Home Food + DrinkCoffee A Vacation Guide to St. Simons Island, GA

A Vacation Guide to St. Simons Island, GA

by Stephanie Spear
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When living in a busy area like New Jersey, a fun getaway is always a nice change. Visitors are often overwhelmed by the traffic and the busy vibes that many of us have stopped noticing, but there’s something to be said for the slower pace of life that many Southerners embrace, even if it’s just for a weekend. The Montclair Girl explored St. Simons Island, an island off the southeastern coast of Georgia, and found that the change of pace and scenery is good for the spirit. Whether you’re a history buff, a shop-a-holic, a sports and outdoors enthusiast, or just happy to explore somewhere new, there is plenty to enjoy on St. Simons. Read on for a guide to St. Simons Island, Georgia to learn about this special place that has a little bit of something for everyone.

All About the Golden Isles

St. Simons is part of the Golden Isles — a collection of barrier islands off the southeastern coast of Georgia. Located in between Savannah, GA and Jacksonville, FL are St. Simons Island (SSI), Little St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Sea Island, and the town of Brunswick, GA which all make up the area. The area is a destination for golfers, history buffs, and vacationers alike. The weather is great all year round, making it a good off-season destination for enjoying the outdoors. We like visiting in late summer or early fall when it’s still just as warm as early summer but without the humidity.

The area was part of the original colony of Georgia but was viewed as a military outpost. Fort Frederica became a strategic stronghold by 1736. Throughout the 1700s, the Fort grew in size and relevance due to its role in many conflicts, including King George’s War between the British and Spanish. A lighthouse built on SSI in 1810 cemented the area’s importance as a military location. That lighthouse was the inspiration for what later became a larger lighthouse and a Coast Guard station.  The Port of Brunswick is one of the country’s oldest ports: it was one of the five original ports of entry for the colonies and was designated as such in 1789. The port was critical in establishing the industrial success of the region. Import and export businesses thrived, in particular seafood, boat building, and agriculture. The Port is still in operation and handles thousands of imports and exports each day, cars in particular. 

At the same time as the region grew in military and industrial importance, vacationers started coming to the area. The rise of golf’s popularity in the early 1900s matched well with the wide, flat landscape of the region. Courses on Jekyll Island and Sea Island were built and the region became a destination for golfers.

Now, this area is modern but exists with history in mind. Downtown Brunswick still uses the original grid system for its streets, and a citizen-led preservation group has worked to make the historical Signature Squares into interactive history spots throughout the town. Golf, tennis, biking, and other recreational activities are ubiquitous and facilities are plentiful. An increased emphasis on preserving the natural beauty of the area has allowed for many native species to flourish, especially the sea turtle. Visitors to the area are truly spoiled for choices; there is plenty to do in addition to enjoying the gorgeous beaches. Food on SSI is worth the trip alone, with many low country favorites, seafood dishes, and barbeque to enjoy.

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Where to Stay

King + Prince | 201 Arnold Road, St. Simons Island

king and prince ssi

(Photo credit: @kingandprince)

In a way, the history of the King and Prince is a mirror of SSI’s history. The beachfront property was built in 1935 as a dance hall and expanded in 1941 to operate as a hotel. It was a training and observation facility for the Navy during WWII. The Mediterranean-inspired hotel has been renovated several times, and in 2005 was named to the National Register of Historic Places. What this means for guests is that each visit is imbued with over 85 years of hospitality and care. There are three swimming pools, golf, and tennis on-site. This hotel is particularly well-suited to hosting families, as it has many different styles of accommodations, including some vacation homes to rent.

Grey Owl Inn | 1602 Demere Road, St. Simons Island

grey owl inn ssi

(Photo credit: @greyowlinnssi)

The current owners of the Grey Owl Inn renovated the 1950-built property in 2013 with an eye toward modern comfort and historical context. It had been in the Grey family for over 50 years until the current owners purchased it. Now, the Grey Owl has five suites, each decorated with a different theme. Since it’s a bed and breakfast, guests can expect a gourmet breakfast each day with all kinds of deliciousness cooked to order. The grounds are a destination on their own — a small pond is at the center of the property and there are towering oaks with dripping Spanish moss throughout.

