The Sea Islands' wild magic

Discover these wonderfully unspoiled barrier and tidal islands on the Atlantic coast

A view across Cumberland Island at sunset
Sunset on Cumberland Island in Georgia
(Image credit: Posnov / Getty Images)

From South Carolina down through Georgia and into northern Florida, the Atlantic coast of the US is shadowed by a chain of more than 100 barrier and tidal islands. Known as the Sea Islands, they are, for the most part, wonderfully unspoiled, said Gisela Williams in Travel + Leisure. A "singular" patchwork of dunes and marshes, river estuaries, vast beaches, and ancient oak forests, they were first inhabited by indigenous peoples including the Creeks and the Guale; later they played host to pirates and Spanish missionaries, before cotton planters arrived in the 18th century. Wealthy industrialists followed, building mansions and resorts. Today, their heirs live here alongside the Gullah-Geechee, descendants of enslaved people in whose language and culture, unique to this stretch of coast, African influences remain strong.

On a trip to Georgia, you might head first to Cumberland Island, the largest in the state at 56 square miles. In 1900, the industrialist Thomas Carnegie – brother of Andrew – built a Colonial Revival-style manor, Greyfield, here. Today, it is a hotel owned by his great-great-grandson, with 15 rooms furnished with antiques, and two cottages. Wild horses graze on the lawn, and deer are often spotted on the beach that lies a short cycle ride away through a natural tunnel of oak trees. To the north lies Sapelo Island, which is almost as large, and home to just 50 full-time residents, most of whom belong to the Gullah-Geechee community. You might stay at Sapelo Island Birdhouses, two rental cottages with ocean views and golf carts – which are the only vehicles allowed on the island.

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