Last Updated on July 11, 2023
St. Simons Island is one of Georgia’s Golden Isles. For such a tiny piece of real estate, it was a scene of war and conflict from its colonization in 1736 up to World War II.
The island is the largest of the 15 Georgia barrier islands; it’s the same size as Manhattan and has the most diverse ecosystem east of the Mississippi River. This plus its scenery, beaches, and history attract visitors from all over the world. It’s an easy drive from the mainland yet maintains an island charm.
One of the names you will hear over and over on St. Simons Island is Eugenia Price. She is a famed novelist who fell in love with the island’s charm and moved there. Her St. Simons novels are about the real-life people buried in Christ Church Cemetery.
- 11 Best Things to Do in St. Simons
- Where to Stay in St. Simons
- Is St. Simons Worth a Visit?
11 Best Things to Do in St. Simons
This is where it all began in 1736. James Oglethorpe began the construction of Fort Frederica on St. Simons to defend England’s southern colonies from the Spanish invasion. The fort was the largest and most costly British fort in North America.
The prosperous town of Frederica grew around it by 1743 and was dependent on the soldiers for their livelihood. This fort played a major part in the rout of the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh, six miles to the south. The outcome of the battle drove the Spanish forces back to St. Augustine, forever ending the Spanish threat to the English colonies. Designed for war, Frederica could withstand anything except peace. As the Spanish threat faded, the soldiers withdrew leaving the village economy crippled. The town quickly crumbled, unable to survive.
Today you can view the site; parts of the fort and the barracks remain. Other home and business site foundations are carefully preserved allowing you a glimpse of what this thriving military town looked like in its heyday. The visitor center has books, exhibits, and an entertaining film about the founding of Frederica.
Christ Church and Cemetery
Christ Church presides over the ancient cemetery, many of its stones dating back to the 1700s. The existing church was built in 1884 to replace the original one destroyed by Union troops during the Civil War. Anson Greene Phelps Dodge, Jr., the protagonist of Eugenia Price’s The Beloved Invader, came across the remnants of the old church on his honeymoon and was captivated. He decided that he would become a minister and return to St, Simons. While on their honeymoon trip around the world, his wife, Ellen, died of cholera in India. Heartbroken, Dodge brought her body back to St. Simons and had her buried in the church cemetery.
He went to New York to attend seminary and then returned to St. Simons. He built the present church and had Ellen’s body reburied beneath the altar so he could be near her while he preached. After his death her body was moved once more to its present place in the grave next to him and his second wife.
The families that made the island’s history were mostly members of this church and now lie entombed in the yard. Much of the island’s story is told by the graves here. Novelist Eugenia Price, who came to the island for a book signing, remained here for the rest of her life made many of those stories immortal. She now also lies in the cemetery.
Hamilton Plantation Slave Cabins
A glimpse into what life was like for enslaved people on St. Simons is found on what was once Hamilton Plantation where Anson Dodge’s father had his lumber mill. The plantation is no longer there. You can visit and view the two remaining tabby slave cabins now preserved by the local garden club. They are just a few blocks down Arthur J. Moore Drive from Gascoigne Bluff Park.
St. Simons Lighthouse
Its light guided many a weary sailor. Its round tower holds many ghost stories. St Simons Lighthouse is one of the oldest working lighthouses in the nation. Its story is told in Eugenia Price’s Lighthouse Trilogy. The lighthouse museum has an exhibit about her as well as much of the lighthouse lore. You can climb the 129 steps to the top and gaze over the island’s beauty and the waters of the Atlantic.
James Gould came to the island in the late 1700s and in 1807 won the bid to build the lighthouse. In 1810 President Madison appointed him the first keeper. Confederate soldiers blew up the original lighthouse in 1861 to keep it from falling into Union hands. It was rebuilt in 1872 and now houses the St. Simons Island Lighthouse Museum.
