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St. Marys, Georgia – A Hidden Gem Worth Visiting

Larissa & Jamie Miralles
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Southern charm, white sand, Spanish moss, and a whole lotta fried goodness! These are my fondest memories of St. Marys, Georgia, a quaint little city located in the southern-most part of Coastal Georgia.

One of the things I love most about full-time travel is the wanderlust of it all, and discovering new places that we never would have considered if we simply flew into a major city or limited ourselves to only visiting the most popular travel destinations. When it comes to deciding upon where we want to travel, we’re pretty spontaneous. Our planning looks something like this:

  • We refer to our scratch-off map to identify which states we still want to visit – our goal is to eventually visit all 50!
  • We determine a general direction, like, “Let’s travel northeast!” or “The coast is on my mind.”
  • And then we pack up and go.
  • Once we’re on the road, the travel inspiration and research begins!

We typically stay in an area for two weeks to one month at a time, which gives us the time to explore our current location and plan for what’s upcoming. If we really love a specific area and want to tour more, we sometimes even extend our stay. That’s the beauty of living on the road!

It was this type of spontaneity that allowed us to stumble upon St. Marys, and let me tell you, we were pleasantly surprised!

What to Do

While St. Marys itself is small, it has various historical attractions worth visiting within the city and access to many outdoor recreational activities. We found that the city is most well-known for the beautiful Crooked River State Park, gateway to the Cumberland Island National Seashore (Georgia’s “best kept secret”) as well as various museums, sights, and landmarks, such as the St. Marys Submarine Museum and the historic Tabby Ruins. Additionally, St. Marys is only a short drive away from Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and Florida’s Amelia Island. We were able to visit all of these attractions, with the exception of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge – but we heard amazing things about it from our RV neighbors! Our favorite adventures during this trip were visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore by ferry, enjoying the trails and gorgeous bodies of water at Crooked River State Park, and our daytrip to Amelia Island.

Cumberland Island National Seashore

17 miles of white sand, pristine land, wildlife, lots of history and trails for days… This is the gift you’ll get to experience if you decide to visit Cumberland Island!

The Cumberland Island National Seashore is only accessible from the mainland via St. Marys Cumberland Island Ferry or a private boat. For the adventurous, you can paddle your way to the Island by kayak! Most take day trips, while others camp overnight for up to a maximum stay of seven nights. In order to preserve and maintain the land, there is a National Park Service entrance fee that’s valid for one week, in addition to the camping permit fee if you decide to camp. However, if you’re an America the Beautiful Pass holder, this waives the park entrance fees and discounts the camping permit. You can explore the Island on your own by foot or bike, or if you’re interested in a ranger-guided group tour, those are available as well. Do keep in mind, though, that there are no food services on the Island, and there aren’t many places to obtain safe drinking water. So when you go, it’s important that you pack your lunch and bring lots of water!

Due to our limited time and erratic weather, we chose to take a day trip on a beautiful day via the Cumberland Island Ferry, which departs from a dock at the St. Marys Visitor Center. This is where we purchased our ferry tickets and redeemed our park passes. We brought our electric bikes with us, given that we knew we wanted to explore as much of Cumberland Island as possible in a short period of time, and we’re so glad we did! The Island is large and there are so many paths and trails that we wouldn’t have been able to experience as much as we did without a bike, . If you don’t have a bike, there are rentals available on the Island. However, the number of bikes available are limited, and it’s first come, first serve. Thus, if you have a bike, I highly recommend you bring it unless you simply want to enjoy the beach, view some of the historical sites that are within walking distance, and/or hike the number of trails found on the Island – which is great way to spend the day too!

The 45-minute ferry ride was pleasant and enjoyable – we love boat rides, so it was a great way to start our morning! When we arrived on Cumberland Island, we were greeted by friendly camp rangers who provided us with a map of the Cumberland Island Seashore and directed us to the first of only a handful of restrooms on the Island. With only a few hours to explore, we were quickly off to the races on our bikes. Our goal was to see as much of the Island as we could, with the following must-see attractions in mind: the Dungeness Ruins, the beach, and Plum Orchard Mansion – oh, and wild horses, too!

