If you're going to visit a place such as coastal Georgia's Sea Island Resort, as my wife and I recently did for a brief golf getaway, you may as well arrive in style. And so we did: A suited driver piloting a natty Lincoln town car whisked us away from Florida's Jacksonville International Airport for the hour-long jaunt.
Now, perhaps to some people, such as the titans of industry who set down their Gulfstreams at the private airstrip adjacent to the resort, ours was a rather pedestrian entrance, and I would no sooner argue the point than complain about, well, anything at this paragon-of-propriety oasis.
Still, upon pulling up to the front of the 40-room Lodge at Sea Island, we were treated like these other, bottomless-pocketed guests, which is to say, like visiting potentates, or so I imagine.
There is no check-in desk here. A charming but plainspoken butler greets you at the front door and embarks upon a short tour of the common areas: restaurants, reading rooms, bar, sprawling verandah and so on, at once Southern genteel and masculine, which is no small feat.
Then he takes you to your room, done in an English country manor style, with exposed-beam ceilings and hardwood floors. By the table near the picture window, at least in our case, is a golf green, replete with flag, balls and so forth, all done in chocolate, as sweet as an eagle on the 18th hole. (Or the first hole, but more about that later.)
It distracts attention, briefly, from the killer view of the Plantation golf course below and the shimmering Atlantic beyond, bathed as always in that painterly Low Country light.
It's truly a sight. And yet the bathroom is no less impressive: A deep soaking tub you can't leave till pruning, especially with the speakers that pipe in sound from the television or radio in the bedroom. Heated towel bars. Bulgari white-tea toiletries. Oversized shower heads. As you can imagine, the robes tempt you to stuff them into your golf travel bag. (We did not, I promise.)
There's no shortage of reasons why the resort -- which also encompasses the recently rebuilt American-classic
Cloister hotel nearby -- ranks at the top of every major "best of" travel list, from Conde Nast Traveler to Zagat and everything in between.
Onto the Greens
Golf is far from Sea Island's only draw, but it's the biggest, and indeed two of the resort's other major accolades came from
. The former named Sea Island's premier course, Seaside, among the top 100 modern courses in the U.S.; the latter ranked the place No. 1 on its most recent list of the 75 best golf resorts in North America.
Three courses with three distinct personalities are on offer, starting with one of the country's most beautiful and challenging tests, Seaside.
I had the chance to tour the layout with its famed architect, Tom Fazio, to talk about its strategy. I'll spare you the details, but when Fazio said, "Expectation levels are pretty high for guests of Sea Island,
and there is no chance anyone will be disappointed here" -- well, it ain't bragging.
The sand ridges, silt fences and vegetation all make the course feel as place-appropriate as possible -- and the place is about as inspiring as it gets, so that's a serious compliment.
If you can get past the layout's gorgeousness, you realize how challenging and vexing it is, too. But then things that are gorgeous are often challenging and vexing.
I had been to the resort once before and played one of my most memorable rounds on Seaside, making birdies on four of the last six holes to shoot one of my best-ever scores. No such luck this time, yet I enjoyed my loop nearly as much.
The manmade scenery dovetails with the natural, and Seaside's challenges are stiff yet reasonable, never giving the sense that its requirements overwhelm even as they push you to play your best, smartest golf. And how often does one see a bald eagle with a fish in its talons, as I did beside the first green?
If Sea Island had only the Seaside 18,
(that's Hebrew for "it would have be enough for us"). But it has two other excellent courses: Rees Jones' Plantation and PGA Tour pro Davis Love III's Retreat.
The handsome former wends through live oaks and cedar and provides a wonderfully fair, straightforward test; the latter sports water on half the holes but offers vast fairways in compensation, no pushover for better players while allowing lesser sticks to get their ball around without excessive anxiety.
As a trio, the courses provide something to suit almost anyone's architectural and aesthetic golfing tastes as well as talent level.
And if your game goes off-boil, the resort's golf school has long been held as among the country's finest; several of its teaching pros coach top PGA and LPGA Tour pros, and Mike Shannon has become perhaps the game's preeminent putting guru, drawing players from all over who seek to fix their flat-stick woes.
Sometimes, the greatest pleasures are the most ordinary. My wife and I decided to take a break from golf to pedal in and around town on the old-school, basket-bearing bikes that sit so demurely by the Lodge's entrance.
Making lazy loops under the gorgeous canopy of trees everywhere on St. Simons was supremely peaceful, and fantasies of a summer home here arose until the realities of our financial picture intruded. It also made us quite hungry. The resort's
Colt & Allison restaurant is a steakhouse of filet-mignon quality (indeed, pack loose-fitting pants, because you can't eat poorly at Sea Island), but we were hankering for a unique fresh seafood joint.
We found the local favorite, the
Crab Trap, and it was superb enough that we returned the next night, too, for the luscious fried oysters, killer crab soup and chilled microbrew.
Thankfully, we left enough room to savor one of the Lodge's great traditions: milk and fresh-baked cookies delivered to the door before bedtime. Like the Lodge itself, it's a perfect treat that feels just like home --that is, like a home with a butler and a heated towel bar.
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Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Staatsburg, N.Y., and senior writer for
Golfweek. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.