Cruising the New Gilded Age
Author: Becca Edwards
Jimmy Buffett sang, “Mother, Mother Ocean, I have heard you call,” as our 60-foot schooner named Leopard exited the lock at Windmill Harbor around noon. The winter air was crisp and it cooled our cheeks to form pink patches on our faces despite all our fleece jackets, caps and gloves. My three daughters Ransom, Ruth Love and Camellia (ages eight, seven and five) went down below and huddled in the galley, bundled up in blankets playing go fish. My husband Lee and I, along with our good friends Brucie Holler and Greg Schenkel, opted to stay on deck, and each of us, in our way, said goodbye to Hilton Head Island as we headed offshore for an overnight, open-ocean passage to St. Augustine, Florida. The great beyond did, indeed, seem great, and we were intrepid, like the industrialists of the Gilded Age, whose old estates we planned on visiting during our eight-day cruise up the waterway from St. Augustine back home.
Several hours later, the daylight and land faded away like a dimming theatre. We lamented the lack of wind as we motored into the vast expanse of night and sea. Sufficient wind would have given us a respite from the thrum of the engine. With no light pollution to compete, the stars rose above our heads. We tried to recall tidbits of astrology as we debated which bright lights were planets, which were stars and which where satellites.
By 7 a.m., we approached St. Augustine—an impressive city from the water with a 208-foot tall cross sharing the skyline with the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States, The Castillo de San Marcos. To reach the St. Augustine Municipal Marina, you must wait for the Bridge of Lions to open, which felt ceremonious and appropriate given the fact that we were entering the oldest city in the United States. St. Augustine’s Lightner Museum, which was originally the site of the ritzy Alcazar Hotel built by Henry Flagler in 1888, was our introduction into the opulence that saturated the coastline during the Gilded Age, and we soaked up stories of prosperity, commerce and decadence as we ventured to Cumberland Island. There, we visited the skeletal remains of the once robust Dungeness. During the planation era, Dungeness was a four-story tabby mansion, surrounded by 12 acres of lush gardens and a social mecca for statesmen and military leaders. After burning down in 1866, the house laid in ruins until the Carnegie family returned it to its former glory designing Dungeness as a 59-room Scottish castle that again served lavish parties until the Great Depression.
My mind conjured images of fashionable women and formidable men sipping champagne and epitomizing sophistication amongst the raw beauty of the landscape, and these visions grew more romantic as we continued on to Jekyll Island. In 1886, members of an incorporated hunting and recreational club purchased Jekyll from John Eugene du Bignon and attracted the wealth and prestige of famous families like the Morgans, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. We felt compelled to reenact our own version of Gilded Age reverie and showered (and I use that term lightly) at the marina, put on the one decent outfit we each had left, and walked to the Jekyll Island Club, a luxury resort hotel opened in 1985. The sun set over the island as our evening began. I sipped on a dirty martini, Lee a dark and stormy, Greg a chardonnay, Brucie a rosé, and the girls Shirley Temples with extra maraschino cherries.
The next morning, we awoke to the lap of water against the wooden pilings along the dock and salty men swapping stories. Lee and our girls explored the island on a golf cart lent by the dock master. Greg was sent on a mission to get provisions, befriended someone and borrowed the last golf cart available on that end of the island. Brucie and I sipped coffee and cuddled up to the silence of a quasi-empty boat. By lunch, Lee and the girls returned with emphatic stories about their exploits. “Mom, we saw a rattlesnake get operated on at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center!” “Mom, we saw an owl!” “Mom, did you know rich people used to live here!”
By lunch we were ready to head toward Sapelo Island, which, for such a primitive and small island, packs a punch of history and culture. Howard E. Coffin, founder of the Hudson Motor Company, purchased Sapelo in 1912 and laid out miles of shell-covered roads and bridged creeks and cultivated large tracts. The Coffins also erected an island paradise rumored to be unsurpassed on the coast and hosting history makers like Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Charles Lindbergh. Tobacco tycoon R.J. Reynolds bought Sapelo during the Great Depression and built what is now the Reynolds Mansion and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. If you go to Sapelo, it’s a good idea to arrange transportation and or a tour guide in advance—or else you have to rely on good fortune, which is what we did. After docking our dinghy at the public dock, we flagged down a car and serendipitously met Ira Gene Grovner, the island’s main tour guide and a slave descendent of Thomas Spalding. When I asked him if the locals liked Reynolds he responded, “Some say he was good, some say he weren’t.” But the general consensus was that Reynolds’ wealth did have a substantial impact on the island’s ecology.
This theme of money transformed into preservation continued with our visit to St. Catherines Island, which was leased by Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1766 and was run as a plantation for nearly a century until the Civil War ended. Now St. Catherines is owned by the St. Catherines Island Foundation and, according to its website, “The island’s interior is operated for charitable, scientific, literary, and educational purpose.” Walking St. Catherines’ beach was like navigating through a whimsical obstacle course of grey, fallen trees, weathered reeds and palms fronds and sporadically placed, vibrant green sea coral.
Our last stop before Hilton Head Island, was Savannah, which, during the Antebellum Period, rivaled Charleston as a commercial port and had its share of wealthy entrepreneurs during the Reconstruction period and turn of the century. After spending several days anchored or docked at the other sparsely (if at all) populated islands, we experienced cultural shock as we set foot on land and suddenly had to obey traffic signals and say, “Excuse me,” to the myriad of people cruising River Street. Over dinner, our discussion centered on our favorite spots and take-aways from the trip. Lee then put to words something I had been trying to say in my own head. “I was blown away by the wealth and prosperity that pervaded through the islands,” Lee said. “And now, thanks to preservation efforts throughout the Lowcountry, these mini paradises are no longer just for the elite to enjoy, but available for everyone to appreciate. It’s like the new Gilded Age.”
By the new “Gilded Age,” Lee is referring to the numerous opportunities to enjoy the affluence of beauty the Lowcountry and Coastal Empire possess—along the waterways and inlet. According to Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, “About 1.3 million acres in the Lowcountry are now permanently protected in various ways including federal state ownership and private easements.” Beach went on to describe the multiple preservation properties stretching along the coast, like Brookgreen Gardens.
Returning to Hilton Head Island—with Americana rock already pumping from the always down-with-a-party Daufuskie on our right, and Buck Island and Calibogue Sound ahead like old friends—I had a greater understanding of the Lowcountry and Coastal Empire, and I basked in the warmth of pride of place. I felt thankful my husband, three daughters and best friends had joined me on the journey. And I vowed to continue cruising Hilton Head’s waters and beyond with the excitement of knowing there’s much more to be explored.
Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer and owner of b.e.WELL+b.e.CREATIVE (bewellbecreative.com).
1 container of sprouts (FYI: You can easily grow your own sprouts on the boat using sprout seeds and a sprouting jar.)
Heat a skillet with coconut oil. Whisk the eggs and combine with sprouts. Pour mixture in skillet to form a crepe shape and flip once firm to cook the other side.
Cream Cheese & Olive Spread:
1 softened block of cream cheese
1 dollop of mayonnaise
1 cup of spanish olives with pimentos sliced
a couple of shakes of tabasco
Combine all ingredients. Adjust to taste.
Leopard Signature Cocktail:
Mix and enjoy.