JFK Jr.'s Wedding Isle : Cumberland Island’s isolation offers peace and privacy for celebs, plain folk alike
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.
After being snubbed by the Vanderbilts’ and Rockefellers’ private club on nearby Jekyll Island, Thomas Carnegie, Andrew’s younger brother and business partner, bought land on Cumberland in the early 1880s. He built a grand estate for his wife, Lucy, and their nine children that included a mansion, gardens upon gardens, an indoor swimming pool and an indoor squash court. In the Cumberland tradition, he named his creation Dungeness. That was what James Oglethorpe, who founded the colony of Georgia, had called the hunting lodge he erected on this very spot in the mid-1700s. And Nathanael Greene, the Revolutionary War general, named his home here the same thing.
Oddly enough, like Greene, Carnegie died before he could enjoy Dungeness, and it was their widows who maintained the estates long after them and grew attached to Cumberland. Stranger still, about 100 years after Greene’s home burned down during the Civil War, arson also gutted the Carnegie estate.
All that remains of Dungeness today is a roofless skeleton of stone walls, doorways and window sills crawling with vegetation and two towering red-brick chimneys where buzzards perch. The place has the eerie stillness of a cemetery. The spring-fed garden fountain that once shot water high into the air is now nothing more than an ornate birdbath.
After imagining how the Carnegie estate might have looked before the fire, I was eager to see Greyfield Inn, two miles north of Dungeness. Lucy Carnegie built the three-story, white clapboard mansion in 1901 for her daughter Margaret, and Carnegie descendants have been operating the inn since the 1960s.
Greyfield offers guests another side of Cumberland, the chance to feel more like a family friend than a tourist. No wonder the Kennedy wedding party stayed there. The private inn ferry drops guests off at the dock, where a staff member escorts them by van up the oak-lined driveway. A thermos of tea or lemonade and a hearty picnic lunch in a wicker basket are prepared for each guest.
People come here to relax, and there is no better place to do that than on the generous veranda, which stretches the length of the house and has porch swings on either end. They are as big as a twin bed and just as soft, with seat cushions and pillows. Late afternoon, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres are available in the old gun room, where an eight-point buck overlooks the bar.
The house looks much the way it did at the turn of the century, a cross between a home and a hunting club. It has high ceilings, Oriental rugs, dark wood paneling and rugged furniture. The Carnegie library is like a rare book room, the shelves lined with first editions and classics. The rooms are decorated with family antiques, portraits, maps, fresh-cut flowers and the occasional animal skull in a window sill.
A visitor to Cumberland can go hours without seeing another soul. But one person definitely worth meeting is Gogo Ferguson, Thomas and Lucy Carnegie’s great-great-granddaughter. She lives next door to Greyfield, which her brother Mitty Ferguson operates with his wife, Mary Jo. Gogo was busy cooking dinner when I dropped by unannounced, yet she waved me in from the kitchen window like an old acquaintance. A striking woman with shoulder-length dark hair, a black pullover, jeans, bare feet and no makeup, she looked like a glamorous actress.
Gogo designs gold and silver jewelry and utensils using animal bones and wax casts. Deer tibia salad servers. An alligator toe necklace. A pair of rattlesnake jawbone earrings. She gathers the bones on long winter walks and sells the exotic pieces in a cozy studio cluttered with baskets and baskets of bones, and in well-heeled boutiques elsewhere. Isabella Rossellini and Hillary Clinton wear her designs. So did Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Gogo talks passionately about her family’s ties to Cumberland. However, she’s tight-lipped about the wedding she and her family pulled off for her pal John Kennedy Jr. and about the wedding rings she designed for the couple.
After a day spent hiking and biking in the wild, I returned to the inn for a casually elegant dinner around one of the banquet tables. Over Cornish game hens stuffed with apples and onions, fresh asparagus and mouthwatering lemon chess pie, we got acquainted. We compared notes: who went shelling, who saw deer or wild turkeys, who saw the chapel where Kennedy tied the knot.
Founded by freed slaves on the island in the late 1800s, the First African Baptist Church was already on the guided Jeep tour that Greyfield provides, but since the wedding, it has become a longer and more popular stop. When couples get married on Cumberland, they usually do so in the outdoor chapel behind the dunes at Sea Camp Beach, on the grounds of Dungeness or a stretch of secluded beach. Not here.
The church is out of the way, even by Cumberland standards. Located on the northern end of the island, it sits in a clearing in the wilderness, next to a horse barn and pigpen belonging to a longtime naturalist. The red trim and white paint are peeling, the door handle is missing and the windows have been painted over. Inside, it’s dark and musty like an attic. Eleven weathered pews face a homemade cross.
At dinner, a retired couple from Atlanta confessed that the island wasn’t what they had had in mind. Too rustic. Greyfield was nice, the woman said in the gentlest of drawls, but it didn’t have air-conditioning or showers. (The bathrooms have bathtubs.)
They would have preferred a real resort, like Sea Island, she said, where they could pamper themselves at a fancy hotel.
The rest of us didn’t want to leave Cumberland. The island exerts an awfully strong pull. Just ask Jimmy Carter, Robert Duvall or Jimmy Buffet--all of whom have visited. Or ask John Kennedy Jr.
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Georgia’s Fantasy Island
Getting there: Delta, Continental, American, United, TWA, Northwest and USAir offer connecting flights, involving a change of planes, from LAX to Jacksonville, Fla., the airport nearest Cumberland Island. Advance-purchase round-trip fares start at about $400.
The National Park Service ferry for Cumberland Island leaves from St. Marys, Ga., 45 miles north of Jacksonville airport (about a $45 taxi ride). The Greyfield Inn ferry leaves from Fernandina Beach, Fla., 38 miles north of the airport (a $38 taxi ride).
The National Park Service operates two ferries a day, except from October to March, when the ferry does not run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The ferry departs at 9 and 11:45 a.m. A round-trip ticket costs $10.07 per person. For ferry reservations, call the park service, telephone (912) 882-4336 between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Where to stay: Greyfield Inn, P.O. Box 900, Fernandina Beach, Fla. 32035; tel. (904) 261-6408. The only inn on the island, Greyfield has nine rooms in the main house and four more in air-conditioned cottages on the grounds. Rooms range from $145 a night for a cozy midweek single room to $350 a night for a premium room with a king-size bed, sitting room and private bath. The price includes a Southern breakfast, picnic lunch and delicious dinner, bicycles, a guided Jeep tour and private ferry transportation. In the spring and fall, the inn is often booked six months in advance.
Cumberland has five campgrounds. Four are primitive back-country sites, but Sea Camp Beach has restrooms and cold showers. Camping is free, but limited to seven days; call the park service for information.
For more information: Georgia Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism, P.O. Box 1776, Atlanta, GA 30301; tel. (800) 847-4842.