St. Mary's, Georgia
By Steven Skelley & Thomas Routzong
St. Mary's, Georgia has been called America's second oldest city. St. Mary's is also the Gateway to the Cumberland Island National Seashore. Staying in St. Mary's is like stepping back in time to a kinder and more peaceful era where neighbors and visitors alike are greeted with a genuine smile and a friendly wave. If you are looking for a vacation destination with an old-Georgia feel, amazing history and beautiful scenery, St. Mary's, Georgia is the place.
We have visited St. Mary's several times. To help you with your vacation planning, we have organized Our St. Mary's, Georgia Top Ten.
People like to say that Cumberland Island is “where nature and history meet.” Cumberland Island is Georgia's largest and southernmost barrier island. It is filled with pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches, marshes, unique birds and beautiful free-roaming horses. Natives, missionaries, Revolutionary War heroes, British military personnel, enslaved African Americans and some of the wealthiest Americans in U.S. history all walked this island.
Cumberland Island’s 9,800 acres are Congressionally-designated Wilderness.
Fred Boyles, the Cumberland Island National Park Superintendent, gave us a private tour and shared his vast knowledge of this beautiful island.
"The island was once a British property. It was then given to Nathanael Greene for his Revolutionary War service. Cumberland Island is the home of British soldiers' graves from the British occupation during the War of 1812," Superintendent Boyles told us.
Superintendent Fred Boyles pointed across the water to nearby land and reminded us that Cumberland Island was once a British territory and the land we could see across the water was a Spanish territory named Florida.
“Cumberland Island has an amazing place in U.S. history. It was the home to prominent people such as British General James Oglethorpe who established the colony of Georgia and built two forts here, Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, American inventor Eli Whitney, and the richest man in the world - Thomas Carnegie,” Boyles explained. “Carnegie built a 59 room mansion named Dungeness. Its ruins are a tourist favorite.”
"The Dungenes ruins are from the Carnegie mansion. It was a 36,000 square foot mansion and it took 300 people to care for the grounds. You have to remember that if they wanted milk, they had to have someone take care of the cows. If they wanted food, someone had to grow it, harvest it and cook it."
Another mansion, The Plum Orchard mansion, still stands and has been lovingly restored by the parks service. This 22,000 square foot home includes an indoor swimming pool and a mammoth ice maker the size of a small car that was state of the art for its day.
The First African Baptist Church, originally built in 1893, is a one-room framed structure with 11 handmade pews and 3 windows on each side. John F. Kennedy Jr. was married at The First African Baptist Church.
Cumberland Island has 50 miles of hiking trails that lead through maritime forests, interior wetlands, historic sites, marsh ecosystems, and stunningly beautiful beaches where feral horses graze. It is a photographer’s dream come true.
"People love the horses on the island,” Superintendent Boyles told us. “They refer to them as wild horses but these are not wild horses. They are feral horses. Their ancestors were once plantation horses who were set free at some time."
A maximum 300 people are allowed on Cumberland Island at a time and campers may stay no longer than 7 nights. Visitors can access the island by ferry from St. Mary's, GA. The fee is $20 per adult, $18 for age 65 and older, and $14 for children 12 and under. Reservations are recommended.
Developed and wilderness camping is available but only one camping area has running water and bathrooms with shower - cold showers! Food, ice and supplies must be shipped from the mainland. There are no stores on the island. Bikes are available for rent at the Sea Camp dock at a first come, first served basis.
If you’d like a guided tour of Cumberland Island, The Land and Legacies Tour is a 5 to 6 hour motorized tour of the north end of the island. There are multiple interesting stops including the Plum Orchard mansion and the Settlement.
Cumberland Island National Seashore is a national treasure that everyone passing through south Georgia should visit and Fred Boyles, the Cumberland Island National Park Superintendent, is a talented man perfectly suited to oversee this beautiful island and share its history.
For more information, visit http://www.nps.gov/cuis/index.htm
The Historic Oak Grove Cemetery
The Historic Oak Grove Cemetery was originally designated in 1788. Visitors from around the world come to the Historic Oak Grove Cemetery seeking their ancestor’s burial information and studying history. Soldiers from every U.S. war have been laid to rest in peace here "under moss-wrapped oaks, azaleas and camellias." The Historic Oak Grove Cemetery is owned by the City of St. Mary's.