By day visitors can tour it. Legend says that at night it is the realm of the spirit of lighthouse keeper Fredrick Osborn, killed in March 1880 during an argument with his assistant John Stevens. Since then there have been rumors that Osborn’s ghost still haunts the majestic lighthouse.
Neptune Park stands at the end of Mallery Street between the pier and the lighthouse. The park houses an 18-hole miniature golf course, Fun Zone pool, playground, and on-site concession stand. There is no admission fee for the playground. The golf course and pool do charge a fee.
The park’s iconic sculpture of a mother whale and her baby reminds visitors of the Right Whales that visit this coast. These whales were named “Right” by the whalers who considered them the right whales to hunt and succeeded in driving them to the verge of extinction. If you are lucky, you may spot one of the few remanding whales that use this area as a calving ground from December to late March.
The park is named for Neptune Small, a slave during the Civil War. According to legend, he accompanied his young master, Lord King, into battle and when King fell on the fields of Fredericksburg, Neptune salvaged his body from the battlefield and brought him back to Retreat Plantation for burial.
Then the loyal Neptune returned to watch over the younger King son, Cuyler. After the war, a grateful Thomas King gave Neptune the beachfront land to build his home. The Small family remained on this land into the 20th century. Thus, a former slave became the owner of what would become one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in St. Simons.
The World War II Home Front Museum
The newest museum on the island gives a different view of the war from typical accounts. It’s the only museum in the country telling the home front story of German U-boats and subs that prowled our Atlantic shoreline. Most WWII museums deal with the war in Europe; D-Day on Normandy Beach or battles in far-away Belgium. We all know the war impacted this country, but this museum shows how very close it came to our own shores.
The museum is housed in two historic buildings that were previously part of the Coast Guard facility. In the rear the smaller, white-frame building where you begin your tour was once the boathouse. The elegant, white, antebellum-style building in front with its watchtower atop was the Coast Guard building.
The museum is self-guided and both buildings have exhibits. Start with the 10-minute video that tells the story of what took place on Georgia’s coast. The artifacts in the museum include ration books and the bell and life ring from the S.S. Esso Baton Rouge, one of two merchant ships that were sunk by a German U-boat just off St. Simons’ coast on April 8, 1942. You can hear personal stories by pushing a button.
Lighthouse Trolley Tour
The beauty of this tour is that it is not operated by some corporate company based in New York. It’s owned and operated by Cap Fendig and his wife, Catherine. Cap’s family have been St. Simons Island residents since the mid-1800s. His drivers are well trained to tell the island’s stories because Cap Fendig knows them all.
The 90-plus minute tour runs Tuesday through Sunday beginning at 2 p.m. You visit most of the historic places on the island. The bus stops and the guide takes you on a walking tour through many of them. The driver can answer questions about the island.
Dolphin Boat Tour
A Dolphin Boat Tour is a wonderful way to see the watery side of St. Simons and a good chance to see some dolphins and other aquatic wildlife.
It’s also operated by Cap Fendig. He has been leading fishing trips for over 45 years and is a licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain. He told us it was from his grandmother, who was a captain and skilled fisherman, that he got his love of the water and boating.
If you begin to see faces peering at you from the gnarled oaks, you have not lost it. You are just seeing the Tree Spirits of St. Simons. There’s a story behind these carved trees. These weathered images have been lovingly carved into the bark of the trees by local artist Keith Jennings.
Beginning in the 1980s, he began carving faces from the island’s famous oak trees. Each unique face is hand-carved, taking between two and four days to complete. The faces memorialize the countless sailors who lost their lives at sea as they sailed aboard the mighty ships once made from St. Simons’ oaks. New faces are popping up across the island all the time.
King and Prince Resort
More than your average hotel, King and Prince Resort is one of the Historic Hotels of America and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Besides the hotel, there are beach view residences, villas, or an oceanfront cabana for your stay. You can choose from four buildings in the main resort: the Oceanfront, Oleander Building, the Historic Main Building, or Oglethorpe Building. I stayed in one of the cabana rooms in the Historic Main Building. I had a comfortable king bed, two TVs, and a step-down parlor area facing the ocean.
