CUMBERLAND Island is a strange place full of live oaks and Spanish moss. Sometimes a piece of moss hangs over the road in a graceful arc, looking like torn burlap. The arms of the live oaks are big but not straight; they seem to wriggle skyward. The woods here are beautiful but surreal, like something underwater. The palmettos, on ground level, have sharp spikes that shoot out in a circle from a central stem. The beaches have very fine, white sand that takes a delicate impression of anything that goes by -- wind, a waving piece of grass, or bird feet.
The only way to get to Cumberland Island is by boat, as it is a real island - not one of the many that have the effrontery to call themselves islands despite the presence of a causeway or bridge. It is in a touristy area - one of the Sea Islands, with St. Simon's and Jekyll just up the way. But not only is there no bridge here; there are no condominiums, no houses, no golf course, no schools, no road (except a kind of sandy track), no cars, no shops - and almost no people.
Instead, you have woodlands, uninhabited beaches, birds, places to camp, and the Greyfield Inn. Most of Cumberland Island is owned by the National Park Service, which maintains a minimal ranger station.
The Thomas Carnegie family used to own Cumberland, which is why it's virtually a wilderness area. There are, nonetheless, several grand houses here. One, Dungeness, is sadly but picturesquely in ruins. Another was given to the Park Service, which keeps it closed for some reason; you can see a piano and other furniture if you peer through the windows.
Lucy Ferguson, a Carnegie descendant, owns Greyfield Inn. Her grandson, Oliver (Mitty) Ferguson, and his wife, Mary Jo, run it. Greyfield was the family's summer place until Mr. Ferguson's father started the inn 20 years ago for family and friends of the family. Later it started accepting friends of friends.
The atmosphere is still more like that of a good-sized house party than an inn, but the Fergusons - politely friendly - are, like most innkeepers, busy most of the time. Greyfield is full of amazing mahogany furniture and worn Oriental rugs; all the furniture has the uneclectic look of things that were chosen to satisfy one kind of taste and have all aged together. There are quite a few bathrooms, though they are shared. The clawfoot tubs are luxuriously huge.
Common attire is jeans or shorts during the day, but nicer dress for dinner. There are usually 12 to 16 guests. The day I was there, guests included a group of bird watchers from New England and a charmingly shy newlywed couple from Canada. The candles in the silver candleholders reflected on the long, polished table, while people discussed their travels to China and other exotic places.
The food here is blissful, with the fresh delicacies of nouvelle cuisine - only more of them. Seafood is a specialty, including oyster roasts on winter Sundays, says Mary Jo Ferguson.
The island is a great place to do some reading. There are shelves of wonderful, odd, musty books lining the walls and halls here, in the Victorian way.
You can bike on the tough, sandy roads on a Greyfield rental. I enjoyed taking a tour with Jim Maxwell, a naturalist who was on hand during my visit and who drove me around in a van explaining the environment.
On a nice day, the water around Cumberland is bluer than blue. From some parts of the island, you can see the paper mills puffing away on charming Fernandina Beach across the water. You'll see a lot of wild horses in brown, white, and black.
The naturalist explained that before the Civil War, Sea Island cotton was grown here by 400 slaves. And that over the years, almost all the island has been used for agriculture or timbering. It was in 1881 that Thomas Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, bought Cumberland and built their summer retreat.
We wandered around Dungeness, which burned down in 1959. It had been a huge stone house, but now trees grow inside the giant walls and chimneys. In a wooden case in the back, one finds a framed yellowed photograph of Dungeness before the fire, with a wedding party posed on the back steps. It's a shock to see what it looks like now.
We stopped to look at a marsh, viewing it from under a huge Arthur Rackham-esque live oak. ``They grow real twisted like this because of the salt spray,'' said Mr. Maxwell.
The island has four natural ecosystems, he explained: the beach, the dunes, the inland forest, and the salt marsh. ``They used to use marshes for garbage pits, but then they learned that marshes are like a big nursery for the ocean. A lot of little things grow up in the marsh and then move out in the ocean, such as shrimp. And a lot of the fish start their life cycle here.''
Maxwell told me about how alligators and turtles bake in the sun to keep things from growing on them, and that late in the evening you can see raccoon, deer, horses, hawks, and otter. He pointed out a flight of green-winged teal and a blue heron that only a naturalist would have eyes sharp enough to see.
Maxwell took me to the beach and identified all the marks on the sand: large fleurs-de-lis of turkeys; small, broad, four-clawed prints from a raccoon; tiny exclamation points from a beach mouse; two claws before and a heel aft from a deer. As you drive down the winding sandy road, the palmettos clatter, and when the sun catches them, a leaf gleams like a spear. The Spanish moss hangs in coarse green-gray horsetails that make the trees look bearded and venerable.
I returned to the inn for another delicious meal, then to bed on a large mahogany bedstead surrounded by a fireplace, old books, and antiques. Outside, the bay was silver against the black trees. I decided to stay up late rereading ``Rebecca.'' Anyone who can think of Dungeness without murmuring, ``Last night I dreamed I was at Manderley again,'' doesn't have an ounce of romance in his soul. Practical information
Greyfield's busiest times and nicest weather are in fall and spring. The price is $85 to $90 per person per night, which includes meals but not 5 percent tax or 15 percent gratuities. Reservations must be made at least seven days in advance. In the spring and on weekends, reserving six months in advance is a good idea. Make arrangements for transportation at the same time. Once a day Mr. Ferguson picks visitors up at Fernandina Beach, and the Park Service brings people to camp overnight or for day trips to the island.
Mailing address: Greyfield Inn, Drawer B, Fernandina Beach, FL 32034; or call (904) 261-6408.