Only four hours south of Columbia lies The Cloister on Sea Island. The epitome of Southern style and elegance, this hidden gem sits just off the interstate on a private island — a luxurious haven serving generations of families and prominent guests. Rich in history and beauty, it lures visitors from all around the world who are attracted to its exclusivity.
Luckily for me, I recently had the opportunity to slip behind its quiet gates and enter its secret world. The Cloister is a resort on Sea Island, which is part of The Golden Isles of Georgia which also includes Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island and Little St. Simons Island. Arriving at Sea Island and driving through the main gate, I felt privileged, as access to the island is limited to resort guests and members. I was even more impressed pulling up to the main building, a “Mediterranean Masterpiece” which is the central setting of The Cloister and is surrounded by The Spa at Sea Island, The Sea Island Beach Club and the Sea Island Yacht Club. Though the main building sits on the Blacks Bank River, it is just a five-minute walk across the road to the Beach Club which sits on the Atlantic Ocean, where families often elect to stay with their children.
The Cloister features four dining establishments, including the Georgian Room, Georgia’s only five-star restaurant and a Forbes Five-Star restaurant for the past seven years. The Cloister has also received the Forbes Five-Star Award for accommodations. Another spectacular feature of The Cloister is its magnificent spa, also boasting its own Forbes Five-Star Award.
Upon our arrival Mark, my husband, and I started our stay with lunch: a simple but elegant affair at The River Bar overlooking the water. Mark had the River Bar Tartine, fresh lump crabmeat served on sourdough, and I enjoyed the blackened Mahi gnocchi with a delicious Maltese sauce. We were encouraged to try the signature drink — a “smoking sazerak,” but I decided it would be best not to stumble down the halls after lunch and to wait until dinner later in the evening.
I have stayed at many resorts but nothing compared to our room in the main building’s south wing. Known as “hotel snobs” among our friends, Mark and I both are always impressed by superior accommodations, and The Cloister does not disappoint. The feel of The Cloister is that of a Mediterranean retreat, and the rooms continue this theme with their exposed beams, lavish window treatments and spectacular views. Both mornings we opted for room service and ate our breakfast overlooking the river. The beauty of our room was matched by the superior service of our bellhop and housekeeper. Mark wasted no time settling in for a nap — a rarity in our home with teenagers, two cats and our golden retriever roaming about.
I, however, had a date! And there he was waiting for me at the Sea Island Shooting School. I find guns about as mysterious as men must find going to the grocery store with a recipe in hand and coming home to prepare a meal. Jake Duncan, my instructor for the day, is the fourth-generation to live in Glynn County. With much experience and knowledge of his craft, Jake must have been shocked when, before we began our lesson, he found it necessary to explain to me the difference between a shotgun and a rifle, even showing me the shotgun shells and pellets on the ground, something in which I took great delight.
A calm and patient teacher, he carefully showed me exactly how to stand, hold the shotgun and follow the clay; I actually hit the target the very first time. We progressed through the lesson with increasingly more difficult targets, and I was thrilled to hit most of them under his tutelage.
Jake explained that they offer many types of lessons at the school, from private lessons to individual and family groups. They even offer a “Bulls Eye Hour” for kids and an “Annie Oakley” group lesson for ladies. What a great and unusually fun way to enjoy time on vacation.
Following my lesson, I was anxious to get back to my sumptuous retreat and go to dinner. That night we dined at Tavola, an Italian ristorante in the main building and a short walk from our room. The vibe was happy and relaxed, from romantic couples dining out to a sweet family gathering of young and old celebrating a child’s birthday. I usually do not order an appetizer but found the antipasti menu irresistible. The bruschetta featured “mortadella spume” a cured meat, with taleggio cream and olive almond tapenade. We also had the “crespelle” — whole-wheat crepes with a scallop crabmeat mousse, radicchio and guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon) with sage. For our entrees, Mark loved his Bistecca, a prime strip loin, with potato torte and Brussels sprouts. I thoroughly enjoyed my shrimp and scallops risotto, savoring each bite and licking the spoon clean.
