The coast of the southeastern United States is understood for its slim band of barrier islands, locations of countless white sand seashores lined with lengthy rows of condos and resorts—Emerald Isle, Hilton Head and St. Simons Island are among the many greatest identified. Of the bigger islands, just one has been left in kind of its pure state: Cumberland Island, a 17-mile strand off the Georgia coast populated primarily by wild horses and historic Oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
Cumberland has lengthy been residence to a uncommon breed of human inhabitant as effectively: the billionaire class. Numerous Rockefellers and Candlers (Coca-Cola heirs from Atlanta) had winter houses on the island, however the principle landowner was the Carnegie household. Within the late 19th century, the Carnegies constructed a 59-room mansion with a number of swimming pools, a golf course and 200 servants. This burned down within the 1950s, and far of the Carnegie land was later turned over to the Nationwide Park Service. However their descendants nonetheless personal just a few plots, together with the location of Greyfield Inn, a 13-room luxurious resort (the one lodging on the island), the place Monica Ponce and Russell Honderd rely themselves among the many luckiest of small farmers.
The Atlanta couple managed a number of farms round Georgia earlier than taking the helm of Greyfield’s one-acre backyard, which retains the inn’s decadent restaurant equipped with produce. Their different farming gigs didn’t require a 45-minute boat journey to the closest submit workplace. They usually didn’t include perks like a wage, a 40-hour work week and advantages—remarkable for upstart natural farmers.
“We used to spend our weekends promoting at farmer’s markets. Right here we’ve a built-in market: the kitchen,” says Ponce.
“It’s the very best agricultural job in Georgia,” Honderd provides, plucking an orange and slicing it open for me as we wander by way of the gardens.
I’d come to Cumberland for a mid-winter retreat. The primary morning, as I walked from my cottage to the principle inn constructing for breakfast, I handed a small white horse—not a foal, however not fairly an grownup—ambling by way of the mist beneath an oak tree with a trunk the diameter of a sizzling tub, its branches curling right down to the bottom in a sprawling cover the scale of a three-bedroom residence.
I rapidly realized that such surreal scenes are the usual backdrop on Cumberland. In summer time, large sea turtles lay their eggs on the seashore, the hatchlings rising by the hundreds within the moonlight. Armadillos are discovered rooting for bugs alongside practically each path, with scarcely any concern for hikers passing just a few ft away. The horses are simply as daring, paying me no consideration as they cross me on the island’s sandy paths, on their technique to who-knows-what form of horse enterprise.
The horses are territorial on the subject of others, nevertheless, forming herds that the alpha stallions will defend to their loss of life. One herd lives on the land round Greyfield Inn, the place the employees have given them names like Bonecrusher and Bandit. Jack, the pinnacle of the herd, had a dustup with an rebel stallion not lengthy earlier than I arrived.
“Jack kicked it within the head and killed it proper there in the course of the garden,” says Honderd, pointing to the spot. The inn’s well-to-do patrons—rooms begin at $625/night time, meals and personal ferry journey included; jacket required for males at dinner—have been horrified.
“It’s like Jurassic Park out right here,” Ponce provides, pointing to a marshy spot a few hundred ft away the place she informs me two alligators reside.
The inn, which continues to be owned by Carnegie descendants, was as soon as generally known as a stuffy place the place old-money southerners go—the décor continues to be heavy on taxidermy—but it surely’s lately turn into a bit extra hip, thanks largely to Whitney Otawka, the tattooed younger chef who took over the eating program in 2015. Otawka, who skilled with Hugh Acheson at 5 & Ten in Athens, Georgia, and later rose to notoriety as a High Chef contestant, lately printed The Saltwater Desk, a cookbook themed on the island-to-table delicacies for which she’s turn into well-known.
Otawka incorporates lemongrass, coconut milk and Caribbean spices in her meals, together with native sheepshead fish and celery microgreens, which I nibble for the primary time as Ponce and Honderd stroll me by way of their greenhouse. The nice and cozy winter solar soothes my Toronto snow-weary bones. What an idyllic life, I inform them. However that’s not essentially the case whenever you work exterior year-round, they inform me. Winter is beautiful, however by March, the sand gnats come out. Then come the ticks that cling to one another by the hundreds in little writhing balls, ready so that you can cross on the path. By mid-spring, the mosquito swarms have set in.
“After which, as soon as it hits 90 levels, you begin getting the large mosquitoes that may chunk by way of denims. Then the biting flies come,” says Honderd. “You’ll be able to nearly inform the temperature by what’s attempting to suck your blood.” Paradise is ceaselessly fleeting.