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The New Sea Island

In the last frantic months of construction of the new Cloister hotel at Sea Island, Bill Jones III remembered a letter he had received from a ten-year-old boy worried about what happened to the frogs in the old Cloister's pond. As patriarch of the family that has owned the Georgia resort since its founding in 1928, Jones takes input from his constituents seriously. So he ordered a new pond built for the frogs. It was completed in a matter of weeks.

So it goes at Sea Island, where, when change comes, it's always with a nod to tradition. The voluptuous new hotel, which opened in April with a price tag said to be $250 million, might seem to be a cause for grumbling by fourth and fifth generation Sea Island residents and regular visitors. Not so. In part that's because the hotel has only one hundred guest rooms, making it essentially a boutique hotel in keeping with the island's tradition of intimate hospitality. For another thing, the Jones' Sea Island Company went to extremes to incorporate elements of the old Cloister into the new. The Spanish Lounge, a quasi-medieval hall with stained-glass windows and an oversize hearth, was taken apart brick by brick and reassembled. The solarium, although architecturally fresh, has the same cozy feel as the old one. And, yes, there will be a place for bingo, which still draws hundreds on summer evenings, the men and boys in jackets and ties.

The decision to rebuild at the site of the old Cloister, instead of two hundred yards east on the beach, was also tradition-bound. "That my grandfather helped choose the location made it special," Jones said. The new building includes many old-style resort details, such as a dark-paneled smoking room, a library, a clubroom with a bandstand for tea dances and a bright formal dining room with an antebellum ambience. As for beachfront property, the resort does have fifty-six hotel rooms available in its Ocean Houses and a rental pool of privately owned "cottages."

The new Cloister is not the only big change Jones has engineered. His father and grandfather, schooled by the Depression, were conservative about spending. But Jones III came to believe that success depended on having world-class facilities. First he expanded and renovated the three golf courses, originally laid out by the likes of Walter Travis, Harry S. Colt and Charles H. Alison. In 2000 he opened the princely forty-room Lodge at the golf club. Later this year he will open a 65,000-square-foot destination spa, followed by a new beach club and restaurant complex in 2007.

Jones insists that what hasn't changed at Sea Island is the famously "heartfelt" service and attention to detail. That may be true, but the resort's overall evolution has altered the composition of the Sea Island–St. Simons Island community. "It used to be mostly locals like us and retirees," said Lynn Love, who like her husband, Mark, grew up in the area. "But the influx now is young families and professionals." Local three-story height restrictions help prevent overdevelopment, as does the Sea Island Company's penchant for underbuilding its properties. Take its new ultraprivate Frederica development: Anchored by a Tom Fazio course for which scores of towering live oaks were transplanted, it was originally zoned for six thousand units. Instead it will have only 350 homes on $1 million–plus lots. A family-owned business can afford to take the long view.

Sea Island Resorts: the Cloister, Ocean Houses and Lodge

Sea Island, Georgia. Rooms: from $725 peak/$550 off-peak (Lodge: from $700). Golf: Plantation (redesigned by Rees Jones, 1998); Seaside (redesigned by Tom Fazio, 2000); and Retreat (renovated by Davis Love III, 2001). Greens Fees: $170–$250. Call 800-732-4752 or visit seaisland.com.

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