As we pedaled on sand-packed roads through the luscious green forests filled with palm trees and Spanish moss to our destinations, we were simply in awe of our earth’s pristine beauty. Cumberland Island’s main road led us to the Dungeness Ruins, built in 1884 as a winter home for Thomas Carnegie and his family. Numerous resources were put into the Carnegie estate, and over 30 years the the mansion grew to about 35,000 square feet by 1916! Unfortunately, in 1959 the mansion caught fire, and today only bricks and walls remain. The ruins are a beauty though and truly picturesque. It’s where we spotted a handful of wild horses, too!

After the Dungeness Ruins, we had planned on going to Sea Camp Beach for lunch, as it was supposed to be nearby. However, when we followed the trail, it didn’t seem very bike-friendly. So, we decided to turn around to go in the direction of Plum Orchard Mansion instead. On our way, we decided to go off the beaten path, which coincidentally led us to Stafford Beach – just the stretch (17 miles) of undeveloped white sand beaches we were looking for! Jamie and I were the only people on that section of the beach, from what we could see at least, and we got to enjoy our lunch date on the beach after all! It was the best – sunshine, the sound of waves crashing on the seashore, and unique sea and horseshoe crab shells. We enjoyed it so much that we probably spent a little too much time relaxing, but it was totally worth it!

The last destination on our itinerary was Plum Orchard Mansion, another Carnegie historical site. The mansion was a wedding gift for George Lauder Carnegie and Margaret Thaw. Built in 1898, it became their winter residence every year until George passed in 1921. Sadly, we never made it to the mansion, primarily because we relaxed on our lunch date a little too long and then got lost along the way. We biked as fast as we could in the direction of the mansion, spotted a number of armadillos and a private jet, and we may have even passed the mansion without knowing it! I laugh as I type this, because I remember the excitement and the anxiety we felt at the same time, because we knew we were cutting our timing close given that there was only one ferry boat ride back to the mainland. It felt like the longest yet most thrilling bike ride I’ve ever taken!

Although we didn’t make it to the second mansion, we still had an incredible experience, got great exercise, saw more wildlife, and simply enjoyed our surroundings. Our day trip to Cumberland Island was a memorable one, and I wouldn’t change a thing! If we’re ever in the area again, I’d love to go back. However, in the future, I’d definitely make it a camping trip, to ensure we’re not rushed and can get the most out of what the Island has to offer!

Crooked River State Park

Crooked River State Park made it to my favorites list because it was a park we ventured to daily. It was conveniently located about half a mile down the road from our RV campground, so it was the perfect place to take a break from work and get in our daily walks, bike ride, picnic, and simply appreciate the beauty of the outdoors. The four miles of trails took us through the forests and to the salt marsh, and the sight of the Crooked River was simply stunning. The park had a boat ramp and a dock for fishing – which we frequented regularly – and we saw many travelers enjoying themselves in their kayaks, too. This is actually where those who choose to paddle to Cumberland Island typically begin their journey! Having Crooked River State Park so close by definitely added to our St. Marys experience.

 

Amelia Island

If you’re looking for a lovely getaway, a change in scenery, and the opportunity to visit Florida, Amelia Island is a charming little seaport village worth exploring. It’s known for the enchanting Fernandina Beach Historic Downtown, and for pristine beaches. So, we made it a point to explore both and brought our pup, Chloe, with us too!

We loved strolling through the Historic Downtown for its unique 19th century charm. The streets were lined with local restaurants, eclectic shops, and some pretty talented street musicians. It seemed like a popular spot for both locals and tourists, due to the large number of places to wine, dine, enjoy a cup of coffee, or shop, and due to its proximity to the Fernandina Harbor Marina and walking trail that line the ocean. We loved the fresh seafood at Timoti’s Seafood Shack, the desserts at Nana Teresa’s Bakeshop, and wandering the town with a cup of coffee in hand from Amelia Island Coffee.

