We vowed to take a beach vacation this year. Okay, so that’s a fairly typical jaunt for many families, but we rarely make the trip. For us, summertime usually means mountain time, but given the five-year hiatus since our last family beach excursion, we decided it was high time to get our toes in the sand. Countless suggestions rolled our way touting primo locations along Florida’s 30A or quiet retreats around Gulf Shores, Alabama, areas we’ve thoroughly enjoyed over the years. Yet, somehow we kept poking about, looking for someplace different to try, someplace new to us. I remembered my FACES of Atlanta interview with Ali Howell, where she raved about St. Simons Island, so I contacted her for details and was soon sold on the idea of exploring this Georgia beach.

By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea... we were LONG overdue to stick our toes in the sand!

By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea… we were LONG overdue to stick our toes in the sand!

On Ali’s recommendation, I called Jan Sala at RealEscapes Properties about available area rentals. Jan gave me my first introduction to the island’s hospitality, patiently describing the layout of St. Simons, and guiding me towards the right option for us. The island encompasses about 18 square miles, with Little St. Simons and Frederica at the northern edge, RedFern Village in the center, East Beach along the upper coastline of the Sound, The King & Prince resort and adjoining beaches at mid-coastline, and the Pier Village at the southernmost point. We chose a pet-friendly cottage located near The King & Prince, putting us within walking distance of the beach, biking distance from everything else, and allowing us to bring our dogs along for the trip. (Note: We also considered some properties along East Beach, and may try that area at some point. We noticed that there were some larger houses for rent there, which would be a great choice for bigger families or groups.)

Perched at a prime spot along St. Simons Sound, The King and Prince resort earned a ranking as one of the Historic Hotels of America.

Positioned at a prime spot along St. Simons Sound, The King and Prince resort earned a ranking as one of the Historic Hotels of America.

St. Simons is one of Georgia’s famed barrier islands, hugging the coast south of Savannah. Situated between Jekyll Island and Sea Island, ecological conservation thrives here and shields St. Simons from over-development and commercial exploitation. We learned that local codes prevent the construction of a building taller than the historic lighthouse, staving off  long rows of sky-high condo complexes or theme parks with mega-coasters. To me, the atmosphere of the island combined the stately grace of the old Southern cities I adore — New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston — with the quaint charm of New England sea towns, literally plantation sites at one end of the island and clapboard shops near the lighthouse at the opposite end.

The St. Simons lighthouse beckons visitors to tranquil shores.

The St. Simons lighthouse beckons visitors to tranquil shores.

A morning marsh view at the Hampton River Marina -- The protection of the marshes and estuary help retain the natural charm attributed to the island for centuries.

A morning marsh view at the Hampton River Marina: The protection of the marshes and estuary help retain the natural charm attributed to the island for centuries.

Huge live oaks draped in spanish moss arch over every road and path, shading blocks and blocks of cottages, and stretching through the many parks and greenspaces. The sense of history flows as strong as the tidal schedule. Plantation owners grew rich from the bounty of the land, and even after the Civil War, St. Simons remained a choice holiday retreat.

Huge live oaks draped in Spanish moss arch over every road and path, shading blocks and blocks of cottages, and stretching through the many parks and green spaces. Plantation owners grew rich from the bounty of the land, and even after the Civil War, St. Simons remained a choice holiday retreat.

Watch the tidal schedule each day! Ever six hours the shoreline changes, leaving tidal pools full of treasures.

Watch the tidal schedule each day! Every six hours the shoreline changes, leaving tidal pools full of treasures.

Life moves by the tide at St. Simons and visitors are encouraged to keep tide tables handy, as the Atlantic Ocean changes the shoreline. This schedule makes for breathtaking views when high waters splash up to the sea wall rocks, and when those waves recede, buckets of seashell and wildlife discoveries await. The beaches here are quite different from those along the Gulf of Mexico: golden sands that stay smooth from the tide and their narrow span mean no long treks on a boardwalk. Beachfront on St. Simons actually refers to walking out directly onto the beach. Bike paths and sidewalks cover the length of the entire island — we used our bikes as primary mode of transportation during our stay, with our smallest pooch perched happily in my bike basket every day.

The car stayed parked for most of this vacation, biking the preferred ride for all of us... even the puppy!

The car stayed parked for most of this vacation. Biking was the preferred ride for all of us, even the puppy!

While I’m quite content to sit on the beach with a book for hours, St. Simons offered so many adventures to keep my busy crew happily occupied. Whether we were exploring the marshes, touring the 18th-century battle grounds and the haunting site of Fort Frederica, bird-watching and shell-hunting at Gould’s Inlet, fishing at the pier or hanging from those glorious trees, each day brought a new discovery that every member of the family enjoyed. The boys even spent two mornings on a catch-and-release shark fishing expedition with Capt. Brooks Good and his crew from Coastal Outdoor Adventures, learning to appreciate this amazing species and to respect the delicate ecosystem on the island. There’s no way to do it all in one week — we’ll need many return visits to satisfy all curiosities.

