Last week I celebrated the 56th anniversary of my birth. In following family tradition, we spent my birthday at Fernandina Beach, up above Jacksonville on the Atlantic coast. While there we made arrangements for me and the kids to spend a day on Cumberland Island.
As the crow flies, Fernandina and Cumberland are literally less than half a mile away from each other — if that. But because there is no direct connecting road (only the St. Mary’s River) between them, you have go all the way around your elbow to get to your nose to the tune of about a 40-minute drive to get there — and even then there is no road to get to Cumberland. You have to catch the ferry at St. Mary’s to actually get on the island.
I know it sounds like a lot of trouble, but it’s really not, and is very much worth the effort. There are few completely unique experiences in our neck of the woods, but unquestionably Cumberland Island is one of them.
Now, it must be said that Marion Rose (now 19) and Ransom Lee (turning 14 this week) are not exactly “outdoorsy” types. Ransom has decided to dress like he stepped out of The Great Gatsby of late, and does so without fail. Marion Rose despises the heat of our summers, avoids the sun at all costs, and now sports a very short blue coiffure (when I question said coiffure I am quickly reminded that when I was her age I was wearing tiger print shirts and tie-dyed pants in front of crowds of people playing my guitar, to which my reply of “that’s different” falls on deaf ears).
I have to admit I was a little concerned that neither one of them would hold up under the heat of a coastal June day, but my worries would turn out to be completely unfounded. Not only did they hold up (the temperatures stayed in the mid 80s and the sky was overcast), they were downright fun to be with the entire time.
After arriving at St. Mary’s and slathering on a healthy dose of sunscreen, we were off on our adventure. The 45-minute ferry ride is actually pretty cool. We had a pod of dolphins decide to check us out en route, much to the delight of everyone on board.
One of the first things that strikes you when you step off the ferry onto Cumberland are the thousands of oaks that have twisted and contorted their growth to fit relentless ocean winds that shape them. None of them, and I mean none of them, grow remotely straight.
The other thing that strikes you is the noise — or lack of it, I should say. Outside of the wind whistling through the trees, or the sound of waves crashing, or a big boat going by, there is pretty much no noise of any kind.
Lots of people camp overnight, and there is a fancy inn available for those not willing and/or able to “rough it.” The camping is in a tent, and all supplies must be brought with you – there are no stores on Cumberland. And all trash has to leave the island with you.
We walked across the island and first made our way to the beach. It’s an odd feeling to be on a mile-long stretch of pristine beach and be there by yourself. It isn’t Panama City Beach, that’s for sure.
It was on the beach that we first saw them — the famed Cumberland ponies. Feral horses have roamed freely on the island since at least the 1700s when they were first reported by Spanish soldiers. There were four of them walking along the tops of the dunes, nibbling on sea oats as they meandered.
We cut back across the island from the beach to the river, and stopped to eat our pre-packed lunch at a picnic table with horses grazing very nearby — including a new mama and her frisky albino foal.
Before our day would wind up at the ruins of the Dungeness mansion, built by the Carnegie family a little more than a century ago that burned down in 1959, we would see a dozen or so horses, several deer, a rafter of wild turkey, two black snakes, several osprey, a raccoon, horseshoe crabs, and a million fiddler crabs. On top of all that, we found several fossils and sharks’ teeth along the river side of the island.
Heck, posed in front of that once opulent mansion, even Ransom’s period attire fit perfectly.
All in all, according to Marion Rose’s smart phone, we walked almost six-and-a-half miles. And even though her new sandals wore several blisters on her feet, she pushed through the discomfort with no words of complaint and wearing a grin.
And even though all of the wildlife and scenery were awesome, the best part of the experience for dad was spending hour upon hour with two extremely talented, intelligent, and interesting young people that just happen to be his children. Other than to take photos, the phones stayed put away, and conversation combined with healthy heaps of laughter took center stage. It was wonderful.
For anyone — especially parents — wanting to created some very unique and special lifetime types of memories, I assure you that you’ll have a hard time finding a better setting to do it in than Cumberland Island.