THE GREYFIELD INN EXPERIENCE
Enjoy A Communal Vacation at
the Greyfield Inn on
Cumberland Island, Georgia
In a world of tourist attractions overrun, there are still roads much less traveled, such as the Greyfield Inn’s on Cumberland Island in Georgia. Albeit the toll to ride them is a little steeper.
When we heard about the communal atmosphere of the Greyfield Inn on a mostly untouched Georgian Island and the jacket requirement for evening dining, I pictured a cruise experience where you may opt to dress up and dine with strangers at your table. The beauty is that you are not strangers for long. But this communal tourism experience was far more affable and enjoyable.
We stood at an empty dock in front of a tiny sign that read Greyfield Inn Ferry. A young man walked up and introduced himself as the captain of our private charter. We boarded with a couple of the staff members for the inn. One wore a tee shirt: Save The Sea Turtles. When we docked on Cumberland Island, it showed no other signs of modernization. Several wild horses casually grazed in the grass nearby. It was shaded by live oaks draped in Spanish moss, highlighted with a hint of piercing rays that even the most talented painter may dream of capturing on canvas.
Graham greeted us. He was the first acquaintance we’d enjoy company with, including guests and staff. He led us on a familiarization tour of the historic inn. It felt like we stepped inside a postcard when we neared its graceful façade. The wide stairs of the 220+-year-old Colonial-style mansion led to the second-floor plantation-style porch with so much southern charm you could taste the sweet tea lingering in the air.
The door opened another time.
Graham urged always to ensure the front door closed because the main level was not air conditioned except for the library and a guest room next to it. The lower dining and upper guest room floors were air-conditioned. It was no small luxury!
The most interesting thing that struck me with warmth was the intermingling of the staff and guests in the kitchen. It was there that we would grab our impressive daily picnic basket for lunch, fill up our water or fresh lemonade, and grab a fruit snack or cookies anytime.
Old-world enchantment expanded at every corner. Graham asked us not to touch the massive book collection lit by Tiffany lamps, explaining many are first-edition classics collected by the Carnegie family. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller competed for the wealthiest man in the world, bragging rights in the late 1800s.
Greystone was built in 1900. Much of Cumberland Island was owned by the Carnegies. Other than the inn staff and guests, only a handful of campers at primitive campgrounds and day trippers who come across on the public ferry are on the island on any given day. They, and the “wild woman” of the island whom books have been written about. We’ll get to her later.
Graham explained the chit system for when the quaint bar table was unattended inside a cozy room with anything you may want to whet the whistle. Simply, you were on your honor to jot your name and drink(s) of choice in a handwritten ledger. The same trust was extended to gift shop purchases. Everything except alcohol and gift shop purchases were covered in the price of admission. This included our guest room, all meals, tips, tours, bicycles, kayaks, sunscreen, you name it. So, no need to even carry a wallet or purse. But if we left it in the room, we noticed we had no key because there was no lock except a latch inside. That was after we could check into our room. Arriving on the early morning ferry meant we had time to kill before we could even unpack.
Before Graham left us to explore the island, he showed us a sign-up book for the private excursions offered that day throughout the island. Naturalists and staff members managed these tours, which may include a trip on benches in the back of a pickup truck to the tiniest wedding chapel on the far side of the island, where JFK Jr. had his small and private wedding ceremony. He and his party stayed at the Greyfield Inn and had their rehearsal dinner on the sweeping front porch. The reception was held on the front lawn. Other excursions may be to see the eye-popping ruins of Dungeness, the sprawling Carnegie mansion at Plum Orchard, birding, kayaking, fossil-finding, chimneys, gardens, and more. A new sign-up book with the next day’s tour offerings was set out at 4pm daily.
On this first day, we grabbed our picnic basket and bicycles and headed for the beach, where the inn provides chairs and umbrellas in a storage container at the beachhead. It was like pedaling through a scene only described by Nineteenth Century recreational affluence. The fabled inn faded as we rounded the natural crushed shell paths into lush woodlands, all bathed in pure nature and marked private for Greyfield guests only. We left the bikes and walked where the forest opened to the sand dunes. Halfway to the beachhead was an elevated open-air picnic pavilion. We were the only ones around. It’s where we enjoyed our picnic basket lunch: delicious sandwich, freshly picked salad, and treat. When we hit the beach, it was ours alone. We wondered at the incredulousness of it all in today’s day and age of overrun destinations. It was like being on your very own private island.
