Loretta and Andy Favret invited us to a cocktail party in their rented beachfront condo on St. Simons Island, Ga. They used to live in Maryland and now live in Delaware, just like my wife, Madeline, and me. Like them, we also rent a St. Simons condo in the winter, when Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island are bleak and lonely.
All the other people at the party that afternoon were snowbirds -- retired folks from states with frigid winters who come south for a month or longer.
St. Simons and the other nearby islands, known as the "Golden Isles" of Georgia, have become a regular winter destination for many in recent years, although the area is still primarily a spring and summer resort. The day before the cocktail party, my partners in round-robin tennis matches on nearby Jekyll Island were from New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Quebec.
What's the attraction? For one thing, South Georgia is closer than South Florida. St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Sea Island and Little St. Simons Island, which are clustered in Glynn County, are about six hours north of such Florida destinations as Fort Myers or West Palm Beach.
The Golden Isles offer good climate and handsome, interesting flora and fauna, especially the maritime forests, salt marshes and their denizens.
The three largest islands and the town of Brunswick, with a combined permanent population of more than 30,000, are close enough to each other to create a single, somewhat diverse community with many amenities. Sea Island is a few minutes' drive from St. Simons; St. Simons is less than half an hour from Jekyll. (Little St. Simons is a get-away-from-it-all place, accessible only by boat.)
Winter is the high season in Florida, when rental houses and condos are at their most expensive. But almost all rentals in the Golden Isles are at off-season rates. So you get a lot for your money in Georgia.
The range of winter rental houses and condos on one St. Simons real estate firm's listings this year was from $750 a month to $5,128. If you want to spend a little less, Jekyll offers more modest accommodations. If you want to spend a lot more, there's Sea Island.
A number of "cottages" on that swank resort and millionaires' haven (sixth richest town in America, according to Worth magazine) are available for about $9,000 to $22,000 a winter month, if you go through the Sea Island Co., which handles rentals of privately owned homes, its own venerable Cloister Hotel and several related buildings on the island with hotel-like or condominium accommodations.
The Cloister is currently observing its 75th anniversary. On Dec. 1, the company is scheduled to begin razing the hotel, designed by noted architect Addison Mizner, to replace it with an up-to-date but somewhat look-alike version.
The island resorts are generally uncrowded in the winter (that may not be the case in June, when President Bush and the other heads of state of the G-8 nations gather for an Economic Summit on Sea Island), and there are many balmy winter days.
My wife keeps a log. Year after year, the average daily high has been in the mid-60s in February and low-70s in March. For all but three days in February and March this year, we were outdoors in light sweaters or windbreakers, and often in T-shirts.
You can engage in your favorite sport, stroll the beach or window-shop in the Village -- St. Simons' downtown -- or bask on a bench in Neptune Park, where you can spot dolphins, watch shrimpers or whelkers dragging their nets to and fro, and occasionally see huge auto carriers or other freighters silently slipping by close to the beach on their way to the Port of Brunswick.
Neptune Park (named for an ex-slave, not the Roman god of the sea) is adjacent to the Village. The park is a quarter-mile-long, mostly grassy substitute for a boardwalk, beginning at a children's playground and ending at a lighthouse. In addition to its numerous ocean-facing benches, the park has grills and tables under large oaks.
The beach is the principal natural attraction for most summer visitors. But in the winter, most snowbirds prefer the trees and extensive marshes.
The causeway from Bruns-wick to St. Simons traverses five miles of marsh; the causeway from Brunswick to Jekyll, six miles; the St. Simons-Sea Island causeway, a mile. There's no causeway to Little St. Simons -- the island itself is 75 percent marshland.
Georgia's marshes, I believe, are the most celebrated in literature. Sidney Lanier wrote one of his most enduring poems, The Marshes of Glynn, in Baltimore in 1879, after a visit to his native state. He had come to Baltimore to play in the Peabody Orchestra and teach at Johns Hopkins. The marshes inspired and soothed him: "Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within / The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn."