``The Golden Isles'' is what they call them down here in Georgia. They lie just off the city of Brunswick, and their character runs from Atlantic City-with-class to the swanky elegance of Palm Beach. They are Jekyll Island, St. Simons, and Sea Island - largely islands in name only, since they are now linked to the mainland by a causeway. Others in the chain include the lesser-known Cumberland, Ossabaw, and St. Catherine's, which are reachable only by boat.
The one with the biggest draw, because of its nine miles of beach, is Jekyll Island.
To an outsider, Jekyll presents two distinct personalities. The ocean side is the lively, extrovert half - a long stretch of magnificent white sand, with great combers and warm waters. On a weekday, the place is almost all yours: You share it with only a few other people, the sea gulls, and the cooling breezes. Dotted here and there are beachfront motels, apartments, and bathhouses.
The other side of the island, separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway, is the sedate, introvert half, dotted with Victorian and Edwardian cottages. As in all resorts that were once playgrounds for the wealthy before World War II, ``cottages'' can mean, in some cases, 40-room mansions.
It was here, in the days before such irritants as income taxes, that J.P. Morgan, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Pulitzers, and other well-pocketed citizens built rambling homes that are now historical landmarks, restaurants, recreation halls, and museums. Instead of tearing down what some would call white elephants and building high-rises, developers have preserved the cottages and put them to community use.
Threading through both the beach area and the quiet mansioned half are roads and paths for walking, biking, or slow driving - each inviting you to ramble at a leisurely pace.
The relative hustler among the three islands is St. Simons. The only area that qualifies as a village is on its southern tip. It has one of every essential: grocery, hardware, bakery, drugstore - and a number of real estate offices, restaurants, and gift shops.
Over it hangs an air of small-townishness. Although only a few minutes' drive from the metropolis of Brunswick, St. Simons is a village. The streets are wide, tree-canopied, and uncluttered. Most have no sidewalks. As you stroll the side lanes heading off the main square, you find long sloping lawns leading to neatly kept houses.
At the end of Mallery Street, the main one on St. Simons, you find the heart of the island's activity - the town pier. People gather here on balmy evenings to stroll, watch the sunset, or feed the gulls, which swoop down with poetic grace. In the adjoining park, plays and movies are presented.
But St. Simons offers more than the village. Along its southeastern coast one finds white beaches and a shopping plaza. Not far away is a championship golf course.
To the north, you can visit Fort Frederica, which was built in 1736 by the British to hold off the Spanish, who were then based in Florida. Today you can see the remains of the fort and the recently excavated foundations of the town where the military families lived.
A free film at the visitors center tells the story, and then you can wander and let your imagination take you back to the time of George II, when St. Simons was part of His Majesty's Colony of Georgia, a rugged frontier post on the edge of the wilderness.
Not far from here, on the Frederica Road, is one of the most photogenic churches in the state. Surrounded by spreading trees, Christ Church sits in a quiet grove, radiating a serene beauty that many modern churches lack.
Dotted all along the roads are many features of interest: the lighthouse, an art museum, small clusters of boutiques, good restaurants, churches, the airport. And up and down the roads, mainly on Kings Way, are the homes that give this section its look of well-kept refinement.
St. Simons was once plantation country. Nothing is left now but a few scattered slave cabins. Once they were alive with activity; now they are silent, dreaming quietly in their silence.
The third of the Golden Isles is Sea Island. And once you drive over the Black Banks River bridge, you are in money country. Whereas Jekyll reflects the money of a century ago, here on Sea Island the money is very much today's.
The first eye-catcher you encounter is the Cloister. This is the resort par excellence, a huge self-contained complex. The main building is a Spanish hacienda-style mansion with rooms, apartments, dining halls, shops, bars, solarium, lounges, club rooms. All around it cluster the requisites that make the good life: tennis courts, swimming pool, flower, gift shops, croquet courts.
Down the road a piece are the cabanas, and then miles of private golden beach. Within a few minutes' drive are the gun club, golf courses, stables, fishing pier, and boathouse.
The rest of Sea Island is made up of luxurious homes. If you go slowly up Sea Island Drive, the main north-south road, you can peer into the short cross streets. Everywhere are mansions and low spreading ranch houses right out of a movie, with winding drives, tall white columns, pedimented doorways, and curtains of bushes which flower alternately all year long.
Beyond the ends of the cross streets, toward the ocean, the beaches are all private. But you can stand on the streets and enjoy the view of endless miles pounded by the restless Atlantic. Here no one disturbs the stillness. An occasional gull goes over; at dusk a swallow is apt to swoop nearby.
The Golden Isles enjoy a climate that is generally pleasant. Except for occasional freaky extremes, the January average is in the high 40s or low 50s; in summer, the low 80s. And with this subtropical weather, the flowers reach a luxuriance you often see only in magazines.
Azaleas more than any others decorate most of the houses, large and small. Then, here and there, you will spot others, planted by the homeowner (or more likely, the gardener), or growing wild: poinsettias, roses, hibiscus, camellias, magnolias, water hyacinths in ponds, marsh lilies, orchids.
``The Isles of Greece,'' one poet sang. The Isles of Georgia, the Golden Isles, have their own fascination.
For details on all three islands, contact the Brunswick-Golden Isles Welcome Center, Box I-95, Route 10, Brunswick, GA 31520 or call (912) 264-0202.