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Surviving in Style: Sea Island retains its charm through tough times and offeres enhanced value

Sea Island may be in financial distress. It may be choking on millions of dollars of debt it accumulated when it orchestrated a massive expansion and renovation of the south Georgia resort – and then watched the economy tank. And the privately held concern led by Bill Jones III, whose family started the sumptuous getaway in the late 1920s, may be looking for a buyer to bail it out. But that does not mean Sea Island is not still a place worth visiting.

    In fact, there may not be a better time to go than right now. The Five Diamond resort has managed to maintain its renowned levels of quality and service in the face of multiple monetary challenges, even as it has cut staffing and reduced expenses. At the same time, it has dropped prices. And while no one wants to take advantage of people or places in difficult situations, it is no doubt hard for value-conscious travelers to ignore the bang they can get for their bucks today at Sea Island.

    None of this is to say, of course, that Sea Island is cheap. It remains a premium luxury resort geared toward the well heeled. But its target audience should find a visit there easier on the wallet than it has been in the past, as the lower rates entice a wider demographic to visit.

    Sea Island has created packages, for example, that allow guests to tee it up as often as they want on the highly rated Seaside and Plantation courses for rates that start at $395 per night for a single at The Lodge. That represents fairly significant savings when you consider a room alone generally costs more than $500 a night, and green fees on those two layouts run from $175 to $295.

    The resort has also introduced a two-day, “Train Like A Pro” package, which includes accommodations at the Lodge as well as a one-hour fitness evaluation and stretching session with Randy Myers, the resort’s golf fitness expert and personal trainer to PGA Tour players such as Davis Love III. In addition, guests get two hours of swing instruction with noted Sea Island-based teachers Todd Anderson, Jack Lumpkin or Gale Peterson; a one-hour lesson with putting guru Mike Shannon; and a two-hour session with Dr. Morris Pickens, who specializes in the mental aspects of golf and works with 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson, among others. Unlimited golf on Seaside and Plantation comes with that deal as well, with prices for the overall offering starting at $1,120 per night.

    “It is important for people to know that we are still very much open for business and still providing the exceptional amenities and service for which Sea Island has long been known,” says Eric Schneider, the resort’s vice president of golf and club operations. “People should know they can still come down here and have a wonderful experience while they also get great value.”

    Ten trips to Sea Island over the years have shown me that having a wonderful experience there is not hard to do. Start with the golf. Seaside and Plantation are superb 18-hole designs that were revamped in the late 1990s. Tom Fazio created Seaside from two disparate nines – one designed by the fabled team of Harry Colt and Charles Alison and the other by Joe Lee – while Rees Jones redesigned Plantation, which was originally laid out by Walter Travis. Both layouts are as scenic as they are challenging, offering great variety in terms of shot-making and the opportunity to use every club in the bag.

    The opening holes at Seaside and Plantation are quick walks from the lobby of the 42-room Lodge, which features on-call butlers who deliver milk and warm cookies to the rooms each evening. The courses played host in 2004 to the U.S. Mid-Amateur and are open only to Sea Island club members and guests of the Lodge and The Cloister, the resort’s main inn. That gives them a private-club feel, and there is never the sense of being crowded.

    Of course, neither man nor woman can live by golf alone, and one of the beauties of Sea Island is all that it provides beyond the royal and ancient game. Start with horseback rides on the beach. Or massages in one of the 26 treatment rooms at the spa. As an outdoorsman, I relish the times I shoot skeet, trap and sporting clays there, and the lazy days I fish for sea trout and redfish in its abundant waters. Then, there is the overall aura of the retreat, a sort of Southern gentility that gives guests a sense of calm and contentedness.

    To be sure, there is nothing calming about the financial problems Bill Jones and the Sea Island Company are facing. But they seem to be finding a way to keep business difficulties from intruding on guest experiences – and the pleasure of spending time there. It is interesting to note that Jones’ grandfather helped found the Sea Island resort in 1928, just before the start of the Great Depression – and helped build it through the tumult of the 1930s and then World War II.

    “Those were difficult times, but the resort made it through them all,” says Jim Stahl, the 1995 U.S. Senior Amateur champion and a longtime Sea Island resident. “Well, times are tough again, and I am sure Sea Island will survive them once more. It will keep moving forward as it continues to do what it does best, which is entertaining guests and taking very good care of them.”


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