As we exhaled the modern world’s impurities and breathed in Cumberland Island’s purity, we had no idea this respite would grow even more magical.
When we returned to the inn, we hosed off our feet and shoes out back, where Graham showed us that guests could store seashells until they left. My wife tried transporting a sand dollar back in her bicycle basket, but it had been reduced to dust by the time she opened its protective towel coating. Our room was furnished with Victorian antiques and had a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers and a card wishing me happy birthday, which would occur later in our stay. The bed had a stool to get into it because it rested so high. We were over the corner of the porch with a row of windows wrapping around the outer corner walls, flooding the room with daylight. From our perch was the canopy of massive trees and wild horses grazing. The bathroom was out of the Nineteenth Century, complete with a clawfoot bathtub.
That first night, we learned the dining room was at its capacity with a grand total of about 30 guests (13 couples and a mom with three college-age girls). The guests were mostly from rooms inside the inn, but some were from the two cottages on the grounds. Before the dinner bell rang for all of us, we mingled in the great room on the main floor in our jackets and dresses with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. A guestbook had names and where people were from—mostly Georgians, but a few entries claimed places like Michigan, New York, and now, Ohio.
The three-course menu is set each day by the chef, who could satisfy even the most discerning taste buds. Of course, she also accommodated special diets or requests. Much of the food was grown in the garden on the property, which could be toured anytime. The rest came from select area farms. Conversation at the table was among guests and staff alike. Some of the staff had the best information about the island, as well as some of the best stories! Next to me sat the mom of the three college girls. This was their “happy place,” and they enjoyed coming every year. (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life was playing on the soundtrack of my mind as she talked up her experience. Across from us sat a couple; he was a shy scientist. She was an unshy doctor. Next to my wife was the professor and his attorney wife. And then there was us: my wife, the kindergarten teacher, and me, a regional travel influencer. The best (vacation) friends we ever met would arrive the next morning.
The guests mingled on the front porch that night. The sea turtles’ lady who ferried in with us encouraged us to bike to the beach in the dark to see the turtle nests. She emphasized doing it without disturbing them, using the inn’s redlight flashlights, and keeping a reasonable distance. Then, the night sky opened to let a prolonged, steady rain pour down. It was a perfect night to stay on the grand porch.
The following morning, the breakfast table brought many familiar faces from the night before. But many of those faces wouldn’t be seen again as this was the end of their weekend stay. After morning goodbyes over coffee on the porch, we readied for our first excursion. After familiar guests left, new guests arrived. We walked past the new arrival’s luggage in the doorway with our prepared picnic basket with our name on it to join the newcomers and Graham’s wife Katie in a pickup truck to whisk us away on an adventure.
It was a padded but bumpy ride. But each bump loosened us all up to conversation and laughs. Katie stopped the vehicle to move a gopher tortoise in the middle of the unpaved road. She brought it to the truck bed for us to see it. That’s when she noticed it was loaded with ticks. Diane, one of the newcomers fresh off the ferry and straight into this excursion, asked if we could help it. Katie looked at her husband, Jim, and asked him to hold it.
The tortoise clawed his hands while Katie fetched tweezers to remove ticks embedded across the tortoise’s underside. The sturdy older fellow, who we later learned runs a sawmill and loves everything about working at it, casually let Katie know the tortoise was digging claws into his wrists, and it didn’t exactly tickle. Katie took the tortoise and gave Jim the tweezers. Poor Jim had no idea his vacation would include de-ticking a tortoise in front of a bunch of strangers.
Welcome to Greyfield, we laughed. And vacation friendships that ran deep for the week.
At the long-awaited North End of the island, we exited the truck bed and headed for the restroom. A bat flew overhead in the men’s room. Of course, unfazed, Jim shooed it away.
At a picnic table, we ate from our private couples’ picnic baskets as Katie showed us pics of an alligator climbing onto her porch to say hello. After we ate, she focused on the tour and walked us through a little rustic museum that told the story of the community formed here from the island’s freed slaves.
Next to these grounds, in clear sight, was a fenced area marking the property and rugged homestead of Carol, known to some as the wild woman of Cumberland. We would meet this fascinating woman later in the week. Another heavy rain came, so we took shelter in the tiny non-descript chapel where JFK Jr got married. It was a long rain, so our band of strangers had no choice but to go deeper into conversation after we exhausted our wonder if the famous wedding in such a modest place invited Carol next door.
