LITTLE ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Ten thousand intrusion-free acres of maritime forests and marshlands, seven miles of shell-strewn beaches, this extraordinary natural sanctuary -- among the last of its kind anywhere -- is how Little St. Simons Island welcomes guests to this virtually untouched island.
Little St. Simons Island is on the Georgia coast, one of the state's barrier islands. And although it shares a name with its larger counterpart, St. Simons Island, that's where the similarities between the two end.
"It's very different from the normal St. Simons experience," Little St. Simons Island guest Joel Richardson said. "(St. Simons) is much more commercial, certainly it's beautiful with lots of the beach and everything, but this is much more laid back, much more personal experience than what you would experience on St. Simons."
That personal experience actually does start on St. Simons. That’s because Little St. Simons can only be reached by boat. Although the ferry ride from St. Simons to Little St. Simons is only a few miles, the short trip transports guests to a world away.
"I've never been on a private island before where only 32 people can come and stay and so, it's been wonderful," guest Kimberly Lindman said. "One night, (my husband and I) went out and explored on our own and we were out in the middle of nowhere, with no one around us, just the two of us."
Thirty-two people is the maximum number of guests allowed to spend the night on Little St. Simons. Some nights, there are far fewer.
There's a main lodge that serves as a gathering place for meals with a couple of guest rooms in it. There are several other cottages tucked among the oaks around it. There are no televisions or phones in guest rooms.
"It's like stepping back in time," Richardson said. "We went on a ride this morning out into the woods. It was like going into Jurassic Park. It was almost truly prehistoric."
Guests won't find any dinosaurs roaming the maritime forests, marshes or any of the other habitats on the island, but visitors will find a plethora of wildlife. Birds top the list.
"We're right in the middle of the Atlantic flyway, so there's a lot of people that come to Little St. Simons to see the birds," naturalist Laura Early said.
One of the most popular spots to see the birds on the island is the rookery. Hundreds of birds gather around a freshwater pond as they lay their eggs and nurse their young. Alligators lurk in the waters below. The alligators protect the birds from other predators, like raccoons. And from time to time, some of the baby birds get pushed out of the nest and provide a meal for the alligators.
And while the rookery is a great locale to hang out and watch the wildlife, it's far from the only hotspot on the island for a close encounter. Armadillos can be spotted around every turn; our cameras spotted a family of baby alligators trying to survive and a bald eagle chick learning to fly.
"We've seen alligators, we've seen several different types of hawks (and) seen a bald eagle; things I would never be able to find on my own," guest Jonathan Lindman said.
And Lindman didn't have to find any of them on his own, thanks to the naturalists on Little St. Simons. The island prides itself on providing guests with unique and absorbing experiences in the company of the experienced and gifted naturalist staff. And it's those experiences that a trip here revolves around, the trips with naturalists and food, more on food in a minute. The staff typically offers several different exploration trips a day that bring the island to life.
"One of the things I love about being a naturalist here is that the people I work with are so excited and so knowledgeable about this stuff that it's great to work with them and continually learn and have everyone share that passion with everyone that comes here," Early said. "I think it's one of the things that the guests enjoy is being able to add a little bit of education to their vacation experience."
It's the outdoor adventures and experiences that people visit Little St. Simons for. There is a beach here, and it's certainly available for use, but if simply sitting on a beach all day everyday is what people are looking in a vacation, that misses what Little St. Simons specializes in. A visit to Little St. Simons is all about nature, wildlife and food.
"We're hands on," chef Paula Garrett said. "We create it, we create the dish, we create the recipe. It's not that you can just come up and get the recipe because a lot of times, it's in our head, it's in our heart and we're constantly changing that."
Chefs Paula Garrett and Matthew Raiford team up to create some amazing dishes. Duck was on the menu one night.
"We have a braised duck that we do here," chef Matthew Raiford said. "We make our own duck spice here on the island and then we take that duck spice along with the vegetable stock and a little Cabernet and slow cook it for about three hours. We add apricots, blueberries and blackberries to that poaching liquid so it gives the duck a very fruity taste."
A USDA-certified organic garden on the island provides the chefs with plenty of food and spices to incorporate into the meals.
"We harvest something fresh everyday and it changes," gardener Amy Schuster-Hagan said. "So the chefs here are very creative on what they can use from the garden and it always affects every meal every day, what's the freshest."
Rates start around $500 per night, but that includes accommodations, three daily meals, all drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, unlimited use of island activities and recreation gear, tours with naturalists and the boat transfers to and from the island.
"It was worth every penny of the trip," guest Ingrid Richardson said. "And it gave (my husband) and me a time to be outdoors. It was relaxing,rejuvenating and restorative."
“It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been here,” guest Kim Holiday said. “You can see it, you can look at it, but until you actually get here and have the experience, I think it’s a little difficult to explain. Me, personally, I think it’s better than Disney World. I love it. I’ll be back. It’s a really fantastic place.”
Cox Media Group