My brave pioneers at the start of their Fort Frederica scavenger hunt, an interactive curriculum revealing local history.

My brave pioneers at the start of their Fort Frederica scavenger hunt, an interactive curriculum revealing local history.

Established by James Oglethorpe in the 1730s, Fort Frederica protected the early settler from boundary disputes with Spanish Florida.

Established by James Oglethorpe in the 1730s, Fort Frederica protected the early settlers from boundary disputes with Spanish Florida.

Sunset at the St. Simons pier, where crab traps swing, and fishing lines dangle.

Sunset at the St. Simons pier, where crab traps swing and fishing lines dangle.

Oh, how many stories could these tree limbs tell from hundreds of years cradling joyful children!

Oh, how many stories could these tree limbs tell from hundreds of years cradling joyful children!

On this, our maiden voyage to idyllic St. Simons, we scoped out an initial list of favorites:

ACCOMMODATIONS

  • The King and Prince: This legendary resort boasts placement on the Historic Hotels of America registry and just completed a gorgeous renovation updating the main building for true oceanside luxury.
  • RealEscapes Properties: From cottages to condos to coastal castles, RealEscapes’ selection and service makes St. Simons vacation planning simple and personal.

ACTIVITIES/ATTRACTIONS

My boys proclaim shark-fishing with Capt. Brooks Good and his Coastal Outdoor Adventures crew as the trip highlight. (No, guys we canNOT bring the baby ones home to live in the bathtub.)

My boys proclaim shark-fishing with Capt. Brooks Good and his Coastal Outdoor Adventures crew as the trip highlight. (No, guys we cannot bring the baby sharks home to live in the bathtub.)

Parents might choose date night hibiscus martinis at the Ocean Lodge Rooftop as the "List-Topper".

Parents might choose date night hibiscus martinis at the Ocean Lodge Rooftop as a list-topper.

One little corner of the Pier Village area, featuring rows of quaint shops, and restaurants alongside the main pier and adjacent to Neptune Park.

One little corner of the Pier Village area, featuring rows of quaint shops and restaurants alongside the main pier and adjacent to Neptune Park.

SHOPPING

  • Pier Village: Mallery Street and Ocean Boulevard
  • Redfern Village: Demere Road and Frederica Road
  • Sea Island Crossing/The Shops at Sea Island: Frederica Road and Sea Island Road

FOOD

  • Bubba Garcia’s: A silly logo drew us in and excellent drinks and the menu kept us seated for Tex-Mex fare with an Southern twist.
  • CrabDaddy’s: Seafood platters and specials rule the menu, and their bread pudding will knock your knickers off.
  • Echo: Inside The King and Prince, this new oceanside restaurant pays homage to the resort’s days as a World War II naval radio command center. Sleek decor and sweeping views enhance a creative, seasonal menu and handcrafted cocktails.
  • Gnat’s Landing: Live music, cold beer and a happy crowd.
  • The Half Shell: Local seafood and chef’s specials.
  • Halyard’s: Fine dining choice among locals and visitors alike.
  • Palm Coast Coffee Cafe: Their menu of breakfast, sandwiches and salads make this a great stop while shopping in Pier Village.
  • Palmer’s Village Cafe: Creative menu full of scrumptious options plus gallery walls of local art for sale.
  • The Rooftop at Ocean Lodge: Romantic date night treat with an incredible view!
  • Southern Soul BBQ: The tantalizing smell of that smoker wafts around the entire central shopping district, pulling fans over to join the brimming lunch counter or seat everyone at the picnic tables outside. Choose your meat and your sauce, then pile on the sides from baked beans and mac cheese to fried green beans and okra.
    Fine dining with a 1940s ambiance at the oceanside Echo restaurant in The King & Prince resort.

    Fine dining with a 1940s ambiance at the oceanside Echo restaurant in The King & Prince resort.

    The heavenly smell of the Southern Soul smoker lured us to these picnic table several times.

    The heavenly smell of the Southern Soul smoker lured us to these picnic tables several times.

TREATS

  • Moo Cow Ice Cream: Simple summer scoops dipped up with a smile.
  • St. Simons Sweets: Beyond a bright purple door lies Willy Wonka Wonderland of chocolate, candy, cupcakes, and frozen delights, including a make-your-own ice cream sandwich option.
  • Zu-Zu’s: Retro-style diner with nostalgic menu, soda counter, and ice cream.
Willy Wonka must have left some Oompa Loompas at St. Simons Sweets...

Willy Wonka must have left some Oompa Loompas at St. Simons Sweets…

After a week on St. Simons, none of us were ready to shake off our towels. We ate our farewell breakfast at the Pier Village and reluctantly turned in the keys to rental company, the boys begging to drive a couple of loops around the island before we started towards the highway. Immediately upon return home, we checked the calendar and made arrangements to head back. Until then, we’ll close our eyes and imagine the lighthouse twinkling across the water.

None of us wanted to leave St. Simons' golden sands... but we've already made plans for the next visit!

None of us wanted to leave St. Simons’ golden sands … but we’ve already made plans for the next visit!