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Destination: Georgia

JFK Jr.'s Wedding Isle : Cumberland Island's isolation offers peace and privacy for celebs, plain folk alike

November 10, 1996|CHARLES SALTER JR. | Salter is a freelance writer who lives in Baltimore

CUMBERLAND ISLAND, Ga. — No sooner had the Greyfield Inn ferryboat chugged out of the Fernandina Beach, Fla., marina when somebody popped the question.

"All right, let's get this over with," said Jerry, a brash, 40-ish businessman on vacation from Atlanta. With a cold Busch beer in one hand and a bag of boiled peanuts in the other, he looked at the young woman in the Greyfield Inn uniform, offered a charming, crooked smile and asked, "Did you see any of them from the wedding?"

Everybody on board the boat to Cumberland Island, all seven of us, knew exactly which wedding he was referring to. The one that starred John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette--and, of course, Cumberland. The ceremony managed to remain surprisingly private, partly because it took place on this remote and little-known barrier island off the Georgia coast.

But Cumberland was special long before the Kennedys put it on the map. The wedding was simply the latest chapter in a colorful history that dates back 4,000 years, to when the Timucuan Indians roasted oysters over an open fire on the beach. Over the last 400 years, the island has been home to Jesuit missionaries, French, Spanish and English explorers, Revolutionary War heroes and another famous American family. Having made their fortune up north in steel, the Carnegies came down and made Cumberland their private homestead.

What distinguishes this historical island from others nearby, though, is the fact that it is isolated and undeveloped today. Stretching 18 miles long and three miles wide, Cumberland is larger than Manhattan. Yet it has just 35 or so full-time residents, one inn and miles of pristine beaches, live oak forests and marshland. On Cumberland, you see feral horses, white-tailed deer, dolphins, armadillos and, in winter, 200 species of birds that migrate here. It is a true treasure island.

But there are no tourist shops, telephone lines or TVs. No vehicles other than those belonging to park rangers and residents. And no way to reach the island other than a ferry ride.

Although Congress designated part of the island a national seashore back in 1972, it has enjoyed a low profile, overshadowed by the fancier resorts on neighboring Sea Island, Ga., and Amelia Island, Fla. Until the recent attention, Cumberland was certainly a secret place known only to Georgians; vacationers learned about the island and the Greyfield Inn mainly through word of mouth, which was how residents and longtime visitors, so protective of this paradise, preferred it.

Much of the wedding coverage gave the impression that Cumberland was off-limits to the ordinary traveler or somehow exclusive. But it's open to the public and no trust fund is necessary to afford the island. A visit can cost as little as $10.07, the price of a round-trip ticket on the Cumberland Queen, the year-round ferry operated by the National Park Service, and stay for free at one of five campgrounds. Or spend from $145 to $350 a night for a room at Greyfield, one of five mansions the Carnegies built on the island. Either way, visitors who set foot on Cumberland for an afternoon or a couple of days risk becoming hopelessly wedded to the place.

*

The Park Service ferry leaves from St. Marys, about 45 minutes north of Jacksonville, Fla. Though I arrived early on a sunny morning last month, a crowd of day-trippers and campers were already waiting on the dock. The crowd included shaggy college couples with backpacks; families with milk crates piled high with bug repellent, snack food and other necessities for the week; and a tour group sporting name tags and every conceivable camera. So much for the secluded Cumberland experience, I thought.

Fortunately, I was wrong. The Park Service doesn't allow more than 300 visitors on the island each day. Basically, once the ferry crowd disperses toward the beach or the campground, you feel as if you have the place to yourself.

While spring and fall are the most popular seasons, Cumberland doesn't shut down in the off-season. And the ferry continues to run, although on an abbreviated schedule. The winters are more private, typically mild (mid-60s during the day, mid-40s at night) and ideal for bird-watching or shelling.

A day on Cumberland may not sound like enough time, but the three-mile trail along the southern end, between the Dungeness and Sea Camp docks, provides a sense of history as well as a glimpse of the unspoiled natural beauty. The island's one-room museum, located in the Carnegies' old icehouse, describes a French colony, Spanish and English forts and the vast plantations that flourished in busier times. Now all is quiet. The beach nearby is free of what you expect these days--high-rise condos, glittering boardwalks and tourists--making it seem like an undiscovered island. Behind the powdery white dunes lurks an amazing maritime forest of live oaks coated with resurrection ferns and draped in Spanish moss--a dark, exotic place.

But it all starts with the dramatic ruins of Dungeness.

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