Monday, February 11, 2013

Pride of Place on St. Simons Island

        A sign in the front yard says it all, “Don’t ask.  Won’t sell.”  On St. Simons Island even a modest old house like this one is likely to have suitors.  You’ve got to envy those who live here.   This eighteen mile long island, roughly the size of Manhattan, has 21,000 residents and 4,000 hotel rooms.  Unlike its sister Golden Isles destinations, St. Simons, Georgia is all about its residents.  The waterfront could be full of high rise hotels but instead  a long walkway snakes by a large playground full of children, a pier with fishermen unfurling cast nets, picnic tables and a town center that boasts a art center, grills, historic lighthouse, wedding room, pool and expansive grassy lawns.  Nearby is a busy skateboard park and recreation center.  Everywhere there are miles and miles of trees.   Building heights are limited to four stories.  It’s clear that the residents and Town leaders have taken great care of the island with dedication and vision.  Now it’s a gem with a tremendously strong pride of place.
          There is no stronger advocate for the island than Captain Cap Fendig.  He proudly describes St. Simons as “an island that takes care of itself.”  As the self appointed ambassador and life long resident, he operates several land and sea businesses.  Everything from dolphin sightings to funerals at sea that help tourists experience the culture and nature of the area. But his passion for place transcends his business motivations.  He proudly mentions that the Brooklyn Bridge was built from live oak timber from the island and tells a moving story of the slave and favorite son Neptune for whom the park is named.  Because St. Simons is the most westerly location on the East Coast, there are fewer hurricanes and extreme tides.  One third of the East Coast’s marshes, filled with abundant sea life, surround this area. 
         The island’s pride of place, and especially its history, is evident at its only ocean front hotel.  The King and Prince offers 14 styles of rooms, suites, cottages and villas including elegant homes that appeal to family vacationers.  A member of Historic Hotels of America, it originally opened in 1935 as a private dance club on the ocean and housed soldiers during World War II as U-boats prowled the Georgia coast. Beyond its fabulous location, it is renowned for its four pools and the world-class golf course as well as the ornate stained glass windows that depict island history.  Bud St. Pierre became the Director of Sales and Marketing at the hotel ten years ago.  “We were looking for a little community. Just driving over the bridge, we knew.  The King and Prince is very nice, but it’s about the destination.  This island is very special.”  The hotel cuisine capitalizes on the local products such as Lane Southern Orchard peaches and pecans, Bland Vidalia Onions, Savannah Bee Company honey products, Still Pond Wines and Sugar Marsh Cottage Chocolates but they are famous for their house made lemoncello and seafood recipes such as shrimp and grits and the Low Country boil which they enjoy cooking ocean-side. 
        Captain Fentig calls St. Simons “an eat-stroll-eat-stop-stroll kinda place”. At Halyard’s upscale restaurant chef Glen Miskowski says, “The first thing people want to do on St. Simons is eat seafood.”  Here, the clams are still alive, the shrimp are lightly poached and the local catch comes right in the back door daily. Manager Matt Gage says, “I’ve never worked anywhere where the fish is fresher than this”.  At the more casual Palmer’s CafĂ©, the food is “between rough and refined” and the breakfast menu is creative:  poached eggs with collard greens and ham or Buddy’s banana pudding pancakes with crushed vanilla wafers. Up the street in a ramshackle building is an island mainstay, Beachcomber Barbeque.  The very authentic Brunswick stew is their pride and joy but huge barbeque platters served to diners along the picnic tables were also greeted with rave reviews.  A highlight of my visit was an exciting ecotour on the Lady Jane shrimp boat with Captain Larry Credle and crew. Lifelong shrimpers, they delighted in showing these landlubbers the abundance of sea life pulled up in their shrimp nets as we motored along the waterway.  We took great photos of the least squeamish among us holding hammerhead sharks, horseshoe crabs and squid while Clifford, our educator, culled out the still-squirming shrimp and boiled them up in the galley.  Talk about fresh! 
        It’s easy to see why St. Simons Island has a content community of residents who passionately defend their way of life and share it with the few thousand visitors each year.  As Captain Fentig says, “God has a few favorite places to hang out and one of them is St. Simons.” 

For more photos, please see
 St. Simons Island Photos
 This story was originally published in The Island Eye and the Feb., 2013 Island Connection.