Sojourn on Sea Island

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Whoever came up with the expression "life is a beach" probably envisioned something more simple than the Sea Island resort complex, which has been luring vacationers to the tranquil coast of Georgia for almost 80 years.

Situated along a five-mile strip of private beach on tiny Sea Island, the original hotel on the site, the Cloister, was designed by Addison Mizner, a pioneer in Spanish and Mediterranean Revival-style architecture.

President Calvin Coolidge, who attended the Cloister's grand opening ceremonies in 1928, would not recognize most of the current $500 million complex.

Even the original structure was rebuilt in 2003 to incorporate modern amenities. In fact, the most recent presidential visitor, George W. Bush, would also see some changes. Since he attended the G8 conference at Sea Island in 2004, a new spa has been built, and a beach club is set to open this summer.

Still, regardless of how much the Sea Island complex changes, it retains the unique charm and luxurious feel of the original resort.

Southern Hospitality

Visitors have a choice of three lodging options. The rooms and suites at the rebuilt Cloister at Sea Island were designed to maintain the ambience of a 1920s-era Florida mansion ($725 to $1,550 per night).

The Lodge, just across the causeway on St. Simons Island, was built in 2001. The rooms (starting at $450 per night) have hardwood floors, open-beamed ceilings and plush furniture, all evocative of an English country manor.

Complimentary use of a Range Rover, digital cameras, personalized stationery -- and of course, 24-hour butler service -- are among the benefits of staying at the Cloister or the Lodge.

Larger accommodations are also available for families or groups, from three-bedroom bungalows to nine-bedroom luxury homes with swimming pools ($2,400 to $22,000 per week).

The resort offers an abundance of dining options, from poolside snacks to a private formal dining room for larger parties. Guests who can stand the heat may enjoy dining in the kitchen at the chef's table, or for a more mellow experience, consider in-room meals served by your butler.

The elegant Georgian Room offers multicourse tasting menus (even one for vegetarians) with optional wine pairings. The River Bar caters to guests of all ages, with both a children's menu and a Scotch menu among its offerings.

Saddle Up

Sea Island has dozens of fine steeds available for riding, whether in the ring or on its lush trails and picturesque shoreline. On the bareback beach ride, bathing-suit-clad riders take their horses out into the surf. Once the water is just at the top of the animals' withers (that's the shoulders, to those of us not well-versed in equine anatomy), the horses find their sea legs and begin to swim through the warm surf.

"It's the ultimate riding experience. The bareback beach ride groups have seen dolphins more than once," says stable manager Amy Kutrufis. The dolphins don't get too close, but they stay in sight, swimming parallel to the beach along with the horses and riders. "The guests said it was the most marvelous experience they ever had."

The bareback ride is for experienced riders, but those with less saddle time under their belts might enjoy a six-mile trail ride that meanders through quiet oak and pine forests, or sandy beach rides. "When you look down a deserted stretch of beach with just horses on it, it looks like a scene from a movie that's set someplace far away," says Jim Root, general manager of spa operations.

A naturalist also leads a natural history ride through the dunes, telling the island's back story while pointing out sea turtles, birds and regional plants. "The ride is along private beach, which is completely undeveloped," Kutrufis says. "There are dunes on one side and ocean on the other. ... You see something different each time."

In addition, custom programs can be devised for those who want to polish their horsemanship or learn new skills during their stay at Sea Island. The staff teaches both English and Western style riding at all levels, as well as cart driving, dressage and jumping.

Meanwhile, Back at the Spa

Root recommends a round of steam, sauna and massage at the spa for the horsey set when they return. "Of course, there's that whole lower-body thing, but after a ride you'll feel it in the upper body, too," he says. Time in the saddle can take a toll on the arms, back and shoulders. "We're not used to ... using the muscles that way," Root points out.

The sprawling, 65,000-square-foot spa offers a full range of treatments including massage, reiki, craniosacral, wraps, facials and scrubs.

Try the grounding earth reflexology treatment, which offers 90 minutes of bliss from the knees down: a foot reflexology massage with neroli and cypress essential oils, bamboo polish, hot-stone application and moisturizing foot wrap.

Or settle in for the two-hour Turkish Hammam treatment, in which your body is cleansed, polished, soaked, misted, massaged and moisturized with a barrage of scented oils and lotions derived from Moroccan mint, orange and quince, amber, rose and jasmine.

More than 100 classes are offered weekly in the spa's five fitness studios, ranging from yoga and Pilates to personal training sessions. Weather permitting, some classes move outside to the garden or the beach.

"Our spa guides listen and match the options to meet the needs and expectations of individual guests," Root says. "It's like a wonderful buffet. It doesn't matter where you start, and you don't have to try everything. You can always come back for more."

Live and Learn

There are plenty of opportunities for skill building, indoors and out. The first category includes ballroom dancing, business etiquette, wine tastings and seminars. The hands-on learning kitchen is the site of group cooking schools, or private lessons with wellness chef Laurie Erickson.

For outdoor fun, time spent at the Sea Island Golf Learning Center could boost your performance on the resort's three 18-hole golf courses. The center teaches through a holistic approach that combines golf instruction, fitness and sports psychology.

Tennis clinics, lessons and drills are offered on 16 courts, or visitors can tune up their squash game on three courts. The resort also has a skeet-shooting school, swimming, sailing, snorkeling, scuba and kayaking lessons at two swimming pools and the private yacht club, and an on-staff track coach, among other activities.

And for a less scheduled Sea Island experience, visitors can walk in the labyrinth, relax in the meditation garden or unwind by the koi pond. Or, as Root says, "People can find any number of things to do, but they can also choose to just sit on the beach and watch the tide roll in."

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