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A Classic Southern Spa

As a die-hard New Yorker/bachelorette/artist, I had some trepidations about fitting in at the Cloister, exclusive resort of the Old South. Located on Sea Island, one of the now-famous (for the recent Kennedy wedding) barrier islands off the coast of Georgia, it's a place where families with pedigree return year after year. Or, as one book tactlessly put it: "It's the resort for the newly wed, the overfed, and the nearly dead." Still, I had signed on for the Spa Retreat; and as far as I know, no one has ever suffered from three days of total indulgence.

Layovers and a 90-minute drive from Savannah made me a bit testy upon arrival, but I was greeted with a sunny "How are yew?The Spa Retreat?I'm so jealous!" The receptionist handed me a Disneyland-style map of the compound, along with my spa schedule and a bag of spa gifts, then sent me to the Beach Club for lunch.

The main building of the 265-room Cloister is a Mediterranean-style mansion surrounded by drooping Spanish moss, staunch oaks, fluttering palms, and well-groomed gardens. It turned out that themap was crucial for locating the Beach Club among the cloned buildings all ocher with red roofs. I stumbled into its dining room, where I faced the first in an unrelenting series of buffets. Wading past the luncheon meats and the fried seafood, I found and wolfed down an unmemorable shrimp concoction along with some very nice corn bread. I was then escorted by one of a progression of wry, Southern-witted Cloister employees to my frilly pinky-beige quarters, with a terrace that overlooked the pinky-beige beach. The bellman confided that my room was next to the former suite of George and Barbara--as in Bush. Things were looking up.

I hustled right over to the, yes, pinky-beige and beruffled spa to havemy Hungarian Kur bath, a body scrub, and a massage. My masseuse, Sabine,had a quiet air of wisdom. She ushered me into the whirlpool, offered a choice of thermal mineral salts, and left me in serene semi-darkness. While still coherent on the massage table I quizzed Sabine about the clientele. She described all types, including a Pentagon employee who was "senton retreat" she'd seen too much. By the time the pushing, pulling,and rubbing were over, I was so languid I could barely make my way through the dense fog to dinner.

Past the arched doors of the main dining area, I entered some other era: grand high-ceilinged rooms with shimmering gold curtains cascading overthe massive windows, and, on the bandstand, a quartet playing, "It's so nice to see you back where you belong." The rooms were packed with frail graying heads and young shaved ones, fresh from boot camp. Future debutantes flounced about in sequined party dresses.

"Just one?" asked the waitress. I nodded, and she kindly put a potted plant across from me, in place of my nonexistent dinner partner. The six-course menu was eclectic, to say the least. Some of the salad-dressing choices evoked a diner--Thousand Island, blue cheese, creamy Italian--as did some of the desserts (Red Indian peach halves with fruit Jell-O?). Entráes were more sophisticated: pecan-crusted veal loin, California cioppino, and roast Colorado lamb. The spa cuisine offering was scaloppine of venison, i.e., grilled deer. Not tonight. Instead I joined the era wafting about me and started with a shrimp cocktail safe and tasty. My grilled vegetable brochette was served with good crunchy Georgian blue-corn fritters and undercooked cubes of eggplant.

The next table was involved in a heated discussion over whether the peaches were fresh, while at another table a patient young woman was shouting to her somewhat deaf mother-in-law, "We may still have some family in Baltimore." At the end of the meal, my irreverent waiter, a devilish gleam in his eye, smirked and half-whispered, "You have to have the finger bowl; no shortcuts allowed."

The next day I woke to the sun coming up over the ocean, flooding the room pinker. Room-service breakfast (Easy Bake ovensize muffins) arrived with the Georgia Times-Union and the headline Sea Turtles Rebound, With Help. Not just the sea turtles.

Over at the spa, I checked out the gym before my scheduled hour with a personal trainer. It was small but adequate, stocked with all the usual state-of-the-art equipment. The workout with my chatty trainer didn't exactly push my limits. I got the distinct impression that my fellow spa guests were not there for strenuous physical exertion--unlike me, an over-exercised New York madwoman.

Curious to see the island adjacent to Sea Island, St. Simons, with its famous golf courses, I rented a bike and set off across the causeway for the five-mile ride. Cycling paths stretch across both islands; my route passed acres of empty fields, with only a hint of New South mall land encroaching. The Sea Island Golf Club is on the site of a former cotton plantation scattered with ruins, including stony vestiges of a former slave hospital. The clubhouse is old-fashioned genteel--save for the giant TV chronically tuned to football. I ate lunch there gazing out at the putting green right on the water.

Before dinner I dropped by the dusky Club Room Bar, where I encountered a fellow swinging single. Okay, an aging fellow single. He told me he'd been visiting during the winter holidays for 30 years. "Why not?" he blustered. "I have no heirs, no dependents, and no debts!" When I asked him whether the place had changed much he answered, "Oh yes; there are Yankees! There was a fellow who came down from Scarsdale to play tennis. He had the nerve to wear cutoffs. I straightened him out about that."

Hastening to the dining room, I was seated at my regular table without even a "Just one?" My faithful waitress remarked, "There's a woman sitting in Section B who had the same seat when I worked here twenty years ago." Watching her chat up her Section A regulars across the room, I started to get the picture.

Postmodern Mediterranean mansions line the hotel's five-mile beach. I spent the morning basking, then, in the afternoon, migrated to the Beach Club's pool, where young people in green cloister junior staff T-shirts herded large groups of children in Duke and Tulane T-shirts from one activity to the next volleyball, croquet, crabbing. Other youngsters were horsebackriding along the beach. Eventually I peeled myself from the chaise to take a tennis lesson on the elegant clay courts so that I could justify my late-afternoon massage with saintly Sabine. Sensing my need to go AWOL, she insisted I take a kayak trip in the Georgia swamps, and even set it up through an outfitter.

I met with a group in the funky little village of St. Simons, and we were taken by van to the swamps. It was lovely and sensuous moving through the gentle marshes, and our leaders were happy to share their knowledge of the islands. We landed at a beautiful, forsaken stretch of sand, the tail end of the Cloister beach, only a short trot from my room.

Nursing an aperitif in the Club Room Bar before dinner, as routinized as any regular, I met my first Cloister honeymooners. They may have been my first honeymooners, but they were the Cloister's 35,700th, with a certificate to prove it. I sauntered over to the dining room, and wouldn't you know?It was Sunday buffet night, and it was all there: the seafood bisque, the luncheon meats, the shrimp in pink sauce, the dripping prime rib. The cornbread was being marshaled around by the bread girl; the band was playing show tunes; the macaroon man was in motion; the dessert table was crammed with towers of miniature pastries and puddings. I exchanged polite nods with Section A and then hesitated no longer: I dove right in. The lone Yankee had become one of them.

Here's the Scoop:
The three-night Spa Retreat at the Cloister (800/732-4752 or 912/638-3611; fax 912/638-5159) includes two massages, a reflexology treatment, facial, Hungarian Kur bath and body scrub, and session with a trainer. Rates are $894-$1,455 per person, double, with meals.

Out-of-pocket expenses:
- Airfare $259
- Rental car (four days) $174
- Tennis lesson $27
- Kayaking $37
- Bike rental $14
TOTAL $511

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