Cumberland Island, indulgently

Near & Away

Shelling on a Cumberland Island Beach.

Ron Cunningham
Published: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 11:24 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 11:24 a.m.

Want to savor a day exploring nature with a bit of pampering? For $100, the Greyfield Inn will pick you up by ferry, invite you in to experience its understated historic luxury, then send you off with a picnic lunch to tour the island on one of its bikes.



- Greyfield Inn, 904-261-6408 ; toll Free 866-401-8581;

- Lucy R. Ferguson Ferry, Fernandina Beach dock,

- Cumberland Queen Ferry, St. Mary, Ga.; Reservations M-F, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; 877-860-6787;

Shelling is a human compulsion.

I only realized this recently while cycling a desolate stretch of beach along the eastern edge of Cumberland Island.

Outwardly, I have no interest in shelling. But the magnetic attraction of those clam-and-conch shaped objects, strewn across the sand as far as the eye can see, is … well, compelling.

At first they all look alike. And then you begin to notice the variations and complexities of color, shade, size and shape. And soon you are on and off your bike; picking up one after another, discarding this one, stashing that one in a net bag, pulling it out again and replacing it with a “better” one. No thought to what in the world you will do with the things when you get them home.

You simply can't help yourself.

Still, CSS (Compulsive Shelling Syndrome) may be the only downside to a getaway day on Cumberland. The rest of it — the waves, the sugar dunes, the ruins, the cathedral oaks, the wild horses and that delicious sense of solitude that comes from being alone on a seemingly endless expanse of beach — all recommend this island escape.

My wife, Jill, and I had been spending a few days at Fernandina Beach, itself a great staycation destination with its historic waterfront downtown, great restaurants and shops and a new greenway that runs south through Amelia Island to connect with a bike-ped path on Big Talbot Island. Standing on the parapets of the Civil War-era stronghold at Fort Clinch State Park, Cumberland Island appears so near — not much more than a stone's throw, really — that you feel as though you can almost reach out and touch it.

But getting to the 17-mile-long Cumberland Island National Seashore typically involves driving north to the town of St. Mary, just across the Georgia line, and boarding the Cumberland Queen Ferry (Adults $20, Senior Citizens, $18, Children, $14). We chose a pricier but more convenient option.

For $100 a head, one can board the Lucy R. Ferguson at the municipal docks in Fernandina for a quick run to the dock of the Greyfield Inn, a 1900-era Carnegie family mansion turned luxury island inn. For that price, we enjoyed the use of the Greyfield's bicycles, kayaks and other recreational gear, daytime access to the historic inn itself (the library and its quirky volumes alone are worth the price of admission) and a lunch packed in an old-fashioned wicker picnic basket. (Compare that to the minimum $425-a-night stay for a room with a shared bath.)

We grabbed two beach cruisers and headed east on a shaded canopied dirt road to the Atlantic. With the wind at our backs (trying not to think about the return trip) we cycled several miles south, encountering exactly two other human beings the entire trip. Eventually we came to the southernmost tip of the island where we observed … the brick walls of Fort Clinch, just a stone's throw away.

At that point the sand becomes too soft to continue around the island, so we retraced our path for a few miles. Then we pushed our bikes through a maze of rolling dunes fringed by marshlands and eventually arrived at the ruins of Dungeness, another Carnegie family mansion that was destroyed by fire in 1959. There is an eerie, almost Ozymandias-like feel to this former retreat of the super wealthy, as recounted in Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous sonnet:

“Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away”

Returning to the Greyfield down an arrow-straight oak-shaded lane, we enjoyed our picnic lunch, browsed about the inn, chatted with guests, strolled its stately grounds and, of course, took snapshots of the wild horses that grazed placidly nearby before boarding the Lucy for the return trip to Fernandina.

Cumberland Island is rich in history and biodiversity, and exploring it fully is the work of days, not a few hours. Still, even a few hours stolen on an island paradise is time worth savoring.

Now, what to do with those shells?

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