The private jets were taking off from McKinnon Airport every 15 minutes or so, one for each hole on Seaside's front nine. Citations and Lears banked to the west as they climbed into the sky, and the distant purr of their engines spoke volumes about the stately retreat we were visiting. Sea Island, which hugs the Georgia coastline about 70 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida, has been a chic, exclusive family resort for generations. (It recently ranked sixth on Worth's list of the 250 richest communities in America.) Its distinguished history traces back to 1925, when Howard Coffin, automotive mogul and founder of United Airlines, purchased the then more or less uninhabited five-mile-long island. He and his cousin Alfred William Jones built a nine-hole golf course and hired Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner to design a glamorous 270-room Mediterranean-style hotel, The Cloister. Over the next decades, as the resort expanded to include neighboring St. Simons Island and several more tracks, it developed a reputation for great golf and gracious accommodations with old-fashioned etiquette—today, The Cloister requires a jacket and tie after 6:30 p.m.
While Sea Island, which is still privately owned, never lost touch with its roots, it did begin to show its age. "Sea Island has long been regarded as a grand dame of American resorts," says Alfred W. Jones III, 44, who took over as CEO of the company from his father, Bill Jr., in 1993. "But in the mid-1980s we noticed a real increase in competition, especially the proliferation of new golf courses. We didn't want to be left behind. We needed to do something to put us back on the map."
That "something" was a $300 million improvement project—new waterfront rooms and suites at The Cloister and the exquisite $47 million Lodge at Sea Island with soaring ceilings, round-the-clock butler service, even a bar modeled after the Oak Room at The Plaza in New York. Oh, yes, and there was also that $60 million devoted to completely rethinking the golf.
Over the past few years, the jumble of nine-hole courses have been turned into three championship 18-hole tracks: Seaside, Plantation, and Retreat. Sea Island's signature track, Seaside, was redesigned by Tom Fazio, who has built some of the finest modern courses in the country and even did the lengthening of Augusta National. His job was to transform two disparate nines—one designed by the famed London firm Colt & Alison in the late 1920s, the other by Joe Lee in the early 1970s—into one first-rate track. In many ways it was like trying to assemble a 21st-century car with parts from two aged and very different vehicles. Says PGA Touring pro and longtime Sea Island resident Davis Love III, "Tom turned eighteen holes that didn't match into eighteen matchless holes."
The Plantation course, originally built in 1927, was redone by Rees Jones, who is known as the Open Doctor for all the renovation work he has done on U.S. Open layouts. He, too, had to force a pair of distinctly dissimilar nine-hole tracks to harmonize into a beautiful golf course. Retreat, which, like Seaside, was designed by Lee in the 1970s, was redone by Love, and is a wonderful example of his emerging talent as a golf course architect.
These new layouts now give Sea Island some of the strongest resort golf in the country. "Essentially, we have three brand-new courses," says Love. "And they are kept in immaculate condition, since so many of our members belong to top private clubs and expect impeccable fairways and greens."
It didn't take my foursome long to fall for the Low Country feel of the 6,550-yard, par-70 Seaside course, with its sculpted sand dunes, waving marsh grass, and sweeping fields of red and yellow wildflowers. Set on what was once a cotton plantation, the course is punctuated with stands of live oaks strewn with Spanish moss. The first hole, a relatively easy par four, lures you in with a wide fairway and an ample green. But the challenge sets in on the par-three third, with a testy green that juts into the marsh. The putting surface for number five, a par-four dogleg, is set in the middle of a dune; miss your approach and you might need a shovel for your next shot. We played the sixth, a 165-yard par three, into a stiff breeze off the sound that made our shots balloon into the sky. Water, wind, and sand is a dream combination for golfers, and my foursome couldn't stop smiling.
Seaside's second nine has a very links-like feel, with more water in play and more exposure to the wind. The original track was long beloved—Bobby Jones, the Tiger Woods of the Jazz Age, called it one of the best he had ever seen. I am not sure Jones would recognize it now, for Fazio has elevated much of the track and moved dozens of trees in an effort to open and expand views. He also revamped and enhanced the huge flash bunkers.
