St. Barths. Portofino. At least Palm Beach. Global cruising may be the tao of today's tycoon at leisure, but in the age of steam and steel, tidewater Georgia was the winter port of call for America's robber barons. J.P. Morgan's 304-foot Corsair II, Theodore Vail's Speedwell, Andrew Carnegie's Skibo and the Astors' Nourmahal were just a few of the yachts that glided the stretch of placid waterway from Sapelo to Cumberland Sound. The yachts dropped anchor, disgorging their owners to picnic (using a full service of china and silver, of course) on blinding white beaches or to hunt in the game-rich forests. Captivated by these barrier islands, the barons bought and retired to 1,000-acre estates, built when post-plantation-era real estate went for cheap. Today, their pleasures and even their homes can be ours at a few resorts tucked discreetly on or near the Intracoastal Waterway in places where yachts-and sometimes only yachts-can approach them.
Jekyll Island Club Hotel - If the turreted Queen Anne hotel stands out on today's Jekyll Island, imagine how its five stories, three wings and 93 fireplaces appeared when all was wilderness but for the ruins of the Poulain Du Bignon family plantation.
Located at mile 684.3 on Jekyll Creek, this behemoth and its compound of Newport-scaled mansions was the Jekyll Island Club, touted in a 1904 issue of Munsey magazine as "the richest, most exclusive and inaccessible club in the world." Cannon fire announced the arrival of the members, attended by three servants per man, woman and child. Here came Vanderbilt and Gould, the mustached J.P. Morgan immortalized in Monopoly, and Paul Warburg of Daddy Warbucks fame-men who bludgeoned each other in business, enjoying morning hunts and afternoon tea like the best of friends.
Today, anyone can tie up at the wharf, stroll the historic promenades and overnight in the former clubhouse-or if you prefer, the Gould family's Italian Renaissance townhouse, or the Richard Teller Crane "cottage" of 20 bedrooms and 17 baths. What would they say of us regular folks riding on their bike paths and supping in the grand dining room where they masterminded the Federal Reserve? Probably the same thing one of them went down in history for saying: "The public be damned!"
Greyfield Inn - Nature lovers arrive by kayak, National Park Service ferry and their own boats, but I took the Lucy R. Ferguson, based in Fernandina Beach, to Cumberland Island's private heart. "I could live here forever," a woman leaning on the stern rail murmured in her husband's ear. If my fellow passengers felt this way about Cumberland, no wonder Thomas Carnegie's descendants have hung on. Since the 1880s when Thomas, Andrew's brother, passed away in his famed brother's shadow, women named Lucy have shaped the destiny of this barrier island where day visitors are limited to 300 and the lone road is shared by a few resident cars. Thomas's wife, Lucy, finished their 44-room castle and built mansions for the children. In the 1960s when development threatened, granddaughter Lucy lobbied to make Cumberland a National Seashore and opened her childhood home as an inn.
Gracing a leeward bank overhung with ancient oaks, Greyfield has all the luxuries and all the quirks of an ancient family manor. The floorboards squeak, the plumbing rumbles. Drawing my bath with Carnegie's original French faucets, I almost flooded the place and half expected a Carnegie to appear to admonish me. A modern resort it's not, but a home where guests have the run of the baronial common rooms decorated with family furnishings.
There were 12 guests that weekend and we all helped ourselves to first editions in the library and midnight snacks in the kitchen, to kayaks at the dock and fat-tire bikes in the barn. We visited the colossal ruin of Dungeness Castle, hiked the maritime forests, gathered sand dollars on the 18-mile beach and rocked contentedly on the porch as broad as a lawn.
There were no celebrities at cocktails or the chef's candlelit table, although they do come: JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married on Cumberland in 1996. For our weekend we were just six couples sharing a wilderness the size of Manhattan. How luxurious is that?
Cabin Bluff - "Three gobblers with one shot," a guestbook reads in the lodge adorned with wild boar heads and trophy deer. While many associate Sea Island with idylls of the rich and famous, Howard Coffin, who developed that island and lived on Sapelo, spent his leisure here. Coffin was a visionary of the Roaring '20s who standardized the automotive industry and acquired gobs of Georgia coast when takers were few. Cabin Bluff's pine log furnishings and cypress timbers showcase still another industry he pioneered from a $10,000 investment in wood.
