Review: Discovering Little St. Simons Island, Georgia, U.S.A.

6:15AM. It was pitch-black, near freezing temperature, windy and my heart was racing as I and famously not good at biking/can barely bike. Once I am away from the lighted paths of the main lodge, I turn on my headlamp and get to the bike stands only to find that none of the bikes have breaks built-in and panic. Nonetheless I suck it up and choose a bike and stumble to get on/ stumble more to get biking. Eventually I get going. It is very dark, thankfully the paths are clearly defined. I come to a few crossroads and despite having looked at the map, still needed to stop and make sure I was going the right way. Heart pounding from the biking but my nerves about me, not wanting to run into an animal or what if a ghost/spirit showed up? I stumble here and there and find my bike to be faulty as it cannot go uphill. I almost fly off a bridge but manage to break the bike and myself. I bike and bike and the trail winds and bends and turns and I wonder when will the trees end and will I ever get to the beach, man 2 miles is long in the dark morning. Then, suddenly I see an opening between the live oaks and pines and slowly but surely it opens to the marshlands and a thin and hauntingly beautiful layer of orange and crimson is creeping up the horizon, slowly lighting up the sky. It is amazing. I stopped and for a moment I was transported to Tanzania, the silhouettes of the few trees and the bushes painted a scene straight out of an African Safari.

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I then continue biking and begin to hear the animals wake up too, birds begin to chirp and flap about, small creatures sprint across the bike path and there are clearing things stirring the marshes, is it an alligator or just a toad/frog? Could not tell nor see. I arrive at the beach pavilion, only to find that its not exactly on the beach, I later learned that 27 years ago it was right on the beach. I walk my bike on the wooden bridge to the edge of the marshlands and then bike the remainder of the path until the mud finally turned into white sand. The sky is slowly turning into light shades of blue, the watercolor show on the horizon grows and changes as the sun slowly rises but still not peeping above the horizon. I walk on to the sandbank, it is clearly low-tide. And see coastal birds feeding/ flying by. Suddenly a flock flies right along the horizon and their beautiful winged silhouettes frame the bright red sun as it slowly beings to climb and rise. I look around and no other guests or staff have joined me yet, I realize I am all alone on the 7 mile stretch of beach and then some. It was incredible. I let out a few screams just to let out the inner-frustrations and stress out, this was the therapy and spa session I needed. The movies and TV Shows dont lie about this, sometimes just yelling out into the wild helps! The wind, air, waves splashing, birds flying and chirping, every noise and sensation extra crisp and refreshing. Then warmth slowly overcomes as the sun is now far above the horizon and shining bright across the Atlantic Ocean. I was getting hungry and thirsty and really could use a coffee, as such at 7:50AM I began to bike back to the lodge. 

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This was my sunrise bike ride experience at Little St. Simons Island, which came highly recommended by the GM and the owners. Listen to their advice, they really know what they are talking about. 

Intro

In early February 2021, I decided to take some time off to disconnect, unwind and have some “me time.” As much as I would have loved to go international or even return to Jamaica to either Goldeneye or Jakes at Treasure Beach, the new testing requirements to return and enter the U.S. prevented me from doing so as it just added another layer of already complex travel parameters. I finally decided to search within the U.S. for places to getaway. Lots of new discoveries and options indeed. So many beautiful farms/ ranches out in the mountains/ deserts and plains of the U.S.. But I found a gem right here in the state of Georgia, offering exceptional value for an all-inclusive, intimate, and tailored experience with nature. 

That place would be Little St. Simons Island (LSSI) located on the Southeastern coast of Georgia right next to St. Simons Island and Sea Island. Only the maximum 32 guests/ night and the staff (about half live on the island while others commute daily) have private uninterrupted access to all 11,000 acres of privately owned conservatory land that makes up the island, including the 7 mile stretch of pristine white-sand beach. The only way to get there? By way of the Lodge’s private 10-minute boat transfer from the Hampton River Marina in St. Simons. Leave your cars, worries, TV, and city life behind once you step aboard the ferry. Yup, while there may be fast and reliable WiFi on the island around the lodge, there are no TVs. Did I mentioned its all-inclusive? From the ferry transfer (roundtrip), to all meals and non-alcoholic beverages, lodging, activities, and the 18% taxes and fees tact on includes your gratuities to the staff as well. For an additional $20/person/day you have access to unlimited house beers and wines (4 to choose from), if you prefer the liquors you are allowed to BYOB to the island. This all comes with genuine and friendly service from every member of the team as well as attention to detail usually found at places that cost 10x this place! Further, they were taking so many great COVID-19 precautions, doing more than bare minimum for both Georgia and the United States. 

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The main lodge at sunset

Suffice to say, I had a fantastic 3 night/4 day stay here, and cannot wait to return. Here I experienced probably both the top 5 sunrises and sunsets of my travels. It is the perfect places for any kind of traveler to unwind, disconnect, get in touch with nature and just relax. Be it solo, couples, families or even friends. The team here really wants you to enjoy yourself whilst also getting in touch with your surroundings and gain a newfound appreciation for the flora and fauna of not just the United States, but specifically Coastal Georgia. It is almost like a luxurious all-ages summer-camp set in J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth to be very honest, and I am not complaining about that. 

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Booking and Getting There

Unfortunately they do not have a direct booking system online nor can you book through any online GDS tool/portal. However, peak and low season price ranges for double occupancy are posted online as well as transparent information as to what is included and what are additional costs (ie: alcohol and fishing licenses). To book, you simply call their phone number during their office hours of 9AM-5PM, 7 days/week. They are super friendly and will kindly and patiently walk through options of available dates and rooms for your desired stay. The great thing is they have a 24 hour hold policy, so you can first secure a set of dates and a room and then finalize with a 50% deposit 24 hours later.

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There are a few types of rooms to choose from. There are two rooms inside the main historic lodge, the others are a mix of single bookable rooms in cottages or full stand-alone cottages. For best views of the river and marshland, book a room or the entirety of one of 2 river lodges, though they are a bit of a walk from the main lodge where all meals are serve. The main lodge rooms are convenient as its easy in and out, and close to all the snacks/ meals/ wine/ the office/ the store and activities. Low season double occupancy rate was $475-$575/night for the lodge, for single occupancy I paid $375/night, not including the 18% taxes and fees, but man 100% worth it. At first I didnt opt in for the alcohol package, as I wasnt sure what their house wine was and if there was only 1 red and 1 white to choose from, but upon arriving I discovered they have 4 wines (Rose, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet) from Souverain Winery to choose from, which if you drink more than a bottle’s worth throughout the day, its actually worth it in my opinion, even though Souverain retails on average below $20/bottle. 

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Once you set the date, room and rate with the team, you have to pay 50% deposit upfront, that is refundable up to 45 days in advance. They do have a stricter cancel/change policy given their smaller operation but also that its all-inclusive, very understandable in my opinion. I booked well within that timeline, only 2 weeks out of my planed stay, but thankfully these days my plans dont change that much as I have none otherwise. Once you pay the deposit, they immediately send you an email confirmation of invoice and booking detail. I honestly found that their website was fantastic in providing almost all information and details including what to pack, weather to expect, wildlife during your month of stay…etc. Better than many luxury resorts honestly. 

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Main Lodge Room

If you are driving, there are designated lodge guest parking spots at the Hampton River Marina, just leave your car there, tag your bag at the dedicated pavilion and let the team take care of the rest. It is about a 5.5 hour drive from Atlanta. If flying in, your nearest airports are Brunswick (BQK) about a 30-40 minute drive to the marina, Savannah (SAV) and Jacksonville (JAX) both about 1.5 hours drive. You can either rent a car and explore along the way and even explore St. Simons itself, or you can hire a car service. The lodge works with locally owned Seaside Transport, the LSSI website and reservation contacts can provide the phone number to the husband wife team running the car service, $50 one-way from Brunswick and about $130 one-way for the other two further airports. They can arrange to drop you off in town and then picking you back up to the marina closer to ferry time for an additional $10-$20 depending on where you want to get let off. Seasonally, you are allowed to sail to LSSI yourself and dock your boat, or so the website indicates, but I am not sure if its dock on the island itself or at the Marina then take the ferry. 

