Jekyll Island Club Resort: The US hotel that was an exclusive haven for New York's wealthy and powerful

There was a time, around the turn of the 20th century, when the seasonal residents of an unassuming little island off the coast of Georgia possessed an astonishing one-sixth of the world's wealth.

Jekyll Island Club, a members-only retreat, was described as "the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible club in the world". It was here the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Pulitzers and their contemporaries would relax and recharge away from the hectic whirl of their privileged New York City and Chicago lives.

They arrived each November after Thanksgiving, and stayed through until New Year's. Most would be accommodated lavishly in the original clubhouse, while others built Victorian "cottages" that would put most dream homes to shame.

For those who passed the members' vote to be invited into the club, annual dues were $US15,000 in today's money. That simply bought the right to membership; lodging, food, drinks and everything else was charged separately. The only rules were don't bring your mistress, and leave young children at home with the nannies.

Today, the Club operates as a historic hotel, open to all, no membership required. Accommodations can be booked in the heritage clubhouse, the cottages or the brand-new Ocean Club. Visitors can relax by the pool, take part in a croquet match on the lawn or play the 63-hole golf course. The dinner prix-fixe in the Grand Dining Room encourages delusions of Jay Gatsby and co.

Much of the fun of a visit to Jekyll Island Club Resort is walking the halls of history, literally in a sense. Along the corridors of the clubhouse and in the opulent lounges and bars, black-and-white framed photographs tell the stories of the Gilded Age super-rich who made history on the island.

There they are crowded around the telephone held by AT&T president Theodore Newton Vail, as the first transcontinental call was made in 1915. Here we see Senator Nelson Aldrich lead a party of financial leaders to the island to create the forerunner of the Federal Reserve, today's US modern banking system. In one photograph, gents in suits and ladies in neck-to-toe dresses arrive by boat to the old jetty where they are met by porters.

Today, the old jetty is home to an open-air bar and restaurant, The Jekyll Wharf, where T-shirts and thongs are acceptable attire. The night I stop in for a cold beer and hot crab cakes, there's a live band playing songs by The Eagles and Bruce Springsteen. Guests order buckets of peel 'n' eat shrimp and talk about how many dolphins they've seen off the coast that day.

It was off this same stretch of coastline that German U-boats were spotted in 1941. That was the end for the Jekyll Island Club, as members packed up their cottages and headed home to wait out the war.

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The plan was to return after the conflict ended, but the world had changed too much by then. The Club was a ghost of its former self until the 1980s, when a major restoration turned it into the historic gem it is today.

TRIP NOTES

Kristie Kellahan travelled as a guest of Collette.

MORE

traveller.com.au/north-america

jekyllisland.com

FLY

Delta and Virgin Australia code share from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles International Airport, with onward connections to Brunswick's Golden Isles Airport, a 30-minute drive from Jekyll Island. International airports in Savannah and Jacksonville are an hour's drive from the island. See delta.com; virginaustralia.com

STAY

Jekyll Island Club Resort offers accommodation in the original clubhouse, cottages and the Ocean Club. See jekyllclub.com

TOUR

Collette's seven-day Southern Charm tour includes a stay at Jekyll Island Club Resort. See gocollette.com

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