Thursday, August 15, 2013

Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, GA - guest post by my friend kim again!

 An hour south of the Atlanta airport there is a little piece of paradise called Callaway Gardens. If you are looking for a scenic, relaxing get-away with plenty to do, then this is not to be missed.  Don’t forget to pack your camera and a nice outfit because this is the perfect time to get that great photo for your next Christmas card.

Before I get started let me clarify how our family travels.  We have four energetic boys ages 7-14.  So our criteria for a good trip includes a place with space to run and play, sturdy stain-resistant furniture, and menus that include chicken fingers or mac-n-cheese.  Callaway Gardens is scenic, luxurious, and relaxing enough for us parents while being rustic and outdoorsy enough for our adventurous offspring.

This was our second visit to Callaway.  The first time was over Spring Break last year.  The visit in the spring was fun, but our options were a little more limited since some of the activities and restaurants are seasonal.  This time it was July so everything was open and there was more to choose from than we could possibly have fit into three days.

We arrived in Pine Mountain, GA around lunch time and before check-in, so we stopped just outside of Callaway Gardens for a bite at Aspen’s Mountain Grill.  It is a small restaurant with a wrap-around covered porch.  Since I love to eat outside this put me right into vacation mode.  The bacon cheeseburger was delicious, the kids loved the mozzarella cheese sticks, and my husband liked the grilled chicken.  The staff was friendly and the atmosphere was warm.  Of course after lunch we had to stop in next door at LuBell’s Ice Cream Shop.  Small shop- good ice cream. Is there such a thing as bad ice cream?

Thanks to my hard-working hubby and his business travels, we had plenty of Marriott Rewards Points available to book two nights at The Lodge & Spa at Callaway Gardens which is a Marriott Hotel located inside the grounds of Callaway.  The Lodge & Spa at Callaway is part of Marriott's Autograph Collection.  The entire staff was gracious and accommodating.  The regular rooms are the size of standard hotel rooms and are well-appointed.  They have junior suites and suites available for reasonable rates but not for points and there are cabins available too.  Our oldest was not with us on this adventure so we fit in one room just fine.  The bathrooms are fantastic with a large shower and separate garden tub- very luxurious.  Our view from the balcony was gorgeous.  Make sure to request a courtyard view, it really is beautiful, and to be able to open the sliding glass door and hear the sound of a waterfall just makes it all the more relaxing. The rooms that face the front of the hotel and the parking lot do not have balconies.  The parking lot is wooded just like everything else there which means it is hidden by all the trees.  It should still be a nice view from the front rooms just not quite as fabulous.

The lobby is cozy, with a large fireplace and comfy couches.  They have complimentary coffee in the mornings and a large dispenser of ice water with lemon slices set out during the day which is a nice touch.

The Piedmont Dining Room, which is just off the lobby, has a good buffet breakfast with an omelet/ pancake station.  Our stay included two adult breakfasts each day ($16.50 value) and since the kids’ buffet was $6.95 it was a fairly reasonable meal that really filled us up for the whole morning.  The Piedmont also serves lunch and dinner; the Friday night seafood buffet looked promising but we were not there on a Friday night to try it.

There is a Ironwood Lounge that has plenty of cozy couches and chairs along with regular small tables and a fireplace, and it attaches to an outside courtyard with another fireplace.  On our Spring Break trip the year before, the staff was very gracious about starting a fire for us outside even though we were the only ones out there.  We ordered drinks and played Monopoly with the kids in front of a roaring fire.  It was a lovely way to end the day.

Spa Prunifolia is located in the hotel and looks upscale and inviting.  It has a large selection of treatments but I did not indulge on this trip.  Maybe next time...

The pool is heated and gorgeous- stone walls, beautiful landscaping, comfortable padded lounge chairs, yet another fireplace, two secluded hot tubs, and a bar and grill that is open on the weekends.  My boys love to swim so we spent plenty of time poolside.  Don’t forget the bug spray! After all the rain Georgia has had this summer the mosquitoes were bad.  Since everything is wooded and there are lakes and streams everywhere, bug spray is a must-have for this trip.

There is a daily charge to get into Callaway Gardens but as guests of the hotel, our admission was free.  We could take the walking/ biking trail just past the pool then across a small road and be right at one of the main attractions, Robin Lake Beach.  It is not a long walk but it was a bit of a haul in the heat with our pool bag and cooler so the next time we went with lots of stuff we opted to drive around to the beach parking lot. There is plenty to keep a family busy at this beach for an entire day. 