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Ferry times are set, usually one at 10:30AM and one at 4:30PM leaving the marina. Advisable to arrive at least 15-30 minutes before, as the arriving ferries arrive at around 10:15AM and 4:15PM, giving the team ample time to get your bags to the boat. Departure ferries are 10AM and 4PM. But, precise timings and options will be offered to you at the time of booking as you need to decide which ferry fits your schedule when you book so they can plan ahead.

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LSSI Baggage Pavilion at the dock
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Hampton River Marina

I booked with Seaside Transport, had them drop me off in downtown Brunswick after a 12PM arrival in Brunswick airport from Atlanta. In downtown Brunswick I did a fantastic 45-minute Distiller’s tour at Richland Rum Distillery (Georgia and America’s only single estate Rum distillery), before proceeding to luckily get a Lyft to take me to St. Simons Island where I visited the Lighthouse Museum to familiarize myself with the history and significance of the area I was in. I also had a quick bite at Iguana (fried shrimp is the way to go) before being picked up at the St. Simons Pier at 3:30 to head to the Marina. 

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Richland Rum Distillery Brunsiwck
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Rum tasting
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St. Simons Island Lighthouse and Museum
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Fried shrimp meal at Iguanas

The Lodge at LSSI

When you pull into the dock, you will see Greg, the GM waiting to greet and welcome you to the island, masked of course. Office staff will then take you to the lodge for communal area tour before walking you to your room, other staff will take your bags for you to your room. They also run you through the day to day flow and schedule and ensure that you dont feel pressured to join in on the activities as you are perfectly welcome to do your own thing, explore on your own or just sit on a swing and drink/read all day. 

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Norman’s pond on the way to the beach, try your luck at spotting the resident gator, Norman

As I said, the attention to detail here really surprised me for the amount I was paying, for an all-inclusive, and really for a lodging in the U.S.. To me it was more the small thoughtful touches than anything else. The service is not anticipate your needs, bend over backwards flawless, but it is genuine, down to earth, and friendly. They make you feel at home and a part of a family. But it is also a team effort here, I do appreciate seeing the GM help the wait staff serve meals as well as the chefs themselves doing things and engaging with the guests, there is no hierarchy here. I was also impressed when I received an apology from front of house staff when kitchen staff poured me a glass of red wine in a white wine glass, even though I barely noticed/ cared. But goes to show the team’s willingness to help wherever they can, even if “mistakes” happen. 

The common areas revolve around the main historic lodge. Here you have the living room with a wood-burning fireplace in the corner, library books, there are even reading glasses for your use should you need it. At one corner of the living room is also the bar, that is technically open 24/7, not really self-serve but at times it seemed that way. Posted on the bar-top is a list of guests for each night, their full names and where they hail from. I appreciated this touch as it helped me remember other guests’ names since during activities, happy hour and meal times you socialize (even with socially-distant seating and tabling). By the entrance is a table with masks in case you forgot or need a replacement, the daily menu as well as some brochures/information. Next to the living room is a “museum” but is now part of dining space, then there are two main dining rooms that in normal times would be for family style meals. There is small canteen area for tea and water. If you are hungry at all hours, there is a self-serve snack bar. Then there is the gift shop and office. The offie is where you handle your bill at the end, book picnic lunches, pay and register for fishing licenses, get your skiff equipment and keys, as well as the soda and beer fridge! There is also a bulletin with all pictures/names/hometowns of each team member including which sub-team they are on, this is also helpful to remember every person you meet. Other things they provide on the porch are ponchos and umbrellas in case of rain, insect and tick repellent and sunscreen. Though-out the property hand sanitizer is readily available as well as signs to remind you to stay masked indoors. 

