Sitting back in a rocking chair on the wraparound porch of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, it's easy to transport yourself back to the days when robber barons owned this small barrier island off the Georgia coast. To your left is the 13-room "cottage" once owned by oil tycoon William Rockefeller (brother to John D.). Nearby are other vacation homes owned by the likes of Marshall Field, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Vanderbilt. They were among the business elite who made the Jekyll Island Club, founded in 1887 as a private winter resort, one of the most exclusive enclaves of its day.
Back then, the pace was purposely slow. Too slow for later generations, who preferred trendier spots in Florida and Europe. By the 1940s, the clubhouse and cottages were closed.
GOLF COAST. But now, the quiet island has revived, undergoing a state-sponsored transformation into an outdoor recreation playground. And while golf and tennis have become the primary draws, there's a renewed trend toward doing what the rich did a century ago: taking it easy.
The original nine-hole dunes golf course built for the millionaires continues to operate--and to be buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean winds. Three challenging 18-hole courses have been carved out of the pine and oak forests and marshland in the center of the island. In 1989, a tennis complex sporting 13 clay courts opened.
Those inclined to pass on such participatory sports might prefer just to explore the island. Several of the moguls' cottages have been restored and are now open as part of a tour of a 240-acre historic district. The homes are constructed in a variety of period styles and materials, including tabby, a mixture of crushed seashell, lime, and water.
The state authority has wisely built 20 miles of paved pathways that wind through palms, moss-draped oaks, and along beaches, nearly encircling the island. The pathways make for easy walking or bicycling, the ancient, twisted trees providing pleasant shade in the hot, humid climate. And since you've come all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, it would be hard not to detour from the paths to visit Jekyll's beaches. Many are still wild, with natural dunes and bushes intact. The more developed ones are no match for the majestic white sand of Florida or Hawaii, but they're certainly adequate for sunbathing, wave jumping, and beachcombing--except during high tide, when the narrow beaches are mostly underwater.
LITTLE STARCH. The turreted Jekyll Island Club Hotel (800 333-3333) is the centerpiece of island life. The rambling white brick structure boasts Queen Anne-style decor, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and stained-glass fanlights. The dining room is stunning--a high-ceilinged chamber, bisected by massive white columns. Men are required to wear jackets to dinner, but that's the only evidence of starch at a very laid-back resort. Rates range from $89 to $159 per night.
Family vacations provide the bulk of summer-weekend bookings, but the Jekyll Island Club Hotel also caters to business meetings. You know the kind: a few hours of talk in the morning and then on to the links, the beach, or the hotel's formal croquet green in the afternoon.After all, taking care of business was not unheard of in the tycoons' day. In 1910, Senator Nelson Aldrich and club member J. P. Morgan organized a secret meeting of financiers and government officials, where plans for the future Federal Reserve Bank were outlined. Chances are your conference here won't reach that level of historical significance. But that shouldn't stop you from vacationing like a millionaire.