The Historic Oak Grove Cemetery is home to the unique burial sites of many French Arcadians who were driven out of Nova Scotia but found a home on the banks of the St. Mary's River. In a place with so much U.S. history, the graves and markers reflect the varied lives of everyone from statesmen to craftsmen, to plantation owners to slaves to yellow fever victims.
Kay Westberry of the St. Mary Preservation Society spoke to us about The Historic Oak Grove Cemetery.
"I spent three years researching the cemetery for my book 'Oak Grove Cemetery: Quiet Reflections On The People & History Of St. Mary's.' We've identified about 1900 gravesites but there may be as many as 5000 people buried there," Kay told us. "It used to be that when they dug a new grave in what they thought was an empty spot they'd find a skeleton already there! I tried to research and document the cemetery as best as I could through old documents and letters."
"Our cemetery has documented gravesites from as early as 1801 but there are hundreds of burials earlier that were not documented," she said. "Many people were the victims of yellow fever. At one point, there were so many people dying from yellow fever that they had the slaves bury them in row graves. The slaves had a natural immunity to yellow fever."
Kay Westberry offers tours of The Historic Oak Grove Cemetery. "I offer free tours of the history of St. Mary's and the cemetery. I try to remind people that as they look out off our shore, what they see on the other side used to be Spain!"
For more information on The Historic Oak Grove Cemetery, visit http://www.ci.st-marys.ga.us/department/cemetery/index.php
To order Kay's book "Oak Grove Cemetery: Quiet Reflections On The People & History Of St. Mary's" phone 912-882-5301 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
St. Mary's Convention & Visitors Bureau Welcome Center
The St. Mary's Convention & Visitors Bureau and St. Mary's Welcome Center is located at 111 Osborne Street. The Welcome Center has a video of St. Mary's history, mural of St. Mary's history, a computer station that visitors can use, a motion picture museum and information on local attractions. There are even rocking chairs on the front porch!
We spoke to Angela Wigger, St. Mary's Director of Tourism. "St. Marys is very relaxing. People love to come to the waterfront park and swing in the swings. It is a town with a very interesting history as well. We were the biggest port in Georgia for many years and we were the southernmost port in the United States until Florida was purchased from Spain."
The St. Mary's Convention & Visitors Bureau and St. Marys Welcome Center offers a "What to do when you visit St. Marys" webpage at http://www.stmaryswelcome.com/whattodo.html. It lists multiple activities, shopping and dining options.
The St. Mary's Welcome Center can even set you up with a historic tram tour.
For more information, call 912-882-4000
Goodbread House Inn
Bed & Breakfast
There is something special about the Goodbread House Inn Bed & Breakfast in St. Mary's, Georgia. You feel it as soon as you stand at the white picket fence surrounding the green lawn that leads up to the 150 year old home. The porch swing - swaying gently in the breeze - seems to beckon you in for a relaxing visit. The white window frames on the light-blue face of the house remind you of the synchronicity of white clouds floating lazily through a beautiful blue sky on a Summer day. A quaint sign invites you in with the words, “Enter as strangers. Leave as friends.” This is a special place - you can just feel it.
The Goodbread House Inn is owned by Mardja Gray - a Steel Magnolia and a Sweet Potato Queen! The vibe of the Goodbread House Inn is definitely a byproduct of this artistic and beautiful southern belle
Mardja is a Certified Myers-Briggs Specialist. She understands unique personality types. She "has the unique talent of making an immediate connection to a guest's personal style – how they like to communicate, and other individual preferences." Her soft-spoken and graceful manner is just part of her natural charm as she communicates with her guests in the way that best fits their needs.
For LGBT travelers: Everyone is welcome at the Goodbread House Inn. "We are very welcome of all people. Same sex couples have stayed here and we have enjoyed cocktails together in the parlor. One couple had been together for 22 years. We had just had another wedding here and my golf cart was still decorated for the wedding. I gave them the keys and they drove around town in it. There's no reason to hide who you are here," Mardja told us.
The Goodbread House Inn Bed & Breakfast was built in 1870. Under Mardja Gray's care, the Goodbread House Inn is a wonderful mixture of antique beauty and themed suites. "Romance flourishes inside the gracious rooms of The Goodbread House so rooms are named after famous lovers. No matter which room you choose, the spirit of romance is sure to inspire," she posts on her website.
Rooms include The Rhett & Scarlett Suite, The Guinevere & Lancelot Suite, The Gabriel & Evangeline Suite, The Gable & Lombard Suite, The Lucy & Ricky Suite, and The Bogie & Bacall Suite.