More things they think of. Left your binoculars at home? Dont have suitable shoes for muddy/marshy trails? No worries, the Naturalist team has you covered. Going kayaking or skiffing but no dry-bag to put your camera or other valuables in? No worries, the office has you covered as well. Biked to the beach but forgot sunscreen or water? No worries the beach pavilion has water, sunscreen, repellent, towels and trash-cans. 

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Beach Pavilion

In the rooms and lodges they provide each guest with a branded Nalgene bottle to use during the stay but to take home as well. You also get a woven bag to use to collect seashells from the beach if you desire. There is a lodge guide in the rooms, safe, hangers, bathrobe, hand/body and face towels (this even comes with a sign that says to please use these for make-up removal), individual A/C unit and comfortable bedding. While the main lodge rooms are the smallest on the island, they are still quite spacious and very cozy. The entire vibe is essentially rustic luxurious cabin in the woods. 

There is no spa or gym here. Though a gym is really not needed. A year-round naturally heated pool is located next to the main lodge, but in the winter no one really uses it for obvious reasons. There is also a small game room adjacent to this. Throughout the vicinity of the main area, there are porch swings, rocking chairs and benches that offer you plenty of options to sit back and enjoy the views/sunset/drinks/ a book or just some day dreaming. 

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The food here is actually quite good! Ingredients are fresh and locally sources from the area. Seasonally you will eat a lot of things directly from the island itself be it fish or the produce from the garden. If you succeed at catching fish during a fishing excursion, they can cook that up for you as well! There is no repeat meal. Each meal is quite hearty and I was surprised at how tasty most things were. Nothing Michelin-level nor should one be expecting that, but nonetheless skillful and tasteful and at times creative. I will leave the food photos at the end. I would say, dont expect anything stupendous or comparable to their normal meals for their picnic lunches, but these are still quite filling, I got one for the road on the day I left. 

My favorite meal was the lunch on my third day, Smoked pork shoulder green bean salad with picked onions and potatoes. It was phenomenal. The collard greens, tomato and cashew soup that went with it was also delicious. 

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The days here revolve around activities and meals, but I would say more so the meals than anything, as you do not have to participate in the activities. Meals are now plated and served to you at your designated seat/ table, which are all at least 6 feet apart, and you are only allowed to remove masks when seats or if social distancing is possible. Also, no need to worry that you will forget when meal times are as they announce meal times with pomp and circumstance:

Generally here is how things go:

  • Before 9AM: at your leisure to do anything, self-serve continental breakfast and coffee available at the snack bar from 7-9
  • 9AM: Breakfast. Naturalist will come through explaining the options for the morning’s activities.
  • 10AM-1PM: activities, or at your own leisure
  • 1PM: lunch at the lodge, or if you booked a picnic lunch you can eat that somewhere on the island. Naturalist come by to explain options for the afternoon.
  • 2:15PM: Afternoon activities.  Or at your leisure
  • 5PM-6PM: at leisure, folks start hanging out around the main lodge for some beverages
  • 6PM: dinner. Every other night there is an evening activity that the Naturalist will come by and explain. Friday nights are their famous oyster bake, which I unfortunately did not get to experience.
  • 7:30PM: every other night, optional evening activity

Activities

Will first say, there is one activity that you simply must do and cannot miss out on, weather dependent. That would be the sunrise bike ride to the beach. I recommend waking up before its light out, bring a headlamp with you, grab a bike and ride the 2 miles out to the beach, if you time it right, you’ll get there right as the horizon is turning orange/red and you will get to the beach right as the sky begins to light up. It is magical and most people dont go that early, so you’ll have all 7 miles of beach to yourself for a few minutes. 

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Taking a skiff out for a spin in the creek

Which activities are available heavily depends on the season. According to the staff winter is actually when there are more options in terms of activities that allow you to fully explore the entirety of the island as it is not too hot/humid and the insects are all but non-existent. Seasons also determine what kind of flora and fauna you may get a chance to see, and if you are there in the late spring/ early fall you can witness the sea turtles lay their eggs and the eggs hatching respectively. Other key animals you see are the variety of birds, armadillo, alligators, possum, if lucky dolphins or manatees even!