No one I asked had ever heard of the Lodge at Cabin Bluff, located on the Cumberland River, nestled among 50,000 acres of forest and creeks. Here, Coffin hunted with Calvin Coolidge and sat down to "sumptuous dinners sufficient for a hundred men." Today's accommodations are just as comfortable. Our lodge-one of eight facing the sunrise over Cumberland Island-had a wood-burning hearth, living quarters for a Paul Bunyan and every amenity, down to the fridge stuffed with gourmet treats.
Cabin Bluff guests are mainly unpresuming Southerners with hunting and fishing in their genes. While my husband and I were still in our rockers discussing breakfast, they were already at the clays course and on the water hauling in redfish and bream. Their kids hooked giant sheepshead from the dock and rode dirt bikes where habitats were being prepared for the gobblers, quail and deer.
Our staff of good ol' Georgia boys only seemed laid-back: As we segued from guns to golf, every man was on top of his game. We were the wusses who monopolized the clubhouse with a self-service bar and the whirlpool commanding waterway views. And we'd do it again, too.
The Lodge at Little St. Simons - As the resort's little boat plowed up-creek and disappeared into the spartina, its passengers heaved a collective sigh.
"Couldn't be more beautiful if you planted it," came the reply.
Philip Berolzheimer must have had similar thoughts when he made this trip in 1908, for he did what few corporate kingpins would do with this paradise: Nothing.
Berolzheimer bought Little St. Simons Island from his own company, Eagle Pencil, when the red cedars proved too gnarled by wind and spray for commercial use. Since then, the land has fared better than perhaps at any time in the past 200 years, for while it has grown from a sandbar to 10,000 acres, the human population has shrunk. Gone are the Guales who harvested its oysters and the slave-owning Butlers who planted cotton. With only the Berolzheimers, their friends and 30 lucky guests on the premises, the place teems with critters that have no fear.
Eastern diamondbacks entertained our inspection without a rattle. Five species of deer crossed in front of the deck at my cottage while I was taking in the Prince of Tides view. Just as I spied a black eagle from the nature walk, a colossal gator blocked the trail. It was only when Brandon, our naturalist, stepped close that the gator trundled into the saw palmetto in a seeming huff.
After days on the water, the horse trails or the seven-mile beach, we joined the other guests gathered in the 1917 lodge for killer martinis and a royal feed. A surgeon, an aviator and a congressman were among our company: people who'd traveled widely and enjoyed the finer things.
Funny how the best experiences are simply too good for words.
Cruising, Inn Style
Jekyll Island Club Hotel Jekyll Wharf Marina at mile 685 on the ICW has basic facilities for yachts with up to 6-foot draft and a great raw bar. All others go to the Jekyll Harbor Marina nearby. The hotel and 240-acre historic district are a short walk from the wharf. Rooms: $149 to $369 per night. (912) 635-2600, (800) 535-9547; www.jekyllclub.com
Greyfield Inn The Greyfield dock (located north of Sea Camp Dock at mile 710.8 on the Cumberland River) can accommodate most boats. Stay at the inn overnight, or just stop in for dinner (if you reserve in advance). Rooms: $350 to $575 all-inclusive for two. (866) 410-8051, www.greyfieldinn.com
The Lodge at Cabin Bluff Call ahead since The Lodge, located on the ICW at mile 50, is often booked by groups. A 160-foot float and two 60-footers can accommodate just about anything. Rooms: $450 to $650, per night, for two, all-inclusive. (800) 732-4752; www.seaisland.com
The Lodge at Little St. Simons Island The Lodge is just off the ICW at the Altamaha River. The resort's boat meets guests at Hampton River Club Marina on St. Simons for the four-mile trip downriver to the lodge. Yachts over 30 feet should berth at the marina. Book a room or a naturalist's tour, lunch and an afternoon on the beach. Rooms: $450 to $675 all-inclusive for two. (912) 638-7472, (888) 733-5774; www.littlestsimonsisland.com