Jekyll Island Club | 371 Riverview Drive, Jekyll Island

jeykll island club ssi

(Photo credit: @jekyllclub)

This property started off as an exclusive hunting club and resort for the wealthy and powerful — families like the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers were founding members. It was purchased by the state of Georgia in 1947 and became a state park. The resort has three different areas where guests can stay: the Cottages; the Island Club; and the Ocean Club. The resort is consistently included in various ‘best of’ lists, and if it looks familiar, it’s because over a dozen movies have been filmed on-site. Guests here can enjoy the expansive lawn overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the white rocking chairs on wide porches, and walks underneath ancient oaks. Your last name might not be Rockefeller but you can feel like one for a visit. And, if you’re thinking that there’s something having to do with banking here, you’re not wrong. A secret meeting at Jekyll Island in 1910 set the foundation for what is now the US Federal Reserve System.

St Simons Inn by the Lighthouse | 609 Beachview Drive, St Simons Island

The cheerful yellow exterior is a sure sign that you’re on the right track to check in at The Inn. The Inn is in the center of it all — it is located near The Pier, the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum, and Mallery Street, the main pedestrian plaza. Some of the rooms are pet-friendly, just ask when booking. None of the 32 rooms are the same — each one has its own personality and decor. Guests who book the penthouse suite will be nearly eye-to-eye with the lighthouse.

The Park SSI | 420 Park Avenue, Saint Simons Island

the park ssi

(Photo credit: @theparkssi)

The Park is almost too cute to be real. The Park is a compound made up of five separate small homes situated around a heated pool. The property was renovated in 2018/2019. Each home has its own name and style and is fully equipped with an entire kitchen, living space, and other amenities. Guests can rent out one home or the entire property. The owners have thought of every detail and even provide beach towels. The Park has even caught the eye of Hollywood royalty — Reese Witherspoon’s clothing brand Draper James used The Park as its setting for the Spring 2020 ad campaign.

What to Do

The beaches on St. Simons are wide and flat with hard-packed sand and gentle waves, so it’s an ideal place to spend the day. Summer here starts earlier and lasts later than it does in New Jersey, so there are plenty of good weather days on the calendar. Even if it does rain, it will likely pass in an hour or so. For those who want to break up the beach days or do something completely different, there is no shortage of choices.

Over on Jekyll Island, there is still more to see and do. Two of the main attractions are Driftwood Beach and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Driftwood Beach looks like something out of a movie. The flat sand is dotted with bleached-white trees, both upright and fallen. The effect is created by coastal erosion and is a reminder that these are, in fact, barrier islands. The trees are enormous and the haphazard look is an unexpected version of what natural beauty can be. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center is a sea turtle education and rehabilitation center. There is year-round programming for guests of all ages, including opportunities to interact with sea turtles.

SouthEast Adventure Outfitters | 313 Mallery Street, St. Simons Island

SouthEast Adventure Outfitters ssi

(Photo credit: @southeastadventure)

Since 1994, SEA has been taking visitors off the beaten path to explore all there is to see in the Golden Isles. The motto here is, “If it floats and it’s fun, we like it.” Knowledge guides take guests out to see nature up close — sitting low in a kayak is about as close as you can get to the animals that populate the marshlands. There are several set options for outings and the staff can customize an outing. The tours are meant to match guests’ skill level and interests, so even kids can participate. SEA has access to kayaks, paddleboards, and fishing boats. Equipment is also available to rent if you want to go out on your own.

St. Simons Tree Spirits | Throughout the Island

Local artist Keith Jennings started carving these beautiful and mysterious spirits in the 1980s to honor lost sailors. Finding the different spirits is a fun way to explore the island. Keith’s son, Devon, has joined in on the fun. Now, there are more than 20 tree spirits throughout the island. Some are on private property, but most are publicly accessible. Each one is unique and has its own themed design. Rent a bike to get around more quickly.

