Home ReviewsHotels and Resorts Historic Jekyll Island resort added beachside property for best of both worlds

Historic Jekyll Island resort added beachside property for best of both worlds

by Jan Schroder

Jekyll Island isn’t your typical resort island. First, there is its history as a private retreat for our country’s wealthiest families from the 1880s to 1940s. And the fact that the entire island is a state park owned by the state of Georgia.

It’s also notable for what you won’t find here: traffic lights, high rises, paid parking and huge rental homes. The island has a provision that it can only ever be 1/3 developed. Rather than rows of hotels and retail, you’ll find winding tree-lined roads and bike paths perfect for enjoying the natural beauty of this coastal island.

Jekyll Ocean Club exterior
The oceanside Jekyll Ocean Club has 40 rooms, all suites. (All photos by Jan Schroder unless otherwise noted)

In addition to its beautiful beaches, visitors come to stay at the iconic Jekyll Island Club Resort, which started as the clubhouse for families like the Vanderbilts, Morgans and Pulitzers. Now there’s the new beachside property, Jekyll Ocean Club. As a guest at either, you can enjoy the amenities at both properties: Jekyll Island Club Resort’s history with its grand spaces, elegant furnishings and the ocean views and sophisticated décor of Jekyll Ocean Club.

A bit of history of the most exclusive club in the world

historic postcard of Jekyll Island Club Resort
A historic postcard. Although the Club has been renovated the exterior maintains a similar look.
(Photo courtesy of Jekyll Island Club Resort)

We started our visit with the Landmark Trolley Tour. We were the last tour of the day and as there were only three of us, our guide opted to wheel us around in a golf cart, my favorite form of transportation. Being seated just behind our guide gave the tour a more intimate feel.

As she guided us through the narrow tree-lined roads of the 5,700-acre Jekyll Island Club Resort, it wasn’t hard to imagine the millionaires who came here from the North on trains and steamers to spend the winter season on this coastal Georgia island. Now there’s a beautiful bridge that connects Jekyll Island to the mainland, but there wasn’t any bridge until 1954.

In 1886 the newly formed Jekyll Island Club bought the island for their exclusive club, and the Club opened in 1888. Apparently when members of the club gathered, 1/6 of the world’s wealth was in one place. Members included J.P Morgan, William K. Vanderbilt, William Rockefeller and Marshall Field.

It was called “the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible club in the world,” with the number of members capped at 100.

Cherokee cottage on Jekyll Island
The Cherokee Cottage, built in 1904, has 10 guest rooms and is popular for weddings.

Our guide told us many of the families came for the winter season, staying up to three months. They dressed up and enjoyed multi-course dinners every nights – think of the dinner scenes in “The Gilded Age” and “Downton Abbey.”

While maybe one long dinner a week sounds nice, but the thought of sitting in an elaborate dress corseted until your ribs are screaming and talking to the same people every night for hours makes me want to set my hair on fire.

Over the years the wealthy families built their own homes to live in during the season and 18 cottages were constructed. But the club suffered declining membership during the depression and was shut down during World War II. In 1948, the state of Georgia bought Jekyll Island for $675,000 and opened it as a state park.

Some of their cottages are still here with three of them operating as Island Cottages available for guests of the Jekyll Island Club Resort.

crane cottage exterior on Jekyll Island
This is what the uber wealthy people call a cottage. Built by Richard Teller Crane, Jr. in 1917, Crane Crottage has 13 guest rooms. (Photo by Rachel Morrison)

The abandoned Clubhouse was renovated and reopened in 1987. It just underwent another renovation. The property has maintained its elegance, and now has more than 150 rooms in the Clubhouse and the Island Cottages, the former residences of the rich and fancy folk.

 In 1896 J.P. Morgan built a six-apartment building that now houses 24 Victorian-style guest rooms, the Sans Souci. The Italian-renaissance style Crane Cottage has 13 guest rooms and would be perfect for a small wedding or family reunion. We got to take a peek inside and preparations were underway for a wedding there later in the day. The charming courtyard is lovely for a small party. The Cherokee Cottage, built in 1904, has 10 guest rooms.

I highly recommend taking the Landmark Trolley Tour to get a real sense of days on the island more than 100 years ago. The tour meets in Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museum so be sure to step inside to see some artifacts that include some dresses from the Club era, a highly polished burgundy Studebaker and a photo of the first transcontinental phone call, which happened on January 15, 1915 from Jekyll Island to San Francisco.

Landmark Trolley tour on Jekyll Island
The Landmark Trolley tour takes you through the historic district of Jekyll Island. (Photo by Ralph Daniel)

Breakfast, lunch and high tea are still served in the Grand Dining Room, with fine dining dinner service set to start later in the year. We enjoyed the breakfast buffet here one morning.

Another morning we grabbed a breakfast sandwich from The Pantry, a cute coffee and sandwich shop. I had an egg and tomato croissant, while Chris enjoyed a bacon croissant and peach smoothie. We sat at a table outside while enjoying tunes from the Jazz Age over the sound system.

Grand Dining room at Jekyll Island Club Resort
The Grand Dining room at Jekyll Island Club Resort, the original dining room for Jekyll Club members.

