Sea Island, Georgia
|Sea Island, Georgia|
|Elevation||10 ft (3 m)|
|Time zone||Eastern (EST) (UTC-5)|
|• Summer (DST)||EDT (UTC-4)|
Sea Island is a privately owned, unincorporated area of Glynn County, Georgia; and is part of the Golden Isles of Georgia, including St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Little St. Simons Island, and the mainland city of Brunswick. The well-visited, seaside resort island is located along the Atlantic Coast just east of St. Simons Island. It lies about 60 miles north of Jacksonville, FL and about 60 miles south of Savannah, GA, and is reachable via a causeway from St. Simons Island. The Anschutz family of Denver, Colorado owns the island, operating two resorts with limited public access.
The resorts, "Sea Island Beach Club" and "The Cloister", are located a short distance from one another, connected by a roundabout in the middle of Sea Island Drive, the island's main connecting road. The oceanfront Beach Club contains restaurants, a game room, an ice cream shop, a bar, and three pools. Sea Island’s main hotel, The Cloister, is located on its southwestern side along the Black Banks River. It includes restaurants, 200 rooms, a spa, tennis and squash courts, an exercise facility, and is home to the only Forbes Five Star restaurant in the state of Georgia, "The Georgian Room". The Ocean Forest Golf Club, a private, links-style course is located within a residential community on the northern tip of the island.
Georgia’s Sea Island is part of a long chain of barrier islands, also known as "sea islands", located along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida between the Santee and St. Johns rivers.
Like many of the easternmost barrier islands of Georgia, Sea Island was formed about 5,000 years ago, after the last major ice age. Unlike the much older, Pleistocene-age islands just to its west, there is little information about early human activity on the island. Most of its recorded history dates from the beginning of the 20th century.
Its original English name was Fifth Creek Island. Its first owner was Captain James Mackay, who served under General Oglethorpe at Fort Frederica. Subsequent holders included a series of St. Simons Island plantation owners, who used the land primarily for grazing. In 1926, automobile magnate Howard Coffin added it to his other land purchases in coastal Georgia. Two years later, on the advice of friends who foresaw the potential in oceanfront properties, he opened the Cloister Hotel and turned over its management to his cousin, Alfred W. Jones. Upon Howard Coffin’s death in 1937, A. W. Jones inherited the property, along with other tracts of nearby coastal land owned by the Sea Island Company.
From its beginnings, the Cloister was a success, attracting a variety of “Roaring Twenties” luminaries. When President Calvin Coolidge decided to spend his Christmas holidays on Sea Island in 1928, the new hotel gained national attention. Promoted as a quiet, worry-free escape, as opposed to some of the high-energy resorts in Florida, 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.
Although growth slowed during the Great Depression, the still modest resort was able to make it through the financial crisis 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. In 1949, Sarah Churchill married photographer Anthony Beauchamp on the island. 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 home prices pushing into the millions of dollars by the end of the 20th century.
By 2003, A. W. “Bill” Jones III decided it was time for a complete restoration of the Cloister building, which lacked a proper foundation, and did not meet modern building codes. Over a three-year period, the hotel was demolished and replaced with a new, luxurious structure that retained the look and feel of the original. Upgrades were also made to the resort’s Beach Club and spa. All were intended to attract an even higher-level, worldwide clientele.
Just two years after its grand re-opening, the financial panic of 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession hit the Sea Island Company from several directions. Expected property sales in a new, upscale development did not occur. Resort visitation declined. New home purchases in the surrounding community stalled. Revenue from the Cloister dropped by 31% from 2007 to 2009. As a result, and despite winning 5-star travel guide awards, the company defaulted on its loans and had to lay off about 25% of its workforce. Although two major creditors, Synovus and Bank of America agreed to a restructured loan package in 2009, Sea Island Company was unable to sell off enough of its land holdings, and again defaulted in 2010. Later that year, the company filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, and was acquired by a consortium of investors who formed Sea Island Acquisitions, LLC, to manage the property and turn its business around.
In April, 2016, Sea Island Acquisitions completed a $40 million expansion that added a new “Garden Wing” to the Cloister with 63 rooms.
Commemorative Live Oaks
While visiting Sea Island in 1928, President Calvin Coolidge planted a live oak to commemorate the occasion. The planting became a tradition observed by a succession of distinguished guests including presidents and heads of state. In addition to President Coolidge, those who personally planted trees included Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, President George H.W. Bush, Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and President Bill Clinton. During the G8 conference in 2004, President George W. Bush planted a tree.
Only one of the commemorative trees is not a live oak. In 1931, Howard Coffin planted an English oak acorn from General Oglethorpe’s estate in England, to honor the founder of the Georgia colony.
From June 8–10, 2004, President George W. Bush hosted 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. As part of the security measures, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) designated the summit a National Special Security Event (NSSE).
Access to the island was tightly controlled, and press headquarters (the International Media Center) was located in Savannah, Georgia, some 60 miles to the north. Protestors and demonstrations were effectively marginalized, in part because the conference venue was located in a nearly inaccessible place.
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.
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