Georgia's Best Kept Seaside Secret

August 1, 2019

Sea Island is not a new resort. All the way back in 1928, two months after the flagship Cloister hotel opened on the privately-owned island, then-president Calvin Coolidge became the first visitor to plant a commemorative oak tree on the hotel’s lawn. General Dwight Eisenhower and his wife followed suit, vacationing there in 1946, just a year after a lanky young veteran named George Bush honeymooned there with his new wife.

For generations now, Sea Island has been a genre-defining destination for both genteel Southerners and Yankees seeking the year-round comforts of the Georgia coast. In fact, the island’s reputation as a leisure destination extends even beyond the 20th century—and beyond recorded history. Before the arrival of the first Europeans, the island was the site of a Native American hunting and fishing camp known to Georgia natives as Fifth Creek. When European settlers—first the Spanish and then the English—colonized the area, establishing missions and later plantations, they used the scraggly stretch of land as a place to pasture animals. It was briefly a hunting preserve at the end of the 19th century, but that venture was short-lived and it was, once again, a sandy strip overrun with livestock by the time that Alfred William Jones and his moneyed cousin thought it might be the spot for their next project.

His cousin, Howard Coffin, was a mild-mannered auto magnate from Ohio who had purchased large swaths of land in coastal Georgia and planned to open a hotel for well-to-do travelers arriving on a newly constructed causeway. At the time, Sea Island did not make much sense for the luxury destination that Coffin and Jones had in mind. It was undeveloped and wild, lacked basic utilities, and the road across the marsh needed serious improvement. And yet within a matter of years, Coffin and Jones strung power lines across the marsh and hired wellknown architect Addison Mizner to construct the low-slung, Spanish-style Cloister, which would thereafter anchor a lush island of pools, tennis courts and second homes. 

Today, nearly a century later, the old Cloister has been razed and replaced by a palatial structure with a red-tiled roof similar to that of the original. Residents and vacationers have constructed and reconstructed hundreds of homes on the shady avenues past the hotel. Countless feet have hustled down the well-kept paths that connect the hotel and the equally venerable Sea Island Beach Club, which has also played host to several generations of visitors: roaring-twenties capitalists sipping champagne by the pool; Eisenhower-era parents trusting burnt but happy children to the watchful eyes of the staff while heading off to play a game of golf or a round of tennis; iPhone-equipped teenagers tanning by the Beach Pool, sipping non-alcoholic daiquiris and sneaking dips in the adults-only hot tub.

Sea Island is already many small renovations and one major overhaul into its existence. Still, under all of the new construction, the island has not lost its wild character. It’s in the bones of the new Cloister, where several rooms were built in part from planks of native heart pine and pecky cypress that were salvaged from old buildings and riverbeds. And it’s in the grounds, which are neither as tightly manicured as those of chillier resorts nor as breezy and paradisiacal as those of beachside getaways in Florida or the Caribbean.“There’s a certain mystique to coastal Georgia,” says Bill Jones III, grandson of Alfred William Jones and former CEO of the resort. “It’s unspoiled, with the moss and the live oaks and that rugged coastline.”

While other beach resorts preside over spreads of gleaming sand and gin-clear water, the colors of Sea Island are muddied tropical greens and muted shades of brown and opaque blue. At night, the moon casts Southern-gothic shadows over gnarled trees, palmettos, white-capped ocean and hanging curtains of Spanish moss. Inside The Cloister, however, the atmosphere is considerably different: glasses clinking, piano playing, forks settling onto plates and guests murmuring as they head back to their rooms or their homes after dinner. Officially, Sea Island claims seven restaurants. Counting the kiosks scattered throughout the resort and the food truck parked May through August on the beach, the number is considerably higher than that—at the height of the tourist season, more than 700 people work on the food-and-beverage side of Sea Island.

But three of the most noteworthy restaurants on the island are inside The Cloister. The River Bar is a cozy brasserie that overlooks the marsh and the Black Banks River, with a menu that nestles old-time favorites such as shrimp nachos and fried green tomatoes alongside airy profiteroles and duck cassoulet. Another continental eatery, Tavola, serves rustic Italian food helped along by sheets of house-cured meat and from-scratch pasta. The crown jewel of dining in The Cloister, however, is the Georgian Room. There, yes, jackets are still required in the dining room, but chef Daniel Zeal is not mired in white-tablecloth standards. His tasting menu explores the flavors of coastal Georgia with meticulous attention to detail and quality ingredients—and the occasional wink. Take, for example, the Southern-inspired pork bun at the top of the menu, stuffed with bacon, coleslaw, fried pickle and pimento cheese. (For guests in search of a more casual experience, the Lounge next door serves small bites from Zeal’s kitchen as well as craft cocktails.)