"Actually, it was more of a blowup than a renovation," says Sea Island's director of golf operations Eric Schneider. But Fazio completely transformed it—even replacing the grass itself—without destroying any of the integrity of the old nine. It is a terrific nine, with views of St. Simons Sound and narrow footpaths of crushed oyster shells winding through the dunes. Egrets feed in the creek that snakes down the left side of 13, and the swirls on the water's surface hint at redfish swimming below.
Another creek comes very much into play on the 16th, a par four that tempts you to draw your tee shot left and flirt dangerously with the water hazard. You can bail out to the right, but if you hit the ball far and straight in that direction, you may end up in a pair of massive fairway bunkers. That's also the case with the lake that runs down the left side of the 439-yard 18th, the longest par four on the course and a classic finishing hole. It was the only one I double-bogeyed, thanks to a nasty pull-hook that nearly hit a great blue heron. It took us only three and a half hours to get around Seaside. In fact, all three courses are country-club-quick, since they are open only to Sea Island club members and resort guests.
Plantation, which was completed in 1998, is a flattish track that has more of a parklands feel than Seaside, though it does provide plenty of water views. It has great variety, with both short and long four pars and lots of risk-and-reward opportunities. The par-five 18th, for instance, a dogleg shaped like a boomerang, gives players the option of trying to get home in two—but only if they are willing to hit a long iron or wood over a lake to a double-tiered green.
Seaside opened in 1999, Retreat in 2001. Originally an 18-hole Joe Lee design known as the St. Simons Island Club, Retreat came under Sea Island Co. ownership in the early 1980s and stayed very much the same until Davis Love redid it.
"We kept the old routing, but that was it,"says Love. "We cut down trees and ripped up the paths, irrigation system, and all the grass. It had been a tight course before, which was tough for a lot of Sea Island members and guests. I wanted to give it some room off the tees and make it something even my mother and her friends could play."
Opened just two years ago, the Lodge at Sea Island may suggest a grand old dowager, but here are five reasons it is superb:
1 GRACIOUS CHARM, OLD-WORLD SERVICE With overstuffed armchairs in the wood-paneled sitting room, the 42-room Lodge is refined yet understated. A butler is on call around the clock to whisk your golf shoes off to be cleaned, say, or fetch some single-malt scotch. Milk and warm cookies are delivered to your door nightly.
2 PRIVACY AND EXCLUSIVITY Since the golf courses are only open to Sea Island club members and guests of the Lodge and The Cloister, the atmosphere is very much that of a private club. The courses are never crowded, and the locker rooms are spacious.
3 DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS! From the vaulted ceilings with exposed wood beams to the Irish linen on the bed and Oriental rugs on the floor, there's not a thing out of place. Even the wastepaper baskets are fine leather. Our favorite room is the 1,900-square-foot Seaside Suite, with two full baths, a fireplace, and a patio and verandah overlooking the Plantation course with the ocean just beyond.
4 DRY-AGED STRIP STEAKS AND CHATEAU MARGAUX '86 Colt & Alison is the restaurant of choice, with wonderful steaks and seafood. The 15,000-bottle wine cellar is first-rate, as is the patient, attentive sommelier. I mentioned that I loved Zinfandel, and the next night a waiter appeared with a rare bottle of Turley. "The sommelier thought you might like this," I was told.
5 HORSEBACK RIDING ON THE BEACH Sea Island has a world-class spa, 25 tennis courts, and three swimming pools. You can also ride, skeet-shoot, fish, or charter a boat.
Rates during high season (March to November): from $525 for a room with a balcony to $700 for one with a patio. Suites: $850-$1,200. Reservations: 866-465-3563; www.seaisland.com.
John Steinbreder wrote about the South Course at Torrey Pines in a recent issue of Departures.