I cringe to admit this, but the first time around, I did more than blink. If eyewitness accounts are to be trusted, I squeezed my eyes so tight you would’ve sworn I was girding my stomach for my first skydiving lesson.
Only I wasn’t airborne. My feet were planted on a firm patch of green grass in Sea Island, Georgia, standing still as a scarecrow. My left hand and wrist were sheathed in a leather gauntlet; my right hand concealed a sliver of raw quail meat pinched between my fingertips.
Perched on a nearby tree branch, a hungry Harris Hawk, named Mikee, waited patiently for a signal that lunch was ready to be served. Falconer Paige Hansen usually whistles to let Mikee know it’s safe to take off. But in this case, all I had to do was raise my left arm, creating a de facto leather perch, and Mikee would be off.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a charter member of the David Attenborough fan club—or if you consider Lincoln Park Zoo your second home—nothing can prepare you for the sight of a hungry hawk streaking toward one of your limbs at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour.
As soon as I lifted my arm, Mikee sprung—her majestic mahogany feathers rippling in the wind—before she gently alighted, in two seconds flat, onto my arm with pinpoint precision. My eyes now opened wide, staring nose-to-beak with my new friend, I fed Mikee her sashimi and gently ran my fingers through her plumage with the same care I used to pet my little Pomeranian as a child. I felt, in all honesty, like I’d made a friend for life.
That’s the amazing thing about visiting The Cloister, a sprawling resort located on Sea Island, the most picturesque of Georgia’s Golden Isles. Every day feels like a different Nat Geo TV series, only you’ve been given the starring role.
This resort, itself, has been in operation since 1928, when Hudson Motor Company owner Howard Coffin and his cousin, Bill Jones, first introduced the world to the beauty of this barrier island 70 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida. The history of this resort, which is now owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, is worthy of its own book series. There are 16th-century Flemish tapestries, a grove of oak trees planted by American presidents and British prime ministers, and a one-of-a-kind conference table used during the G8, when Sea Island hosted the conference in 2004. It’s got it all. Virtually everything here has a backstory worthy of its own documentary.
The best news? It makes no difference if you’re an amateur outdoorsman or an inexperienced sportsman, a Yankee who’s never deigned to utter the phrase “y’all” or a seasoned architectural critic and Southern historian: You’re going to leave this place changed, having not only been pampered but introduced to experiences— and wisdom—you should have become acquainted with much earlier in life.
Some guests prefer to stay indoors, soaking in the resort’s manmade beauty. Take, for instance, the Colonial Lounge, the first jaw-dropping sight that greets visitors upon arrival to The Cloister. The multistory space—with its guild-hall ceiling, columned arches, and chandeliers shaped like metal wedding cakes—looks like it’s been frozen in time, preserving the Spanish Mediterranean designs that the resort’s original architect, Addison Mizner, unleashed in the 1920s.
Only, it’s not a relic. This stunning room was created from 2003 to 2006 by then CEO Bill Jones III and architect Peter Capone. Whole treatises have been written about the ambitious project, including the fact that the resort’s 650 rugs were hand-woven by artisans across Turkey.
For us, taking a guided history tour through The Cloister—one of five accommodations options open to guests—was like taking a stroll through life-sized re-creations of the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. Every room is a portal into a different place and time. In the Georgian Room, guests dine on lavish tasting menus in a cream-colored room that feels plucked from the pages of a Jane Austin novel. There’s a walled herb garden that feels like the Alhambra. And then there are The Cloister’s rooms, which are pure Coastal Georgia elegance, complete with native sea fan and sand dollar artwork and scents of bergamot, sea fennel, and sandalwood that drift in the breeze.
For concrete-jungle urbanites like my family and I, however, the real glory of this place lies outdoors. We are the farthest thing from survivalists as you can imagine. But after a week out here, we were ready to go on a shopping spree at our local Orvis.
If you’re a little skittish about horses, as one member of our group used to be, all you have to do is jump atop a horse and trot your way down to Sea Island’s shoreline, where the sky-blue waters shimmer like a sequined designer gown. You’ll never cower in your saddle again. We aren’t professional fisherman either, but after spending an afternoon with our fishing guide, Rob Hanft, watching dolphins and ospreys do water acts worthy of a Vegas Cirque, we were bornagain seafarers.
As Rob told us, “Out here, there’s more catching than fishing.” I’m not sure all of us believed him until we witnessed our 10-year-old son reel in one fish after another. They were packed up, filleted, and then sent to the River Bar for our dinner that very night, when we feasted on seared trout with a side of lemony beurre blanc.
We made other friends along the way: a Eurasian eagle owl named Scout and a pair of yellow love birds named Wilma and Fred who sang love ballads to each other every morning in the resort’s conservatory. But it was only at the end of our trip that I realized the greatest gift that Sea Island had given us.
We were sitting in our favorite spot: The Cloister’s stunning courtyard, which mimics the Old World grandeur of a Medieval Spanish monastery. Sitting on the swing in the corner of the courtyard is a religious experience, no matter what your spiritual affiliation. Sunlight slices through the rounded arches and between the rustling oak leaves, etch-a-sketching illustrated patterns on the lawn.
Time was ticking. There was packing to do. A plane to catch. And a commute back home. But then my son said something I don’t hear very often anymore. He said, “Dad, can we stay outside a few more minutes?” And with that I slid my smartphone deeper into my pocket, watching Mother Nature stencil more shapes onto the grass, and gently swung onward, eyes now completely open, like a Harris hawk gliding in the breeze.
For more information about The Cloister and Sea Island, visit seaisland.com.
COME AND SEA
Sea Island offers an extraordinary array of outdoor adventures, all welcoming to amateurs and experts alike. Here are the most unique of the bunch.
Sea Island preserves unique sporting traditions, including quail shooting and dog-lead squirrel hunts, at the Broadfield, the resort’s 5,800-acre sporting club and lodge.
In addition to offering three different golf courses, Sea Island’s 17,000-square-foot PGA Tour-worthy Golf Performance Center is a technological marvel, offering the same driving bays and swing tech that the pros use on the tour.
The Sea Island Beach Club, complete with three pools, a water slide, five-mile stretch of private beach, bowling alley, oceanfront basketball court, and candy shop is first-class family fun.
Inshore and offshore fishing trips, including kid-focused journeys, allow guests to reel in everything from redfish and trout to marlin and tuna.
From May to September, guests can join local naturalists in patrolling for baby sea turtles and help protect them from predators and natural dangers, while Hawk Walks provide an unprecedented opportunity to interact with hawks and owls.