Unspoiled by crowds and commercialism, Jekyll Island is a picturesque beach destination full of history, natural beauty & southern charm.
If you’re searching for a quaint, family-friendly beach destination with lots of activities and stunning scenery, look no further. Jekyll Island offers beautiful beaches, miles of bike paths, and a pedestrian-friendly historical district that tells a fascinating story of how this island came to be. Huge oak trees covered in Spanish moss provide a dramatic backdrop for a family getaway full of history, nature, and fun.
What to do?
In addition to relaxing on the miles of sandy beaches, there’s plenty to keep your family busy here. Eager to learn about the history of the island, my family and I started off our visit with a guided tram tour with Jekyll Island Historic Tours. The 240-acre historic district is full of beautifully restored buildings and homes, all centered around the famous Jekyll Island Club Resort (371 Riverview Dr.), which too has been fully restored. The Club was founded in 1888 as a winter retreat for the nation’s wealthiest individuals. At that time, it was considered the richest, most exclusive, and most inaccessible club in the world; it’s members represented one-sixth of the world’s wealth with names like Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Pulitzer! You’ll learn about the rise and fall of this prestigious club and how it shaped the island into what it is today. The tour lasts about 90 minutes and runs three times daily. I wouldn’t recommend it for children under age 6 or those who have a limited attention span. Cost: Youth (6 and under) Free; Youth (7-15) $7; Adult $16.
Also located in the historic district, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (100 James Rd.) is a great way to learn about the turtles that nest on the beaches of Jekyll Island every year from May to October. The center rehabilitates sick and injured turtles, so the only turtles that you’ll see here are “patients.” There are two sections of the center: the interactive exhibit gallery and the rehabilitation pavilion, where the turtles are nursed back to health. Both are great for kids of all ages. The center is small and should only take about an hour to explore. Cost: Youth (3 & under) Free; Youth (4-12) $6.42; Adult $8.56.
Jekyll Island has over 20 miles of paved bike paths and trails, so I’d strongly recommend exploring the island by bike. At Jekyll Island Bike Barn, you can choose from the huge selection of adult and kid-sized rental bikes, tricycles, tandem bikes, 2- and 4-person surreys, bike trailers, and dual trikes. We chose the 4-person surrey, grabbed a map, and headed towards the historic district. Cost: $25/hour. Two hours was plenty of time to explore, including some stops for ice cream and photos. Be warned that pedaling the surrey is a workout, even with four people, so make sure you bring plenty of water. The historic district is well-shaded by huge oak trees, but it’s still quite hot on a summer day. If you have time, I'd also recommend riding the paths adjacent to the beach to enjoy the breeze and ocean views.
KidTripster Tip: There’s a huge grassy lawn on the western edge of the historic district near the wharf that’s shaded by massive oak trees whose branches reach the ground in many places. It’s a great place for tree climbing, family photos or a picnic lunch.
Take a dolphin cruise with Jekyll Island Boat Tours (366 N. Riverview Dr.) to see the abundant wildlife in this area. Even during the off-season, we saw dolphins, as well as many varieties of birds. The highlight was spotting a bald eagle perched high on a power pole! The boat guides are friendly and informative; sit close enough to ask them questions as they know everything about the island and will even lend you binoculars. The tour lasts about 90 minutes, is fully narrated, and is good for kids of all ages. You even can bring strollers on board. Cost: Youth (3 & under) Free; Youth (4-15) $15; Adult $25.
KidTripster Tip: Be aware that during the off-season, temperatures on the open water can be much chiller than on land. We didn’t think that we needed coats but brought them just in case. We were so glad that we did.
Jekyll Island Mini Golf (100 Great Dunes Ln.) has two 18-hole courses - one for beginners and one for more advanced players. It’s located adjacent to the Bike Barn, a large playground, and a pizza restaurant, so you could combine some of those activities into one visit. It’s well lit at night which makes it a perfect evening activity.
For the best shopping, visit the pedestrian-friendly Beach Village. Centrally-located on the island, you’ll find shopping, dining, souvenir shops, beach gear, and Atlantic Ocean access. The only place to buy groceries on the island (limited selection) is here at The Jekyll Market.
For free fun on the island, Driftwood Beach cannot be beat. Located on the north end of the island, this beach resembles a tree graveyard and will make you feel as if you’ve escaped to another world. It’s one of the most photographed places in Georgia and was recently used as a filming location for the television show The Walking Dead. The driftwood provides terrific photo opportunities as well as serving as an enormous jungle gym for kids. This was a sight like nothing I'd ever seen before and something you don’t want to miss. My kids didn’t want to leave and would have been happy there for several hours. The locals told me that the last hurricane altered it greatly and it’s not what it used to be, but I thought that it was spectacular nonetheless.
