SEA ISLAND, Ga. — The early fog lifted and the sun came out in full glory as we paddled the labyrinth of rivers, creeks, and shallow salt marshes. The expansive grass beds turned gold in the sunlight; beyond, low-lying barrier islands, thick with stately Spanish oaks and tangles of moss were black silhouettes against the horizon. We watched pelicans hunt for food in the mudflats and a heron fly off with slow, heavy wing beats.
We were on a Sea Island guided kayaking excursion through one of the most extensive saltwater marsh environments in the world, on our way to the Atlantic Ocean. It was low tide and birds were everywhere: egrets, kingfishers, osprey, pelicans, herons, and ducks. We rounded a bend and Reid Williams, our guide, pointed out a pair of oystercatchers, their long, bright red beaks highlighted against the tawny-hued salt marsh. We paddled hard against an incoming tide, maneuvering around craggy mounds of exposed oyster beds.
“Are there sharks here?” Meghan, Pam’s 13-year-old niece, asked as she bumped kayaks with Williams. “What about alligators?”
“Yes ma’am!” Williams said. “We have sharks and alligators in these waters, plenty of ’em too.”
Meghan threw us a quick look, bugged out her eyes, and mouthed “OMG!’’
We didn’t encounter sharks or alligators, but we did see hundreds of birds, including bald eagles and an endangered wood stork. Later, on a guided nature cruise, we were entertained by a pod of exuberant bottlenose dolphins.
“That was amazing!” Meghan said, after several dolphins surfed in the wake of our boat, getting close enough for us to see their eyes and blowholes.
Sea Island, a private, gated resort isle on the southern coast of Georgia, includes 1,000 acres, surrounded by nutrient-rich tidal rivers and salt marshes. It’s home to The Cloister, The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club, and the Spa at Sea Island, all boasting Forbes five-star rankings. Some 700 elegant, private homes and condos (about 165 are in the rental pool) line the brick streets and overlook the scenic coastline.
Though the resort has been around for more than eight decades, The Cloister, still resembling a 1928 Mediterranean-style mansion, was totally rebuilt in 2006, and the spa and beach club were added the following year. The resort has hosted presidents, heads of states, dignitaries, royalty, and celebrities. In 2004, it hosted the G8 Summit of world leaders. “The Russians came with suitcases full of cash,” said Merry Tipton, director of marketing communications, who was giving us a quick tour of the property. “The Japanese took the beds out of the room. It was an exciting and interesting time.”
As Meghan would say: This place is fancy. Here, you dress up for dinner (and are offered white or black linen napkins depending on what you’re wearing). Everyone from the doorman to the sommelier addresses you by name: “Is everything to your liking, Ms. Meghan?” At the Lodge, your personal butler will unpack your clothes, run errands, and prepare a rose-petal bath for you each evening. It’s warm Southern hospitality at its finest, but still a bit old school, where some traditions hold strong. (Women don dresses and men wear suits to Thursday night bingo, and gentlemen can retreat to a wood-paneled cigar lounge after dinner.)
If you want to be pampered, this is a fine place for it. But what really sets Sea Island apart from other beachside resorts is the lineup of activities (and a top-notch child and teen program). We decided to skip golf (there are three championship courses), tennis, squash, fitness classes, etiquette classes (which are surprisingly popular), and archery. Fishing is one of the most popular excursions at the resort. “It’s pretty cool when you have a 10-year-old catch something like a tarpon that a grown man has been chasing his whole life,” said Williams. But we passed on that too. Instead, we signed up for shooting lessons, kayaking, horseback riding, and a nature cruise.
Sea Island is surrounded by five miles of private beach. We spent our first morning shell hunting on the south end of the island, where we found knobbed whelks, coquinas, and cockles. Later that afternoon, we went to a secluded section of the beach for a guided horseback riding tour. “Endangered North Atlantic right whales migrate to the warmer waters here to birth their young,” our naturalist said, as we rode in the soft sand, flanked by swaying dunes and a maritime forest of live oaks and Spanish pines. She pointed out crab holes and shells, and a variety of shorebirds. The island is also home to nesting sea turtles, and during the summer the resort offers sea turtle walks and early morning treks to patrol the beach and search for nests and hatchlings.
The resort has several dining options, from a casual poolside bistro to an elegant and formal five-star restaurant. That evening we sat outside on the deck watching the sun slip below the horizon while a bagpiper walked back and forth on the beach playing traditional tunes. Later we dined inside The Cloister at Tavola, on crispy, thin-crust specialty pizzas and house-made pasta dishes.
The next morning, we headed to the shooting range, lauded as one of the premier US shooting facilities, for a beginner’s lesson. (For kids ages 6 to 12, there’s an air rifle range.)
“Tuck the butt of the rifle snug into your shoulder. Follow the clay until it’s about mid-horizon, and pull the trigger,” said Jeff Thomas, our instructor. “It’s easy.” It wasn’t that easy, but after a few tries, each of us succeeded in hitting a clay pigeon in flight. “You could be ready for the hunt!” Thomas said. He was referring to quail hunting at Sea Island’s Broadfield Sporting Club and Lodge. The 5,800-acre property, about 45 minutes from the resort, offers guided and dog-led quail and pheasant hunting, and falconry. Falconry experiences include squirrel hunting with Harris hawks, quail hunting with a Goshawk, and pheasant hunting with a peregrine falcon.
We spoke later with someone who’d just returned from a hunt-to-table experience at Broadfield. “I’m not an experienced hunter and I was afraid I wouldn’t get anything, but I did, and it was a really cool experience,” he said. “After the hunt, the chef prepared quail for lunch.”
Our favorite experience turned out to be the nature cruise, a slow, power boat ride through the rivers and channels leading out to the Atlantic. We watched a bald eagle soar, flocks of waterfowl take off in unison, and a pair of pelicans dive for fish. On the way back to the dock, a pod of dolphins surrounded our boat, putting on a show.
On our final night, we splurged for the Chef’s Table dinner. We sat in a separate, elevated room overlooking the kitchen, and dined on a multicourse tasting menu, including foie gras with sweet potato pie and cured quail ham, frisee salad with Broadfield bacon, spice venison loin and pumpkin bread pudding soufflé.
“Is everything to your liking, madams?” our waiter inquired. Yes, everything was to our liking.
SEA ISLAND 100 Cloister Drive, Sea Island, Ga. 855-714-9201, www.seaisland.com, rates from $395 a night.