The City Magazine Since 1975

Callaway Gardens near Atlanta

Callaway Gardens near Atlanta
April 2008
Callaway Gardens near Atlanta reinvents itself as a luxury destination

Forests and finery are rarely paired together, and few associate opulence with the great outdoors. But Callaway Gardens, located one hour southwest of Atlanta in Pine Mountain, has managed to define itself as both a luxury travel destination and an earthy escape, with nature-lovers and elegance-seekers alike flocking to its tree-shaded acreage.­

Founded in 1952, Callaway Gardens is by no means a new attraction, though until recently visitors had to grin and bear its less-than-magnificent accommodations in order to enjoy its more-than-magnificent scenery and activities. The traditional lodging option was the 323-room Mountain Creek Inn, a clean but basic property intended for sleeping and little else. But last spring, Callaway Gardens unveiled its $30-million Lodge and Spa, which boasts 150 beautifully appointed guest rooms and suites and a 13,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art wellness facility. Many of the lodge’s rooms feature renowned bird-painter Athos Menaboni’s original artwork, and all boast down comforters, pillow-top mattresses, separate tubs and showers, flat-screen televisions, and MP3 docking stations. But despite these high-end amenities, Mother Nature has not been forsaken: the lodge is certified by the ultra-stringent Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system, and even plastic shampoo bottles have been scrapped in favor of in-shower dispensers.

Like its rooms, the lodge’s common areas are also ritzy-rustic, with plenty of mahogany woods, stone fireplaces, and earth-toned furniture. The pool overlooks endless miles of lush landscaping, and the cabana-style bar serves up chilled cocktails. On cool evenings, guests are often seen huddling around the lodge’s outdoor fireplaces, watching as sparks float into the sky as if
migrating toward the canopy of stars.

Of course, the Lodge and Spa owes half its title to Spa Prunifolia, a vast facility whose name pays homage to Callaway Gardens’ signature flower, the plumleaf azalea, or Rhododendron prunifolium. (As the story goes, Cason Callaway, the gardens’ founder, created his namesake property with the express purpose of protecting the reddish-orange blooms, which only grow natively within 100 miles of the area.) Like the flower for which it is named, Spa Prunifolia is lovely in its appearance and intricate in its detail.

Guests begin their spa journeys in the men’s and women’s relaxation lounges, which feature crackling fireplaces, juice bars, and soothing nature sounds. Treatments take place in 13 rooms, including a couple’s room and a VIP suite with a soaking tub and private shower. The beds are heated and the eye pillows scented with eucalyptus, and there are even roll pillows available for tired necks and knees. The spa offers traditional procedures such as hot-stone massages and reflexology sessions, plus interesting additions like the Evergreen Hot-Towel Body Bliss, which begins with the inhalation of pine-infused steam and continues with a massage that utilizes hot towels steeped in aromatic herbs and extracts.

After their treatments, guests can relax in changing rooms with saunas, steam rooms, and showers, and they can even stop by the spa’s image center, which offers a variety of salon services such as haircuts and manicures. For those who want to get in a little exercise, the spa’s fitness center offers plenty of elliptical trainers, treadmills, and exercise bikes, with each piece of cardio equipment boasting its own television and stereo. Personal trainers are available, as are yoga and Pilates classes.

Despite the many amenities afforded by the Lodge and Spa, it’s impossible to stay indoors too long with so many miles of nature calling from outside. Callaway Gardens sits on a whopping 13,000 acres of land, complete with eight walking trails, more than a dozen lakes, and a vast labyrinth of gardens. Its azalea collection is the largest in the world, as is its manmade beach on the shores of Robin Lake. In the spring, it’s hard to spot an area that isn’t teeming with azaleas, from native species that reach heights of 15 feet to cultivated varieties that come in an abundance of colors, shapes, and sizes. The lovely dogwoods are also in bloom in the springtime, showing off their white, petal-like bracts like brides showing off their gowns.

­­­­­­Golf-lovers will adore Callaway Gardens, thanks to its two courses (one with views of the hills, one with views of the lakes) and its famous Twin Oaks Golf Park. With an unprecedented 26 acres of practice space—including multiple target greens and a large practice putting green—Twin Oaks is a golfer’s version of heaven on earth. And if guests get an itch to swing a racquet, Callaway Gardens has 10 outdoor lighted tennis courts and two indoor racquetball courts.

For those who prefer rods and reels to racquets and clubs, it’s easy to take a guided bass-fishing trip or sign up for Callaway Gardens’ fly-fishing school. Although the area is known for its warm-water fish, many lakes are seasonally stocked with three varieties of trout for challenging sport.

Families will appreciate Callaway Gardens’ wide variety of child-friendly activities, from bird shows to treasure hunts. Perhaps the most popular family activity is a trip to the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center, which is home to 1,000 former caterpillars. The center underwent a $2-million renovation in 2005, and its glass-enclosed tropical conservatory is now the largest in North America. Children will delight in walking among the colorful creatures, squealing as they watch the butterflies slurp at bananas and tangerines with their straw-like tongues.

Another family favorite is the 10-mile Discovery Bike Trail, whose wide, paved path traverses all of the gardens’ major attractions. Bikes and helmets may be rented on-site, saving parents the hassle of having to hitch them to the back of a car. On the ride, take time to stop at Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden, where guests can walk through rows of fruits, herbs, flowers, and veggies basking in the warm springtime sun. This is also a good time to pick up some fresh produce at the Vegetable Garden Shop

While Callaway Gardens’ lodging and spa options have reached top-notch standards, its dining options, unfortunately, have not. There are plenty of casual places to have a bite to eat—The Plant Room’s buffet and Country Kitchen’s Southern fare are favorites—but those looking for a place to enjoy an elegant dinner will likely be disappointed. The Lodge’s restaurant, The Piedmont Dining Room, suffers from slow service, average food, a small wine selection, and less-than-appealing décor. (Who wants to eat a $30 steak while staring at the morning’s empty breakfast-buffet station?). Guests will do well to manage their expectations accordingly.

Still, considering how far Callaway Gardens has come—from its roots as a 1950s conservation area to its current incarnation as a premier Southeastern resort—there are plenty of reasons to plan a visit and much to love when you arrive. Forests and finery may not often merge, but in this case, their union is a natural match.