The day the news broke about Bernie Ebbers stepping down as WorldCom CEO, I was having dinner with a diverse group of business folks in a hunting lodge on a private island off the coast of Georgia.
The news was huge, especially to us Mississippians, but no one knew about it. Yet. The only news source on the 10,000-acre island, which has a staff of 20 and accommodates only 30 visitors, was the early morning edition of The New York Times, which had been laminated in a leather-bound journal before breakfast was served.
But Ebber’s departure was inconveniently timed, and we would have to wait for the next day’s edition. In contrast to the instant information that I have grown accustomed to, the ambience at Little St. Simons Island in the Golden Isles of Georgia was deliberate.
“Our guests are the who’s who of the business world,” said Bo Taylor, innkeeper of The Lodge at Little St. Simons Island. “They want to get away from it all, have some privacy, and get back to nature. They love it here. The stories we could tell! But we won’t.”
Mind you, the first choice of Mississippians for business and family events is Mississippi, but if you’re looking for something a little different, consider the Golden Isles of Georgia.
The five islands that comprise the Golden Isles — Jekyll, Sea, St. Simons, Little St. Simons and Cumberland — are connected by marshes and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. All are protected from severe weather because of their location at the western end of a massive ocean funnel. Tides rise higher and faster than anywhere else on the eastern seaboard.
“You can start at the top of the chain at Little St. Simons Island,” said Patrick Saylor, public relations director of Brunswick & The Golden Isles Visitors Bureau. “It’s the real exclusive nature experience, rooted in the outdoors. You can only get there by boat. Sea Island is the most luxurious venue for the area. St. Simons has something for everyone and Jekyll Island is a little more family oriented, and the great thing that sets it apart from everything else is the historic district.”
Only 35% of Jekyll Island — 12 square miles — can be developed, and already that number hovers around 34%, with a unique mix of 1960s ranch-style homes, a few upscale developments and the world famous Jekyll Island Club Hotel.
The Jekyll Club, built in 1886 as a playground for the ultra rich, is located on a barrier island that seems pleasantly stuck in a time warp. It served as a backdrop for part of the filming of The Legend of Bagger Vance. A world famous four-star resort, the Jekyll Club features an expansive croquet lawn heavy with the scent of jasmine, groves of sprawling oaks, fabled cottages and Victorian architecture, all set in the Jekyll Historic District. Afternoon tea is served on the veranda and a pub is located near lush gardens. It’s not uncommon to see horse-drawn carriages dropping off wedding parties two or three times a day at Faith Chapel, located next to Crane Cottage, built by the plumbing magnate as a winter retreat.
Jekyll Island is home to the Deep South’s only oceanfront convention center. The 55,000-square-foot facility with a large beach deck as its centerpiece can accommodate up to 10,000 people, and some rooms can accommodate 2,000 people. Meetings account for roughly 30,000 room nights every year. Plans call for a 300-room, Hyatt-style onsite hotel to open within two years.
“Convention and meeting groups are the biggest users of the convention center, but more diverse groups are coming in,” said Sheila Guidice, director of sales for Brunswick/Golden Isles Convention Center. “Last winter, a national cheerleading competition brought in over 2,000 participants.”
Sea Island, a five-mile-long coastal resort island, is home to the nouveau rich, such as Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, whose lavish spread faces the Atlantic, and old money surrounding The Cloister, a AAA five-diamond award winner consistently selected by national publications as one of the world’s most outstanding hotels.
Honeymooning is legendary there, and famous wedding couples include the George Bushes, who recently celebrated their golden anniversary at The Cloister.
“Sea Island offers the best of two distinct worlds,” said Dulany Hall, director of sales for the Sea Island Co., a fourth generation family-owned company. “Begin the day by conducting your business in one of our fully-equipped meeting rooms, fully prepared by our professional conference services staff. Then reward a job well done in the most perfect way possible: a round of golf on one of three world-class courses, in the full-service seaside spa, on one of 25 Har-Tru tennis courts, on a sunset cruise on our vintage yacht or just relaxing on the five and a half miles of private beach.”
St. Simons Island is the most modern and touristy island, crowned by the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, the island’s only seaside resort. The story is that two gentlemen opened the resort as a dance club in 1935 after being barred from The Cloister for fooling around with other men’s wives. After a suspicious fire destroyed the dance club, the gentlemen rebuilt it, adding hotel rooms. Owned by Mississippi Management Inc. the King and Prince has been expanded to include two and three bedroom villas and the entire hotel is being renovated to impeccable standards.
St. Simons is chock full of history, with Fort Frederica, Christ Church built circa 1776, the Tree Spirits of St. Simons, where weathered faces were long ago carved into majestic oaks, and the St. Simons Island Lighthouse. The oldest brick structure in the area, the 104-foot lighthouse is still operational. Epworth By The Sea, a lovely Methodist retreat, is often booked by smaller groups seeking a less costly resort retreat. Everywhere on the island, the stained glass is exquisite.
Little St. Simons is nearly the same as when Philip Berolzheimer, the owner of Eagle Pencil Co., purchased the island, sight unseen, in 1908, to harvest cedar trees for pencil making. When he discovered the trees were too stressed from wind and salt to be used for pencils, he retained it as a special retreat for family and friends.
“Even though we are within driving distance, we’re only accessible by boat through the marsh rivers, and once you get here, we are worlds away,” said Taylor.
A popular upscale choice for incentive travel, Little St. Simons’ guests get to know one another and participate in team building exercises without the outside distractions of television and telephones.
“We recently had an owner of a national car rental company treat 60 of his top producers in two separate trips,” said Taylor. “His staff was blown away by their three-day stays!”
On our last night on the island, I asked Taylor what conveniences he missed the most by working and living on a rustic island known as a “camp for adults.”
“I miss pizza — gooey, sloppy, cheesy pizza,” he said. “And going to movies on a whim.”
The only Golden Isle that wasn’t toured by land was Cumberland Island, operated by the National Park Service, and the site of the secret location of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s wedding to Carolyn Bessette in 1996. An air tour revealed the compound of the Kennedy pal who made the arrangements. Wild horses roam the island, which can be accessed by boat from the Golden Isles or ferry from St. Marys.
In addition to three nonstop daily flights from Atlanta to Brunswick via Delta Airlines, many groups fly into the Jacksonville International Airport or the Savannah International Airport, both located about 70 miles from the Golden Isles.
Contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter’s column on business travel — and the business of it —
ularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her at email@example.com </a