A blast from the past: Jekyll Island resort
Watching HBO’s “The Gilded Age” during the pandemic, I wished I could be part of that era, if only for a short time — to wander through an opulent mansion, play croquet on a grand lawn, and have a drink beside a crackling fireplace.
Jekyll Island — one of the Golden Isles of coastal Georgia, midway between Savannah and Jacksonville — seemed like the perfect setting to experience that world.
As my husband and I drove into our resort, the Jekyll Island Club, a light-yellow hotel with wraparound verandas and a flag-topped turret came into view. Parked in front of the club was a classic antique car.
On our way to check in, we walked down a long, wide hallway lined with mirrors. We were ready to travel back in time.
In the footsteps of Vanderbilts
First, we signed up for a private tour of the resort with concierge and hotel historian Sherri Zacher, who said she fell in love with the island as a kid in the 70s, when she visited the island and sneaked into the clubhouse.
Zacher gave us the backstory on this once-exclusive club. In 1886, a group of New York businessmen purchased the entire island for $125,000. Shares were sold, and membership was limited to 100 families.
From the moment the Jekyll Island Club opened in 1888, architect Charles A. Alexander’s amazing Queen Anne-style Clubhouse became the winter getaway for the nation’s elite: Carnegies, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Fields and Pulitzers.
“Wealthy” is an understatement. At one point, the club’s members held one-sixth of the world’s wealth.
Families arrived from New York and Chicago by train or boat, with their steamer trunks and an entourage of servants, tutors, nannies and seamstresses. Some families reportedly brought along employees whose sole occupation was described as “packer of jewels.”
On the tour, we learned more interesting tidbits: The hotel’s hallways were designed to be extra wide to accommodate the full gowns the women wore each night. It wasn’t unusual to see a white rug rolled out on the lawn to protect the ladies’ long dresses.
And each gown was only worn once during a months-long stay (I wouldn’t have even made it a day with my one-and-only gown!). The men wore black-tie attire nightly.
Every evening, chefs prepared 10-course dinners, some of which featured wild game shot by the members. Served in the elegant Grand Dining Room, dinner lasted three hours.
Although the women attended formal teas, balls and galas, they were also very involved in leisure activities such as hunting, fishing, tennis, croquet, bike riding, lawn bowling, horseback riding and golf — unusual for the times.
While the Jekyll Island Club was considered a winter playground for the elite, history was also made there.
In the club’s Federal Reserve Room, six of the country’s most wealthy and highly respected financiers drafted the Aldrich Plan in 1910, which later became the basis for the Federal Reserve System in 1913. And in 1915, Theodore Vail, president of AT&T, placed the first transcontinental telephone call from the room.
After the membership-only club closed in 1942, the state took over and operated it as a public hotel. It’s hard to believe, but after that attempt failed, the property sat empty and neglected for well over a decade.
Fast forward to 1985, and during a massive renovation, the grand wooden staircase was rebuilt, original leaded glass was restored wherever possible, original wood was stripped of layers and layers of paint to retain as much of the original structure, and so on. The restored hotel opened on December 29, 1986.
Also part of the restoration: the club’s 16 cottages. When I think of a cottage, I think small and cozy. These cottages were opulent, with lush, magnificent gardens.
The Crane Cottage is the most spectacular, with 22 bedrooms and 17 bathrooms. Built in 1917, the Italian Renaissance home was renowned for its exquisite sunken garden, central courtyard and colonnade, and elegant fountains. Today, you can rent the entire cottage or a room.
Bike rides, golf, sunsets
While history abounds at the resort, it was fun to take part in the same activities the elite once did. Biking is an excellent way to explore the island’s 20 miles of flat paths and trails. Though I can bike, I was thrilled that we could rent sturdy three-wheelers.
Golf arrived on the island in 1898. Today, there are four courses with 63 holes. For tennis players, I recommend Pine Lakes’ Tennis Club for its 13 Har-Tru clay courts.
On the 5,500-acre Jekyll Island, you can take dolphin-sighting tours, relax on 10 miles of beaches, including Driftwood Beach (lined with ancient driftwood, creating a fantastic backdrop), or visit the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which is devoted to the study, care and rehabilitation of sea turtles.
Every evening, we watched a magical sunset. Sit on a bench or, as we did, head to The Wharf Restaurant, where we sipped a drink on the deck and watched as the sky turned shades of pink, orange and red.
If there’s one problem with Jekyll Island, it’s that there are just too many things to do. Guess we will have to return.
If you go
Jekyll Island is a 10-hour drive from Washington, D.C. Southwest Airlines flies to Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. Once there, rent a car for the 90-minute drive from Savannah or 75-minute drive from Jacksonville.
There are many places to stay on the island. Perhaps the most affordable option is to rent a condo or house on VRBO or Airbnb for less than $150 a night.
We stayed at Jekyll Island Club Resort & Cottages, where rooms start at $225 in September. The more modern Jekyll Ocean Club, its all-suite sister property, is located on the ocean ($389 per night). Its Eighty Ocean Kitchen and Bar serves Southern cuisine, from pimento cheese dip to shrimp cocktail.
To tour the island, sign up for a Landmark Historic Trolley Tour — a guided trolley tour of the 240-acre National Historic Landmark district, including admission to Indian Mound Cottage and Mosaic Gallery (adults $20; children 4-12 $10; free for 3 and under).
There are also free downtown bus trolleys, unguided, that make stops throughout the historic area.
At the resort, try the free Walk Through History Tour every Tuesday through Thursday at 2 p.m., which is complimentary for overnight resort guests and $15 for non-resort guests.