Sea Island Treasure

Howard Coffin’s ‘friendly little inn’ keeps getting friendlier 

- CHICAGO SUN TIMES

It all began almost a century ago. A leisurely tour of the Georgia low country and its barrier islands left Howard Coffin enamored with what poet Sydney Lanier described as the “glooms of the live oaks, beautiful, braided and woven.”


Soon, Coffin, an automotive pioneer and founder of the Hudson Motor Co., would begin buying up parcels of the area, including a secluded sliver of marshy paradise known as Sea Island. Here, in 1928, he opened a temporary, “friendly little inn” as an experiment. He wanted to see if this quiet, cloistered corner of the world might prove appealing to tourists.

Some eight decades later, the Cloister at Sea Island reigns as the Grand Dame of southern coastal resorts. Designed by famed Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner, Coffin’s friendly little experiment quickly became a favorite respite among America’s elite, as well as visiting royalty from around the world. Celebrities, moneyed socialites and world leaders — including delegates of the 2004 G8 Summit — would visit throughout the years. And its prominence is regularly lauded in dozens of “best of” lists — particularly after a recent three-year, $500 million renovation.


The resurrection of the Cloister’s centerpiece — its 30-suite main building and two 35-guestroom wings overlooking the Black Banks River and a maze of formal gardens — was nothing short of a coup d’etat. The stately main building, though updated with all the modern accoutrements, retains the Old World glory of Mizner’s original, Spanish Mediterranean-styled design, featuring Mizner’s characteristic stuccoed arches, towered stairways, courtyards and red, barrel tiled roofs. The interior is meticulously outfitted with antiques from around the world, an impressive collection of fine art, custom designed furniture and reclaimed wood from felled timbers naturally preserved in riverbeds throughout the South. Entire mountain villages were commissioned to hand-weave the property’s 670 Turkish rugs.


In his modernized rendition of Mizner’s masterpiece, architect Peter Capone kept some features precisely as they were. Most notable is the Spanish lounge, where each brick and board was dismantled, numbered, stored away throughout the renovation, then replaced piece by numbered piece. The solarium, flooded with sunlight and the sounds of its resident lovebirds, retains the same restful feeling as its predecessor. And while most major resort renovations bring a mass of new rooms, the Cloister remains a “boutique” hotel, with just 156 rooms total, including its 56 beachfront options.

 

Other new additions include the expanded and relocated, 65,000-square-foot spa and the Beach Club. The Spa at Sea Island is a destination in and of itself, featuring a salon, a workout center offering more than 100 hours of fitness classes a week, indoor squash courts and a “wellness cuisine” center that offers healthy shopping and cooking sessions. Spa treatments include Swedish stone massages, Indian jasmine scrubs and Turkish baths. A favorite is the 120-minute Japanese Basu bath, a seven-step practice that includes a yuzu body wash, ginger grass body polish, cherry blossom rice polish body buff, hinoki mint soak, rose and plum camellia body misting, a massage of wild lime silk oil and plum blossom silk cream rub.
 

The newly renovated and reopened Beach Club is a favorite among families. Fronted by five miles of private beach, the club boasts a huge swimming pool, game room, ice cream parlor and Big George’s Raw Bar & Grill, a casual restaurant with an ocean view. Sail boating, sea kayaking and body boarding are offered. In keeping with the Cloister’s deep sense of tradition, the Beach Club is presided over by Big George Drayton himself, a 40-year fixture who welcomes everyone by name and with an infectious smile. A stay at the Cloister just wouldn’t be the same without him, regulars say.
 

Other recreational options include golf, tennis, seaside horseback riding, vintage yacht cruises aboard the 71-foot wooden Cloister Belle, and skeet, clay and five-stand shooting lessons (including the Annie Oakley Shooting Hour for Ladies).
 

The Cloister’s renovations bring updates to Sea Island’s dining options, including the inviting 100 Hudson, with its panoramic views of the Black Banks River and alfresco dining (in season). Try the sauted Sapelo Island clams or short rib ravioli. The cozy Colt & Allison features fireside tables with high-back leather chairs and a view of the Plantation Course’s 18th hole, and the sophisticated Georgian Room is reminiscent of a Mizner estate dining room with hand-painted china, European linens and a butternut squash cheesecake that is to die for. For the ultimate in intimate dining, the Cloister also offers a reservation-only wine cellar option. A party of 12 can sit comfortably in the medieval-styled cellar lined with an impressive array of wines — including a vintage 1840 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, yours for $7,600.
 

At the other end of the dining spectrum is the Friday night Plantation Supper on nearby Rainbow Island. This is where you come to enjoy quintessential Southern fare, such as barbecue shrimp, fried chicken and corn on the cob at a picnic table or on the screen porch while rocking to the sounds of gospel and bluegrass. Dance, sing and roast marshmallows while kids chase rabbits hiding in the sea grass.
 

Executive Chef Todd Rogers offers a behind-the-scenes tour of several of Sea Island’s 19 kitchens. He’s adamant about providing the freshest ingredients, which means supporting local providers. Sapelo Farms in nearly Brunswick provides locally grown produce and heirloom breed chicken. Thomasville’s Sweet Grass Dairy sends cheeses and milk, including that used to make ice cream spun on the premises. And local fisherman net much of the seafood that gets served.
 

One thing that hasn’t changed is the Cloister’s commitment to maintaining a balance with its natural surroundings. The renovation project included a massive tree-moving project, where groundskeepers shuffled around nearly 1,700 trees, including gigantic live oaks. Groundskeepers keep the use of insecticides and other chemicals at a minimum, relying on environmentally friendly processes, like releasing lady bugs into the gardens. The spotted cuties eat aphids and other plant chewers.
 

Perhaps no one illustrates that reverence for nature like Sea Island naturalist Stacia Hendricks, who ran late for our dinner because she was rescuing a wayward bat from a local resident’s garage.
“This is where life begins and sustains us,” she said of the marshland. “I know the person who grew those clams I ate tonight. I love that.”

 

Hendricks not only helps care for the island’s natural amenities; she shares them with guests. Nature tours focus on all things indigenous, from flora and fauna to raptors and reptiles, and are guided on boat, bicycle, horseback or jeep. Her stories, told with infectious enthusiasm, point out physical remnants of ancient Timucuan tribal lands, migratory birds that just two weeks prior had been in the Arctic Circle, or tracks of nesting sea turtles that take 34 years to mature and return — often from thousands of miles away — to the very beach where they were hatched to lay their own eggs.
 

She’ll happily show off her earrings cast from the spinous process of an alligator, her bracelet from the band of an armadillo and her necklace from alligator toe bones — all created by designer GoGo Ferguson, whose family has stewarded nearby Cumberland Island for six generations. And nothing gets her excited like “the 8-year-old kid that wants to know, ‘What is that bird?’ ” she said. “This kid wants to connect to that critter on some level. And if you can teach kids something cool, they’ll teach their parents. That’s important because right now, we know more about the moon than we know about the ocean.”
 

Perhaps the entire Cloister experience can be wrapped up in Hendricks’ words.
 

“When people come to a point of the world like this, they leave with something,” she said. “It creates something that resonates within them, like a fine wine or a wonderful meal.”

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