The Goodbread House Inn Bed & Breakfast is located at 209 Osborne Street,
St. Mary's, Georgia 31558. Phone: 912-882-7490
For more information, visit http://www.goodbreadhouse.com
Spencer House Inn
Bed & Breakfast
The Spencer House Inn Bed & Breakfast is another St. Mary's treasure. This gorgeous home is nearly 150 years old but it is so well-kept that it looks as if it could have been built just yesterday.
The Spencer House was built in 1872 by William Spencer for a cost of $3600. That was a huge price in that time period. It was considered the finest hotel in southeast Georgia. In 1942, the Spencer House was made into a rooming house.
Mary and Mike Neff purchased the Spencer House in 1995.
"We tried to follow a historical theme in decorating the inn. We purchased furniture, rugs, curtains and accessories to fit the history of our inn and yet be slightly different for each room," Mary told us. "One of the best things about running a historic inn is meeting all the wonderful people. You really find out what a small world we really live in. Just about any conversation leads to some connection between people."
The Spencer House Inn Bed & Breakfast offers first and second floor verandas where guests can relax. "People love to relax on our porches. They are a great place to sit, rock and enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning," Mary said.
The Spencer House Inn has 14 rooms on three floors. Each room has a private bath. Some of the baths have charming clawfoot soaking tubs.
The Spence House Inn is one of the few accommodations of this type and era that have a modern elevator. This is a valuable asset for guests with mobility issues.
A breakfast buffet is served in a large dining room that is beautifully decorated with period pieces. The breakfast menu varies from day to day. Our breakfast included orange juice, grape juice, coffee, tea, cinnamon bread, pumpkin bread, homemade granola, yogurt, cereal, fresh fruit, bacon, muffins and a three cheese omelet. Iced tea is available throughout the day.
The Spencer House Inn Bed & Breakfast is located at 200 Osborne Street | St. Marys, Georgia 31558. Phone: (888) 840-1872 or (912) 882-1872. For more information, visit http://spencerhouseinn.com
The Sharkbite Bar & Grill is located right in the heart of downtown St. Mary's. Their two spacious outside decks offer beautiful waterfront and marina views.
We’ve enjoyed several meals at Sharkbite Bar & Grill. The prices are very reasonable, the views are spectacular, the atmosphere is casual and relaxing, and the food is great.
Be sure to try their famous Gator Burger. It is a nice variation on an old favorite. Everyone should try alligator at least once but this burger will have you coming back for more.
The Sharkbite Bar & Grill is located at 104 West St. Mary's Street, St. Mary's, Georgia 31558. They are open Monday-Thursday 11 am -11 pm and Friday-Saturday 11 am -12 midnight.
Phone 912-576-6993 for more information.
Captain Seagle’s Seafood Restaurant and Saloon
Captain Seagle’s Seafood Restaurant and Saloon is the oldest continually operating restaurant and bar in St. Mary's. When you walk into their historic restaurant, bar or hotel lobby, you will get the feeling that you are stepping back into time – to a better time.
Seagle's owner Gaila Brandon told us, "My husband's family has owned the hotel since the 1920's. I feel like St. Mary's is heaven on earth."
Seagle’s restaurant is located right on the main intersection of this small town. The restaurant windows offer excellent views of the waterfront and the ferries that take passengers to Cumberland Island.
Seagle’s features fresh seafood and steaks and “is home to Seagle's famous Rock Shrimp Dinner and the Best Burger in town.” The restaurant was named after owner Jerry Brandon's father Ben "Seagle" Brandon who operated the Captain Seagle fishing boat for many years.
Gayla and Jerry Brandon have a special place in their hearts for boaters. They host Cruisers Thanksgiving every year. As many as 100 sailboats sail in for Thanksgiving dinner with as many as 300 attendees. People from the St. Marys community donate the food from turkeys to hams to all the fixin's.
Mardja Grey, owner of Goodbread House Inn told us, "It's what Thanksgiving used to be - everyone coming together."
For our dinners at Seagle’s Restaurant, we enjoyed a dinner salad, a 12 oz. steak with French fries and Fried shrimp with Cheese grits. The steak was perfectly prepared with a crispy, peppery exterior. The hefty portion of Fried shrimp was served with some of the best Cheese grits we have tried anywhere.
Their motto is “excellent dining at moderate prices....so come hungry.” This is good advice. The prices are reasonable, the portions are large, the service is excellent and the atmosphere is truly unique.
