Never trust the Weather Channel.
For the first time in years, I convince four families to join us on our annual trip to Cumberland Island. As the day grows nearer and the forecast bleaker, our party of twelve dwindles to our family of three, and even I consider bailing. Then I remember why I return to Cumberland every year. The pristine beaches, the wild horses, the rich history. Throwing caution to the wind, we pack everything we need for four days on a “deserted” island.
Half the fun of Cumberland Island is getting there. This national seashore, deeded to the National Park Service by the Carnegie family in 1972, has no stores or restaurants and is accessible only by boat. Those of us fortunate enough to score a campsite must bring everything we need. Some bring more than others aboard the Cumberland Queen ferry, and on this trip, I see it all.
The early morning fog clears as the island comes into view. Seventeen miles long and little more than a mile wide, Cumberland is home to wildlife—crafty raccoons, feral pigs, timid armadillos, wild horses, and a legendary alligator—and steeped in history. Henry “Light Horse” Lee is buried here, and the Kennedys (John F. and Caroline Bisset) were married here.
Home for the next four days is a sandy clearing surrounded by palmetto fronds and shaded by live oaks. The eastern edge of our campsite literally merges with dunes, and we can hear the crashing surf faintly in the distance. We set up our tent, hammock, chairs, and load our food into the caged “bird house” that will keep raccoons from stealing our dinner. Rewarding ourselves for setting up camp, we hike the short distance to the boardwalk, and when the ocean comes into view, I’m in heaven.
The beaches at Cumberland are unmatched and can best be described by what’s not there. There are no hotels, cars, amusement parks, T-shirt stands, or ice cream shops. There are no volleyball nets, lifeguard stands, or tailgate tents. No, Cumberland beaches are simply that—beaches. Look to the ocean, and you might see a shrimp boat or a freighter in the distance. Often, you see nothing but blue horizon and crashing waves. Look up the beach, and you will see miles of sand dotted with shells and seagulls. Turn your back to the waves, and sand leads to dunes that merge with the oak trees in the distance. The solitude and simplicity of the beach provides the backdrop for a perfect day. I bring a chair and a book and read the day away. My son Jackson spends hours building sandcastles, and my husband walks for miles down the beach to see what creatures the tide has temporarily stranded.
After our afternoon at the beach, I meet one of our neighbors in the campground who kindly invites our family to his New Year’s Eve party. Jackson is beside himself with anticipation. “Don’t get too excited,” I tell him. “You realize it’s just going to be a bunch of old people sitting around a campfire with guitars.”
Could I have been more wrong? That evening, the sounds of the surf and light breeze through the trees mixes with a new sound. Eighties music? As we make our way to my new friend’s campsite, I notice the lights in the distance. We are greeted by what seems to be the entire campground. Stitched together tarps forming a huge vaulted roof. Electric lights dotting the edges. Picnic tables overflowing with food. A dance floor crowded with people. How is this possible, I ask, in a primitive campsite? My friend emerges from the crowd to welcome me with a drink and answers simply, “Golf cart batteries.” I meet so many interesting people, including a guy who came armed with giant hula hoops. Jackson hula hoops until he’s exhausted, and we head back to our peaceful side of the campground.
A perfect New Year’s Day awaits. Today, we rent bikes and head north on the sandy road toward Stafford Beach. This is the first time Jackson has been old enough to ride the rental bikes through the sand, and I can’t wait to see the other parts of this island through his eyes. As we bike, he sees oak trees give way to pines. I point out private homes, life leases of the Carnegie descendents, as well as the private airstrip.
A few more miles, and we arrive at Plum Orchard. This antebellum mansion has stately white columns and huge front porches. Rounding the corner of the front porch, we meet a couple who chose this magical spot to get engaged. After wishing them luck and snapping a few photos, we hop back on the bikes heading for the beach.
Emerging from the dunes, we stumble upon a pack of wild horses. Knowing we should keep our distance, we focus on the six-mile ride ahead. Sunset is closing in, and we will have to ride quickly to get back before dark. As we race down the beach, I look behind me and realize that the horses have joined us. The lead stallion is galloping behind us and the pack follows in line. They run with us for half a mile before they slow to a trot, and we leave them along with this perfect day behind.
Our final day is more relaxed but just as amazing. We wander the beach picking up shells, hike to the south end of the island, and tour the ice house museum and the Dungeoness ruins. We spend an hour along the marsh seeing who can find the most shark’s teeth. That night, we take one more walk out to the beach and watch the reflection of the moonlight across the Atlantic. “Take a picture in your mind,” I tell my son. “When you get home and have a bad day, think of this picture.” Luckily, the picture only has to last a year until we can return to paradise.
Click here for more information about Cumberland Island National Seashore.