By Christine Tibbetts
CNHI News Service
— Quite fine visiting a gateway city without going through the gate.
That’s what I figured out in St. Marys, Ga. This community on three rivers is the entry to America’s National Seashore known as Cumberland Island.
Nothing wrong with delighting strictly in St. Marys. Fun dining, museums, distinctive bed and breakfast inns, picnic spots and hidden gardens.
A downtown waterfront park along the river, and churches with unlocked doors and independently owned stores.
Plenty to do, easy to access. Walkable. Bike-able. Personable. The kind of friendly that felt genuine, not hospitality trained.
Volunteers drive the open-air trolley because they like to, and that showed in cheerful stories heard from Roger Rillo.
“This is a great place to reinvigorate and reinvent yourself,” Rillo says in between identifying historic buildings and lush canopies of live oak trees.
He’s a retired Marine, loving St. Marys history and the chance to talk about it.
Live oak tree canopies line the way to a bed and breakfast named Emma’s with a four-acre backyard habitat certified by the National Wildlife Federation.
You might think a wildlife kind of inn would be far from the action, but Emma’s is an easy stroll to the waterfront for the National Park Service ferry to Cumberland Island.
Even closer to the new Peace Garden next to Oak Grove Cemetery.
Handsome place with live oak trees and Spanish moss shading soldier graves from every war, and other dearly departed too.
The Peace Garden connects St. Marys to Canada as the southernmost garden of the Binational Peace Garden Trail.
Its purpose? Commemorate the War of 1812 and 200 years of peace, prosperity and friendship between America and Canada.
I don’t think often about the War of 1812 but St. Marys claims the last battle, and the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum tells the details of Point Peter, Jan. 10, 1815.
See that and displays about the Gilded Age and Carnegie lifestyle on Cumberland Island, staying in downtown St. Marys to do so. This museum is on Osborne Street, a wide boulevard with a grassy median, shops and eateries, visitor welcome center and the Spencer House Inn.
I go to different restaurants on a vacation so why not different bed and breakfasts?
Emma’s is set back from West Conyers Street, a long view across the yard and up the wide front stairway. Spencer House secures the corner of Osborne and Bryant streets, a three-story home with verandas along the first and second floors.
Both serve sumptuous multi-course breakfasts, inviting lingering and conversation. Emma’s has a three-table screened porch.
Spencer House dates to 1872, today a member of Select Registry Hotels, with 14 guestrooms and an elevator.
Proprietor Mary Neff models the exquisite skill of valuing each person, no matter the comment or request. Watch her interactions, and believe our society could become civil again.
Picnics work in St. Marys; Emma’s and Spencer House will pack you one to take to Cumberland Island or the downtown waterfront park.
Loads of lush grass, the barefootin’ kind, swings and benches, brick walks laid in a herringbone design backed with low tabby walls. Two gazebos for shade.
Nearby sea oats, salt marshes, marine forests. Maybe it’s the national seashore spilling over to the city.
Get a sense of that in the little National Park Service museum before catching the ferry to Cumberland, or just to go to the museum.
Spotting special sights takes on a different dimension through the periscope at the riverfront inside the Submarine Museum.
Submariner Keith Post, the museum’s executive director, says kids like looking to the river, toward Cumberland Island and into downtown through the periscope but I’ll confess to being tickled doing it myself.
This is a respectful place, honoring the original ballistic submarines known as the 41 for Freedom, and the men who served on them. First floor is all about World War II experiences, equipment and information.
Upstairs see models and photographs of today’s 18 Trident subs, 14 of which carry missiles. Nuclear Navy we have now.
King’s Bay Naval Station is just down the road from downtown St. Marys but gated. Securely.
Christine Tibbetts covers travel destinations for the Tifton, Ga., Gazette. Follow her at www.TibbettsTravel.com