We couldn’t have conceived of a more fitting end to 2020 than what transpired as we prepared to depart for Hawaii on December 26th. Having strategically taken our COVID tests together on December 23rd so as to be in compliance with Hawaii’s testing protocol, we awoke early on the day of our flight out of O’Hare to discover that of the two of us, only Dan had received his negative test results by email. While Dan drove to the airport I frantically emailed and called the processing lab hoping to obtain an update on my results, but with 40 minutes until our flight’s departure it became all too clear that Dan had a difficult decision to make… Would he board the flight to beautiful Hawaii alone or drive back to chilly Wisconsin with me?
Thankfully, we were both mentally prepared for this worst possible but also not unlikely scenario and had strategically booked refundable accommodations and reservations. So, after returning to Milwaukee and consuming what was left of the Christmas cookies, we got to work planning a last-minute getaway to a different warm weather destination.
The answer didn’t come to us immediately, but by the time my negative test result arrived later that night, we had found an appealing replacement – Jekyll Island. We swapped our snorkel gear for tennis and pickleball racquets, and instead of the Hawaiian Islands, plotted our road trip to the Golden Isles of Georgia with stops in Atlanta and Nashville along the way.
We were on our way out of Milwaukee in the direction of Atlanta before the sunrise on December 28th, the car packed with an oversized bag of popcorn (see below), leftover Christmas cookies, and two people optimistic about the trip ahead. The skies were clear and we had over 30 hours of quality programming queued up to pass the time. Side note: I’d recommend both America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz for those interested inAmerican history from the late 1800s to early 1900s and a fascinating perspective of Churchill and London during the Blitz, respectively.
Fortunately, our average of one bathroom break per hour decreased the farther we got from Milwaukee, but after 13+ hours in the car, Atlanta was a welcome site. For our one night in Atlanta, we stayed in Midtown and enjoyed a delicious assortment of small plates al fresco under a heat lamp at Bulla Gastrobar.
The following day began as it often does when visiting new cities, with a run. As overzealous Midwesterners expecting to be greeted by a balmy southern morning, we were more than a bit underdressed when we stepped outside into a chilly ~40-degrees. Pants and long sleeves would have been appreciated but we shivered our way through a loop in Piedmont Park nonetheless.
An important stop on our visit to Atlanta was the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, which includes the birth home of Dr. King, the original Ebenezer Baptist Church where both Dr. King and his father were pastors, and the burial place of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King. Although the visitor center is temporarily closed, we were able to walk around the 35-acre site to view the outdoor monuments, including the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, Dr. King’s birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Dr. and Mrs. King’s Tomb adjacent to the Eternal Flame.
On our next visit to Atlanta, I am particularly interested in returning to the visitor center of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, along with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. I’d also be interested in seeing the city by bike along the Atlanta Beltline Trail and from the Canopy Walk at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
We didn’t pick Atlanta only for its sites though. With only five hours of driving between us and Jekyll Island, it made for an ideal stop on the way to the coast. Jekyll Island itself has a fair share of historical sites owing to its settlement first by Native Americans and then subsequent development by the English when Georgia was established as a colony in 1733. The island was named for Sir Joseph Jekyll, an English financier, but it was the DuBignon family, aristocrats fleeing the French Revolution, who acquired the island around 1800 and developed the land into a cotton plantation worked by African slaves.
The island was sold to wealthy American industrialists who established the Jekyll Island Club as a hunting retreat where the well-off Rockefeller, Morgan, and Vanderbilt families, to name a few, vacationed at the clubhouse and private cottages. Jekyll Island was evacuated during WWII and then purchased by the state of Georgia in 1947. Today, the state has designated that sixty-five percent of the island is and will remain in a mostly natural state (including the parks and picnic areas).
It was a combination of the history, accessible outdoor activities, and nice weather forecasted for Jekyll Island that enticed us to visit, but we were sold when we came across the Jekyll Island Club Resort. Designated as a Historic Hotel of America, the resort was restored in the 1980s but maintains its elegant charm, paying tribute to significant events that have taken place on site. The Aldrich Plan, forerunner to the Federal Reserve Plan, was drafted by six of the country’s wealthiest financiers at the Club in 1910. Five years later, the nation’s first transcontinental phone call took place between President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, DC, Alexander Graham Bell in New York, Thomas Watson in San Francisco, Henry Higginson in Boston, and AT&T President Theodore Newton Vail at Jekyll Island Club.
After checking in and admiring the festively decorated resort, we headed to dinner at the Wharf where my selections of a Georgia Peach cocktail and locally caught peel & eat shrimp were regionally inspired.
In celebration of my upcoming birthday, Dan was kind enough to defer to me when it came time for us to select the line-up of activities for our first full day on Jekyll Island. We kicked off what ended up being a very active day with a five-mile roundtrip run to the South Dunes Beach Park where we had the beach and Atlantic Ocean views to ourselves. After refueling at the Pantry, our choice for breakfast all three days, we were ready to rent wheels and ride.
Pleased with our easily maneuverable fat tire bike rentals from Jekyll Wheels, we headed out for the day following the 25 miles of paved biking trails that wind through the forests and along the beaches of the island. Our first stop was at the south end to learn more about the history of slavery on Jekyll Island. The Wanderer Memorial located on St. Andrews Beach Park honors the survivors of the Wanderer, the last known slave ship to land in Georgia and one of the last known slave ships to arrive in the United States.
