Where to stay and what to do on Cumberland Island, just off the coast of Georgia.
“There are no bridges to Cumberland Island. It’s only accessible by boat or small plane—no commercial runway, just a dirt strip in an open field,” says Chef Whitney Otawka. A five-year resident of Cumberland Island—a tiny barrier island off the coast of Georgia, not far from Savannah—she is the author of The Saltwater Table, a cookbook documenting the coastal South’s culinary culture, including recipes like Atlantic shrimp, buttermilk biscuits, crispy fried okra, and ginger-spiked jam. (Yes—our mouths are watering, too.)
“People should visit for the unspoiled natural beauty,” Otawka says of the island. The government designated Cumberland as a national seashore in 1972, protecting it from development and leaving it nearly untouched, save for a handful of properties. “It’s all about getting out in nature, away from the modern world. You will be hard-pressed to find good internet reception here!”
Below, find some of Otawka’s favorite ways to pass time on Cumberland Island—and considering there’s no other place like it in the world, there’s plenty of biking, beaching, and sightseeing to be done.
Whitney Otawka’s Perfect Day on Cumberland Island, Georgia
9 a.m. – Off to Sea
There are two boats that head to Cumberland Island. If you are coming to visit through the National Park System, you would depart from Saint Marys, Georgia. They offer day trips to the island that depart the mainland at 9 a.m. and return at 4:45 p.m. Camping is available with permits, but they are limited, so plan ahead. Also remember there is no transportation on the island, so most of your adventure will center around the south end.
If you are looking to stay on Cumberland for a few nights and prefer a less rustic visit, Greyfield Inn is for you. Greyfield operates a private boat that departs from Fernandina Beach, Florida. The Lucy Ferguson (Greyfield’s boat) makes three trips back and forth during the day, but I recommend arriving early to get as much time on Cumberland as possible. The inn has bikes available for their guests which aids in exploring this wild island.
10 a.m. – Take Me to Church
Both Greyfield and the National Park Service offer tours to the north end of Cumberland. Two must-see sites are Plum Orchard and the First African Baptist Church. Plum is by far the grandest of the homes built by the Carnegie family that is still standing. Set along the Intracoastal Waterway, this old home feels like it belongs in an episode of Downton Abbey.
The First African Baptist Church was first built in the late 1880s to serve the Half Moon Bluff community that called Cumberland home. During the 1930s, the structure was rebuilt and that is the structure that still stands today. The site gained fame in the mid-90s as the secret wedding destination of John Kennedy Jr. & Caroline Bessette. This beautiful, simple structure is one of the most compelling spots on the island.
12 p.m. – Gift Shop Stop
Do a little shopping on the Greyfield compound. Check out the Gift Shop at Greyfield Inn to pick up a jar of honey made from the Inn’s apiary, or grab a few beach essentials you forgot to bring. Gogo Jewelry Shop is another fun spot to visit. Gogo Ferguson is a partner at Greyfield Inn and grew up on Cumberland. Her designs are inspired by the natural surroundings, so don’t be surprised to see a rattlesnake jaw bone necklace (I have one of these myself!).
1 p.m. – Beach Time
After your shopping excursion, hit the beach! Depending on the time of year you are visiting, it can be a good idea to let the sun recede a little before beach time. High noon in Georgia can be a whole lotta sun!
Pack a picnic and head out to 17 miles of undeveloped coastline where you are more likely to see shorebirds and wild horses than other people. The further north you go on the island, the less likely you are to run into others. I personally love to bike to the Greyfield beach path and picnic in the gazebo, then walk north along the coastline and lay out a blanket for some much-needed R&R at Little Greyfield Beach.
3 p.m. – Explore Some (Not Too Ancient) Ruins
Next, I like to head south to Dungeness Ruins. From Greyfield, it’s a two-mile bike ride that takes around 20 minutes depending on how packed the dirt path is. Come here to marvel at what was once the impeccable home of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie. You can usually find a few deer and wild horses grazing in the evening, but with the departure of the state park boats, you might find yourself the only person there!
4 p.m. – Three Ways to Spend an Evening
I have a couple of favored adventures to take from here. Option one: Head to the Ice House Museum (which closes at 5 p.m.) and watch the sunset from the Intracoastal Waterway.
Option two: If it’s low tide and there is still light out, head down to Racoon Key to search for fossils in the dirt mounds. The most commonly found item is fossilized sharks’ teeth—every Cumberland resident has at least 20 of these around their house. Remember to watch the tides—if its high tide the path to Racoon Key is impassible.
Option three: Follow the path to the east and head to the boardwalk that runs along the marsh. If you keep following the path you will end up on the beach, and at low tide on a day with no wind, you can glide home on your bike effortlessly. By far one of my all-time favorite things to do on Cumberland.
6 p.m. – Sip slow and listen close
If you are staying at Greyfield you must get a drink in the cozy little bar that was formerly the gun room of the house. The night was made for sitting on the old porch and letting the day slip away while listening to the chorus of wild animals that call Cumberland home. Stargazing is also a priceless activity and incredibly impressive on this pristine island with no light pollution.
The Cumberland Island Essentials
Where to Stay on Cumberland Island
The Greyfield Inn is the only business on the island and the only place to stay if you are not camping. With only 16 rooms, remember to plan ahead.
What to Read Before a Trip to Cumberland Island
What to Know Before You Go
Plan ahead for the weather. If it’s summer, it’s going to be very hot and very humid, so it is best to limit your outdoor activities to the morning and evenings. This is a wild place with wild animals (snakes!) and lots of bugs (ticks and mosquitos). Bring your bug spray and stay on clearly marked paths.
The winter offers a respite from the bugs. Always watch the tides, as the high tide may restrict your access to certain parts of the island. If you’re camping, you have to bring all your own food. There are no stores on Cumberland.