Our Annual List of the Best Places to Live—and Live Well

You have to hand it to the developers of America's premier golf communities. No matter what happens to the U.S. real estate market at large, there's no slowing these guys down. For them, the sky is always within reach.

Consider: At the Cliffs Communities, building a global headquarters for Gary Player Golf wasn't nearly enough, so this year they up and hired Tiger Woods to design his first U.S. course, the Cliffs at High Carolina. Likewise, at Reynolds Plantation, adding one of the best new courses of the year, the Creek Club, just wasn't going to cut it, so they had TaylorMade create the Kingdom at Reynolds Plantation, a hyper-realized instruction/fitting/lifestyle facility complete with famous tour pros as guides. For horse lovers, Palmetto Bluff is adding an equestrian center of, oh, 170 acres or so.

Even their shows of restraint are compelling: Balsam Mountain Preserve's commitment to protect thousands of acres on its property, for example, or Santa Lucia Preserve leaving twenty thousand acres of Carmel backcountry to the sharp-shinned hawk, the California condor and other worthy denizens. Hey, maybe you should be one of them.

The Top 25

1. Sea Island Sea Island, Georgia

This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the opening of the Cloister, that citadel of Southern hospitality around which the Sea Island community is built. The anniversary is a reminder that Sea Island has flourished as a resort even while building Frederica, the new jewel of its real estate operation. All of Sea Island's nine residential communities come highly recommended, but Frederica marks a leap forward. Its homes and club amenities luxuriate in a three-thousand-acre site on Saint Simons Island, five minutes from the hub of the resort and destined to comprise fewer than four hundred homesites. Resident members have their own golf course plus a boathouse adjoining a private, bass-stocked lake. They also have the run of Sea Island's exceptional resort amenities, including three additional courses, a spa, stables and a new beach club.

2. Palmetto Bluff Bluffton, South Carolina

Traditional pedestrian neighborhoods fitted with retro touches like brick and gaslight are an important trend in upscale golf communities, as is generous conservation of land. No golf community melds these two elements like Palmetto Bluff, where the village design (see previous pages) is spot-on and the conservation acreage is downright primeval. Recently Palmetto Bluff opened its River Road neighborhood, all brick, granite and wrought iron, bordered by a Lowcountry wilderness laced with trails. A riding facility with stables is set to open this spring. Boating, fishing, an award-winning spa and Jack Nicklaus golf are other standout amenities.

3. Santa Lucia PRESERVE Carmel, California

One of the more interesting residences in this globe-cooling community won an award for its "green" roof, built of sand and lava rock out of which grow sedge and wild strawberries. There is space in the Preserve's master plan for 130 golf courses, but they've built just one: a Tom Fazio layout amid redwoods and stately oaks. Eighteen thousand acres of protected land ensure "nothing will change here" for some time.

4. Maycama Santa Rosa, California

When in doubt, developers of golf communities turn to "Tuscan" or "Mediterranean" design themes. This community comes by its European sensibility honestly, through its vintner members and wine-country pedigree. The golf is walking-only on a highly praised Nicklaus design, vintage 2001. Homes are villas with courtyards or cottages on generous lots.

5. Kiawah Island Kiawah Island, South Carolina

This entire island was purchased for $125,000 in 1951 by a lumberman, whose heirs flipped it twenty-three years later for $18.2 million. Affluent golf lovers have made profits of their own on Kiawah real estate, although continual improvements to the golf and other amenities make this a hard place to leave. With the arrival of the private Kiawah Island Club several years ago, the lifestyle got even finer.

6. Promontory Park City, Utah

The developers of this 7,500-acre mountain masterpiece saddled up and built a cutting-edge equestrian center and have recently doubled their golf amenity to thirty-six holes. For residents, that makes it a bit easier to master basic horsemanship, a skill they can add to their already wide repertoire of golf, fly-fishing, skiing and tennis. And the young folk have it made at Promontory: A five-thousand-square-foot clubhouse is equipped with waterslides, lookout towers, a trapper's cabin and a climbing wall, nurturing their spirit of adventure.

7. The Cliffs Communities Travelers Rest, South Carolina

It was a busy year for the Cliffs and its tireless managers, highlighted by news that the next golf jewel in the Cliffs' crown would be designed by Tiger Woods. Then came word that Clemson University's horticulture department would accept a $250,000 grant from the community to fund new research efforts and create public botanical gardens at the Cliffs at Mountain Park, the newest community in the group.

8. Pronghorn Bend, Oregon

Views of Mount Bachelor—just a twenty-minute drive away—fill the horizon of this thirty-six-hole landmark in the hospitable high desert. A bit ahead of schedule, Pronghorn's imposing clubhouse opened its doors in 2007, with gourmet dining and personal wine storage among its niceties. Fractional owner­ship remains a popular form of investment here—a throw of $200,000 or less secures partial claim on a lodge-style residence with a golf view.

9. Spanish Peaks Big Sky, Montana

This is perhaps the only golf community whose residents are excused for suddenly acquiring twangy accents and buckskin breeches. Fairway-side residences are available (the course, by Tom Weiskopf, opened in 2007), along with your choice of ski-in, ski-out neighborhoods, surrounded by views that qualify as religious experiences. Stone-and-timber buildings clustered together to form the Settlement contain expected facilities like dining, golf shop and locker rooms, but there's also a general store and an outfitter's cabin.

