Resort Spotlight: Sea Island in Georgia’s Golden Isles

Despite recent changes, the storied coastal Georgia resort offers unwavering appeal
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The Cloister main entrance

Photo courtesy of Sea Island

For the last quarter century, Brannen Veal has been a staff member at Sea Island, a Forbes Five-Star resort in Georgia’s Golden Isles. Hired as a golf pro in 1996, the Macon native worked his way up to the head pro job before becoming director of golf in 2005. His four children grew up playing on Sea Island, and if he has his way, it’s where he’ll stay until retirement. “I’m not alone in that sentiment,” he says.

Indeed, ninety Sea Island employees have worked at the resort twenty-five years or more, a distinction indicated by the “Quarter Century Club” logo on their nametags. It’s this kind of continuity—along with decades-old resort traditions like family bingo (where players dress in their Sunday best) and seafood suppers on nearby Rainbow Island (no one skips the hush puppies)—that has held Sea Island together amid a string of dizzying changes.

The Cloister lobby

Photo courtesy of Sea Island

Most of those were changes no one saw coming. From its founding in 1928 by auto magnate Howard Coffin until the early aughts, Sea Island and its Addison Mizner–designed inn, The Cloister, remained blissfully consistent. Descendants of the original owners oversaw all expansions and improvements. Families from across the South returned year after year to ride horses along five miles of private beach, fish the Black Banks River, and golf the championship courses. A visit to Sea Island even became something of a tradition among U.S. presidents, with seven of them—from Calvin Coolidge to George W. Bush—visiting the grounds.

But in 2003, fourth-generation owner Bill Jones III razed the aging Cloister. In its place a grander Spanish-Colonial compound arose. This new Cloister comprised 265 guestrooms, a 65,000-square-foot spa, and a sprawling Beach Club and pool complex. The idea was to turn Sea Island from a regional escape into an international destination, and indeed, the resort played host to the G8 Summit in 2004. But no sooner had the paint dried on the resort’s three-year, $350 million transformation than the Great Recession began, leaving many of The Cloister’s $700-a-night guestrooms empty. In 2010, Sea Island filed for bankruptcy, and a partnership of equity firms purchased it in a fire sale. Many wondered what would become of the beloved resort.

Beach Club

Photo courtesy of Sea Island

Employees like Brannen Veal held on—and with him, many of the guests who had gathered at The Cloister for decades. (Even former President Bill Clinton showed his support with a visit in 2012.) During those transitional years, Sea Island managed to retain its unbroken Forbes Five-Star rating, and by 2016, it was again under family ownership, this time the Anschutz family, who also owns The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.

Rooms at The Cloister are full again, and ironically, most guests are not international visitors but Southern families who are able to drive to Sea Island during this pandemic-rattled era. They still fish the river (the resort books roughly 2,500 charter fishing trips a year), golf the championship courses (Sea Island residents Davis and Mark Love recently redesigned the classic Plantation Course, to much acclaim), and ride horses along the beach (an amenity offered by only a handful of U.S. resorts). Each time they return, familiar faces greet them at the door, shake up a favorite cocktail, and help them with their golf game—and, somehow, that makes Sea Island feel mercifully unchanged.

100 Cloister Drive, Sea Island, Georgia • (855) 572-4975 • seaisland.com

 

Photo from Bigstock

While You’re There

Hawk Walk
Meet Mikey. The two-and-a-half-year-old Harris’s Hawk lives on Rainbow Island, Sea Island’s natural paradise on the shores of the Black Banks River. During your Hawk Walk, you and a falconer will stroll the island as Mikey flies freely nearby. When the falconer says it’s time, put on a glove, grab a little food, and raise your fist high; Mikey will come swooping down and alight on your outstretched arm. It’s rousing raptor fun.

 

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Southbound.

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