In the winter of 1928, newspapers around the country published a story of then-president Calvin Coolidge planting a commemorative oak on the grounds of a newly opened resort off the coast of Georgia. This was big news for a couple of reasons. First, sitting presidents at that time didn’t normally partake in what could be considered PR for private institutions. And secondly, this new Sea Island Resort was somewhat of an anomaly, being the first to be built between Pinehurst, North Carolina, and Daytona Beach, Florida. But the papers didn’t tell the real story behind Coolidge and his oak tree. It seems instead of planting a live oak—the state tree of Georgia and a species that can survive more than 300 years—Coolidge mistakenly planted a water oak, a fragile tree that is short-lived and prone to disease. So under dark of night, Sea Island’s horticulturist snuck out and swapped the tree Coolidge was photographed planting and replaced it with the live oak still standing on the property today.
Stamp of Approval // Prominent dignitaries who’ve planted oaks at Sea Island Resort just south of Savannah, Georgia, include U.S. presidents Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George W. and George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, along with British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
This story is one of the countless charms of Sea Island. The resort’s ninety-year history is steeped in tradition, including the planting of commemorative oaks, in which many U.S. presidents and other dignitaries have participated. But the real magic of Sea Island is the resort’s ability to blend the old and the new, creating an atmosphere reflecting a variety of styles and sensibilities. What began as a dream to build a “friendly little hotel” called the Cloister has evolved into a resort that is at the same time formal yet casual, luxurious yet cozy, traditional yet modern.
Sea Island is a place of jackets and ties but also flip flops and beach towels. Of stellar wine lists, rare bourbon, and gallons upon gallons of sweet tea. It’s a place where culinary classics such as Caesar salad, steak au poivre, and bananas Foster are still prepared tableside, and where bacon cheeseburgers and ice cream sundaes are treated with reverence. It is the grand dame of Southern resorts, its grandeur held in check by its Southern style and gracious staff.
It’s fitting that Sea Island’s story can be traced back to a moment of genuine Southern hospitality. In 1910, Howard Coffin, chief engineer of the Hudson Motor Car Company in Detroit, visited Savannah, Georgia, to watch his cars perform in an automobile race. It was Coffin’s first visit to the South, and he and his wife were immediately captivated with the climate and natural beauty of the land. Just by chance, a man hired to chauffeur the Coffins overheard the couple discussing a desire to see more of the area. He suggested they take a fishing expedition with his brother, who owned a boat and fishing camp on Skidaway Island. The couple took the chauffeur up on his offer and spent the next few days on Skidaway, resting, fishing, and becoming more and more determined to put down roots along the Georgia coast.
Two years later, Coffin purchased most of the land comprising Sapelo, an island south of Savannah. On building an island home, it quickly became a Southern hideaway for Coffin and his well-heeled friends from the north. Over the next few years, Coffin purchased more tracts of land along the coast, including a secluded sliver of goat and hog pastureland known as Long Island. Coffin renamed the small piece of land Sea Island and envisioned building a “year-round hotel along with a community of small cottages.” To realize this dream, Coffin enlisted the help of his young cousin and right hand man Bill Jones, and retained the firm of Addison Mizner, the architect who had already transformed the look and feel of Palm Beach and Boca Raton.
The Cloister opened in October of 1928, and Sea Island immediately became the “it” destination for dignitaries, luminaries, and icons of the business world. But it also became a retreat for families, most of whom would return year after year and watch as the small resort grew to include multiple golf courses and a host of other amenities and activities.
While much has changed at Sea Island over the past ninety years, the resort’s dedication to quality, tradition, and Southern hospitality has never wavered. Today, Sea Island is the only resort in the world to achieve four Forbes Five-Stars nine years in a row. It’s a place where the children who walked the white sandy beaches in the 1930s and 1940s now watch their grandchildren play in the surf and eat ice cream sundaes by the pool. It’s a place where massive live oaks tower the grounds, including one attributed to Calvin Coolidge. Knowing the tree’s story, it’s hard not to wonder what other secrets this legacy of a resort may hold.
Sea Island Resort, Sea Island, Georgia. (855) 572-4975, seaisland.com