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For the traveler searching for a new vacation adventure, Georgia beckons with her chain of coastal islands that have entertained the likes of Joseph Pulitzer, J. P. Morgan, the Rockefellers and other famous and not-so-famous vacationers with an awareness of solitude and unspoiled beaches. --JERRY HULSE / Travel Editor

January 12, 1986|KATHERINE IMBRIE | Imbrie is a feature writer for the Providence (R.I.) Journal. and

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Like moonlight through the pines in that old sweet song, Georgia has a way of flickering in and out of our awareness--although few think of islands when they think of this sunny Southern state.

When one considers escaping to an isle, images appear of places like the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands or the Florida Keys. Yet Georgia's Golden Isles have long attracted large numbers of tourists from Southern states.

Just north of the Florida border and separated from the mainland only by marshy rivers, Georgia's chain of coastal islands extends north to Hilton Head off South Carolina.

St. Simons, Little St. Simons, Sea Island and Jekyll Island--all clustered close to the mainland town of Brunswick--make up the Golden Isles, named by Spanish explorers who came searching for gold in the late 1500s.

The Spaniards found no real gold on these flat, lush islands but the golden label stuck, perhaps an apt reference to a sun-drenched haze that suffuses the landscape.

Everywhere we traveled in Georgia we were treated to large doses of that fabled Southern hospitality, a soothing antidote to the hustle and bustle of winter up North.

Each of the four Golden Isles offers a different vacation experience, yet they're close enough to each other that we were able to sample them all in a long weekend.

On Jekyll Island, perhaps the best known of the four, we got a painless history lesson along with a tour of the island's Millionaires' Village. Here, during the boom years at the turn of the century, a group of millionaires--including J. P. Morgan, William Rockefeller, Cornelius Bliss and Joseph Pulitzer--established an exclusive club.

Architect Charles A. Alexander of New York and Chicago designed a vast, hotel-like clubhouse with a high parapet commanding a view of the marshes and the sea. Later, about a dozen stately "cottages" were built by members.

Hunting, fishing, yachting and golf were all popular pastimes on Jekyll, and the millionaires even imported a "bicycle man" to give lessons in "the art of bike riding." The Jekyll Island season lasted from about Christmas to Easter each year; after that the clubhouse and cottages were left in the care of servants while the members migrated north to other homes in New York, Newport and Maine.

Jekyll's cottages are not the spectacles of wealth and opulence that Newport's mansions are, yet they are characterized by quiet good taste and an obvious predilection for "the good life."

In 1900 the membership of the Jekyll Island Club represented one-sixth of the world's wealth, but just 30 years later, with the onset of the Great Depression, Jekyll's days of glory were fast fading.

The island was finally abandoned during World War II when the remaining residents were evacuated by the federal government because of the area's vulnerability to attack by German submarines.

In 1947, after decades of wrangling, the state of Georgia bought Jekyll for $675,000 and opened it to development as a state park and public resort area. Today 32 of the original club buildings still stand; eight have been restored and are open to the public.

Jekyll has several attractive hotels, and visitors and guests have access to miles of unspoiled beaches and some of the finest golf courses in the South.

Jekyll Island was the playground of the wealthy in the last century, and Sea Island is its contemporary counterpart. This tiny island (only about five miles from tip to tip) is the setting for the gracious and elegant Cloister resort, consistently ranked among the top hotels in the nation.

The Cloister is one of only nine in the United States awarded five stars, the top rating by the "Mobil Travel Guide." We found that rating to be well-deserved. The rooms are elegantly appointed, the staff is unwaveringly attentive without being intrusive, the food is superb.

Opened in 1928, the Cloister is designed in a lavish Mediterranean style with keyhole arches and red Spanish tile roofs surrounding a jewel of a cloistered garden. Azaleas border an oyster-shell path that leads past moss-draped live oaks down to the sea.

The Beach House serves meals on a patio overlooking the ocean, and two outdoor pools permit nearly year-round swimming. Golf and horseback riding along the beach are also popular. Rates at the Cloister range from about $95 to $145 per person, double occupancy, in high season, mid-March to May (including meals). Phone (800) 732-4752.

Looking for a change of pace one day, we found a delightful hideaway on Little St. Simons Island, just an island-hop away from the sophistication of Sea Island. Little St. Simons has been maintained as a nature preserve by the Berolzheimer family.

In 1907 Philip Berolzheimer bought Little St. Simons as a private retreat. A rustic lodge and cottages were built in 1917, and the Berolzheimers used the island primarily for hunting and fishing parties until 1979, when the lodge was opened to paying guests.

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