After exploring their downtown, we chose to enjoy the rest of our day at Main Beach, a dog-friendly beach on the Island. Since we don’t take Chloe to the beach often, it’s always a fun experience to watch how she reacts to the sand and water. She’s a tiny dog that acts like a cat, so getting her close to the ocean and watching her run frantically away from the waves is always a humorous sight to see! The beach was great for hunting for seashells and simply relaxing by the shore.

If you love a unique ambiance, great eats, treats, local music, artistic photo ops, and the sight of the ocean like we do, Amelia Island is the perfect place to spend an afternoon! If you have more time and love history and/or the outdoors, Amelia Island offers quite a bit for that, too. We simply went out there to enjoy a sunny afternoon in Florida! If we were to go back, however, we’d definitely love to explore or even camp at Fort Clinch State Park and take advantage of all the water activities available during the warmer months!

Where to Eat

I’ll keep this section short and sweet.

If you love Southern comfort food (and, I mean, who doesn’t?! Especially when in the South…), go to Steffens Restaurant, period.

This classic, old-school diner is the epitome of Southern hospitality and homestyle cooking. Everything on their menu is homemade, fresh, and finger-licking good, and they serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This place is POPULAR, and after trying it, we know why. We found ourselves dining there more than once (three times, to be exact), and we were happy with everything we tried. I have to admit, though, it’s not exactly diet-friendly… but it is a whole lotta fried goodness!

Their menu ranged from classic Southern brunch specialties like chicken and waffles and biscuits and gravy, served all-day, to fried, whole catfish, alligator, and shrimp with grits. Their sides were amazing, consisting of sweet potato mash, squash casserole, collard greens, cream of corn, and more. And their desserts were delectable too!

Should you decide to go, keep the following in mind:

  • The restaurant is located in Kingsland, Georgia, which is about 15 minutes away from St. Marys.
  • Seating is first come, first serve, and you seat yourself. Thus, get there early, go during less popular times, or simply prepare yourself for a well-worth-it wait!
  • If you’re health conscious or on a diet, save this outing for a cheat meal or after a long day of activity – it’s how we justified it!
  • Even if you’re not into fried foods, everything fried is also available grilled or blackened. But let’s be real… when in the South, why not do it right?!

Where to Stay

If it wasn’t for A Big Wheel RV Park‘s kind staff and willingness to accommodate us during their busiest season of the year, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to enjoy St. Marys and the surrounding area. Like many snowbirds, we were chasing warm weather this past winter. But unlike seasoned snowbirds, we weren’t prepared for the majority of campgrounds to be fully booked, given that we’ve always been able to reserve last-minute stays in other parts of the country without any trouble. However, we learned very quickly that Alabama, Florida, and Southern Georgia campgrounds fill up fast during the winter months – reservations are often booked six to eight months in advance! So, we definitely lucked out finding availability at A Big Wheel RV Park due to a last-minute cancellation.

This small campground was charming, affordable, and within walking distance to Crooked River State Park. The staff was friendly and very helpful in finding ways to accommodate our month’s stay at their campground. The landscaping of the park was lovely, decorated with trees with Spanish moss, florals, and a peaceful pond. I even discovered a small trail within the RV park that I frequented regularly for quiet walks with Chloe.

Additionally, the majority of the campers during this time of year (late February) were full-timers and snowbirds who made St. Marys their winter home-away-from-home. Given that management encouraged community by hosting Sunday potlucks every week, it was an added bonus to get to know our neighbors and the campground owner, and to share travel stories with one another.

We truly enjoyed our stay and would recommend it! If you decide to visit in the winter, book early. You may not be as lucky as we were to secure a spot!

Overall, our experience in St. Marys and the surrounding area was a memorable one! We took our time, given that full-time travel is more of a lifestyle for us versus a vacation, and had a great time exploring. If you are looking for your next vacation spot or maybe even a place to park long-term, consider adding St. Marys to your list of travel destinations!

Larissa & Jamie Miralles

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