St. Simons Island might be the glittering gem in the Golden Isles' crown.
Travelers can stay on the island and have a nearly unending supply of places to explore and things to do on the island. For nearly every type of traveler, the island offers activities at a leisurely pace. Those who crave the sound of the waves lapping up on the shore are in for a treat as the ocean can be felt and heard on every nook and cranny of the 11-mile island. While it's the same size as Manhattan, St. Simons moves to a slower, gentler pace.
What to Do on St. Simons Island
While the island is known for its laid-back vibes, there are still plenty of ways to get your heart's fill of the island.
Take in the miles of beach with a long walk or jog on the hard-packed sand. Because St. Simons Island is a barrier island, the beach is hard-packed and the tide comes up nearly to the hotel or condo's door then recedes several hundred yards during low tide. The difference provides the perfect setting to relax during the morning and collect shells in the afternoon as the tide goes out.
Sports enthusiasts can take in a round of golf at the island's many famed courses, including The King and Prince Golf Course and the Sea Island Golf Club course that play host to annual PGA events. At the entrance to the club, take a moment to enjoy the Avenue of the Oaks, planted by Anna Page King after she inherited the land in 1826, which comes nearly to the club's front door. The famous tree-lined walk started out as a mile in length, but was cut to a quarter mile when the McKinnon Airport opened in 1938.
Bike riding is also a popular pastime on the island. Bike rental companies, like Ocean Motion and Monkeywrench Bicycles, offer steeds for those coming to the village without one. Ride the sandy shores around the island or take a cycle through the St. Simons Island trail system that offers more than 30 miles of bike trails to explore around the island.
For family outings, don't miss Neptune Park. The beachfront water park was named after an antebellum war hero and features swings, a water slide and an 18-hole mini-hole golf course. Ask any local on the island about Neptune Small and they'll regale you with a tale of a young slave boy who went to war with his master and, when his master was killed, risked life and limb to return his master's body back to the family on the island.
The Island's Must-See Historical Sites
One of the most paramount visits to make on St. Simons Island is to Christ Church.
The white clapboard church was built on the spot where the Wesley Brothers—famous for founding the Episcopal Church—gave some of their first sermons. The building's interior is a deep, thick brown that looks like a bad acrylic paint job, but the smiling docent will tell you that when builders left the church for the last time, the heartwood pint beams were raw—only age browned the interior. An unsigned Louis Comfort Tiffany window hangs directly opposite of the entrance and if you ask the docent they'll tell you the significance of this window, the lych gate outside the church and the historic cemetery on the grounds, in addition to the building's slightly scandalous history. They'll also point out where the two of the four visiting presidents sat during church services. Two are marked with a plaque and two of the exact seats are lost to history.
For Revolutionary War sites, history buffs need only drive down the street and turn off at Fort Frederica. This National Park historical site was where some of the first soldiers lived and worked on the island during 1736. The area in general was knee-deep in "The Great Debate," with British and Spanish monarchies, claiming rights to the land for nearly 100 years during the 18th century. The fort still stands and leading up to the fort, the Spanish moss-covered oaks shade ruins of homes and other sites that made up the fortress.
For a jump back in history, head to the shore to climb St. Simons Lighthouse. The 129 steps lead up to a terrific view of the island and the coast. The keeper's house—where lighthouse keepers and their assistants lived—is also open for tours, with rooms chock-a-block with information on what it took to be a lighthouse keeper in addition to rooms that are decorated and furnished with turn of the century furniture and home goods as it would have been during a keeper's stay in the house.
Where to Shop on St. Simons Island
The shops at Pier Village—at the fishing pier—offer an array of choices from a charming bookstore, to boutique clothing and a Savannah Bee Company outpost. Tuck into the adorable row of shops across from the general store painted in pastel colors with white trim. Stop in for clothing, real estate needs and gelato without leaving the wraparound porch that connects the pastel houses.
Bike, drive or wander along Frederica Road to find cute boutiques that line the side of the road. The Shops at Sea Island offer upscale shopping including outlet stores, White House Black Market and Chico's. Stop into Redfern Village for boutique clothing and home goods.
Where to Eat on St. Simons Island
Comfort food with a specialty in the local ecological offerings are what St. Simons does best. Locals head to Gnat's Landing for a cold brew on the outdoor patio, a glimpse of the game—no matter the season—and the beloved fried pickles. The favored appetizer is crunchy with a hint of its vinegar insides. Gnat's offers seafood-stuffed salads and sandwiches mixed in with classic American fare.
Mainlanders and islanders alike recommend Sal's Pizzeria for an evening slice that's tasty in a cozy, corner restaurant. Carnivores rejoice in the old-time Southern Soul BBQ restaurant. The restaurant is fronted by a large overhang where patrons gather at picnic tables after ordering plates piled high with pork, beef or chicken. Sit at the picnic tables for a front-row seat to the air traffic that lands at McKinnon Airport—one of the busiest private airports in the nation.
Tuck into crab cakes at Barbara Jean's Restaurant, open since 1998 and known for fresh seafood at its spot nearly on the end of the St. Simons fishing pier. Across the street, Tim Welford and his wife Melissa have been making down-home breakfast and lunch for St. Simons residents since 1989 at Sandcastle Cafe & Grill. Go for an early morning breakfast and sit among nurses, fisherman and other locals who are just starting their morning. The wait staff know most of the residents by name and are more than happy to point out the local favs on the menu.
For a more formal affair, head to Georgia Sea Grill, owned locally and known for approachable haute cuisine with a focus on locally sourced seafood and produce. For celebrating, splurge on the local Georgia shrimp dishes and robust wine offerings.
Where to Stay on St. Simons Island
The King and Prince Resort is one of St. Simons oldest and most well-established resorts. Serving as a dance hall in the 1930s, the hotel traded many hands that made additions in order to capitalize the beachfront space the resort boasts. Each room, the pool area and the resort's restaurant have either a partial or full view of the ocean. The hotel restaurant features American cuisine offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner with opportunities to host elegant dinners and events.
Settle into a room at King and Prince to have full witness to sunbathers and determined joggers padding along the beach. Pick out the locals by those who let their dogs sprint along the beach, zigzagging past waves and obstacles. The furry blurs will sprint away, only to turn around and sprint back to their masters on this public stretch of sand. Watching the melding of high-energy pups, leisurely strolling walkers and beach goers is a chance to relax and enjoy the island.
Further south on the island, the Italian-styled Ocean Inn & Suites near St. Simons Lighthouse is charming and well-appointed with breakfast on the house each morning. The room offers picturesque views of the pier, Neptune's Park and the lighthouse. The public spaces at Ocean Inn & Suites are opulently clad in marble and decorative fixtures. Those looking for small-scale, boutique lodgings delight in Village Inn and Pub. The 28-room inn is set in a historic beach cottage less than 10 miles from Christ Church and Fort Frederica. The pub, located within the inn, opens daily at 5 pm and offers dinner selections and live entertainment on the weekends.