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  • Candace Ahlfinger

Beauty and Solitude on Cumberland Island

Wild horses grazing by Dungeness Mansion

Cumberland Island at last! Our excitement built as we waited at the Fernandina Beach dock for the boat to take us to Greyfield Inn for our opportunity to visit the historic sites and explore the peaceful island.

Cumberland Island, off the Georgia coast, is only accessible by boat. To go, you have two options, visit the Cumberland Island National Seashore or stay at the Greyfield Inn.

If you choose the National Park, you travel by ferry from St. Marys, GA. Reservations are a must since only 300 people are admitted each day. If you want to stay overnight you must pack in everything, including water, and pack out everything you bring. (Check the National Park Service website at for detailed information.) I have camped a lot over the years, but I have to admit that my idea of camping no longer includes digging a latrine or going without running water, so we splurged, extravagantly, and stayed at Greyfield Inn, the only lodging option available on the island. The boat operated by Greyfield Inn leaves from Fernandina Beach, Florida, and is exclusively for the use of the Inn.

Greyfield Inn

The Inn was built as a family residence by the Carnegie family and is still owned by the them. In fact, the handmade jewelry store on the grounds displays the handiwork of GoGo Ferguson, the granddaughter of Lucy Carnegie. Greyfield Inn retains its charm of yesteryear with its stately white columns and the oh-so-comfortable rockers on the grand porch that beckon travelers to sit and visit over a cool drink.

The Inn has only 16 rooms so there is never a crowd. The two-night minimum ensures that you can take multiple naturalist-led tours of the island and see how the rich and famous lived. We stayed two nights, one in the Big Cottage on the property and one in Stafford Suite in the main house. The cottage was just a short walk from the main house and shared a living room with another bedroom. The Stafford Suite is a large wonderfully private and irregular attic room with great views. We didn’t enjoy moving between the two nights, but the Inn moved our luggage and we did get to see more of the rooms this way. (When traveling, always be prepared and look for the good in the unexpected!)

Greyfield Inn is mostly all-inclusive. (Alcoholic drinks from the honor bar are expensive and not included! It would be nice if at least one glass of wine or beer for dinner was included.) Breakfast is served in the dining room and nearby areas. You can also take your food outside to tables located conveniently by the door. The luscious jams and jellies were a highlight of breakfast for me. Lunch was a fun meal. Picnic baskets were located in the kitchen refrigerator for all guests. (Snacks are also available at any time in the kitchen.) We took our basket out to the beautiful yard and sat under the shade of spreading oak trees for a leisurely lunch surrounded by nature and an occasional wild horse. Seated dinner was served at 6:00 sharp in the dining room. The food was delicious, and we had fun visiting with other guests at the large traditional dining table. We discovered that one gentleman was from the same town we live in and we knew people in common. We did note that no one we met had ever stayed at Greyfield Inn before. As with many of our travels, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We took several included tours given by knowledgeable staff naturalists. One of our tours went to Plum Orchard Mansion. The house was built for George Carnegie and his wife by his mother, Lucy Carnegie, and later donated to the National Park Service by the Carnegie family in 1971. (Much of the island has reverted from the hands of wealthy landholders to the National Park Service. Only 10% is still owned by individuals.) Mrs. Carnegie spared no expense. The elegant 1898 house contains extravagances such as an indoor swimming pool, an elevator, and an indoor squash court. The tour even took us to the basement to see the icemaker, a novelty for that time period. (The icemaker was huge and definitely would not fit into a refrigerator!)

Plum Orchard Mansion

Even though the mansion has long been vacant, we were able to see the rich elegance in the detailed woodwork and the remaining furnishings throughout the house. Tiffany lights still shine brightly on beautiful hardwood pieces such as the grand piano. Docents give tours at specific times throughout the day. (Check the National Parks website for more information.) With the majestic oak trees draped with Spanish moss, the grounds surrounding the mansion and over all the island made me feel I was in a novel about the old South.

We also drove by the Robert Stafford plantation, one of the 15 largest plantations in the South at one time. Stafford grew sea island cotton, indigo and rice. He was one of the first adopters of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin which, stories have it, Stafford helped develop. Unfortunately, the creation of the cotton gin did not reduce his need for slaves; it simply changed their tasks so he could produce more cotton.

First African Baptist Church

Another stop was at the First African Baptist Church, the site of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette’s wedding in 1996. (The wedding reception was held at Greyfield Inn.) This small, wooden frame building became famous after their secret wedding was discovered. The church was founded by free African Americans in 1893, but the current structure was completed in the 1930s. We finished one of our tours with a drive along the unspoiled white beach as our guide shared stories and identified wildlife.

In addition to our tours, we spent time strolling down sandy lanes as we looked for wildlife and enjoyed the solitude. There are no paved roads on the island, so even the few cars present have a slower pace than on the mainland. One of our wanderings led us to the ruins of Dungeness Mansion. The mansion was begun in 1884 with renovations and additions continuing for approximately 30 years. (Of course, the house was built for the Carnegies.) In 1959, the main portion of the 35,000 square foot home burned leaving the impressive ruins that still rise from the ground. Now, the solitary residents are the wild horses that graze with only the marsh and ruins as their mournful company.

Dungeness Mansion

Wild horses run free on the beaches as well. (Actually, the horses can be seen almost everywhere on the island.) In fact, there were more horses than people on the pristine sun-kissed beaches whenever we were there. We enjoyed strolling barefoot along the water’s edge, feeling the cold waves lap over our toes when we ventured too close. (None of the beaches have lifeguards, but we weren’t planning on getting in too deep anyway!) Much of the time, there was no movement other than the waves rolling onshore and an occasional seagull swooping down to get his (or her) dinner. The solitude was striking because it is such a difference from our day-to-day hustle and bustle.

In the end, the images of Cumberland Island that will remain in my head are the tree-lined paths, the quiet, and the wild horses.

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