One hundred years ago, a person would have had to have millions to gain access to Jekyll Island, Georgia. Today, all it takes is $6.
I knew of Jekyll Island as a playground for the Gilded Age wealthy. A group of northern industrialists, with names like Vanderbilt, Morgan and Pulitzer, bought the island in 1886 as a winter haven. They formed a club – limited to 100 members – and only club members, their families and their employees were allowed on the island. That’s a photo of their clubhouse, below.
The club met its end after World War II, when the combination of the Great Depression and the war caused financial problems and a servant shortage, which made a cloistered life on Jekyll Island unsustainable. The State of Georgia bought the entire island in 1949.
Today, you don’t have to be rich to live there, but money is still necessary to gain entry to the island. The first thing anyone arriving by motorized vehicle does when s/he gets to Jekyll Island is pay a fee (though anyone entering on foot or by bicycle is exempt). There’s one causeway onto the island and that causeway ends at a toll booth. Actually, not a toll booth, because what we were paying wasn’t a toll. It was a parking fee, collected before we’d even gotten the chance to think about parking. Even permanent island residents have to pay it.
We were there on a day trip, in our rental car, so had to pay our $6 at the booth. Once in, we headed to the Jekyll Island Museum, on the edge of the island’s 200 acre National Historic Landmark district. The museum has exhibits on island history, and it’s also where we could pick up a guided historic area tour by tram. The guided tour is the only way that we could see the inside of the historic houses — the houses that once belonged to those Jekyll Island Club members — open to the public. I wasn’t interested in a tram tour — I’d rather walk and you know how I feel about tours — but would have gone if I could have taken photos inside the houses. That wasn’t allowed, so we skipped the tour.
We wandered by foot through the historic district instead, looking into cute little crafts shops in cute little cottages and at the outsides of the large Victorian cottages that had housed the Vanderbilts and Morgans during their winter residence. The duBignons, who owned the cottage above, owned the island from 1794 to 1886, when they sold it to the club.
Also in the historic district was the Jekyll Island Club clubhouse, built 1886-1888 . It opened each January for a winter season. It is now a Historic Hotel of America that is, in the hierarchy of expensive hotels, not that expensive.
Our last stop in the historic district was a non-historic one: the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, dedicated to sea turtle conservation through education, rehabilitation and research. The exhibits are child-centric, but it’s worth the visit for adults to see the rescued turtles. Plus, the entrance fee supports their conservation efforts.