Before or after dinner or lunch, be sure to stop in to Seagle’s Saloon where you will be delightfully (or maybe shockingly) entertained by Cindy Deen – "the Queen of Mean bartender."
When we were asked to describe Cindy, this is what we said, “You know how most people have a mental filter that tells them what is appropriate or inappropriate to say in certain situations? Well - - - Cindy does not have that filter!” Cindy is a hoot! If you want a few laughs with your drinks, this is the place for you in St. Marys.
Captain Seagle’s Seafood Restaurant and Saloon is located at 100 West St. Mary's Street, St. Mary's, Georgia 31558. Phone 912-882-4187 for more information.
The Blue Goose Wine and Coffee Shoppe
The Blue Goose Wine and Coffee Shoppe is the hippest place in St. Mary's! If you like your coffee or wine in an eclectic and artistic setting, this is the place for you.
The Blue Goose Wine and Coffee Shoppe is located in a small, blue historic home surrounded by a white picket fence. Just inside the fence you will find yourself greeted by various geese statues – decorated and clothed in wonderfully unique styles. Where else would you expect to see a goose in goggles?
We enjoyed The Blue Goose Wine and Coffee Shoppe for breakfast one morning. Our coffees were large, reasonably priced and served with cheer. Our moist and flavorful breakfast muffins were huge! Good food at a good price in a laid-back setting – who could ask for anything more? We love this place!
The Blue Goose Wine and Coffee Shoppe is also a popular spot for both locals and tourists in the evenings.
The Blue Goose Wine & Coffee Shoppe is located at 126 Osborne Street, St. Mary's, Georgia.
For more information visit http://www.looseatthegoose.com/St--Marys.html
Howard Gilman Memorial Park on the Waterfront
In so many waterfront towns, nature’s beautiful shoreline has been overdeveloped and the spectacular views have been blocked or ruined. This is not so in St. Mary's. The Howard Gilman Memorial Park on the Waterfront is a Georgia treasure.
When you step off the main intersection of St. Mary's, you find yourself in this beautiful waterfront park staring across the water at Cumberland Island (once a British territory) and Florida (once a Spanish territory.)
Majestic sailboats anchor in the bay. Shrimp boats sail in and out. Ferries take lucky passengers to and from Cumberland Island.
Howard Gilman Memorial Park on the Waterfront is one of our favorite places to take our cup of morning coffee and enjoy a stunning sunrise view.
The park offers multiple bench seats, rose-covered arbors, wooden bench swings, a decorative fountain, a children’s playground and pavilions where marriages are held with the gorgeous St. Marys waterfront as a backdrop.
Visit http://www.stmaryswelcome.com/waterfrontpark.html for more information.
Special Events & Festivals
St. Mary's is a wonderful place to enjoy special events and festivals. Everything they do seems to incorporate that unique St. Marys charm and neighborly feel.
* The Annual Mardi Gras Festival, designated a Southeast Tourism Society Top 20 Event, is a family friendly Mardi Gras celebration with a themed parade, vendors, 5K race and a Chili Cook-off. You’ll even find a pet costume contest and all day entertainment to help let the good times roll. As the evening fades, adults can take part in the formal Mardi Gras Ball for dinner and dancing.
* The George Washington Memorial Walk is an afternoon procession, with many participants dressed in period clothing. They escort a wagon carrying a flag draped coffin from the waterfront of the historic district to the corner of Conyers Street and all in attendance are encouraged to join in the walk. Upon arriving at the Washington Memorial, the original Washington memorial service is re-read in honor of George Washington. Residents were located so far south that the news of George Washington’s death did not reach the town for more than 30 days after his death. Citizens felt compelled to hold a service when news was finally received and today we still commemorate this event.
* The Annual St. Mary's Fourth of July Festival features a full day of events including 5K and 10K runs, a themed parade, over 100 vendors, incredible musical entertainment, watermelon seed spitting & eating contests, and children’s activities. The evening culminates with a spectacular FIREWORKS display over the St. Mary's River. The St. Mary's Waterfront Park and the Tilden Norris Marsh Walk both offer great bird’s eye views of the fireworks but for an on-the-water experience, tickets are available for the annual Kiwanis river cruise. Visit www.smkiwanis.com for additional information.
* The Annual St. Mary's Rock Shrimp Festival continues its long-standing tradition of family fun on with a full day of events including running races, a parade featuring decorated floats, fire trucks, tractors, golf carts, and more. The streets will be overflowing with all day entertainment, demonstrations, arts & crafts vendors and food concessionaires. A favorite for the day will be the dinners that include fresh rock shrimp, the southeastern delicacy that is the festivals namesake.