Come morning, after The Cloister staff has set out the stacks of newspapers, trays of pastries and urns of coffee in the glass-walled solarium, guests stream through the front doors of the hotel toward the beach, the spa, the tennis courts, the golf courses, the shooting school and the hunting preserve, or the marina where boats leave for deep-sea fishing. And then, if it were not already evident at dinner the night before, a guest realizes how Sea Island has changed over the past few decades. It may still be grounded in its founders’ vision, but a recent push to reinvigorate the place has sent new blood pumping into old veins. The children’s program, long a Sea Island hallmark, has developed a full-on curriculum. A typical day might begin with tie-dying shirts, progress into instruction in sailing or on the air rifle range, and transition into a hands-on lesson in biology from one of the resort’s naturalists, who come equipped with nets and microscopes, among other things. “We’ve got live animals, we’ve got shells, we’ve got skulls,” says Mike Kennedy, Director of Recreation. “We want kids to learn things that they can take home with them, which is an experience that we try to give to every guest.”

In keeping with Sea Island’s all-things-to-all-people approach, the fishing guides are trained as naturalists, too. When the fishing isn’t good, they’ll take guests out to see the dolphins, or to explore the barnacled exterior of a commercial crab trap. For most of the year, though, the fishing is just fine. Guests have been known to haul in as many as 100 fish in a day—catch-and-release, of course—although the chefs at Sea Island will clean, cook and serve a freshly caught fish to order. They’ll also cook game birds for guests coming back from Broadfield, the relatively new hunting preserve where the resort is cultivating an Edenic array of activities for the sporting set: five-stand shooting, a rifle and pistol range and 500 acres of quail and pheasant habitat where hunters can pursue birds with a guide or hunt alongside trained Harris hawks, goshawks, and peregrine falcons overseen by Sea Island falconers. (The beehives, chicken coop, smokehouse and gardens at Broadfield supply the restaurants back at the main resort, and it will soon help stock The Market, a gourmet general store at the entrance to the Sea Island causeway.) 

For those more interested in learning to shoulder a shotgun than taking it to the field, the Sea Island Shooting School, an institution nearly as old as The Cloister, keeps an experienced team of teachers on staff. The most junior instructor among them has been teaching for 15 years. “We can teach people who have never touched guns in their life,” says Jon Kent, a longtime instructor who is now Sea Island’s Director of Outdoor Pursuits. “We go through the safety, and then get them out there, and they’re usually hitting targets within five or 10 minutes.” 

Golf, too, has been an integral part of the Sea Island experience since the resort’s founding. Today, three courses built around the beaches, marshes and woods of southern Georgia draw visitors from all over the world. The Seaside Course is home to an annual PGA tournament, the McGladrey Classic, organized by professional golfer and Sea Island resident Davis Love III. At the golfing school guests can fine-tune their mental games with sports psychologist Dr. Morris Pickens while new converts practice on their swings with the pros. At the end of the day, sore shoulders and tired arms find relief in the 65,000-square-foot spa and fitness center, home to an indoor waterfall and an experienced team of nutritionists, trainers and masseuses.

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Island is greater than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, the golf courses and sparkling activity centers and hunting properties and five-star restaurants do not make the resort what it is. Rather, it is the overarching focus on quality that has been at Sea Island’s foundation since the resort was only a sketch in Coffin’s notebook—and, just as importantly, the timeless Southern hospitality that has been drawing vacationers to rugged coastal Georgia for all these years. “People say to us sometimes, ‘You must have a great training program,’” Jones says. “My answer is, ‘No. We have a great hiring program.’ You can’t train warm, from-the-heart service. And whether we have movie stars, or big businessmen, or whoever they might be, those people don’t get treated any differently than any other guests here at Sea Island.”

Make Yourself at Home

Sea Island Inspirato members can settle into any of four Spanish-style luxury homes, including the Estuary or the Tidewater, situated in The Cloister at Sea Island. Both offer 3,700 square feet of comfort, along with 4 bedrooms, 4.5 bathrooms and a heated pool. The Cloister’s restaurants, spa, Beach Club and other amenities—all available to Inspirato members—are a leisurely five-minute walk from either house.

Must-Do List from a Vacation Advisor

Day Trip: Head to the historic St. Simons Island lighthouse and museum close to the pier. Then peruse the village’s boutiques. If time permits, grab a boat to wilds of Little St. Simons Island.
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ocal Fare: On St. Simons Island stop into Barabara Jean’s for seafood and homestyle cooking. Get your ‘cue fix at Southern Soul BBQ or try Willie’s Wee-Nee Wagon and Twin Oaks BBQ in Brunswick.