The Southern States: Follow the (old) money to Sea Island

Tree frogs, wild turkeys, alligators, cotton. Yet, says Michael Williams, this reclaimed corner of Georgia swamp attracts the most distinguished humanfolk...

When the moon comes up, loggerhead turtles will creep on to the beach to lay their eggs. Behind us, even in these baking summer months, is succulent forest, populated by radiant tropical birds, longleaf pine, and moss-hung oak, magnolia, palm and palmetto, cypress and sea myrtle and red-berried cassina. To the north and south for many miles lie great stretches of sea marsh threaded with a network of ancient creeks and rivers.

But before you wake up, you must take part in a little quiz. We're at the heart of one of England's oldest colonies, yet Americans feel as much at home here as they might with a slice of Grandma Bush's blueberry pie. We are so far removed from any threat of terror that many of the world's leaders have enjoyed it for a break. Yet we are not surrounded by gates or security fences. There is virtually no crime, and anyone who fancies it can walk right on in. Everybody speaks English - and yet, funnily, we are in a foreign land deeply religious and quaintly courteous, which holds what many British regard as alien political views.

Where are we? Welcome to Sea Island, Georgia. You may have seen the name (on a T-shirt, because this was once the heart of cotton country). But sure as hell, you probably haven't been here, and if you do, the chances of running into another Brit are next to nil. The Golden Isles of Georgia, of which Sea Island is one of the most southerly, run for 150 miles along the coast and are one of America's best kept secrets. Forget Palm Beach or Miami, Sea Island - discreet, waspish and totally unbrash - is where old America's money takes its holidays in the sun.

Take the house where we are staying. Cottage 307, at the north end of the island, is actually the antithesis of a cottage. With its four vast bedrooms in a quarter of an acre overlooking a lake, plus outdoor pool, you'd probably call it a mansion in Berkshire. And this is one of the smaller "cottages". Many others, including the playwright Eugene O'Neill's vast pad on the waterfront, are veritable palaces. But oh, so discreet.

A far remove from what was once a swamp where the local Indians would trade turkeys, resin and beeswax with passing ships from Europe. Wealth arrived with the British colonisers in 1733 in the form of a packet of Persian cotton seeds from Anguilla. Out of this grew the Sea Island cotton industry, which at its height sustained 14 plantations employing thousands of slaves, some of whose descendants live locally today.

But after the Civil War the great houses fell into ruin and mouldered back into the swamp, leaving the deer, wild turkeys, tree frogs and alligators to take over again. Then in 1928, along came an entrepreneur pursuing the Great American Dream with an idea so good, you might kick yourself for not spotting it first. Howard Coffin, founder of the Hudson Car Company, looked at all the newly-built highways snaking across the land and reckoned that folks would need somewhere to go when they reached their destinations.

Coffin bought up thousands of acres in Sea Island and around, built a little Spanish-style hotel called the Cloister, and calculated that if people liked staying there enough they might also buy a plot for a "cottage". They did both, and so it grew. The Cloister attracted vacationing blue bloods, drawn by its old world ambience - the Coolidges, the Eisenhowers and Carters would come to play bingo in the lounge and dance the cha-cha in the ballroom. George Snr and Barbara Bush had their honeymoon here. Last year Sea Island hosted the Blairs, the Chiracs, the Berlusconis and the Schröders among the world leaders at the G8 summit.

As for the cottages, they have almost run out of building space by now, but if you have $4m handy you might just get one of the last plots. But you can always rent, as we did - and you are part of a proper community: 60 per cent of the cottages population live in Sea Island because their jobs are in the surrounding area.

But for all that, Sea Island remains delightfully down to earth, whether you stay in the Cloister or whether you rent one of the cottages. The words "luxurious" and "resort" do not enter the vocabulary, even though this is one of the smartest places in America. One reason for its genuine charm is that it has remained in the ownership of Coffin's extended family for more than 75 years - guests return season after season for the sandcastle competitions, the Red, White and Blue parades, the pony rides and the kayak trips out onto the salt marshes.

The secret has been to carefully nurture a sense of nostalgia for the indefinably rosy days of the American seaside summer. But it is high quality nostalgia - more FAO Schwarz than Golden Arches. True, you can weary of the folksy hype about "gracious southern hospitality" - but we spent marvellous lazy days on the beach, either making sandcastles among the grassy dunes or sipping root beer by the pool in the Beach Club. At sundown, we'd paddle along the shore looking for whelks or sand dollars, and in the evenings feast on crabcakes, or catfish, or freshly caught grouper in little whitewashed clapperboard cafés. The really hungry could head up to the Big House for a "plantation supper" - the full Deep South works, including green tomatoes, grits and corn muffins.

The original architect of the Cloister described Sea Island as "midway between Venice and Heaven". After a fortnight here, you start to believe it. But there are some downsides. There are no direct flights from the UK, and in high season, you have to book well ahead to get on the little plane from Atlanta to Brunswick, the nearest town. It is a wearying, 14-hour trip, particularly with small children and intensive American airport security.

And very occasionally, life seems so perfect that you feel like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, and you long to lift the edge of the film set and peer outside. But at moments like this, reality has a habit of reasserting itself. Snoozing on the cottage lawn one afternoon I heard a splosh as a four-foot alligator hauled himself out of the lake near my feet. I stared into his squinty jade eyes as he seemed to say: "Who does this place belong to? You or me?" Frankly, old chap, no contest.

Give me the facts

How to get there

Expedia (0870 050 0808; www.expedia.co.uk) offers return flights from Gatwick to Brunswick via Atlanta from £460 return.

Where to stay

Sea Island Company (001 912 638 3611; www.seaisland.com) offers double rooms at The Cloister from $530 (£295) per night. A four-bedroom cottage starts at $500 (£277) per night also booked through Sea Island Company.

Further information

Georgia Tourism (01293560848; www.georgia.org)

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