In a quietly elegant suite, somewhere behind a spectacular cordon of security, a room attendant will soon be chilling refreshments selected according to the exacting specifications of international protocol specialists. There will be no champagne, no crisp sauvignon blanc, not even snooty fizzy water awaiting French President Jacques Chirac when he arrives at this resort for the Group of Eight summit on Tuesday.
Nope, when Barry Bennett, the State Department's summit spokesman, called Chirac's people to take drink orders, they told him the French leader desired only one thing: "I find out Jacques Chirac is a Bud man," Bennett said.
Chirac's modest request will fit in nicely on this island, where the sprawling multimillion-dollar summer homes are known as "cottages" and residents are almost apologetic about plunking down $100,000 for their country club memberships.
"It's just a deposit. You get it back if you move . . . or die," says K. Martin Worthy, who was chief counsel of the Internal Revenue Service for three years during the Nixon administration.
Hardly anyone says they have a place on Sea Island, a name that conjures images of wealth and privilege in southern Georgia. Instead, they say their summer digs are "down the drive," a reference to the two-lane road that is the only way on and off the five-mile-long barrier island.
On a normal day, there are no gates blocking the entrance to the island, which lies across the marsh from the fetid plumes of a paper mill on the mainland, about halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla. But, starting this week, the island is emphatically sealed off.
The counterterrorism security measures for the summit will be the most extensive in U.S. history, Bennett said. The leaders of the world's eight largest economies, and the nonmember invitees from the European Union, will arrive just weeks after Attorney General John D. Ashcroft announced heightened indications of a threatened terrorist attack on the United States.
The gathering has been designated an NSSE Level One, a National Security Special Event of the most sensitive nature. Security for the summit will surpass the last Level One event, the Super Bowl in February at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
At least 10,000 law enforcement officers from local, state and federal agencies will roam the summit area. Counterterrorism units will be deployed, and a sophisticated Internet-based communication system, unveiled last week by Department of Homeland Security officials, will shuttle messages between agencies. There will be so many boats in the waters and security forces on the ground that Georgia natural resources officials offered to teach the unfamiliar how to avoid broadsiding manatees or squashing the eggs of endangered sea turtles.
Barbed wire is already being unspooled, and National Guard members in camouflage are fiddling with satellite dishes under the oak trees that line the manicured causeway leading to the most exclusive of Georgia's "Golden Isles." The locals have watched it all with detached amusement, and the tales are growing larger by the minute.
"I don't know if it's true, but I heard a couple of fishermen tied up over by Brunswick and two Navy SEALs popped up out of the marsh," said Bill Jones, a friend of President Bush's family who heads the real estate company that owned and developed Sea Island.
For years, Sea Island has been one of those hush-hush places. Movie stars and presidents stayed at its cluster of $800-a-night suites, known as the Cloister, or rented cottages because it wasn't on the usual round of summer hot spots.
Playwright Eugene O'Neill lived in one of the island's 600 cottages; now cottage owners include Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, CBS News stalwart Bob Schieffer and former Attorney General Griffin B. Bell. Forbes magazine rated Sea Island, where the median home price was $2.2 million in 2002, No. 3 among the nation's most expensive Zip codes, trailing only Jupiter Island, Fla., and Aspen, Colo.
Putsie Worthy, wife of the former IRS lawyer, recalled peeking out of her window when a vacationing Cal Ripken Jr. pedaled past not long ago. But, even though she's a devoted baseball fan, she never thought to approach the Baltimore Orioles legend.
"Nobody would accost him or ask for his autograph," she said.
It was this kind of respect for privacy that seems to have attracted prominent guests to Sea Island, where the secrecy-obsessed staff has been known to wait for years before revealing that some celebrity -- John Travolta or Leonardo DiCaprio, for instance -- had visited. The famous and the semi-famous and the just plain rich stroll along the white sand beaches or splash in the pool without worrying about being bothered by the other guests and residents, who were mostly corporate titans, well-heeled businessmen or heiresses.
The summit will be held in the same relaxed atmosphere. This is not a place of crystal chandeliers -- the massive chandeliers in the Beach Club are wrought iron -- or of gilded opulence. It is a place of beachy teak furniture and rough-hewn vaulted ceilings, of Spanish barrel-tile roofs and painted brick.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that President Bush selected the island for the first G-8 he has hosted. The place, after all, was pre-screened by his parents. Former president Bush and his wife, Barbara, honeymooned here in 1945 and came back to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
The honeymoon story has made the rounds in diplomatic circles. One diplomat asked Bennett, "So, was your president manufactured here?"
A few years back, Jones invited the elder Bush to play the new golf course before it officially opened. Along the way, Bush excused himself from the fivesome, which included pro golf star Davis Love III and Bell, and disappeared into a restroom that was missing a few final touches. When Bush emerged, Jones and the others were in hysterics.
"Mr. President," Jones recalls saying, "you're the first person to use the women's bathroom."
Not long afterward, Jones, known as "B3" because he is the third Bill Jones to run Sea Island, received a package from Bush. Inside was a brass plaque commemorating the former president's mistaken pit stop.
The current president and the other world leaders will be confined to the island during the three-day summit. Each leader will be limited to 25 staffers. But they will tool around in hipster style: They will be issued electric cars that top out at 35 mph and have been shrink-wrapped with each nation's flag.
"Think Austin Powers," Bennett said.
But, for all the nifty horsepower available to him, European Commission President Romano Prodi of Italy has requested a bicycle to travel to meetings.
Prodi won't be bothered by annoying hordes of reporters while pedaling. With the exception of 100 pool reporters, the almost 3,000 journalists credentialed to cover the event will have to content themselves with the mobile Krispy Kreme doughnut shop and other enticements at the media center, about a 11/2-hour drive to the north in Savannah.
Protesters have also been shunted over to the mainland in Brunswick. Three years ago the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy, was rattled when hundreds were injured in violent clashes between police and protesters. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) did not wait for trouble, declaring a preemptive state of emergency weeks before the Sea Island summit.
The declaration figured into a pre-summit controversy that dogged Perdue as he visited the summit site. Days after his declaration, the Brunswick City Council passed an ordinance that allows its police department to halt protests during states of emergency. Perdue brushed aside suggestions that he coordinated with local officials to infringe on free speech, saying a similar preemptive state of emergency was declared before the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
"This is the Olympics of the economic world," he said.
But it won't be an Olympics with a shooting event. Sea Island's skeet-shooting school will be shuttered for the summit, even during the regular "Annie Oakley shooting hour for ladies."
With no skeet to shoot and the island in virtual lockdown mode, the few residents who plan to stay on the island will have to entertain themselves with celebrity-gazing from afar. Putsie Worthy, who with her husband is among the 100 year-round residents of the island, has been told that the south end of the island, where the meeting will be held, is off limits.
Too bad -- she could probably have helped Bennett, down from Washington for the summit, explain a bit about the South to their guests.
Just the other day, Bennett found himself stammering in front of a quizzical diplomat who had to know: "What is this 'Piggly Wiggly'?"