A Traveller’s Treasure: Greyfield Inn, Cumberland Island – Review

By Olivia Falcon

3 months ago

'More than a hidden gem, Cumberland Island is real traveller’s treasure'

Where do American aristocrats go to escape the crowds? They flock to Cumberland Island, says Olivia Falcon.

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Review: Greyfield Inn, Cumberland Island

When John F Kennedy Jnr was looking for a private place to wed ethereal beauty, Carolyn Bessette in 1996, away from the media’s gaze, he flew his small plane to a tiny air strip on Cumberland Island, a wildly romantic and remote isle off the coast of Georgia, USA. At 18 miles long, Cumberland is the largest of the Georgia’s 15 Sea Islands, about a third larger than Manhattan, yet has abundantly rich wildlife. Herds of wild horses, armadillos, bob cats, wild hogs, raccoons and great flocks of migratory birds, far outweigh the handful of human inhabitants, who if you are lucky enough to meet will tell you tales of the glamorous ghosts of Cumberland’s colourful past.

Kayaking on Cumberland Island

© Gabriel Hanway

Initially inhabited by the Tacatacuru tribe, colonial settlers rolled onto Cumberland during the 16th and 17th centuries. First came the Spanish, who built a garrison and mission, followed by the English headed by colonist James Oglethorpe in 1733. The island was given its current name by the 13-year-old nephew of Chief Tomochichi who visited England with Oglethorpe and struck up a teen friendship with Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, son of George II.

But it is the Carnegies, the American aristocrats who made their fortune in steel, who seem to have the most enduring legacy here. Thomas (brother of Andrew) and Lucy Carnegie laid down roots in the 1880s, building an imposing 59-room gothic mansion they named Dungeness, as a winter retreat to escape the smog of Pittsburgh. The house, which at its peak had 200 servants, was abandoned after the Great Depression, and then burnt down in 1959, (allegedly by a disgruntled poacher who had been caught trapping wild boar and shot in the leg by a caretaker.) The singed ruins still stand proud, looking over the marsh and the ocean beyond. Picnicking here or beachcombing the muddy beach for seashells, shark’s teeth, or if you’re very lucky a megalodon tooth, is a must for the day-trippers or intrepid campers. However, if you want to do Cumberland in style and glimpse into the Carnegies’ wild and private paradise, you need to head two miles north to magical Greyfield Inn, a colonial revival mansion that was built in 1901 for the Carnegie’s daughter Margaret, and now serves as the island’s only hotel.

Getting to Greyfield you need to be prepared to veer off the beaten track. My family and I arrived on a dock at the sleepy coastal town of Fernandina Beach in Florida. Queasy and fairly frazzled after three days of riding rollercoasters in Orlando, we were hankering for fresh air, home-cooked food and nature’s simple rhythms. With no WiFi, no traffic (bicycle is the preferred mode of transport) and miles of pristine beaches, marshes, and pine forest trails to explore, Cumberland Island promised to be the perfect tonic.

Indeed, the kids whoop with excitement as we step onto the Lucy R. Ferguson, a repurposed lobster trawler now serving as the Greyfield’s private ferry, captained by Mitty Ferguson (great great grandson of family patriarch Thomas Carnegie). When we dock, he leads us up a sandy track through magnificent groves of 300-year-old oak trees, draped with Spanish moss to the welcoming rocking chairs on the porch of Greyfield Inn.

The exterior of Greyfield Inn with a red Land Rover

Greyfield Inn © Peter Frank Edwards

This house has a heartbeat, which I feel as I climb three flights of well-worn stairs to The Stafford Suite, one of the Inn’s 15 characterful rooms (there are also two cottages to stay in). Outside our door a pair of polished riding boots stands to attention and then through its cosy wood-panelled attic foyer complete with Carnegie children’s desks and trunks tucked into the eaves; a dreamy king-sized bed neatly dressed in sea island cottons (a crop that used to be grown by slaves on the island’s plantations). The bedding is sold alongside Greyfield treasures including homegrown honey and oyster shell serving spoons (a favourite I’m told of actor Bill Murray, a regular guest and friend of the family) at the Inn’s quirky gift shop.

As the token English guests, we were quite the curiosity among the Americans who visit on repeat. We made friends over cocktails served up at the honesty bar, before sinking into the blazing orange velvet sofas in the sitting room for hors d’oeuvres of devilled eggs and hush puppies (blue corn fritters) under the portrait of Margaret Carnegie resplendent in her wedding dress – the woman for whom Greyfield was built. Dinner is always a jolly communal affair set around the Chippendale table and conversations extended into the night around a magical fire pit in the garden. My tween girls’ bond with eight-year Atticus visiting from South Carolina – a regular guest, he tells us that Greyfield is his favourite place on earth, and it didn’t take us long to understand why.

While the kids reclaim life’s simpler pleasures: biking down the Palmetto-lined paths, building forts and hunting for horseshoe crab shells on the beach, I tour Greyfield’s kitchen garden with Ava, a Carnegie family member who grows a dazzling array of seasonal produce for the Inn’s kitchen. I then hop into the Inn’s pick-up truck to explore the island with Greyfield’s resident naturalist Cristina, and bump along the sandy trails to The Settlement, a community set up by emancipated slaves after the Civil War on the north of the island. It’s here I spy the First African Baptist Church, a simple yet enchanting chapel with a red tin roof, which served as the community church for the freedmen of the island and is also where those glamorous young Kennedys wed. Standing on the wooden steps I close my eyes and tap into the joy, excitement, and freedom of all those souls who have celebrated life’s most poignant moments here must have felt – it’s exhilarating and heartening and a memory I’ve returned to regularly since I’ve been home.

More than a hidden gem, Cumberland Island is real traveller’s treasure. Go feel it for yourself but please try and keep the secret.


From $1,082.80 per night full board. greyfieldinn.com