St. Simons Lighthouse Museum | 101 12th Street, St. Simons Island

st simons lighthouse museum

(Photo credit: @stsimonslighthouse)

The lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling were built in 1872 after the original buildings were destroyed during the Civil War. In 1971, the buildings were conveyed to Glynn County by the federal government, and the Coastal Georgia Historical Society has maintained the property since 1975. The Keeper’s Dwelling has been converted into a museum about lighthouses and the history of Coastal Georgia. It features period rooms decorated in the style of an early 1900s Keeper and his family.

World War II Homefront Museum | 4201 1st Street, St. Simons Island

wwII homefront museum ssi

(Photo credit: @wwiihomefrontmuseum)

This museum is housed in a former Coast Guard station, which was built in 1936. The museum covers the impact of WWII on Coastal Georgia and showcases the region’s wartime efforts. On certain Tuesdays, WWII veterans are on-site to tell stories from their service. This museum is also a part of the Georgia WWII Heritage Trail, which is a statewide network of 10 historical sites relevant to Georgia’s role in WWII.

Where to Eat

Barbara Jean’s | 214 Mallery Street, St. Simons Island

This restaurant is the concept of a classic Jersey diner but given a Southern gloss with the menu and vibes. The end result is Barbara Jean’s, named after the real founder, Barbara Jean. The menu is overwhelming in a good way. It’s hard to pick what to order, but start with a crab cake, which is Barbara Jean’s claim to fame. Other choices include soups, sandwiches, a variety of appetizers, and several kinds of fish platters. There is also a section of “Better Than You Expected” entrees (that’s really what it’s called) which are many classic meat-and-two options. If somehow you still have room for dessert, Barbara Jean’s is famous for two: the ‘chocolate stuff,’ which is kind of like a mousse and a brownie, and the bread pudding.

Gnat’s Landing | 310 Redfern Village, St. Simons Island

gnats landing ssi

(Photo credit: @gnatslanding)

No two trips to Gnat’s Landing are the same. Between the huge menu, the full-service bar with rotating taps of craft beer, trivia nights weekly, and live music every weekend, it’s always fun and fresh. The menu is American classics with a focus on seafood, so lots of burgers, sandwiches, salads, and since we’re in the South, grits-based bowls. There are many TVs throughout the bar, so a game is always on. The restaurant is built around a huge oak tree and strung with cafe lights so it always feels a bit magical. The laid-back atmosphere is perfect for families with kids or other big groups, so you may find yourself eating a post-game dinner with the high school baseball team.

Palmer’s Village Cafe | 223 Mallery Street, St. Simons Island

palmers village cafe ssi

(Photo credit: @palmersvillagecafe)

Mallery Street is the main pedestrian and retail strip on SSI, so naturally, starting the day there with a hearty breakfast at Palmer’s is a solid choice. Palmer’s smells like Grandma’s kitchen if your grandma had a pot of coffee brewing and bacon frying constantly. The walls are decorated with local art that is all for sale — and the subject is often the island itself. The restaurant brags that it has the smallest freezer on the island because everything is so fresh. The menu is a great place to start, but keep an ear out for the specials. Award-winning Chef John Belechak and his team make use of market finds in creative dishes that appear one day and disappear the next. Breakfast and lunch are served all day, with lunch starting at 11AM. The Banana Pudding Pancakes are a crowd favorite but don’t leave without trying a biscuit. It’s simple, buttery perfection.

Southern Soul BBQ | 2020 Demere Road, St. Simons Island

southern soul bbq ssi

(Photo credit: @southern.soul.bbq)

It’s a converted gas station on a traffic circle next to the tiny airport. So what could people be waiting in line for? Turns out, it’s an award-winning barbeque. This no-frills spot serves BBQ worth waiting for. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays, but on other days, the smell of wood-smoked meat draws visitors for miles. The set menu has all the classics like pulled pork, brisket, ribs, and smoked chicken. The rotating specials menu has a different delicacy each day of the week, including house-made pastrami.