While the importation of slaves was officially outlawed on January 1, 1808, this did not put an end to the importation of enslaved Africans to the U.S. Half a decade later, the Wanderer arrived at Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia in November 1858 with 407 of the original 487 enslaved Africans having survived the 42 days at sea in deplorable conditions aboard the ship. The Memorial details the story of the Wanderer and the fates of some of the captives who survived the journey but were sold into slavery. It also calls out those, like Charles Lamar, an influential Savannah businessman, who were responsible for the illegal importation and charged by the federal government but ultimately acquitted.
It’s Jekyll Island’s historical significance and natural landscapes that make it such an interesting place to visit, made even better by the accessibility of the island. From the south end we leisurely cruised seven miles on the well-maintained bike trails, nearly the length of the entire island, to our next destination on the north end – Driftwood Beach.
Uprooted trees and gnarled driftwood branches line the shore of aptly named Driftwood Beach, which is a lot more impressive in person than it sounds when described. We unknowingly picked the best time to visit Driftwood Beach, at low tide when the beach is at its widest, but it seemed the other island visitors were aware of this as we were far from the only ones admiring the twisted trunks and limbs protruding from the soft sand. When the tide is low, there’s ample space to walk or sit and marvel at how the corrosive forces of erosion on a maritime forest created this ethereal expanse of a beautiful, skeletal jungle.
The scene was made even stranger by what we could see in the distance but only later learned is the overturned Golden Ray barge that capsized in Saint Simons Sound in September 2019, fortunately without any crew casualties. This 656-foot cargo ship is currently being cut apart and removed from the water by a massive yellow crane – an eerie site indeed.
As the sun descended in the sky, we mounted our bikes and pedaled the last stretch of trail to the northernmost point of the island in anticipation of my birthday surprise – a horseback ride on the beach at sunset. This is not the first time Dan has surprised me with a fun activity for my birthday, but it was his first ever time horseback riding. It’s been a while since I last sat on a horse, but my trusty steed, April, was mostly calm, her defiance only incited by a desire to snack on the occasional shrub along the trail, for which I can’t fault her.
It was easy riding overall, but there were some amusing aspects of the company’s approach to customer service. Our ride started late, which went unacknowledged, and when we finally did get in the saddle, Dan’s was not fit correctly until we asked another guide to assist. We all but missed the sunset, the big selling point for our tour, and then when a light sprinkle started falling, the guide cut our one hour ride short. The couple of photos our guide did take of us are comically subpar but a fun memory of a unique way to experience Jekyll Island.
Underneath a blanket of clouds, darkness descends quickly on rural Jekyll Island. When we arrived back at the stable and told our guide we were planning to bike back to the resort she seemed skeptical that we would arrive intact. Undoubtedly, us city slickers failed to realize just how dark it would be without street or residential lighting. Our 25-minute ride may have ended differently had it not been for my trusty headlamp that I have become accustomed to taking on trips and always known would come in handy. Fortunately, between my headlamp and Dan’s iPhone camera flash that he turned on while recording (a much less interesting) The Blair Witch Project type documentary of our ride back, we were able to see a few feet ahead of us on the path.
Relieved to make it back to the hotel without running into any alligators or swerving off the path into a swamp, we had some time to warm up and change before a fantastic meal and birthday dessert at Eighty Ocean.
For the final sunrise of 2020 we headed back to Driftwood Beach which had significantly decreased in size on account of the high tide. We staked out a log on which to enjoy the spectacular sunrise and when the sun was above the horizon and our stomachs were growling, we headed back for breakfast.
Never ones to turn down an opportunity for friendly competition and bragging rights, we packed tennis and pickleball rackets in anticipation of using the courts on the island. Upon arrival at the clubhouse, we were told they didn’t offer pickleball but we could make a reservation for an hour on the fancy clay courts. While we awaited our tennis reservation, we started the competition early with some art on the beach.
There is no denying that Dan beat me in tennis – though not by much – thanks to his wicked serve, but I think my sand art was more impressive. Despite his victory on the court, he was kind enough to still pay for my lunch back at the resort before I enjoyed an afternoon swim in the heated outdoor pool.
To celebrate New Year’s Eve, the resort hosted a delicious multi-course dinner in their Grand Dining Room. We dined late, and when midnight arrived, we welcomed 2021 adorned in festive hats and with a champagne toast between the two of us.
I was not looking forward to leaving the sunshine and 70-degree weather the next morning, but eating breakfast at the beach with a view of the Atlantic under the warm sun provided the needed motivation to pack my bags. As we checked out, I hoped this was not the last time we’d be visiting Jekyll Island.
Our destination for the first leg of our return trip was Nashville – a city neither of us had previously visited. It was dinner time when we pulled into our hotel so we made a dash to The Row restaurant for Nashville Hot Chicken with a side of live country music.
It was a short stay in Nashville, but I did make it out on a morning run down Music Row and past Vanderbilt University before we did a drive by of the bustling Broadway strip on our way out. The rest of our return trip progressed uneventfully and after over 2,300 miles of driving, we were very happy to be back home. Even though our 2020 Hawaiian travel plans erupted like the Kīlauea Volcano – the December 20th eruption on the Big Island was perhaps a not so discrete indication of our doomed trip – I’m grateful that we were able to not only modify our plans but uncover a place that was previously unknown to us. As our travel saga continues across the U.S., I’ve realized that Jekyll Island is just the first stop on our discovery of places we haven’t even yet heard of. And that’s something to look forward to in 2021!