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Sea Island upgrades mix old luxury with new Southern comfort

By Anna Ferguson

Staff Writer

anna.ferguson@gwinnettdailypost.com

There is little about Sea Island that isn't breathtaking. From the mossy oak trees to the lapping ocean, the small island off the Georgia coast is simply mesmerizing. And exclusive.

Not just anyone can experience the marvel of Sea Island and its famed resort, The Cloister. As the only five-star resort on the East Coast, The Cloister is private and only accessible to resort guests and Sea Island Club members.

The resort is refined but relaxed. Guests stroll around in shorts and flip flops, while crystal chandeliers hang overhead. As my heels clicked on the hardwood floors in the polished lobby and I took in the grandeur of the recently expanded resort, it was easy to see why the founders would want to keep this splendid place a hidden gem.

Pampered elegance

When they opened the resort in 1928, founders Howard Coffin and Alfred Jones aimed to create a timeless, elegant mecca for families and vacationers seeking respite. Now, some 80 years later, The Cloister has retained that core concept, but it's taken work.

In 2003, the Jones family began a three-year hotel restoration and renovation process. Overlooking the Black Banks River and the Atlantic Ocean, the new Cloister offers 156 rooms and suites, each outfitted with everything needed for a pampered stay, from handmade Turkish rugs and heated bathroom floors, to Wi-Fi and a personalized butler service.

"If you need Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream at 2 in the morning while you're searching the Internet on your laptop, we'll get it for you," said Catherine Klein, public relations director for the resort. "I've been coming here since I was a child, and I never tire of it. It's a piece of heaven."

The Cloister was designed to be a family-friendly utopia, and it has succeeded. Despite the resort's opulence, the atmosphere is comfortable and laid-back.

Guests lounge in the library, with socked feet propped on plush ottomans, as they reread summer classics. Children play in the game room, piecing together puzzles. Husbands smoke cigars in the study, while wives sip tea in the neighboring veranda. Athletes work out in the state-of-the-art fitness center, then head next door for a relaxing full-body massage in the new 65,000-square-foot Spa at Sea Island.

All the while, the sun beams down, a soft ocean breeze blows and the sound of waves floats through the air.

Family-friendly club

In July, Sea Island expanded its empire with the completion of the Beach Club at Sea Island, located directly across from The Cloister. Realizing this oceanfront renaissance was no small feat. The $500-million project took six years to complete. Whereas The Cloister offers classic styles with a Spanish twist, the Beach Club echoes Mediterranean architecture and boasts modern features.

Three swimming pools - a family pool, a splash pool and the Casino pool for guests 18 and older - offer amusement for all ages. For teens and youngsters, the game room includes token-operated games and a jukebox, as well as activity centers for different age groups. A 100-seat movie theater, scheduled to open this fall, will screen second-run films and family classics.

"The new Beach Club serves as a centralized meeting spot with a relaxed seaside atmosphere, where guests of all ages can take advantage of the many activities Sea Island has to offer," said Bill Jones III, chairman and CEO of Sea Island Company.

Exclusive rates

While Sea Island is private, booking a stay at one of its resorts isn't reserved for members. But it comes with a price. In the off-season, a room at The Cloister starts at about $450 a night, while a suite will run about $650. For the executive suite, where President Bush stayed during the G-8 Summit, that will cost $5,00 a night, Klein said.

"Price will vary depending on the time of year and the room," Klein said. "But, I can tell you, you'll never have any other vacation like the one you'll have on Sea Island. It's a world all its own."