Golf enthusiasts will be excited to learn that Georgia’s largest public golf resort is located on Jekyll Island. Jekyll Island Golf Club (322 Captain Wylly Rd.) has four different courses that meander through coastal forests and lush marshland, making them some of the most scenic around. The Pine Lakes course is the best one for kids, as it was designed to incorporate family-friendly tee boxes. 18-hole cost: Youth (15 and under) $18; Adult $40.
Adjacent to the golf club is the Jekyll Island Tennis Center (400 Captain Wylly Rd.), a public tennis facility with 13 courts and a pro shop where you can rent rackets and ball machines. Tennis clinics and private lessons are available, as well as a summer camps. Cost: Varies.
The Summer Waves Water Park (210 S. Riverview Dr.) covers 11 acres and is open May through September, featuring a wave pool, six water slides, lazy river, and a special kid zone. Cost: Youth (3 and under with swim diaper) Free; Youth (under 48-inches-tall) $15.95; Adult $19.95; discount for 2-day pass.
KidTripster Tip: Besides saving money, there’s another reason to visit Jekyll Island in January and February. Volunteers called Beach Buddies hide handcrafted glass floats along the beach for you to find and keep! Read more here.
Where to eat?
We were consistently impressed with the food quality and choices on Jekyll Island. One of our favorites was Driftwood Bistro (1175 Beachview Dr.), a casual, family-friendly restaurant with a menu full of classic southern favorites. We particularly enjoyed the shrimp and grits, fried okra, and the pot roast, which was the best we’ve ever tasted! Save room for dessert because you don’t want to miss the homemade peach cobbler or bread pudding.
My kids’ favorite was Red Bug Motors Pizza and Pub (550 Beachview Dr.), which serves homemade pizzas, sandwiches, and other Italian specialties. Although the indoor dining room only has a few tables, the outdoor deck has a window to place your order and pick up your food, plenty of seating, and a large playground area. It’s adjacent to Jekyll Island Mini Golf and Jekyll Island Bike Barn, making it a great place to eat either before or after those activities. You also can place an order for free delivery anywhere on the island.
Jekyll Island Seafood Company is located in the Beach Village shopping district and offers a slightly more upscale but still family-friendly atmosphere. The oceanfront location means views while you dine, and the menu has all of the fresh seafood options that you’d expect, as well as some regional favorites like chicken and waffles. Once again, we especially enjoyed the shrimp and grits and the sweet potato chips.
If you’re exploring the historic district and need a snack, Doc’s Snack Shop (9 Pier Rd.) has a walk-up window and outdoor seating. It offers menu items like hot dogs and BBQ sandwiches. Island Sweets Shoppe (150 Old Plantation Rd.) is the place to go for hand-dipped ice cream, fine chocolates, and homemade fudge.
Where to stay?
Jekyll Island is small, and the hotel choices are limited. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Resort Jekyll Island (701 Beachview Dr.). Its beachfront location can’t be beat, the amenities are plentiful, and the grounds are beautifully maintained. The pool area has a kiddie pool, hot tub, playscape, plus a bar and restaurant, making it a perfect place for families to hang out. There are several fire pits where you can roast s’mores in the evening (bring your own supplies), as well as bikes for rent. The flat, wide sidewalk that runs alongside the beach is ideal for bike rides, and we couldn’t get enough of the oceanfront cabanas! Many of the rooms open directly towards the ocean, allowing for quick and easy access to the beach in the summer with minimal distance to haul your beach gear. The Beach House Restaurant next door is affiliated with the hotel, and young guests (12 and under) eat free from the kids’ menu (one meal per day with purchase of adult entrée). We all agreed that the food was much better than the typical hotel restaurant.
KidTripster Tip: The Holiday Inn Resort is pet-friendly. If you bring along any furry family members, request a room that opens directly into the grassy area between the hotel and the beach to make bathroom breaks a breeze. The hotel provides waste bags and trash cans in these areas for easy cleanup.
KidTripster Tip: Our room had a sofa bed to accommodate the kids, but I’ll have to admit that it wasn’t terribly comfortable.
Jekyll Island is located on the southeast tip of Georgia. If you’re flying, you’ll need to rent a car as the closest major airports are Jacksonville International Airport (1-hour drive) and Savannah Hilton Head International Airport (1-1/2-hour drive). Plus, you’ll want to have a car for getting around the island. Note that each vehicle must purchase a parking pass at the entry gate or Guest Information Center at the entrance to Jekyll Island. Cost: Daily pass $6; Weekly pass $28.
Beside her land travels, Diana Smith is an expert cruiser. She and her family have set sail on eight Disney cruises. For more, check out Disney Cruise Mom Blog.