Carol is a self-taught naturalist dubbed Jane Goodall of Cumberland Island’s sea turtles. She strongly advocates for preserving the wild island and has caused controversy with those who do not share her vision. She is viewed as eccentric as she lives primarily off the land and what the island provides her with. Multiple books have been written about her storied life.
The three couples hauled up in that tiny chapel with Katie continued to bond. Jim and his lovely wife Diane shared their miraculous courtship that began with the airline groundings on 9/11. The other couple included Paula, a schoolteacher like my wife, and her husband, Brian. He later shared such an incredulous story about a bee infestation at one of his Airbnbs; we had him tell it twice for others to hear. That night, we were seated together for dinner and had a great time. As we finished dessert, my wife said we were going to grab flashlights and bikes to see the nesting sea turtles if anyone was interested. It was a bit of a surprise that these new friends, dressed in suits and cocktail dresses, looked at each other and said, sure, let’s go!
After a quick change of clothes, we met at the bicycle barn to pick up our rides. We positioned flashlights in the handlebar baskets and pedaled in a row into the dark woods on a path we could barely see. None of us were spring chickens. But at heart, we were adventurous on this night. We swerved and bumped along the path to where dirt turned to sand. We ditched the bikes and laughed through the sand, switching flashlights from white light to red. We never found a turtle nest. We spent an hour looking too low on the beach. There was one comical false find where I was sure I was upon one. I didn’t want to disturb it, so I kept my light off until we gathered the six of us together. We had wandered far apart to cover more of the beach. Upon the big reveal – DRIFTWOOD!
As they say, it was about the journey, not the destination.
Our slap-happy crew returned the bikes and washed feet with a hose in the back of the inn. Then we slinked in the backdoor into the pitch-dark kitchen, flashlights back on, giggling like teenagers sneaking into the house, trying not to wake Mom and Dad.
Well, we were thick as thieves after this rendezvous.
Each day brought a new adventure. We went kayaking, birding, touring the spectacular ruins of a sprawling castle-like mansion called Dungeness, and touring the still-standing mansion of Plum Orchard. Each adventure led to afternoon naps or quiet time before the dinner bell rang. A couple played chess in the lavish grand room of the inn. A college student was finishing up summer studies in the library. Others grabbed books and went to the beach or relaxed on the porch.
My wife and I grabbed glasses of lemonade from the kitchen and sat in a garden on the patio adjacent to the inn. A wild mustang reared up a little distance away to keep a filly in line. He raced after her. She let out a noise of terror and shot toward us. It happened so fast. The space between my wife’s chair and the thick, tall shrubs behind it was barely wide enough for this charging horse to squeeze by. We froze to assess the dangers on both sides, careful not to make sudden moves. One of the horses stopped across the round patio table from us and glared with blood-red and white eyes, grunting and showing its teeth. I secured my hands on the table’s edge in case I needed to create a shield instantly. The wild horses’ standoff was uncomfortable and long. Then, as fast as they entered our lives, they left. And so did we!
Another unexpected encounter with the island’s wild side was when Carol flagged down our guide to Plum Orchard! Carol had stopped her quad, looking to chat. Our guide that day had been working on the island for many years, so Carol and she had become friendly with one another. The roadside conversation was lengthy, and Carol made it a group chat. Although a very private person, she was not a bashful person. She was bustling with energy and compassion for the island. And oh, she had a sense of humor! Long story short, we learned what she wanted to teach us about the island she is determined to protect.
On the day before our departure, our friends from our group of six, and others like the professor and the festive southern belle sisters, gathered in front of the inn to walk to the docked ferry and depart Cumberland Island. It was a hug fest. It honestly felt like saying goodbye to dear old friends.
Later in the day, a sweet, young, gentle member of the staff gave my wife a little bag left by Diane. Inside was a priceless gift and a simple gesture of thoughtful kindness – a sand dollar to replace the one that crumbled.
Throughout the week, the guests at the inn dwindled; gone were the quiet mom and daughter duo (also from Ohio), the IT guy and his schoolteacher wife, and others. We realized we were the only ones staying in the inn this last day and night. We would be joined by a new couple who arrived the day before. They were staying at one of the cottages. The dress-up dinner sat just the four of us at the big table. We enjoyed the company and conversation. Something about the atmosphere of this more intimate setting allowed a deeper, more private sharing of lives. When the evening drew to a close, we walked the cottage couple to the front door of the now quiet inn to see them out.
When we closed the door to go up to our bedroom, it strangely felt like the whole place was ours.
By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun