Two huge grey Percheron draft horses named Rod and Todd pull a gorgeous surrey consisting of four rows of leather seats across the pristine coastal tract that is the Hampton Island Preserve. It’s an idyllic way to take in the overwhelming natural beauty of this island, whose modus operandi is “encouraging preservation of nature, culture, history, family and self.” You pass Butterfly Cottage, the first of the Preserve’s three guest- houses, with which Georgia’s current first lady Mary Perdue was so enchanted that she requested the plans so she could build a carbon copy in the mountains of north Georgia. Further down Ferry Road—the main artery that cuts across the island from west to east and led, at one point, to the once-thriving port of Sunbury—you pass the 8,000 square foot Settler’s Rest, a four-bedroom guesthouse fronting the marsh with central living and kitchen areas for family-style meals and conversation. Tucked deeper into the marsh, across a long boardwalk, is the Treehouse Spa—an open- air facility elevated in the boughs of a pine forest where guests can enjoy massages and herb soaks in a copper Japanese soaking tub. Beyond it to the east is the 10,000 square foot “Big House” that Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner and their daughter, Violet occasionally call home. Further still is the Old Farm, and a palatial, sage green guesthouse that rests atop a Venetian boathouse
Southern mythology, while not an established literary genre, is fiery and active in the minds of many who fantasize about such things as expansive marshes, oyster roasts around a bonfire and horseback rides through groves of oaks and fields of sawgrass. For those lamenting the death of this mythology, the elysian fields of Hampton Island—located only 35 miles south of Savannah—provide the necessary reprieve; amidst a landscape increasingly swallowed up by strip malls, chain restaurants and discount superstores, this coastal enclave serves as a reminder that once upon a time in America, community, not materialism, was the core of our culture. Here, members can disrobe from the cloak of capitalism and immerse themselves in nature, good health and good company.
But while Hampton Island Preserve flourishes on the premise that “sometimes, the most luxurious way to live is by leaving conventional luxury behind,” it’s no throwback. On the contrary, it is this back-to-basics approach that distinguishes it as one of the most modern, progressive residential retreats in the country.
Most people know of Hampton Island from its name surfacing occasionally in the tabloids. In 2003, Affleck and Jennifer Lopez became the first residents of the Preserve. Staff largely view Hampton Island’s association with “Bennifer” as beneficial, and the resulting profile explosion of the Preserve helped lead the way for a new swell of members, including wine heir Robert Mondavi and his wife, cosmetics maven Lydia, and retired Atlanta Falcon quarterback Steve Bartkowski. “[Ben and Jen] propelled the project forward,” explains Operations Manager Matthew Roher. “The original vision was already in place, but when they came, it was the spark.”
Detached from the eastern seaboard by a lone bridge, Hampton Island is less an island than a flap of marshland thinly sliced and floating in the briny tidewaters like a severed limb. If you’re picturing surf shops, piers and umbrellas lining a wide, sandy beach, think again; Hampton Island isn’t one of Georgia’s 13 barrier islands, as it sits snugly between the mainland and two larger islands—Ossabaw and St. Catherine’s—which endure the battering waves, tides and winds of the Atlantic Ocean.
Human life on Hampton Island dates back thousands of years and settlers have included Creek Indians and Spanish Missionaries; in the late 1700s, cotton, rice and lumber broker Roswell King (who also founded Roswell, GA) acquired Hampton Island on a king’s grant. At least one prominent Georgia family used the island as a retreat from the wet heat, disease and bugs that festered on the barrier islands to the east. When the British captured the fort of Sunbury in the late 1770s, coastal Georgia’s importing and exporting relocated north to the hub of Savannah, and slow- ly, as the area’s cotton and rice industries began to dwindle and the South fell into disrepair during and after the Civil War, Hampton Island’s human population also dwindled, and the island fell dormant. Its pine trees were harvested by Union Camp (which would eventually become International Paper) throughout the 20th century, but the island remained largely intact, preserved like an American Pompeii, until businessman Bill Cole acquired it in 2003. Many current Preserve staff members talk of finding artifacts—bullets, belt buckles, pottery—from a variety of historical eras, as they all practice “amateur archaeology” on their daily rounds.