During our dinner, I noticed a familiar-looking gentleman at the bar. Loud and jovial, he lit up the room with his energy and laughter. I had overheard that The American Tenors were visiting that weekend and had given a performance the night before. Sure enough, when we left after dinner, there he stood on the massive staircase. Ben Gully, Nathan Granner and Daniel Montenegro had elected to give an impromptu performance. Soon the great room was overflowing, all of us caught up in the joy and excitement of the beautiful performance.
Sunday came and with it the anticipation of one of my favorite pastimes — spa day! I often laugh with Mark that I am a low-maintenance woman. I do not require expensive jewelry, clothing or wine. A good book and time well spent with family and friends are the things that I really enjoy. There is one thing, however, that I am extremely passionate about, and that is spending the day at a great spa. I have had the privilege of enjoying spa treatments at many of our more well-known spas in the Southeast, but the Spa at Sea Island should be on everyone’s bucket list.
A 65,000-square-foot oasis is waiting for those who enter its doors. Exceptional service is the secret to every award-winning spa, and for those spas that master this, its clientele will return again and again. From the beauty of the “holding area” with its water features, to the luxury of the robes and toiletries awaiting me in my private shower afterward, The Spa at Sea Island knows what it takes to capture the heart of its guests.
My massage therapist, Irina, gave the best massage I have ever had. She spent most of the session “working on the fascia.” Though it sounded complicated, she basically worked on loosening up the muscles to make them pliable “like wax” and allowing her to work her magic. After all of this, coupled with organic lavender oil and followed up by a sauna, I was ready for a nap. I debated having a driver pick me up afterward but thought the better of it as the Spa is only a few steps away from the main building.
Mark and I enjoyed lunch again at the River Bar before setting off to meet our new friend, Captain Clay, down at the dock for a salt marsh nature tour. The day was gray, cold and overcast and I could not help but think about the beautiful king bed in our room and how relaxed I felt after my massage. This changed quickly once Clay pulled away from the dock. Once again I was struck by how the people of Sea Island and The Cloister make the experience of The Cloister what it is. Soon we were off and cruising through the marsh, enjoying all that Clay, an eight-year employee of Sea Island, had to offer on our tour. Like everyone else we had met so far, he is passionate about what he does at Sea Island. It is almost as if each employee has been there since its very inception, lovingly tending to Sea Island and her guests.
As Clay explained, most people do not realize that Georgia has her own coast. With 100 miles of coastline, Georgia has one of the largest areas of saltwater marsh in the world. As such, it is very important to the ecosystem in the area and helps to keep “everything in harmony.” The area is home to spotted sea trout, flounder and redfish, among others, and it is usually this bounty that fishermen seek when chartering Clay’s boat. As we cruised, Clay pointed out the different birds we saw, including oystercatchers and grackles. Fishing, for me, ranks right up there with guns and hunting, but as with my shooting lesson earlier, I felt privileged to enjoy this new experience. I could imagine the excitement fishing enthusiasts must feel, coming aboard for a day of relaxation and time with friends, much as I might enjoy the time at the beach with my kids.
That evening was our last night at Sea Island. We were driven over to The Lodge, an impressive getaway a short drive over to St. Simons Island. It is here that world-class golfers and professionals come to stay and play. The Lodge itself has the feel of an old English-style manor, with guests served by their own individual butlers.
Waiting for us was our own butler, Ike, who gave us a wonderful tour, showing us the stately rooms of the lodge and pointing out which suites housed the dignitaries for the 2004 G8 Summit, including those from Yemen, Jordan and Algeria. We finished our tour at The Lodge and headed to its signature restaurant, Colt & Alison. Before our entrees, we enjoyed the experience of having a Caesar salad prepared right at our table. We also enjoyed an “amuse-bouche,” a deconstructed loaded baked potato bite with a red pepper crème fraiche and chives prepared for us by the chef.
As we had throughout our stay, we enjoyed superior service from our server, Bryan. After dinner, Rob, the sommelier, escorted us to the wine cellar. With up to 4,000 bottles of wine and seating for up to 20, this hidden enclave hosts corporate functions and special occasions, with a wine list sent ahead of time if needed.
The next morning we enjoyed our last breakfast on our veranda — fresh creamy butter, hot coffee in beautiful urns, fruit and flowers — the last of the delights of The Cloister. We were very grateful to have experienced such elegance and beauty on such a magical island.