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Here are the main things that you can do:

  1. Hike, on your own or as part of the Naturalist guided activities. I would recommend doing a guided hike at least once to learn about the science/ flora &fauna and history of the island. Maps available and trails mostly clearly marked if doing on your own. On guided hikes you get to ride on the island trucks to take you to trail heads as opposed to biking there or walking there. 
  2. Bike there are plenty of bikes available to take, including ones for children. Lots of trails to bike. But most folks use the bike to get to the beach that is 2 miles away. 
  3. Fishing you must have a license or can apply and pay for one at the office. They sometimes do guided fishing trips if not you are welcome to go on your own. They also do fly fishing here
  4. Birding this is usually a part of almost every guided activity as this is one of the main wildlife draws here, but there are specific ponds/trails and areas designed for birding that you can go to on your own as well. 
  5. Skiffing you can take a short 30 minute skiffing class and sign a waiver before taking a skiff out into the river/marshes on your own during high-tide. I highly recommend this too as it is a fun, relaxing and neat way to explore the waterways. 
  6. Kayaking this is a guided activity, but it is nonetheless great and I would recommend it as well. Offers a different perspective to the area and its geology/history. 
  7. Exploring St. Simons while I didnt confirm, I believe you are able to take the ferry into town and drive in and explore the area and return on the afternoon ferry.
  8. Farm seasonally you can take part in gardening at the island’s own organic garden, not quite available in the winter months. 
  9. Nothing doing nothing, reading a book, staring out into the beautiful views is also a very welcome activity. 
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In the 2 full days I had on the island, I did 2 guided hikes (one on the north end called BackBone Trail and one on the south end called Wishbone Trail), kayaked with a naturalist to Mitchell Marsh, and took a skiff out to explore the creeks and Hampton river (gets pretty rough at some points) including anchoring by the South End Trail bridge near Wishbone trail to do some reading and crack open a beer. Every morning I woke up and did the sunrise bike to the beach, and it was incredible every time, even the last morning despite the clouds and light rain. 

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At the end of the day it is your time and your vacation. Go at your own pace. Filling the day with activities from sunrise to sunset was actually quite tiring physically. But mentally it was so refreshing to be outdoors with nature and with so few and at times with no one around you. Even if you decide to go about on your own, the Naturalist team will ensure your are equipped with what you need/ give your pointers and advice and ensure your are safe/set to go. 

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Lodge Garden
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Evening activity 1: meeting resident Corn Snake
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Evening activity 2: Owl knowledge 1 on 1, wings of a Horned Owl

Conclusion and Tips

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at LSSI. It exceeded all my expectations. From the food, to the service to the thoughtful touches. Exceptional value in my opinion. I was so glad to have found this place so close to where I live. It offered the perfect getaway from the city and day-to-day life and right now its one prime place to go socially distance yourself. 

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I already listed most of my recommendations in regards to activities above. I would say other than that, just thoroughly go through their website as almost all information is on there in sufficient detail. Know what you are getting yourself into as well. This is not an Aman, its nor a Marriott, its not a Caribbean style all-inclusive, nor is it a run down cabin in the woods. A lot of things are taken care of and thought of, but you are still in nature and on LSSI nature is king, so dont complain about bugs or mosquitoes during the summer as you should expect it, and the island doesnt spray to ensure the habitat isnt contaminated. For packing, I recommend preparing for all sorts of climates, in the winter the change in temperature in a day is drastic. Also, its great fun to chat during the activities and at happy hour with other guests, but be situationally aware/ read the room and this is where I would definitely keep to the golden rules of avoid politics, money, and religion in conversation as I can tell you LSSI attracts a diverse range of people. 

Otherwise, I hope you too can discover this little gem of a place in Georgia.

BonVoyage,

TheGastronomicTraveler

FOOD:

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