An Island of Fantasies
A year after Fantasy Island was first broadcast in 1978, Philip Berolzheimer’s heirs turned their father’s private Georgia hunting island into a lodge accepting paying guests. It is unlikely that the pencil baron’s boys modeled their lodge after the hit TV show, but the similarities are striking nonetheless; visitors to this unique private island resort can fulfill literally any fantasy requested. Okay, let me qualify that so you don’t show up expecting William Shakespeare to write a play just for you: Eco-adventure is the name of the game at the Lodge on Little St. Simon’s. The best part is that the island’s environmental practices make a visit here as easy on your carbon conscience as on your heels.
The island’s management is in the process of purchasing “wind credits” for some electrical uses, like the lamplight that glows in the circa 1918 Hunting Lodge. It is here that guests gather after arriving on the island’s private boat, and are greeted by first name like old friends long overdue for a visit. Buck heads hang high on the Lodge’s wainscoted walls, and photographs from the early 1900s reveal that little has changed here in those passing years. There are no television sets or landline telephones to distract you from getting out into the warm island air with all the other creatures.
To encourage the use of non-gas transport, the Lodge on Little St. Simon’s has a fleet of classic beach cruiser bicycles for guests; the four-mile bike ride to the beach—which starts at the Lodge in the maritime oak forest that surrounds it, crosses through grassy wetlands and ends at the vast Atlantic—comes highly recommended by both staff and guests. And once you get to your sandy destination? A well-traveled lodger from Connecticut calls the beach at Little St. Simon’s “as good as it gets.”
The lodge provides a seemingly endless array of activity that encourages total immersion into nature. There are kayaks and canoes for the taking, horse- back riding, birding, fly-fishing, hiking and even messing about in a small motor skiff. Guests have their choice of going on their adventure alone or accompanied by a naturalist guide—there are four full-time on staff–and the kitchen is happy to pack a picnic if your adventure will keep you out past lunch. I decide to take a bike ride with a friend, but I also schedule an island tour for later in the day with one of the naturalists.
My friend nudges my arm, gesturing over to the corner of the Hunting Lodge, where a small self-serve bar displays highball makings and a kegerator of Bass ale. Next to it sits a small refrigerator filled with frosty pint glasses. He’s impressed, and has obviously found his fantasy on the island—good, cold draft beer, available all the time.
A no footprint beach
“If you see another person on the beach, it’s crowded,” says a fellow Savannahian who is savoring his last meal on the island before heading home. Because all the meals are served family-style, meeting and talking to people is easy and relaxed. He reports that in his ten years of visiting here, I am the first fellow Savannahian he has met—great news if you want a safe bet for a close getaway where you don’t have to worry about running into your neighbors.
“Don’t make it too good of an article, or it will ruin it,” he says, waving goodbye. I don’t have the heart to tell him that The Lodge on Little St. Simon’s Island recently topped Conde Nast Traveler’s “Readers’ Choice Awards 2007” for Best Resort. This quiet and unassuming lodge beat out Ritz-Carltons and Four Seasons from all over the globe.
Like the reader’s of Conde Nast Traveler, the guests I meet at Little St. Simon’s are devotees of the place. Two of the three couples I meet are on their third visit within the year. The other couple comes every few months, renting out Michael’s Cottage, a 1930s bungalow, and visiting their daughter who is the lodge’s full-time bakery chef. After a lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and black-eyed peas, I eat four of her warm-from-the oven cookies that taste like a Snicker’s candy bar. Then I throw the kickstand up on my bike and pedal to the beach.
Little St. Simon’s Island spreads over 10,000 acres, only 10 of which are taken up by the smattering of lodges, cottages and stables. The other 9,990 are wild, and snaked with hard-packed sand roads just wide enough to ride alongside your companion, whether it is your dearest friend or your 5-year old just off training wheels. Lots of families come here, escaping from big cities all over the country. But no matter where you come from, even if it is Tybee Island, the sensation of being alone on a colossal beach—sand and water melting into the horizon wherever you look— is dramatic and rare.
There are only 13 guest accommodations and a strict policy of never allowing more than 30 guests on the island at a time, which means that the wildlife on the island is in the clear majority. The Nature Conservancy calls Little St. Simon’s Island “one of the most significant natural areas remaining on the Southeastern coast.” The seven-mile long beach is teeming with feeding shorebirds, the dunes are dot- ted with their nests, and spread all across the sand are perfect cockleshells and sand dollars.
On the return ride to the lodge, a buck with towering racks does a long jump across the road in front of me. A flock of wood storks burst into the sky above my head. Later, back in my room, as I was filling my Nalgene water bottle provided by the Lodge (plastic water bottles are frowned upon here), I notice the island logo printed on it—a leaping buck with an arc of birds above. Everything about this island is authentic, right down to its logo. It is this, I think, more than all the fancy soaps at all the fancy hotels, that people appreciate.
Not just a naturalist—an interpreter
"No man can reveal to you that which does not already lie half-asleep in the dawning of your knowledge," says Ben Watkins, a staff naturalist quoting artist and writer Kahil Gibran. Watkins is a Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) and takes his job as a nature interpreter very seriously. It is hard to tell whether Ben’s earnestness is a symptom of youth or a character thread that will forever run through him. In five years he will be the swooning over sort of handsome, and I wonder if he will still be quoting Gibran and saying things like, “If I can get people to care about nature first, then they will begin to care for it…”
We are bouncing along in a pick-up truck on the one lane island road, stopping to see flocks of wood storks, baby alligators and the flamingo-pink roseate spoonbills. White ibis dip long red bills into pools of tidal water reflecting the pink gold of late afternoon light. Ben digs his fingers into the mud and brings up a rosebud sized snail shell called a Periwinkle. “This little guy has gills instead of lungs like land snails,” says Watkins, nose to shell with the snail. “He’s called Periwinkle because of his color, but takes his family name from Littorinidae, meaning seashore.”
It is then that I understand what it means to be an interpretive guide; Watkins literally takes guests by the hand and introduces them to creatures like the Periwinkle. He has been operating as a sort of goodwill ambassador between humans and nature on Little St. Simon’s for almost a year. I ask him if he thinks guests leave here with a greater appreciation of wild places. He nods, looking into the distance. “Last month I took a group to the south end of the island. A developer’s wife from Dallas called the Sea Island development in the distance ‘acne on the landscape.’ I thought that was pretty good.”
There are few places left on this planet where beaches are without condos, roads are without cars and night skies are only lit up by the shine of a billion far away stars. If you like that sort of thing, the Lodge on Little St. Simon’s Island is as close to perfect as any place can be.