LITTLE ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA — It’s just past 6 a.m. on a Monday in May and five early-risers have gathered in a wooden bird blind overlooking Goose Pond. Peering through camera lenses and binoculars, they watch as a stunning avian ballet unfolds.
To a symphony of tweets, caws and chit-chit-chitters, black skimmers glide inches above the water, their lower bills dragging the surface to scoop up tiny fish. A pink spoonbill stands stock-still on the far edge of the pond, a single pink eye visible and unblinking. A trio of majestic wood storks swoops in and slowly stalks the shoreline while two male glossy ibises extend their reddish-black wings in battle. A dozen or so gull-billed terns zoom back and forth overhead, as an equal number of small gators silently motor through the water, waiting for prey.
Thick with waterlilies and green duckweed, the pond turns a dark pink as the sun rises. Day has begun on Little St. Simons and it’s feeding time at Goose Pond.
It is one of the many natural wonders guests can witness on this idyllic, private island, home to one of the most exclusive and extraordinary resorts — not just in Georgia but perhaps all of the East Coast and beyond.
Access to the 11,000-acre island, which wraps around the north end of St. Simons, is restricted to 32 overnight guests who are ferried over on a private boat from a marina in St. Simons. Guest rooms are provided in cabins and small lodges situated around a shady compound along the Hampton River in structures that range from a 1917 hunting lodge to a 1929 tabby house to a variety of wooden cabins from the same era. Despite their rustic authenticity, the guest rooms are appointed with modern bathrooms, climate control and beds that feel like clouds. What they don’t have, though, are TVs and telephones because this is the kind of place you go to get away from it all.
Meals are served family-style three times a day, and each one is a culinary event featuring locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, some from the kitchen’s own garden. A sideboard is kept stocked all day with tea, lemonade and fresh-made cookies, and coolers of beer and soft drinks, as well as copious bottles of sunscreen and bug spray, are strategically placed throughout the grounds.
Except for the 20-acre lodge compound, the island is pure undeveloped wilderness, featuring 20 miles of hiking trails and 7 miles of beach. Guests are free to use the bikes, kayaks, motorized skiffs, fishing equipment and a saltwater swimming pool at their leisure. Meals and recreational gear are included in the room rate, so there’s no reason to ever break out a wallet. If you see something you want in the small, self-serve gift shop, you just list the item and your name on a slip of paper and it’s added to your room.
The property was originally a private hunting lodge for Philip Berolzheimer, owner of Eagle Pencil Co., who bought the island in 1911. His heirs converted the lodge into a commercial enterprise in 1979. The island is now owned by former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs. A longtime nature-lover, Paulson once served as chairman of the board for the Nature Conservancy, and in 2015 he donated the entire island to the organization as a conservation easement, which protects it from future development.
Exclusivity and unique lodgings aside, one of the things that make Little St. Simons Island so exceptional is its robust naturalist programming, managed by Stacia Hendricks, a charmingly enthusiastic fount of wisdom on the flora and fauna of Georgia’s Barrier Islands. Throughout the day and early evening, she and her staff take guests on a variety of adventures, including low tide marsh hikes, truck tours of the island’s rugged north end, trips to the beach and bird-watching excursions like the early-morning visit to Goose Pond.
Bird-watching is an activity for which the island is world-renowned. Home to 280 species, Little St. Simons is part of the Altamaha River Delta Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve and is designated by the National Audubon Society as an Important Bird Area (IBA).
In addition to the popular feeding grounds at Goose Pond, an essential must-see for bird lovers is the rookery at Norm’s Pond.
From a strategically located two-story observation tower, depending on the season, guests can witness a variety of birds, including snowy egrets, night herons and anhingas, nesting and feeding their young.
It’s a remarkable spectacle to take in as multiple species of birds constantly fly in and out, delivering fresh-caught prey to their famished young who appear to attack their dutiful parents in their eagerness to eat. Every so often, to the supreme dismay of spectators, a down-covered chick can be witnessed tumbling out of a nest into the pond below, where it becomes a gator snack.
As heartbreaking as it is to watch, it’s not every day you get to see the drama of the food chain in action unfold before your eyes. With that at one’s disposal, who needs TV?
IF YOU GO
> The island is rich in bugs, particularly in late summer, and Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes. Apply bug spray often and watch your step.
> Picnic lunches are available upon request if guests plan to spend the day at the beach or exploring the island.
Little St. Simons Island. Accessible by private boat from Hampton River Club Marina, 1000 Hampton River Club Marina Drive, St. Simons Island. $475-$775 per night, double occupancy, including meals and recreational activities. Two-night minimum required. Group rates available. 1-888-733-5774, www.littlestsimonsisland.com.
Story and some photos by Suzanne Van Atten
Wildlife photos by Curtis Compton
Published June 2016 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
This story is part of the nine-part series, Discovering Georgia’s Barrier Islands.