After breakfast we wandered the public spaces of Jekyll Island Resort Club. It wasn’t drinking time so we couldn’t indulge but we took a moment to admire the Boar’s Head Lounge and Alexander Bar, which had been a prop from when the movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance” was filmed here.

swimming pool at Jekyll Island Club Resort
The pool at Jekyll Island Club Resort. There is no shallow end so these ladies were using floats to stay above water.
(Photo by Jan Schroder)

We also took a peek inside the meeting room Where It Happened. By It, I mean the formation of the Federal Reserve. In 1910 six powerful men who were concerned about our country’s financial situation held a secret meeting at the Jekyll Island Club to create a plan to reform our banking system. That plan was the foundation for the act of Congress that founded the Federal Reserve in 1913. For more than 20 year, none of the participants would admit the meeting took place.

Another day we had lunch by the pool at The Pool House at Jekyll Island Club Resort. Pools at both resorts have year-round food and beverage service with cabanas available to rent. The menu includes salads, burgers and wraps. The chilled watermelon with sea salt, lime and chili was especially refreshing on a hot day.

Addition of Jekyll Ocean Club gives guests a choice

balcony at Jekyll Ocean Club
The balconies at Jekyll Ocean Club are deep enough for you to enjoy shade any time of day. (Photo by Rachel Morrison)

Now in addition to the gorgeous marsh views and historic rooms at the Jekyll Island Resort Club, guests have the choice of modern beach-chic rooms right on the ocean at the Jekyll Ocean Club where we stayed for a  few nights.

This property has 40 rooms, all suites with either a balcony or a patio. The sitting area has a pull-out sofa, making it a good option for families with 1-2 young kids.

Our room had a deep balcony, so shade was guaranteed. Ours overlooked the pool area that also includes a huge hot tub and fire pits. The beach was just a short walk away down a boardwalk. The resort fee covers set-up with beach chairs and an umbrella.

lobby of Jekyll Ocean Club
I felt like I’d stepped into a Nancy Meyer movie when I saw the gorgeous lobby of Jekyll Ocean Club. (Photo by Rachel Morrison)

The lobby is cozy yet chic and houses a lively bar and Eighty Ocean Kitchen and Bar, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. It specializes in Low Country cuisine and we loved the chicken breast served with turnips and rice grits, and the grilled redfish. At one point we saw people leaving their tables to head outside and found out that a late afternoon rain shower had cleared up and we could see a double rainbow outside our window.

ginger fried pie at Eighty Ocean club
One of the best desserts ever! A ginger fried pie at Eighty Ocean Club.

A highlight of our meal was the dessert, a pineapple ginger fried pie – amazing. The casual dining spot, with indoor and outdoor seating, has fantastic views and we had a perfect seat to watch the sun set. The menu includes seafood baskets, burgers, chicken sandwiches and soups and salads.

One night for dinner we headed over to the Jekyll Island Resort Club for dinner at The Wharf, which is on the historic Jekyll Pier where the millionaires would disembark from the steamer ships.

view of marsh on Jekyll Island
Our view at dinner at the Wharf.

After all the indulgences of the restaurants here, I decided to head to the fitness center at our hotel, a perfect place to work out during a short but boisterous storm.

Guests at Jekyll Ocean Club also have access to all the amenities at the Jekyll Island Resort Club. There’s a free shuttle that runs between the two properties. We opted to drive or to ride our bikes.

Activities at Jekyll Island resorts

Chris Schroder riding bike on Jekyll Island
Riding bikes is one of our favorite activities on Jekyll Island.

One of our favorite things to do on Jekyll is ride bikes around the island, which has 25 miles of bike trails. The island is only 7 miles long and 1.5 miles wide so you can pretty much see it all on two wheels. Many of the trails are shaded, which is much needed in the hot summer months.

The most scenic stop is Driftwood Beach, a gorgeous beach with huge petrified sun-bleached trees dotting the narrow strip of sand.

Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island
Driftwood Beach, where I rinsed off my wounds of prayed for the healing power of the ocean. The petrified trees give the beach a surreal feel. It’s a must-see on Jekyll.

This is also where I fell off my bike, something I haven’t done since I was 12 years old and broke my arm going down my driveway with no hands on the handlebar. I turned around in what I thought was hard sand, but it was soft. My wheels stuck, and over I went. Not much harm done besides a huge bruise on my right arm and a scratch on my leg.

Amenities at the Jekyll Island Resort Club include a pool, a spa, fitness room and croquet. I was surprised to see a group of people, all dressed in the requisite white, playing croquet in the mid-day heat one day, but was told they play there frequently. Guests can arrange for a time slot to play and all equipment you need is provided for you at no charge.

croquet players at Jekyll Island Club Resort
Croquet players on the front lawn in traditional garb.

Other activities at the Jekyll Island resorts include dolphin tours, poolside s’mores, sunrise yoga, a behind-the-scenes tour of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and Champagne and sabering. Golfers can enjoy 63 holes of golf with three 18-hole courses, and the 9-hole Great Dunes course constructed in 1926.

Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief

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