Off The Eaten Path: Cumberland Island
If looking for a complete break from one’s daily routine, planning a getaway usually requires choosing a location far from home. Sometimes, however, the unknown adventure may be hiding in plain sight. Such is the case with Cumberland Island National Seashore, located just off the coast between Fernandina Beach and St. Marys, Georgia.
If there were such a designation, this barrier island could indeed be classified as a natural treasure. Cumberland Island, the largest of Georgia’s Golden Isles, is not necessarily remote, but access is limited, which reinforces the feeling of spatial distance from modern times, inviting visitors to appreciate the rustic natural setting of sand dunes and marshes teeming with wildlife.
Though Cumberland Island is mostly undeveloped, that doesn’t mean it lacks adventure or variety. Here you’ll find a combination of pristine maritime forests, beaches and marshland, with a touch of history thrown in to enrich the setting. Unless you are one of the 30 (or so) residents of the island, there are two choices for overnight visits: either a stay at The Greyfield Inn or camp. Depending on your accommodations while on the island, dining options will also reflect the uniqueness of the location.
The Greyfield Inn: Cumberland Island may not seem a likely epicurean hotspot, but guests at this former Carnegie home would beg to differ after sampling Executive Chef Whitney Otawka’s seasonally driven cuisine. Otawka, along with her husband Chef Ben Wheatley, offers carefully curated meals based on their belief that the integrity of food is most important. Shortcuts are not an option.
“Locality and seasonality are critical – our dishes highlight the vegetables, especially those grown here at the Inn. We meet every morning and plan the menu based on what’s fresh from the garden,” said Otawka. “The environment here is amazing. The garden is so important to our food sourcing. Ryan and Maya (the couple tending the garden) grow things here that I can’t find elsewhere.” Diners will often find red veined sorrel, Mexican sour gherkins, pea shoots, baby fennel, ice lettuce, peppercress, upland cress, paprika peppers and many other types of produce picked just hours before the evening meal.
At lunchtime, picnic baskets filled with sandwiches, salad and cookies politely wait in a refrigerator, adorned with the names of guests atop a checkered cloth. Visitors are welcome to eat in the air-conditioned dining room, at any of the outdoor tables or borrow bikes and ride to nearby spots to catch some of the island scenery. Along the route to one favorite destination, the ruins of Dungeness mansion built by Thomas and Lucy Carnegie in the 1880’s, you might see a variety of wildlife, including the famous horses that roam the island, along with turkeys, deer and boar.
The evening repast also showcases culinary talent in the kitchen. Pre-dinner cocktails and hors d’oeuvres are served in the living room. When the dinner bell is rung, guests are led downstairs to the dining room for a three-course meal full of seasonal flavor, in a dreamy, romantic setting far from the daily grind. While you know a return to the mainland is inevitable, lingering by candlelight to savor the last bites of blueberry galette and hibiscus cream is encouraged.
Camping: Conversely, if nature is your calling and you prefer to pitch a tent, reserve a site at one of five designated campgrounds managed by the National Park Service on the island. Both developed and wilderness camp sites are available. While there are no facilities at the wilderness sites, the developed sites, Sea Camp and Stafford, both offer restrooms and showers.
Because there are no food stores on Cumberland Island, you will need to bring all your provisions, per the “pack it in, pack it out” policy. Campfire dining can be as inspired or simple as you desire, depending on what you are willing to carry and how many able-bodied members in your group. Also consider the cooking facilities, such as they are. Campfires are not permitted in the wilderness sites and portable stoves are suggested for food preparation. Sea Camp sites include a grill, fire ring, food cage and picnic table, while Stafford offers fire rings only for cooking. After hours of exploring the island trails and coastline, your senses are receptive to culinary experiences, and even the most basic foods prepared over a campfire seem memorable.
Whichever route you choose for your visit, the mystique of Cumberland Island will leave a memorable imprint. Don’t be surprised if you start planning a return visit on the boat ride back to the mainland.