Sea Island is one of a series of barrier islands located off the coast of Georgia near St. Simons Island in Glynn County. Internationally known as a wealthy resort and cottage colony, the island is approximately five miles long and one and a half miles wide at its widest point.
Once known as Fifth Creek Island by coastal Native Americans, Sea Island was largely uninhabited until the 1920s. In 1768 James MacKay, one of General James Oglethorpe’s troop commanders, acquired it as a land grant from King George III of England, but he made no use of it. By the early years of the nineteenth century, the island, then known as Long Island, had been acquired by John Couper of Cannon’s Point Plantation and his business partner James Hamilton of Hamilton Plantation. In 1814 the island was passed to James Hamilton when the partnership between the two men was dissolved. Later the island was acquired by William Audley Couper, son of John Couper, who in 1845 sold it to his brother James Hamilton Couper. The Coupers used the island to pasture cattle during the summer months. In 1888 the heirs of James Hamilton Couper sold the island to James F. O’Shaughnessey, a member of the Jekyll Island Club, to use as a hunting preserve. This venture was short-lived, and the island was used for little other than grazing livestock until 1921, when a group of local businessmen formed a company to subdivide the island for vacation cottages. The completion of a causeway between the mainland and St. Simons made Sea Island accessible to the public in 1924.
Development as a Resort
Two years later the development of the island as a beach resort captured the imagination of Howard Coffin, an Ohio native and a founder of the Hudson Motor Company. Coffin had acquired nearby Sapelo Island as a coastal retreat in 1912, and he began buying large tracts on St. Simons in 1926. As a pioneer in automotive design, Coffin envisioned how the transportation revolution brought about by the automobile could transform the inaccessible Georgia islands into tourist destinations, once the coastal highway, U.S. 17, reached nearby Brunswick. His company, Sea Island Investments, bought Long Island that same year, briefly renaming it Glynn Isle before adopting the name Sea Island.
Coffin commissioned Addison Mizner, noted for his work in Palm Beach and Boca Raton, Florida, to design a small hotel, which opened as the Cloister in October 1928. A beach club, fishing dock, tennis courts, and shooting school were built near the hotel. North of the resort, a colony of private cottages developed along a three-mile drive down the center of the island. A golf club, riding stables, and yacht club for the Cloister were located on St. Simons Island.
In 1928 Coffin turned over the administration of the resort to his young cousin, Alfred W. Jones, who steered it through the difficult years of the depression. In 1966 Alfred W. Jones Jr. succeeded his father as president of the Sea Island Company. The Jones family continues to own and manage the company and the resort. Since 1997 Alfred W. Jones III has served as chairman of the board.
The property expanded rapidly in the early 2000s. In 2003 the original building was razed, and construction began on a new structure designed by Peter Capone. Capone’s plans closely follow Mizner’s Mediterranean architectural style and include a replica of his original turret. In addition, the hotel’s famous Spanish Lounge was dismantled and restored to its original condition within the new building. Featuring seventy hotel rooms and thirty suites, the new structure opened in April 2006.
The resort hosted several high-profile events. Ocean Forest, the resort’s private golf club, it was the site of the 2001 Walker Cup Match. In June 2004 the G8 Summit, an annual meeting of the eight largest industrial nations to discuss economic and political issues of global importance, was hosted by the United States on Sea Island.
The 2008 financial crisis destabilized the resort, as many of the previous renovation projects had been funded by real estate ventures. Visitation declined, revenue dropped substantially, and proposed upscale development projects never came to fruition. The Sea Island Company lost an estimated 97 million in 2008 and another 78 million in 2009. Hundreds of employees were laid off. Following a failed loan restructuring attempt in 2009, the resort defaulted again and filed for bankruptcy in 2010. A group of investors formed the Sea Island Acquisitions, LLC and acquired the property later that same year.
In 2016 the Anschutz family of Denver, Colorado bought out three other investors to become the owner of Sea Island. The COVID-19 Pandemic prompted the temporary closure of two luxury hotels and several restaurants and spas, but the resort reopened in June 2020.
The resort consistently receives the prestigious Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star ratings, and wealthy visitors still flock to Sea Island.