10. 3 Creek Ranch Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Outdoorsy though they may be, 3 Creek Ranchers delighted in last summer's opening of the main clubhouse. Along with giving them a place to store calories (chef Marcel Beauclair arranges that), it offers more ways to burn them, including an ultramodern workout facility, reportedly open twenty-four hours. Various contingents engage in bird banding, astronomy activities and the road-cycling club, and fishing takes place on the property's world-class sporting streams. Rees Jones designed the course, fitting it snugly along the Teton landscape.

11. Estancia Scottsdale, Arizona

There are shots on Estancia's perfectly groomed Tom Fazio course that encourage big swings, and others where the landing zones are carefully veiled by a dramatic desert landscape. The community is spacious but intimate, with no weak links among the golf, fitness, clubhouse and tennis amenities.

12. The Bear's Club Jupiter, Florida

The unmatched professionalism that marked Jack Nicklaus's playing career is replicated in this community's daily operation. There are outsize touches—a stuffed polar bear in the clubhouse—but the decorum and detail work is subtle.

13. The Greenbrier Sporting Club White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

A community with a built-in dignity and athletic gusto, courtesy of the grande dame resort that spawned it, the Sporting Club is anchored by a member's lodge, sports complex and spa, all adjoining the Tom Fazio–designed Snead course. Custom-built homes opt for either a classic or vernacular design, the former hip-roofed with columns and clapboard, the latter marked by fieldstone and broad porches.

14. Talisker Park City, Utah

An emerging enclave for the wealthy, worldly and athletic, Talisker stretches across ten thousand acres of Wasatch wilderness, near the understated glamour of Park City. Golf is by Mark O'Meara, and some homesites have lift access to Deer Valley Resort skiing.

15. Isleworth Windermere, Florida

The lake-region community that has everything just added a unique touch to its golf practice facility: bunkers with varieties of sand types to let the resident tour pros (there are many) hone their escape shots. The art installations by Sotheby's continue, including treasured sculptures on street corners.

16. Windsor Vero Beach, Florida

Windsor melds studied elegance with a neo-traditional neighborhood design that was ahead of its time when it was founded by the well-connected Canadian couple Hilary and Galen Weston. There is a polo/equestrian center, croquet lawn, gun club and an exclusive art gallery, along with golf by Robert Trent Jones II. Visitors can lodge in an elegant guesthouse.

17. Kuki'o Kona, Hawaii

For people of means who are never quite content anywhere but in Hawaii, this community's half-mile-long Big Island beach is pristine. Within the fifteen-hundred-acre property, only 375 homesites are designated. A well-staffed beach club for members earns sighs, as does the spa and the Tom Fazio golf.

18. Wade Hampton Golf Club Cashiers, North Carolina

The peaks and knobs of quiet Cashiers are filling up with golf and guard gates while the easy society of Wade Hampton moseys along at its own pace. The community was prospected by a brother-and-sister development team and is blessed with prime Blue Ridge acreage and the right course designer, Tom Fazio, whose beloved layout quietly turned twenty last year.

19. Reynolds Plantation Greensboro, Georgia

Despite its just-folks ambience, this is one of the most innovative golf communities in the U.S. Its wild new Jim Engh–designed Creek Club has raving fans (and a few doubters). Also newly minted is the state-of-the-art (and then some) golf-experience program created in partnership with TaylorMade.

20. Yellowstone Club Big Sky, Montana

On track for a grand opening in 2009, the golf clubhouse will treat members to views of the Spanish Peak mountain range. Self-billed as the only community in Montana offering private skiing and golf, it is certainly the most elite.

21. John's Island Vero Beach, Florida

Flanked by the Indian River and the Atlantic, this haven of quiet grandeur has three courses, tennis, a full gym and apocalypse-proof real estate values.

22. Iron Horse Whitefish, Montana

It's a short drive to Glacier National Park from this 820-acre sporting utopia overlooking Whitefish Lake. The smartly run Outdoor Pursuits program offered by its developers can take residents from horseback to whitewater to the trailhead of a distant peak. Back at the ranch are a Fazio course and other indulgences, such as crackling fires and gourmet cuisine.

23. Spring Island Okatie, South Carolina

Even without covenants and codes, the ecology-minded lifelong learners residing here would keep their homes low-slung and wedded to the landscape. A fitness center, pool and tennis complex tone the body, and courses in studio art, music and botany sharpen the mind.

24. Stock Farm Hamilton, Montana

Not a pun on the name of its founder, Charles Schwab, Stock Farm is a Montana golf enclave set apart from the region's potentially overwhelming ski culture. Golf, fitness-center workouts and prairie contemplation provide contentment. There are two distinct home-siting options: mountain or valley.

25. Silverleaf Scottsdale, Arizona

Built on a New Urbanist template, with neighborhood life encouraged. The golf course helped establish Tom Weiskopf as a specialist in desert design. In the distance, the shadowy McDowell Mountains frame memorable Scottsdale sunsets.

How We Compile the List

Our compilation of the Top 100 communities seeks out superb golf, luxury residences, extraordinary locations and a breadth of lifestyle opportunities. To be eligible, communities must offer property owners an opportunity for membership in an affiliated private golf club. Limited public access to the course—such as for guests at a resort—is allowed but may detract from a community's ranking. Each property is reviewed in the following six categories, in order of importance: golf amenity; residential architecture and style; location, including natural setting and proximity to cultural activities; management, service and programming options; nongolf amenities, such as a full-service spa, equestrian center or marina; and environmental stewardship.

By David Gould and Lauren Kay