While the Florida Gulf Coast is probably the most popular beach destination among denizens of the Southeast, there’s just something to be said for the funky, casual atmosphere of true island living. Maybe it’s the fact that there is at least a little geographical separation from the mainland or that island villages have discrete personalities as opposed to the Panhandle, where towns run into each other, and it’s possible to visit five different (but the same) communities during a half-hour bike ride.
St. Simons Island on the Georgia coast is the sort of place where nobody travels much faster than a golf cart can carry them, where folks wear their football allegiances on their sleeves and t-shirts all year round, and where tourists let their hair down while they dance to the sounds of beach music as maybe just a little bit of draft beer sloshes out of their Tervis tumblers. Easily accessible after a short and scenic drive from Jacksonville Airport, St. Simons offers your choice of vacation activity levels from athletic to slothful. Here’s how you might want to spend a weekend sometime soon.
Check into the Village Inn and Pub, a charming little property nestled among towering live oak trees just on the edge of town, within easy walking distance to the shops and restaurants of the main village. Designed around a renovated 1930s beach cottage, the Village Inn features 28 rooms, each equipped with a patio or balcony and each named after a noted historical figure who has had some significant impact on St. Simons Island.
While every floor plan is unique, the rooms are all filled with high-end amenities and 27-inch televisions. The convivial pub offers up an excellent happy hour with wine, beer and cocktails at affordable prices. Both tourists and locals gather around the small bar, and it’s the best spot in town to find out the skinny on where to eat, drink, hike or fish.
Take a stroll around the colorful shops of Pier Village to get your bearings and pick up a few souvenirs to commemorate your visit.
For an overview of the entire island, three different companies offer entertaining trolley tours of the island that leave from the waterfront a few blocks from the Village Inn.
Visit the Golden Isles Welcome Center for more information about tours, and while you’re there you can check out one of the islands popular tree spirits, sculptures carved into the trunks of oak trees by a local artist. There are more than 20 of these art pieces scattered around the island, including some that are located on private property. However, seven of the tree spirits are within walking/biking range of the Welcome Center, and it makes for a fun scavenger hunt to locate them all while also offering a pleasant tour of the western half of the island.
Right across the street from Village Inn and Pub is one of the best restaurants on the island, Georgia Sea Grill. In addition to fantastic seafood dinners, this upscale casual spot features a happy hour that’s tough to beat. Seven days per week from 5 p.m. until 6:30 p.m., house wine, draft beer and well drinks are just $3, and the kitchen offers a handful of creative and delicious appetizers like shrimp corn dogs and crab hushpuppies for only $5.
After the hours of happiness have ended, you can enjoy a full meal at Georgia Sea Grill while being entertained by live music in the lounge. For more tunes and drinks after dinner, stroll down the street to Mullet Bay, a lively restaurant and bar with sports on multiple televisions and kickin’ music from the best bands on the island. If you see that Backbeat Boulevard is playing during your stay, clear your social calendar to listen to these professional ex-touring musicians play note-for-note cover versions of your favorite rock/soul/blues/R&B/funk classics.
Sleep in a little late in the comfy beds at the Village Inn because you can just grab free coffee and pastries in the lounge or walk a few blocks toward the ocean to Palm Coast Coffee for heartier breakfast fare and specialty espresso drinks.
After proper caffeination, you’ll be ready to strike out for Redfern Village, a collection of shops, bars and restaurants about five minutes by car (or maybe ten if you rented a golf cart) from Village Inn. Among the delightful boutiques, toy stores, antique and home decor shops and yoga studios, a particular favorite is Wine Body & Soul, a fun little spot to shop for wine accessories, clever cards and wall hangings. You can even taste wines and purchase a bottle to take back to the hotel with you.
Continue north up Frederica Road to discover a fascinating bit of St. Simons history at Christ Church. Besides being a lovely little Gothic-style Episcopal church with a striking interior and breathtaking stained glass, including an authentic Tiffany window, Christ Church occupies an important place in the history of the church. Brothers John and Charles Wesley were early preachers in the area and are known as leaders in the formation of the Methodist Church.
Through the years, Christ Church has welcomed worshippers including Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, Queen Wilhelmina, Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Jimmy Carter and George Bush.
Make your way back to Redfern Village for a festive lunch at Bubba Garcia’s, a colorful cantina with a decidedly laid-back attitude. While anything on the Mexican menu is worth trying, you absolutely must order a basket of their buttery and crispy corn nuggets. In fact, two orders might be all you want for lunch.
Happy hour at Village Inn kicks off at 5 p.m., so you might want to stop by one of St. Simons Island’s 41 public beach access points in time to watch the sunset. There’s plenty of parking at access #24 at Massengale Park, but since St. Simons is especially vulnerable to the tides, you might need to check the tide tables to see whether there will actually be any beach for you to walk on. At low tide, the beaches are wide and firmly packed, making them great to stroll or jog on, but when the tide is coming in you might find yourself having to move your beach towel inland every hour or so to stay dry.
No trip to SSI (as the locals refer to the island) is complete without at least one visit to Southern Soul Barbecue located at the main roundabout in the center of the island. Owner/pitmasters Harrison Sapp and Griffin Bufkin have created a truly exceptional BBQ joint with walls plastered with concert posters, plenty of frosty beverages including craft beers and some of the finest smoked meats within a couple hundred miles.
Southern Soul offers a variety of sauces from sweet to spicy to traditional mustard-based South Carolina sauce to dress their smoked pulled pork, ribs, beef brisket or chicken. Don’t forget about their “soulful sides” ranging from earthy collard greens to beefy brisket chili to a prototypical version of Brunswick Stew, the meaty tomato and butterbean soup that is a camping staple in the region.
If you’re more into seafood than four-legged fare, consider Catch 228, an oyster bar and grill back in Redfern Village. Their fish is fresh, their beer is cold and their oysters are plentiful, so what else could you really ask for?
Just because it’s departure day doesn’t mean you can’t have a last little bit of fun before heading out to the airport. Make reservations for the brunch at ECHO, the stylish oceanfront restaurant and bar at the luxurious King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort. Grab a table on the outdoor patio for an expansive vista of the Atlantic with a bonus pool view while you enjoy elevated brunch dishes and glasses of champagne or mimosas.
Although all the beaches in the area are public, the sandy stretch in front of ECHO is one of the nicest on the island, so it’s a perfect place to take in your last lingering memories of this beautiful vacation destination and maybe plan your return visit over a farewell cocktail.
To learn more about — and plan your vacation to — St. Simons Island, visit goldenisles.com.
Find more amazing destinations around the South and beyond in our Travel section.