After six years of living seasonally on St. Simons Island, Tom and I made it to Sea Island for the first time. Was it everything we dreamed? Yes and no.
Sea Island is a gated, private island next to St. Simons. You can only go to Sea Island if you own a house, have a reservation at the five-star resort, or get a pass from someone who lives on the island. There are 500 private homes on the island and two resorts: The Cloister and Sea Island Beach Club. Rooms at The Cloister start around $1,000 per night. For that price you have access to The Spa and Fitness Center, Coastal Experience Center, Tennis Center, The Sea Island Beach Club and a five-mile stretch of private beach.
Automobile magnate Howard Coffin bought Sea Island in 1926 and designed the original Cloister. He wanted it to be a luxurious but laid-back resort compared to the frenetic energy of Florida resorts. When President Calvin Coolidge decided to spend his Christmas holidays on Sea Island in 1928, the new hotel gained national attention. The Cloister appealed to businessmen, politicians, and celebrities, including New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, Edsel Ford, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Eddie Rickenbacker, and many others. In addition to the hotel, Mr. Coffin also dreamed of creating a residential community on the island and encouraged his guests to consider building “cottages” nearby. To that end, he brought in electricity, water and telephone service, and improved causeway access to both St. Simons and Sea Islands. Among those building homes was Eugene O’Neill, who wrote the play Ah, Wilderness! while there.
The still modest resort was able to make it through the Great Depression and World War II. In the postwar years, the Cloister and its surrounding community grew slowly, with the hotel welcoming a steady stream of distinguished guests, including U.S. presidents Hoover, Eisenhower, Ford and Carter. Among the thousands of honeymooners to visit were George and Barbara Bush. The island’s residential community also grew in numbers and in stature, with some lot prices pushing into the millions of dollars by the end of the 20th century.
The Cloister’s historic original building lacked a proper foundation and did not meet modern building codes, so it was completely demolished and replaced in 2006. The new Cloister was more luxurious and much larger, although the building looked similar to the original. Upgrades were also made to the resort’s beach club and spa. A new Garden Wing was added in 2016 when the Anschutz family bought the Sea Island Company.
Tom and I were able to visit Sea Island courtesy of our friend Ann Trueheart. Ann is a volunteer at Fort Frederica and we work with her on Mondays. Ann’s parents were members of the Sea Island Club and Ann was, for a time, until the membership fees became too high. Currently, membership in the Sea Island Club requires a $150,000 initiation fee and annual dues of $12,000. If you buy a home on Sea Island, the initiation fee is waived, but you still have to pay the annual dues.
Ann got a pass from a friend who lives on Sea Island. We started our tour at The Cloisters, and Ann told us to “act like you own the place.” She was much better at that than Tom and I because she knew her way around pretty well. We walked down hallways with conference rooms on one side and gardens and terraces on the other. Ann opened several doors until she found the G8 room which we all explored.
In 2004, President George W. Bush chose to host a summit of the Group of Eight leaders at Sea Island. Present at the summit were Prime Minister Paul Martin of Canada, President Jacques Chirac of France, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi of Japan, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom. Also in attendance were European Union Commission President Romano Prodi and several other invited heads of state.
Sea Island was selected for the summit in part because its relative isolation facilitated the extensive security arrangements necessary for such a gathering. The leaders and other summit participants discussed issues faced by developing countries in Africa and elsewhere, ranging from peacekeeping operations, HIV/AIDS vaccine development, famine relief, debt reduction, and the eradication of polio.
The G8 room has a big round table where all the participants sat. The table had an inlay with each country’s flag at the assigned seats. We saw pictures from the summit on the wall. It was pretty cool to be in the same room where all these heads of state sat and talked together.
Ann continued our tour by leading us through the spacious and luxurious lobby and into a private dining room. This special dining room also doubled as a holding area for the historic items left over from the original Cloister building. The walls were covered with famous portraits and paintings representing the history of Georgia. We saw a painting of James Oglethorpe and another of John Wesley. Two cases held artifacts from the original Sea Island resort.
We toured the Fitness Center and Spa and checked out the several restaurants located on the grounds. Because we were there around 10 a.m., very few people were in the restaurants. We also walked to the yacht club and saw the Sea Island Club tour boat.
After our tour of the beautiful grounds and buildings, we headed to the home of John Wallace. John was a distinguished lawyer in Atlanta for many years and bought his home on Sea Island in 1993. He is now retired. His home was one of the original homes on the island, built in 1928. We enjoyed seeing his beautiful home, remodeled after he bought it, and talking with him. John and I have similar tastes in reading materials, as evidenced by the hundreds of novels displayed in his office, and we talked about some of our favorite authors.
John’s home was absolutely beautiful, with lots of dark woodwork typical of the 1920’s. It sprawled around a courtyard with a lovely garden and swimming pool. Each room had a balcony or private garden outside. His nurse told us that, when John dies, the house will probably sell for around 5 million dollars and be torn down to build a modern home. Very few of the original 1920’s homes remain on the island because they don’t appeal to the rich, modern buyer.
In addition to touring The Cloister and John Wallace’s home, we also drove around the island and looked at some of the “cottages” from the outside. Some of the homes are beautiful, but all of them seem overpriced to us. Most of the basic, four-bedroom homes on the island are for sale around 6 million. We saw a listing for one house that is selling for 18 million. A two-bedroom condo was selling for almost 2 million. Crazy! Thinking about spending that kind of money for a house made us pretty excited to return to our little house in Westerville.
We really enjoyed our visit to Sea Island and appreciate Ann taking the time to be our tour guide. I’m glad we finally got to see it and I don’t feel I need to return. The public beach on St. Simons and staying in our little RV suit me just fine.