Jekyll Island, Georgia, is so much more than just a family beach escape. Twenty-five miles of bike trails wind throughout the island and along its Atlantic beaches, highlighting its protected and historic landscape and all the family adventure to be found there.
A Georgia State Park, development of Jekyll Island is limited to just 35 percent of the available land area to preserve the critical barrier island ecosystem. The island is home to a number of sea turtle species, as well as a community of volunteers and visitors dedicated to celebrating and protecting these endangered creatures.
There are so many ways to relax and have fun as a family at Jekyll Island that you’ll have to go back for more. Here are some suggestions from our family trip there in July 2015.
Family-Safe Biking Trails
The best way to experience Jekyll Island is by bike. The island’s 25 miles of family-friendly bike trails are well-marked and steer clear of traffic, guiding visitors to the best the island has to offer.
Bikers pass beneath giant live oak trees heavy with Spanish moss, past historic hotels and homes nearby the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, to the center of the island’s new Beach Village and a Dairy Queen near the entrance to the island.
During our recent visit, we rented bikes for the morning from the Bike Barn, located at Jekyll Island Miniature Golf on Shell Road. After a few hours, my daughters were ready for the beach. I, however, could not resist the opportunity for a solitary bike adventure. My husband headed to the beach with our girls, and I climbed back on my bike for a spell. Peddling along next to sand dunes and palm trees and blue sky, the ocean’s salty breath restored me in a way that I didn’t realize I needed.
Next time, we’ll rent bikes the minute we get there until the minute we (reluctantly) head home.
Jekyll Island National Historic Landmark District
Jekyll Island’s tropical landscape and rich history make for a storied lushness that feels much farther from home than Georgia.
The island was purchased in 1886 and became a seaside resort, known as the Jekyll Island Club, for some of America’s wealthiest families. Club members included the families of J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, William K. Vanderbilt and Marshall Field.
Today, the Jekyll Island National Historic Landmark District showcases 34 historic structures on 240 acres. The renovation of the historic district – one of the largest ongoing restoration projects in the southeastern United States – has resulted in Jekyll Island being named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 12 Distinctive Destinations.
Be sure to stop by the quaint Jekyll Island Museum, which is slated for renovation beginning in 2016, to view artifacts, photos and narrative about the island’s most luxurious days. The museum also touches on Native American and early settler history.
The ruins of William Horton’s two-story tabby home, which dates back to 1743, stands along North Riverview Drive as a skeletal reminder of Georgia’s colonial history. Across the street is the historic DuBignon Cemetery, offering beautiful views of the Marshes of Glynn, made famous in the 19th century by the poet Sidney Lanier.
One of the island’s most poignant stories is that of a racing schooner, the Wanderer, which was used to illegally transport African slaves in 1858. Today, there is a monument on the island at St. Andrews Picnic Area dedicated to the roughly 400 Africans who were illegally imported to Georgia. The Wanderer Memorial includes a sculpture by artist Mario Schambon and text panels describing the ship’s landing, the trial of the slave runners, and the fate and legacy of many of the enslaved Africans.
Georgia Sea Turtle Center
A visit to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center at Jekyll Island transforms an average family beach trip into a conservation adventure. The center, which opened in 2007, is an advanced hospital and Georgia’s only rescue and rehabilitation facility for endangered sea turtles. This education, rehabilitation and research center is open to the public and offers amazing behind-the-scene tours with a variety of sea turtles on view.
Our tour included a visit to the surgery center where we watched the center’s sole veterinarian, Dr. Terry Norton, and his heroic team perform follow-up surgery on a loggerhead sea turtle that had swallowed a giant long-line fishing hook and line.
Patients at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center include loggerhead sea turtles, green sea turtles, gopher tortoises, diamondback terrapins, freshwater turtles and box turtles.
During nesting season (June and July, except July 4th), visitors can purchase tickets to tag along with the center’s Turtle Patrol for evening walks along the beach looking for nesting female sea turtles. In August and early September, visitors can participate in sunrise walks to learn about barrier island ecology – and possibly see hatched sea turtle nests.
We launched out on a turtle walk one evening at 9 p.m. with a Georgia Sea Turtle Center volunteer and some other families. While we didn’t view any sea turtles running toward the dark ocean, we were thrilled by the possibility of seeing them and being in such a place where sea turtles emerge into the night. The four of us walked together in wet sand and starlit darkness, the girls giggling and running and holding our hands as we learned about tides and bioluminescent algae.
Where to Stay:
There are many family-friendly hotels – and even one campground – on Jekyll Island. During our visit, we stayed at the newly renovated Holiday Inn Resort at Jekyll Island on North Beachview Drive. Our room was perfect comfort, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Our daughters enjoyed the hotel’s pool and the poolside café, where kids 12 and under eat free.
The resort is just down the road from the island’s developing Beach Village, a refreshingly modern retail center. We made frequent stops at the Jekyll Island Market & Deli for snacks, drinks and all the sundries we forgot to pack.
Who knew such adventure could be found on Georgia’s smallest barrier island! Next time, we’ll try a guided kayak tour with the Tidelands Nature Center, check out the Summer Waves Water Park, and eat dinner at the renowned Driftwood Bistro.
Of course, if you see us, we’ll wave from our bikes…
Thanks to the Holiday Inn Resort at Jekyll Island for overnight accommodations during our visit to Jekyll Island. As always, all opinions are my own.
Jekyll Island Map