutique. Challenge your friends to a game of croquet on the front lawn. The season is celebrated with beautiful decorations both inside and outside. It is a pleasure to stroll the grounds.
The four-course Christmas Dinner is a feast for the eyes and the tummy! The first course was a rich, creamy lobster bisque followed by an over-the-top spinach salad. Roasted beets, wild mushrooms, Farmer’s cheese, heirloom tomatoes, and pecans complemented the baby spinach. Five choices were offered for the third course ranging from chicken and pork to halibut, sea scallops, and filet mignon. I enjoyed the grilled filet mignon served with whipped potatoes and roasted baby vegetables finished with peppered goat cheese and port wine demi-glace. The fourth course offered three choices: gingerbread and eggnog cheesecake, chocolate and peppermint mousse, and cranberry roulade with chocolate brandy sauce. Hungry yet? It is a feast fit for a king or queen.
Another gourmet feast is the Christmas Day Brunch held at the Crane Cottage at the Jekyll Island Club. I highly recommend both events.
6. Decorate Christmas Cookies And Watch A Chef Demonstration
It has been a long time since I took the time to decorate Christmas cookies! Enter the spacious Jekyll Island Club ballroom to find stations with all the trimmings available. Each person gets a dozen cookies to decorate. It is great fun wandering around the room to admire other’s artistic creations -- of course, nibbling along the way is a must! It was a perfect two hours.
Take time to enjoy the chef demonstration. Chef Breanna prepared Jekyll Shrimp and Grits, house salad with raspberry vinaigrette, and key lime pie. She shares many cooking tips and techniques, too.
7. Stroll The Beaches
Breathe in the fresh marine air, feel the sand sifting through your toes, listen to the sound of the surf -- I never tire of ocean beaches. With eight miles of sandy beaches, Jekyll Island has lots to offer. Visit the ocean promenade, beach picnic areas, sand dunes, and Driftwood Beach. Acclaimed as one of America’s 10 most romantic beaches, Driftwood Beach has dozens of petrified driftwood trees. It is a photographer’s paradise.
Jekyll Island prides itself on beach accessibility for all. Some areas have beach-going wheelchairs available free of charge (available first-come, first-served). Here is a link with more information.
8. Recreational Activities
Whether you fancy lounging at the pool, golf, tennis, biking, or walking, there are activities to satisfy everyone’s tastes. Three golf courses give folks plenty of opportunities to tee up. There also is a mini-golf and playground area. Twenty miles of paths and biking trails invite guests to explore. Bicycle rentals are available at three facilities. There is also a tennis center, soccer complex, and a public boat ramp.
9. Follow The Bagpiper
Listen to the sounds of music and enjoy strolling the historic district. During Christmas season, at 4:30 p.m., a bagpiper begins at Cherokee Cottage, strolls over to Crane Cottage, and then stops poolside. Enjoy following the piper as you laugh and chat with others. What a unique experience!
Christmas on Jekyll Island is a magical time. Combine seasonal celebrations with unique history, ocean beaches, fine dining, birding, and a sea turtle center, and it is a Christmas to remember!
- We flew into Jacksonville International Airport. Car rentals are available. One can also arrive by boat to the Jekyll Island Marina.
- Jekyll Island is a state park with acres of wilderness. You may encounter alligators, raccoons, birds, birds, sea turtles, and snakes. Give all wildlife space. Observe from a distance.
- Because it is a state park, visitors must purchase a pass at the Guest Information Center or online.
- The weather in December is a balmy 70 to 80 degrees.