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Destination: Georgia

Where Old Money Played

Luxuriating in Golden Isles resorts that Carnegies and Astors built

June 07, 1998|ADAM Z. HORVATH | NEWSDAY / Horvath is an editor at Newsday on Long Island, New York

JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. — From the white, turreted tower of the late 19th century Jekyll Island Club, a middle-age man in polo shirt and baggy shorts leaned over the terrace rail and surveyed his storied surroundings, a casual king looking over his domain.

In front of him was the wharf where J.P. Morgan's tremendous yacht used to arrive from across the grassy, yellow-green inland marshes that stretch to the mainland Georgia coast. To his right and left were the preserved, mansion-like cottages of millionaires who bought the island to create their own winter playground, south of everything but undeveloped Florida, in 1886.

And all around were the serene, ancient stands of Georgia live oaks draped with Spanish moss, shading the bike trails and pathways that circle and crisscross the island.

Jealously looking up from the ground just below, I hoped to share the view. "How do you get up there?" I called out.

The answer that floated down was simpler than I expected: "Rent the room."

The once-exclusive coastal Sea Islands of southeast Georgia, the turn-of-the-century private preserves of the Carnegies, Astors, Rockefellers and other Northeast barons of industry and finance, are now the province of tourists and day-trippers who can surround themselves with history, luxury and natural beauty, all in one place.

The string of unsung barrier-beach islands stretches south for 100 miles from Savannah, Ga., almost to Jacksonville, Fla. Most of the islands are nearly untouched, and many are reachable only by boat. They include the nearly untamed wildlife refuges of Sapelo and Cumberland and the antique shops and near-suburban streets of St. Simons; the $500-and-up beachfront rooms of the Cloister at Sea Island and the Jekyll Island Club, where rooms overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway begin at $119 and the two-story Presidential Suite turret goes for $259 a night.

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Together, they are now known as Georgia's Golden Isles, although the name centers on the cluster accessible by car--Jekyll, St. Simons and Sea Island--where my travel mate and I spent five unusually warm April days. Though the Atlantic waters were still cold, we sunbathed on the hard-packed sand, swam in heated pools, kayaked through marsh mazes, bicycled miles of scenic trails and strolled the pathways of a lost era of opulence.

And--perhaps this is the unusual part--we boarded a motorized open-air tram for a rolling tour of the history around our hotel.

The Jekyll Island Club is a singular story in itself. At a time when a fast-moving economy was making sudden millionaires right and left, a small group of industrialists in fields from railroads to plumbing reputedly sent a team to find a place with warm winters they could call their own, a place that was both unspoiled and easy to get to from New York. Once they settled on Jekyll Island, a declining cotton plantation that they bought for $125,000, they built the clubhouse that is now the hotel and outfitted it with a chef and staff from Delmonico, the famous Manhattan steakhouse. They built an infirmary, staffed by doctors from Johns Hopkins; they had a gamekeeper stock the grounds with quail and pheasant and outfitted a taxidermy shop to mount the spoils of their hunting excursions.

In the next couple of decades, some club members decided to build their own cottages ringing the clubhouse, and many of them still stand. George Macy, president of Union Pacific Tea (later A&P), had one with 13 bedrooms; William Rockefeller of Standard Oil had one with an elevator and a large cedar-lined safe. Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher who endowed the Pulitzer Prizes, had his cottage soundproofed. Some of the homes were built without kitchens; the members, after all, didn't plan to miss the Delmonico meals at the clubhouse.

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By the end of World War II, however, the club's time had passed. In 1947, the state bought the island for $675,000, making a state park and marking the area around the clubhouse and cottages as a historical district. Also still standing are a tiny church that holds one of five surviving stained-glass windows signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, a suite of apartments billed as the nation's first condominium and the infirmary (now a rambling bookstore).

Three of the cottages can be toured by a tram that departs from the Jekyll Island Museum in the old stables; another has been made into an art gallery; outbuildings have been turned into shops, and one cottage is due to become a bed and breakfast. And then there's the restored Jekyll Island Club, now managed by the Radisson chain, with almost all of its architecture and much of its style intact.

The rooms themselves are unspectacular--and at the bottom of the price range, they're tiny, so it's important to get one with a view over the water or across the croquet lawn, rather than the back of the building. But the wide, interconnected terraces dotted with wicker rockers and the sedate public rooms retain their grace.

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