Along the southeast Georgia coast, a patchwork of islands known as the Golden Isles offer a wide range of images and experiences. The largest and best known, St. Simons Island, is a mini Hilton Head, with many vacation resorts and a sizable year-round community. The center of activity on St. Simons is at the south tip of the island, where the village consists of a central plaza and a few blocks of shops, saloons, and restaurants along Mallery Street, which leads down to the waterfront pier and a circa-1872 lighthouse. Sea kayaks, bicycles, and boats can be rented here, and there are a number of reasonable motels.
Also on St. Simon’s, right at the heart of the island, purist wood-smoke barbecue fans flock to Southern Soul Barbeque (2020 DeMere Rd., 912/638-7685) for juicy, melt-in-the-mouth ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, and an excellent version of Brunswick Stew (pork, chicken, beef, corn, beans, and more mixed up in a rich tomato barbecue sauce).
Apart from the excellent food, the one real “sight” on St. Simons Island is the Fort Frederica National Monument, at the northwest edge of the island, which protects the remains of the village surrounding what was once the largest fortress in the British colonies. Built in 1736 and abandoned in 1763, Fort Frederica played a vital role in keeping Georgia British, rather than Spanish; in 1742, a key battle was fought six miles south of the fort, at a site known as “Bloody Marsh.”
For the total Golden Isles experience, splurge on a night or two at one of the country’s plushest resorts: the five-star The Cloister at Sea Island (855/714-9201 or 800/SEA-ISLAND, $225 and up), east of Fort Frederica, which covers adjacent Sea Island with 36 holes of golf courses and 264 Spanish-style rooms. Presidents from Coolidge to Bush have vacationed here, the late JFK Jr. got married here, and the G8 economic summit has been held here, too, which should give you some idea of the elite character of the place.
Back on the mainland, heavily industrialized Brunswick (pop. 16,500) feels about as far from the genteel pleasures of the Golden Isles as you can be. Most vacationers pass through quickly on their way to and from the Golden Isles. Brunswick holds a road food attraction: Willie’s Wee-Nee Wagon (3599 Altama Ave., 912/264-1146), a yellow-and-white candy-striped diner, a mile west of US-17 across from the College of Coastal Georgia. Famous for all sorts of good things—crunchy coleslaw, chili dogs, pork chops, steak sandwiches, and more—Willie’s is something of a Georgia coast institution, and well worth searching for.