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Cumberland Island National Seashore is the state’s largest and southernmost barrier island and is accessible by ferry from St. Marys. Once voted “Best Wilderness Beach” by the Travel Channel, Cumberland Island offers 18-miles of secluded white, sandy beaches and windswept dunes, centuries-old live oaks draped with Spanish moss, crushed shell paths, and an abundance of wildlife untouched by the outside world. The Georgian Revival-style mansion known as Plum Orchard and the dramatic Dungeness ruins where wild horses and other island wildlife roam freely are its main attractions. The Greyfield Inn offers timeless luxury accommodations.

Over half of Cumberland is protected wilderness. Many miles of trails provide excellent access to expansive salt marshes and tidal estuaries as well as dense oak, palmetto, and pine forests, freshwater sloughs, and long sand dune ridges that provide for thriving plant and animal communities of great diversity, including wild horses, turkeys, alligators, deer, armadillos, and a plethora of coastal birds At least 4,000 years of human history are revealed through relics buried in the island’s soil. From the Aboriginal shell mounds that line the island’s marsh side, to remnants of Spanish mission churches, British military outposts, African slave villages and antebellum plantation homes that have almost completely disappeared, they tell the island’s story.

The historic Dungeness ruins seem the best place to begin. The origin of the name of these ruins traces all the way back to General James Oglethorpe who established a hunting lodge called Dungeness on Cumberland Island along with two forts, Fort William on the southern point and Fort Andrews on the north end. Following the defeat of the Spanish in the Battle of Bloody Marsh in 1742, the now superfluous forts were abandoned, and the village vanished as well, leaving Cumberland virtually uninhabited. Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene became owner of the property in the 1783 and began building a small home for he and his wife Catharine before his untimely death in 1786. When Catherine married Greene’s former plantation manager Phineas Miller in 1796, they expanded that house into a four-story mansion which Catharine called Dungeness after Oglethorpe’s hunting lodge. The Millers grew Sea Island cotton, indigo, rice, and oranges. Phineas died in 1803 and Catherine died in 1814, and the plantation continued to run under daughter Louisa Shaw’s care until her death in 1831. Used as a garrison for Union soldiers during the Civil War, the Millers’ Dungeness burned down in 1866.

The Gilded Age changed everything. Following a visit to Cumberland Island where they were captivated by its beauty, Thomas Carnegie (Andrew’s brother) and his wife Lucy decided to make it their winter home. Thomas purchased land on the island that included the site of the former Dungeness mansion and in the years that followed not only did the Carnegies build the structure that expanded into a 59-room mansion, but they also purchased most of the island by 1886. Tragically, Thomas died from typhoid fever in 1886 and never saw the completion of Dungeness. Lucy finished the home and made it her family’s permanent residence. She then had homes built for her children, including Stafford Mansion, Plum Orchard, and Greyfield House. Lucy died in 1916 and the family moved out of Dungeness in 1925 due to its costly upkeep. A massive fire of mysterious origin destroyed Dungeness in 1959. Today, Cumberland’s wild horses and other island wildlife roam freely throughout the ruins and along the beach.

Visitors can take a free tour of the 22,000 square foot mansion known as Plum Orchard. The home was originally built for George Lauder Carnegie and his new wife Margaret Thaw. Construction of the Georgia Revival style mansion designed by Peabody & Stearns began in 1898, with several additions to the house were made through 1906. The house served as the couple’s primary winter residence until George passed away in 1921. Soon after his death, his younger sister Nancy made it her home following her marriage to the island doctor, Dr. Marius Johnston, in 1924. After Dr. Johnston died, Margaret auctioned off many of the original furnishings from Plum Orchard. Nancy did move many furniture items to Plum Orchard from Dungeness, saving these pieces from the eventual fire that consumed that house in 1959. On display are the architecture, furnishings, and machinery that made operation of Plum Orchard possible. The tour will give you a glimpse into Edwardian High Society at the turn of the 20th century and the importance of recreation, indulgence, and rejuvenation in nature. Further exploration tells the story of a family who valued the island, and their time spent with friends and family.

Greyfield Inn is the sole commercial establishment on Cumberland Island. Built in 1890 for Thomas and Lucy Carnegie’s daughter, Margaret Ricketson, the home was converted to an inn in 1964 by Margaret’s daughter, Lucy R. Ferguson, and her family. The Carnegie family still oversees the property, where the furnishings and style remain true to its history, and the inn exudes the romance and luxury of a grand hotel with the hospitality and charm of a family home. Greyfield Inn offers 15 comfortable rooms in the main house and two additional cottages. The inn’s cozy fireplaces and breezy, shaded veranda make it an especially attractive year-round travel destination. The library, dinner bell, and a serve-yourself bar invite guests to gather together and feel at home. The 1.5-acre Greyfield Garden supplies a bounty of fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs, honey, and even fresh cut flowers, making each meal at the inn a truly authentic farm-to-table experience. With breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks included in your stay at Greyfield, you’ll feel just as pampered as the Carnegies of the Gilded Age. To book a stay, visit greyfieldinn.com. To visit Cumberland Island National Seashore without a stay at Greyfield and to plan your ferry trip from St. Marys, visit nps.gov/cuis or call 912.882.4335.

Cumberland Island originally posted on by Elegant Island Living magazine.

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