Taking into account the fragility of the land itself, Cole set forth on his journey to create an experience totally unique on the East Coast, unleashing his vision of a place where the fundamental kinship between man and nature can be rediscovered. Several years ago, while flying due south down the East Coast, Cole noticed that the coastline was engulfed by twinkling lights and the hazy glow of population density across nearly every inch—all, that is, but the swath of land that comprises the Georgia coast. In light of this scarcity of barren coastal land, Cole plucked up Hampton Island and decided to develop it with nature and the theme of low-impact conservational easement in mind. “We want to create a certain character in the structures that are built,” Cole explains. “By incorporating indigenous materials, they have a timeless appeal.” After acquiring the acreage, Cole familiarized himself with its topography in the old- fashioned way, walking nearly every square inch and surveying it with his own two eyes. That way, he says, “the land determines what’s built on it, instead of a spreadsheet.”
Cole, who had previously headed up sales and marketing for IntraWest—one of the world’s largest developers of destination resorts— scaled back both the complexity and scope of his thinking when he conceptualized Hampton Island Preserve. While IntraWest employs a whopping 22,000 staffers worldwide, Hampton Island Preserve runs on the gentle hum of a mere 37 full- time staff members.
Of the 4,000 acres that Hampton Island Preserve occupies, Cole says there are only plans for 300 homesites—ranging in price from $650,000 – $4 million—allowing for maximum space and privacy, and that annual membership will be limited to 500; the remaining 200 member- ships grant use of the Preserve and all its amenities. “You may glimpse a roof line, but the property is planned for privacy,” he says. “The land itself lends itself to privacy.” By 2012, a recreational complex to include a Davis Love III-designed golf course, a clubhouse and a pro shop, will have been completed.
Through everything, the heart of Cole’s vision is in the sustainable development of a place where its guests and residents can learn. “We want to be our own unique experience, to provide real personal experiences,” Cole explains. “Hampton Island has a major educational component that we feel adds to the overall quality of life. We want [members] to make that connection with the coast…to pull up to a barrier island for a natural beach experience. And we’ll even pack a 5-star meal for you.”
Nowhere on Hampton Island Preserve is education and quality of life as evident as it is at the Old Farm that staffers describe as the “heart and soul” of the property. Located deep in the interior of the island, the large wooden barn structure and its neighboring Farmhouse Spa and Wildlife Interpretive Center rise dramatically out of the low, flat horizon. Constructed from the reclaimed scraps of a 19th century cotton mill, the farm employs the same principles set forth by Bill Cole of cohabitating with nature and transcending the aesthetics of time.
One hundred years ago, farming was a dominant industry in the region, and the functioning farm was a major ingredient of the South’s landscape; today, they’re almost as rare as a black-and-white- striped chain gang picking away at stone on the shoulder of a county road. And, as Bill Cole says, it is surprising “how beautiful and aesthetically pleasing a working farm can be.” It was the sustainability and social issues of the farming industry’s decline, mixed with its organic serenity, which piqued Daron “Farmer D” Joffe’s curiosity to become a professional horticulturist.
A native of South Africa who immigrated to the US as a child to escape Apartheid, Farmer D is per- haps counterintuitive to the popular perception of what a farmer is, what a farmer looks like and what a farmer believes. A young man barely over 30, Farmer D—who describes himself, appropriately, as a firebrand in the farming industry—first explored the notion of farming while a freshman in college in Wisconsin. “I felt so disconnected and almost guilty in a way,” he explains. “I was so unaware of where my food was coming from, so I decided to learn how to grow a sandwich from scratch. And my eyes were opened.” By 2005, when he first came to Hampton Island Preserve to get its farm up and running, he had already established a successful farm at metro-Atlanta’s Serenbe residential retreat, established Farmer D Organics—a consulting firm that helps individuals and businesses set up their own successful farms and gardens—and snagged a ringing endorsement from Jennifer Garner that his turnips “rock.”
The average meal, Farmer D will tell you, travels over a thousand miles—probably over 2,000—to get to your plate. It’s this alarming statistic that has inspired Farmer D to experiment with bio- dynamic methodologies that will vastly increase the number and quality of locally grown foods a diner can enjoy. Strolling through his garden during the winter months, it’s astounding the array of vibrant, colorful blossoms. Farmer D hands you a flower and instructs you to eat it; he picks a bundle of piquant and delicious mustard greens to include in your meal later that evening. He hands you a glass filled with ice and a homemade mixture of farm-grown green tea, lemon verbena, pepper- mint and stevia—a small, green leaf that’s sweeter than sugar. In a long, narrow trough he refers to as an agricultural laboratory, Farmer D experiments with secondary and tertiary seasons within the Lowcountry’s subtropical four; in January, the farm is producing no less than 16 – 17 varieties of vegetable. While you can’t get a decent tomato at the supermarket, Farmer D’s vines weigh heavily with luscious tomatoes of the golden variety.
First and foremost, Farmer D remains dedicated to the educational aspect of farming, and encourages children visiting the Preserve to dirty their hands with soil from his garden. In the past, he has worked with various non-profit organizations that employ gardening and farming as a therapeutic extracurricular activity, including one that had underage felons growing fruits and vegetables at their correctional facility in La Honda, California to give to their families in the surrounding projects. Currently, he is working with the Community Garden Project in his native South Africa, teaching HIV-positive women to grow their own food. As with all of Hampton Island Preserve, Farmer D has the overarching mission of reuniting guests and residents with the land from whence they came, reminding them that their roots on earth reach as deep as those of the turnip greens he’s currently grooming more gingerly than he does his two Burmese mountain dogs.
On a recent visit to Hampton Island Preserve, a prominent Washington D.C. attorney exclaimed, “I’ve traveled all over the world and eaten a lot of great food, but I just ate my three favorite meals.” Today, Executive Chef Paul Paskins has prepared a pecan-encrusted rainbow trout (caught this morning in one of the Preserve’s ponds) over fresh greens, sweet potatoes, bacon, red peppers and a lemon vinaigrette. It’s with great pride that the entire culinary staff of Hampton Island prepares and serves its edible masterpieces, from elaborate 4- course meals to casual oyster roasts and “slow country boils” around the fire pit at the Old Shed. Later, Chef Hogan Kaney presents a golden fried organic chicken breast, served with Georgia gouda, balsamic vinegar and a handful of Farmer D’s prized gold- en tomatoes. Despite what they tell us on the news, life is good.
According to Matthew Roher, who joined Hampton Island Preserve in 2004 as Executive Chef and has subsequently moved into general and operations manager positions (he also recently purchased Cha Bella in Savannah), he simply loves the property too much to leave it. Roher has found that children particularly cherish their time at the Preserve. “This is paradise for them, an unplugged experience,” Roher says. “This is rustic elegance, as opposed to being overly polished.” Whether it’s helping Farmer D in the garden, watching the Preserve’s mule grind cane syrup on-site or helping Equestrian Director David Nowicki swab horse stalls, the children who come here gladly trade their electronic luxuries for the great outdoors.
Nowicki, a seasoned horseman with a quick sense of humor, is the proud papa of a brand new equestrian center he calls his cathedral. “The first thing out of people’s mouths when they walk in is ‘oh my God!’ So He’s in here somewhere! I had to pay homage,” he says with a guffaw. Nowicki was recruited to Hampton Island Preserve from
Kentucky, where he spent decades working with horses. He now lives in Midway and works alongside his wife, Maddie, and son, Jeff.
Hampton Island is an example of one of many residential developments experiencing an equine renaissance; according to Nowicki, buyers have begun to value access to stables and horse paddocks (and the accompanying lifestyle) as much, or even more so, than golf courses. “If you like jeans and being in the outdoors, this is the place,” he says. “If you like penny loafers and being near the mall, this probably isn’t your place.” Sitting in the surrey, his elbow propped on the row back and his body twisted to face me, Nowicki gives a running commentary peppered with clever asides: “What happens on the wagon stays on the wagon!” His observations of the restorative, and almost transformative, power of Hampton Island mirror those of Cole, Roher and other staff mem- bers. “It’s a neat place,” Nowicki says. “It’s almost like a fairyland. Kids come running in [the stable] at 7 a.m. to shovel manure. When you’re down at the island, they’re not on the computer or the TV. They’re outside and you don’t see them until dinner.”
As you yield your body to the vibrating rhythms of the surrey and your mind to the calm simplicity of your surroundings it strikes you that entering Hampton Island Preserve is akin to boarding a time machine to a place in history most of us have never truly known, where cell phones don’t work, where children prefer chasing butterflies and digging up weeds to Nintendo and parents’ worries can virtually wash away with the tide. A typical day on Hampton Island could as easily involve an action- packed itinerary of kayaking, shooting quail and fishing for bass as it could positioning yourself before the marsh and staying there, undisturbed, until sunset. For Cole, Roher, Farmer D and every other employee of the Hampton Island Preserve, that’s paradise found; for the Preserve’s members, it’s a paradise—and happiness—that money can buy.