Wake Up Coffee Co. | 256 Redfern Village+ 50 Aviator Plaza, St. Simons Island + 3349 Cypress Mill Road, Brunswick

wake up coffee ssi

(Photo credit: @wakeupcoffeeco)

“We love people and coffee.” This local shop roasts its own beans and is passionate about pouring the perfect cup. In addition to all the coffee shop classics, there are always seasonal creations to try like a fall Apple Pie Latte. The baked goods are fresh and locally made. The main menu has scones, granola, brownies, and muffins. There are daily and weekly specials, and if you spy the Caramel Cake, get one slice for now and one slice for later. One of the signature drinks here is the Island Mocha, available hot or iced. We like to get an iced Island Mocha after a day at the beach.

See More: A List of Fun Outdoor Activities in New Jersey

Where to Shop

Pane in the Glass | 1219 Ocean Boulevard, St. Simons Island

pane in the glass ssi

(Photo credit: @paneintheglassgiftshop)

Whether you laugh or cringe at the pun, shoppers who visit Pane in the Glass will be rewarded with a store filled with handmade stained glass and other artworks. This family-owned shop has been on SSI for over 40 years and sells handmade stained glass and other goods from small makers. Visitors can pick up something ready-made like a suncatcher or a Christmas ornament, or work with the shop owners to create something custom.

Pier Village Market | 215 Mallery Street, St. Simons Island

pier village market ssi

(Photo credit: @piervillagemarket)

The Pier Village Market is an indoor space with multiple businesses operating inside. Several established businesses are vendors at the PVM, but it’s also a space for new businesses to try out a concept or host a pop-up. Since the vendor lineup changes frequently, keep an eye on PVM’s Instagram to see the latest. In particular, we like the Golden Isles Bracelet Co., which specializes in hand-made jewelry inspired by nature.

Tabby House | 1550 Frederica Road, St. Simons Island

tabby house ssi

(Photo credit: @tabbyhouse1805)

Tabby is a material ubiquitous in the Golden Isles — it’s an ancient building material made from lime, oyster shells, sand, and water. It’s unique to Coastal Georgia and this building is one of the few remaining structures built with tabby. It is now a gift shop that has a little bit of everything, from jewelry to linens to soaps and candles. We like the incredible selection of cotton napkins — eco-friendly and pretty. As fun as it is to browse the wares, the building itself is worth a look. The staff at the Tabby House are knowledgeable about the building and the area’s history.

Two Friends | 295 Redfern Village, St. Simons Island

two friends ssi

(Photo credit: @twofriends_stsimons)

Between the brightly decorated shop and the incredible variety of beautiful items for sale, there is something simply fun about this shop. Two Friends sells gifts, home goods, stationery, as well as men’s, children’s, and women’s clothing and accessories. Everything is carefully curated, resulting in a festive, accessible experience. The shop has a tasting room called the Bubble Bar with a weekly sommelier-led wine tasting. We like the lighthearted bar accessories that make for a memorable and practical hostess gift, like these Mai Tai drink markers.

Vine Garden Market  | 100 Garden Grove Lane, St. Simons Island

vine garden market ssi

(Photo credit: @vinegardenmarket)

This shop sells home goods, gifts, and gardening accessories. The owners are the same team behind The Park SSI, and the stylish and upbeat vibes are consistent. There are often special events held at the shop, like a yoga class in the garden or a pop-up market, so keep an eye on the shop’s Instagram to stay up-to-date. The inventory is always changing with the seasons, so if you see something you like, it’s not guaranteed to be there next week.

How to Get to St. Simons Island

Fly into either Savannah, GA or Jacksonville, FL, and rent a car. SSI is about one hour from each. Direct flights to both airports are abundant from Newark and are about 2 and a half hours long.

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