* St. Mary's Railroad Days commemorates over 100 years of railroad traditions with train rides and/ or tours, live music, food and other vendors, clowns, and a variety of other exhibitors to keep you entertained all day. The Build-a-Scarecrow event is held during the festivities and you can take your scarecrow creation home or place it downtown for the following weeks Scarecrow Stroll in St. Mary's historic district.
* During the Scarecrow Stroll, you will walk through downtown St. Mary's from 5-7pm to see tons of unique scarecrows lining the streets. Kids can dress up in the costume & trick-or-treat at many of the scarecrow stations and local businesses. Folks of all ages will enjoy the old-fashioned hayrides. Storefronts and historic homes are emblazoned with pumpkins and fall decor and the transformation is a beautiful fall display in this coastal community.
* For a fun and educational Halloween activity, the 6pm-9pm St. Mary's Haunted History tour can’t be beat. Blending folklore with authentic historical events, professional and amateur storytellers will hold court at ten noteworthy St. Marys sites. Each presenter will be fully costumed to reflect their respective time periods. Stories include a few favorites from prior tours mixed in with chilling new acts. Join us while legends and local spirits share their tales! Call the St. Mary's Welcome Center for ticket information at 912-882-4000.
* The annual White Lighting Parade and Ceremony begins at dusk amongst the tree lined streets of historic St. Marys and helps kick off the holiday season. As Santa and Mrs. Claus lead the parade and make their way toward the waterfront, Santa magically turns on thousands of twinkling Christmas lights that will remain lit through Christmas. Once at the waterfront pavilion, Santa will light the giant St. Mary's Christmas tree and then take time to sit with all the girls and boys. During this delightful holiday event you’ll be entertained by carolers and dancers and you’ll definitely want to pop into a local business for dinner or hot chocolate.
* “Christmas in the Park” is a festive St. Mary's tradition. Santa is on hand to give every child a stocking and a turn on his knee and the park is full of kid friendly games and activity stations. Kids love the Christmas train, the cookies and hot chocolate, and the dozens of costumed characters that stroll through the park. This is a completely free event that really spreads the holiday cheer. You will want try your hand in the Gingerbread House contest and relax in the park with blankets and hot chocolate as the day’s events end with a holiday movie.
* The St. Mary's Christmas Tour of Homes, held from 5:30-9:00pm will feature an assortment of beautifully decorated private homes, bed & breakfasts and churches. The sparkle of the adorned trees and winter wonderland décor will have you savoring the season. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 the day of the event. Entertainment will be available throughout the event from church choirs and vocal groups who will be caroling at various venues along the tour route. Attendees should plan on walking or driving from point to point, but all stops are conveniently located within the downtown district. To experience the charm of an authentic southern town that is all alight for the holidays call the St. Mary's Welcome Center at 912-882-4000.
Barbara Ryan, the publisher of the beautiful St. Mary's Magazine, told us over dinner that, "You may leave St. Marys but St. Marys will never leave you."
She’s right! There is something very special about this place and about these people.
If you are looking for a vacation destination with an old-Georgia feel, amazing history and beautiful scenery, St. Mary's, Georgia is the place we’d recommend.
by Steven Skelley & Thomas Routzong
Copyright 2013 Sunny Harbor Publishing.
Contact Us: PO Box 560318, Rockledge, FL 32956.
Keywords: Barbara Ryan, St. Marys, Georgia, St. Marys Christmas Tour of Homes, Christmas in the Park, St. Marys Haunted History tour, White Lighting Parade and Ceremony, St. Marys Fourth of July Festival, St. Marys Railroad Days, St. Marys Rock Shrimp Festival, St. Marys Mardi Gras Festival, Goodbread House Inn Bed Breakfast, Howard Gilman Memorial Park, The Blue Goose Wine and Coffee Shoppe, Mardja Grey, Captain Seagle’s Seafood Restaurant and Saloon, Gaila Brandon, Jerry Brandon, Cindy Deen, Sharkbite Bar & Grill, Spencer House Inn, Mary Neff, Mike Neff, St. Marys Convention & Visitors Bureau, St. Marys Welcome Center, Angela Wigger, Historic Oak Grove Cemetery, Kay Westberry, Cumberland Island, Fred Boyles, Cumberland Island National Seashore, Dungenes, First African Baptist Church, Steven Skelley, Thomas Routzong,