By NANCY BAILEY
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- As you head off the causeway from the mainland and ease onto this laid-back island, you cannot help but feel caught up in the gentle embrace of the lumbering live oak trees that welcome you with the promise of a relaxing getaway.
The trees, laden with Spanish moss, take on an oasislike appearance as they form canopies over streets and landscapes throughout St. Simons Island.
This little beach town is one of the barrier islands off the southeast coast of Georgia, just north of Florida. St. Simons is part of the Golden Isles, which also include Jekyll Island, Little St. Simons Island and Sea Island.
If you are looking for a fast-paced, commercialized atmosphere filled with a highly charged nightlife, just keep on going because you are not going to find it here.
On the other hand, if you want a family-oriented vacation in a variety of price ranges, with clean, sandy beaches, great restaurants, historical sites, wonderful shopping and lots of back-to-nature activities, then St. Simons is the place for you.
Range of options: When it comes to accommodations, you can choose from the most luxurious resort right on the beach and pay top dollar or you can rent an apartment off the beaten track for a fraction of the price.
The time of year you choose to vacation also factors into the amount of money you will pay for lodgings. The Brunswick and the Golden Isles of Georgia Visitors Bureau puts out an easy-to-understand, comprehensive guide that lists all the resorts, hotels and real estate agents in the area.
The temperature on St. Simons averages 68 degrees throughout the year with highs in the 80s from May through September.
In addition to the live oaks, the palm trees, cedars, lush flora and gentle ocean breezes give St. Simons a tropical feeling.
Although there are shops and restaurants tucked into little nooks and crannies throughout the town, there are a few areas that are defined.
Central thoroughfare: The heart of the island is the village with Mallory Street being the main thoroughfare. A fishing pier jutting out into the ocean serves as the street's anchor and is a favorite gathering place for both local residents and tourists.
Shops and restaurants line both sides of the four-block street. Many of the restaurants have outdoor tables perfect for sipping a cool drink, kicking back and watching the world go by.
Apparel and giftware shops round out the fare offered on Mallory Street. One of the more unusual sections of the street is a group of several white, wooden cabanalike kiosks on a raised deck.
In the evening, the kiosks take on a magical appearance as thousands of twinkle lights festoon the tiny shops.
Away from the village, just a short car or bike ride away, are several other shopping areas.
In addition to the standard tourist shops, there are gardening and furniture stores, lots of art galleries, bookstores and many upscale apparel shops.
All of the shopping areas have a large complement of restaurants, almost all of which are privately owned. If you like to dine in your favorite chain restaurant while on vacation, chances are you are not going to find it here.
The island boasts more than 50 restaurants guaranteed to please everyone's palate and pocketbook. Of course, fresh seafood, some of which is plucked right from the Atlantic Ocean, is featured in most of the establishments.
Atmospheres in restaurants vary with the menus. Like most resort towns, St. Simons has free booklets on street corners with the menus of more than half of the restaurants in town.
The menu book is a great way to leisurely plan your dining experience. It gives you a good idea of prices and the types of food served at a particular restaurant.
Shopping and eating are not the only things to do on the island.
Other activities: Head to the beach for sunning, playing in the surf, shelling, fishing, jogging or walking. At the end of May this year the water temperature was in the high 70s, making for a delightful swimming experience in the clean ocean water.
If you want to pick up the pace and be a little more mobile, you can rent a bicycle for anywhere from half a day up to an entire month.
St. Simons has great bike trails that are perfect for exploring. Since the terrain is flat, cyclists can ride for hours without tiring.
A leisurely biking activity can involve checking out the area architecture. There is no one style that represents the island. Spanish, contemporary and Victorian are some of the types of homes on the island.
Historical sites: The bike trails also offer convenient transportation to the island's historical sites.
The remains of Fort Frederica, built in the 1730s by General James Oglethorpe to keep Spain from advancing up the coast, is now a national monument run the National Park Service.
Other points of interest include Christ Church, Frederica, which is the second oldest Episcopal Church in Georgia and third oldest in the country, and a lighthouse built in 1810 that is one of only three working lighthouses in Georgia.
Also on the island are great golf courses, nature tours, kayaking, horseback riding and sailing on the replica of a pirate ship. If gambling is your forte, a floating casino heads three miles out to sea for daily excursions.
Island jaunts: Although there is plenty to do on St. Simons, the other Golden Isles can provide an agenda for day trips.
Jekyll Island to the south has most of the things that St. Simons does in addition to camping and a water park.
Sea Island is primarily a residential area with the exception of the Cloisters, one of the most exclusive resorts in the country. The island was recently listed in an America Online article as having the sixth most expensive real estate in the country with homes averaging $1.8 million each.
Little St. Simons Island is privately owned and accessible only by boat. Day tours are available along with overnight accommodations in a lodge that holds only 30 people.
St. Simons Island is the type of place you can keep busy from sunup to sundown, or just spend the day being lulled by the sound of the surf.