by Tracey Teo
Southern hospitality was in short supply this spring, at least for those planning a vacation to their favorite drivable beach resort. Some of the finest oceanfront properties in the South closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but many of them have reopened, and the travel season is now cautiously under way.
As expected, things look different this year. The new normal means following guidelines from the CDC and state health agencies, but many guests are happy to toe the line if it means returning to their Southern comfort zones.
With school start dates being pushed back in many areas, summer has been extended by a few weeks. Take advantage of it and escape from reality for a few days in a safe environment where someone else does the disinfecting.
Isla Bella Beach Resort & Spa Marathon, Florida
At the Isla Bella Beach Resort, a new 24-acre luxury property in the middle of the Florida Keys, things look pretty much like they did pre-pandemic. Guests arrive through the same welcoming golden gates and drive along a road flanked by towering palms until the stark white buildings reminiscent of Greek isles architecture come into view. They sail out on diving and fishing excursions, splash around in the resort’s five pools and practice yoga on an unspoiled beach.
That’s on the surface, but a lot goes on behind the scenes to keep everyone safe. Enhanced property-wide sanitation procedures are in place, and staff has undergone extensive COVID-19 training. To minimize interaction between guests and staff, there is no daily housekeeping.
On arrival, guests receive sanitized bags with wristbands that act as room keys and a stylus pen to push elevator buttons.
The 4,000-square-foot full-service spa is the same tranquil oasis, but it’s operating at 25 percent capacity, and there are temperature checks on arrival. The steam room is limited to one guest and is deep cleaned between visitors.
Social distancing isn’t an issue on the new tiki boat, a floating, thatched-roof hut that offers drinks and sweeping views of the Atlantic. You won’t be with other resort guests. It’s just your bunch and the captain.
Montage Palmetto Bluff
Bluffton, South Carolina
The command rings throughout the Palmetto Bluff Shooting Club where guests shoot sporting clays under the direction of a certified instructor.
More experienced shooters eschew the family-friendly five-stand for a challenging 13-station sporting clays course that runs through a coastal maritime forest.
The shooting club sets Montage Palmetto Bluff apart from other Southern beach resorts. Located within the 20,000-acre community of Palmetto Bluff between Hilton Head and Savannah, the property offers the expected golf, tennis, watersports and a dreamy spa, but some guests come for the shooting.
Nothing much has changed for guests at the popular shooting club, except the equipment is disinfected between uses. The resort is operating at 50 percent capacity to help maintain social distancing. Valet and bell services are still available, but stringent protocols are followed between staff and guest interactions. Families participating in archery lessons with their little Katniss wannabes will be instructed privately, not in groups.
Jekyll Island Club Resort
Jekyll Island, Georgia
The Jekyll Island Club was once one of the most exclusive private resorts in the world. From its founding in 1888 to the final season in 1942, Gilded Age tycoons and their families traveled to Georgia’s southernmost Golden Isle to pass the winter hunting and strolling along pristine beaches.
The current property opened in 1985, following the restoration of the original club and the homes of its affluent members. If they were around today, even the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts would have to abide by COVID-19 safety precautions.
Here’s what’s changed.
As is the case with many resorts, there is no daily housekeeping. The island shuttle is not running, but bicycle rentals are available. That delicious buffet in the Grand Dining Room is a thing of the past.
Alex Orndoff, director of marketing and communications for the Jekyll Island Authority, says visitors have been understanding about the new safety measures.
“We’ve heard overwhelmingly positive comments from visitors about their experience on Jekyll Island since our reopening,” he says. “They appreciate that our island-wide protocols about cleaning and social distancing are clear and consistent.”
There’s plenty to entertain despite some restrictions.
The popular open-air tram tour that showcases the “cottages” (more like mansions) on Millionaires Row in the National Historic Landmark District is still operating, but at limited capacity.
Also, the golf courses and tennis courts are ready for play, but after months of being homebound, wouldn’t it be worth the trip just to stroll along the windswept sand dunes and marvel at the beauty of the driftwood boneyard on the beach?
Tracey Teo is a freelance travel journalist who has written about Southern culture and food for 15 years. She contributes to a number of newspapers and magazines, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Dallas Morning News, The Star Tribune, Kentucky Living and AAA Southern Traveler. A Kentucky native, she currently lives in southern Indiana.