For more room, you can choose between two beach villa buildings, one on either side of the main resort. There are two or three-bedroom choices. There is a private pool and hot tub, gas grills, and gated parking for villa guests. You have access to all resort amenities.
You can also stay in one of the five residences ranging from the one-bedroom Wynn Cottage or Wesley Cottage to the five bedrooms, two-story Hampton House located right on the beach. Another choice is the four-bedroom Familia Meadows House with five levels; from the cozy upper-level porch you have a magnificent view. There’s also a penthouse suite and the Tabby House with two master suites.
At the resort, there is a luxurious spa to massage your worries away. You can play on a golf course with spectacular views next to the salt marsh, or play tennis on their state-of-the-art courts. There are five outdoor swimming pools and two hot tubs, and a fitness room. All rooms, suites, villas, and residences are equipped with Wi-Fi.
You don’t have to leave the resort for dining. They have an award-winning restaurant, ECHO. You can dine inside or poolside with an ocean view.
Aside from your choice of wine, there are some special cocktails. My favorite was one called High Tide made with Rum Haven, vodka, Southern Comfort, and fresh fruit juices.
The restaurant name is a tribute to events in World War II. During the war, the Navy used the local airport for a naval airbase. Radar was a new technology that bounced electronic radio waves back when detecting an object in its path, echoes. The King and Prince housed the operation center sending out those radar signals. It also was housing for the officers and a favorite gathering place for enlisted men and local Civil Air Patrol volunteers.
ECHO executive chef, James Flack, makes dining at King and Prince a special experience. I tried his shrimp and grits, blackened Georgia shrimp served with collard greens and Andouille étouffée. For dessert try the fried peach pie topped with vanilla ice cream.
Georgia Sea Grill owner Zack Gowen and chef Tim Lensch specialize in seafood. From their seared scallops to baked lump crab cakes, herb-crusted lamb racks, Georgia bison carpaccio, and crab-stuffed hushpuppies, you can’t go wrong.
Gnat’s Landing, founded in 1999 and still owned and run by the Pope Family, is a place for beachgoers to relax in a Beach Dress Code that allows flip flops and swimsuits. They serve standard American fare. Their famous slaw bowl, fried pickles, cheeseburger sliders, Vidalia onion pie, a bowl of fried shrimp or oysters, sweet potato fries, po’ boys, and tarragon chicken salad are the most popular dishes.
Southern Soul BBQ is a traditional barbeque joint. It’s casual dress. Be prepared for some messy ribs that are mouthwateringly delicious. Of course, they have other barbeque specials but when I want barbeque, I want ribs.
Golden Isles Olive Oil, owned by Donna MacPherson, will show you the benefits of olive oil. Her shop is a magical place where you learn how to taste olive oils and can find lots of cooking must-haves. Plus, there is a restaurant and wine bar as well where a culinary delight can be a healthy lunch.
Where to Stay in St. Simons
Looking for where to stay in St. Simons? Check out these hotels centrally located in St. Simons.
Is St. Simons Worth a Visit?
A good place to start your visit is at the visitor center located in the Old Casino Building in Neptune Park. The Old Casino Building also hosts the Island Players Theater and the public library. The often overlooked but equally important facility, public restrooms, are also located there.
The several blocks leading to the park is called the Pier Village and is home to specialty shops and restaurants. There’s a cozy bookstore and many unique craft shops. This is also a boarding spot for the trolley.
There are over 30 miles of bike paths on the island. You can rent a bike from the Bike Dude who also has a shop that repairs and sells bikes.
Of course, there are miles of beachfront for swimming, surfing, or just plain relaxing. East Beach on St. Simons Island is one of the sites on Georgia’s Colonial Coast Birding Trail. More than 300 species of birds have been spotted on the trial including bald eagles.
Like Eugenia Price, when you visit St. Simons you may be caught in its enchantments and not want to leave.