Start at the activities pavilion where they rent the umbrellas and beach chairs.  You can bring your own, people even had pop-up tents, but an umbrella with two chairs was only $16 for 3 hours.  They also rent cabanas; those cost a little more, are right off the beach on the lawn, and are not very big.  It is a covered row of stalls on a concrete slab that have two Adirondack chairs and a ceiling fan in each. Nice and shaded, but we opted to be on the beach with the kids. They also sell the tickets for Aqua Island, a floating playground, which my kids loved.  We got there at 2pm and had to wait until 3pm for an umbrella and chairs to become available and until 4pm for the kids to have a turn on Aqua Island. There was plenty of space on the sand to set out our beach towels so we did not mind the wait. Still, I recommend getting there early to make your reservations.  Aqua Island has its own lifeguards and all the participants wear life vests.  You are given a color-coded wrist band which shows the hour you have been assigned.  Ten minutes before your assigned time they get you fitted for the life vest and give you a quick run-down of the rules, then you swim the short distance in shallow water to the floating island of fun.  It was well worth the $10/participant. 

Aqua Island 
They also have laser tag, shuffle board, ping pong, paddle boats, and speed boats that pull tubes or skiers around the lake.  The Beach Pavilion, located just across the lawn from the beach, has bathrooms, a snack bar, picnic tables, and a playground.  Right next to that is Florida State University’s Circus.  Yes, they have a large open-air circus tent right there where they perform 5 days a week in June and July, one show a day, except Tuesday and Wednesday, and two shows on Saturday.  They also have a Trapeze Experience outside of the tent for those of you who are brave enough to fly through the air with the greatest of ease.

A five-minute drive from Robin Lake is Mountain Creek Lake, where you can rent canoes or jon boats from Kingfisher Outfitters.  Of course you can always get there by trail too but we were not interested in a long walk. The gentleman who runs Kingfisher could not be more gracious.  He rents the boats and fishing gear and is very accommodating.  He took us down to the beautiful covered stone canal where they house the fleet and walked us through what we needed to know about the boats and the lake, where to fish, and what to look for.  He offered sunscreen and bug spray and told us not to worry about being back right on time just to enjoy ourselves. So we did.  We took a three-person canoe and a two-person canoe and paddled around the scenic lake, stopping to watch all the brave souls maneuvering the Treetop Adventure Course which includes multiple zip-lines across the lake and a challenging obstacle course through the trees.  We stopped our boats right under the zip-lines and some of the really brave zip-liners let go long enough to wave to us. The boys got a kick out of watching them.  My husband and one of the boys got up early the next morning to take one of the jon boats out for a little fishing before breakfast and said that was fun too.

Jon Boats just waiting to be used to reel in the BIG one

On our first trip to Callaway we had stopped by the boat docks at dusk and had wandered around enjoying the lake view and exploring where they dock the boats.  There is a large stone fire pit surrounded by Adirondack chairs right next to the docks and it looks like there is also a ferry, although it was not running during either of our visits.

Just chillin'
There is a lovely restaurant upstairs from Kingfisher’s called “The Garden Restaurant”.  It overlooks the lake and appears to be a little more upscale.  We have not had a chance to try it but it is on my to-do list for next time.

The Garden Restaurant
After a day at the beach and canoeing, we were happy to hit the showers and get some dinner.  The kids voted for Subway which is in the same corner shopping center as Aspen Mountain Grill.  It is inside The Corner Store along with a KFC.  The Corner Store is also a Chevron station and it has a good selection of staple items such as bug spray and sunscreen. We had planned to eat our dinner at one of the courtyard tables back at the hotel then play some board games, but in the end we were all so worn out that we opted to eat in the room while watching a movie then climbed into the comfortable bed with it’s down-comforter and fell right to sleep.

On our first visit we went to the Virginia Hand Callaway Discovery Center where we rented bicycles.  There are many miles of trails to walk or ride all through the gardens; everything is connected by the trails so if you have the stamina, you could bring your own bikes and never use your car for the entire stay. Since our youngest was only six at the time we took some of the shorter trails but still managed to explore the Ida Cason Callaway Memorial Chapel which is tucked into the woods beside a bubbling brook. 

Ida Cason Callaway Memorial Chapel

We also explored the Callaway Brothers Azalea Bowl, a pioneer log cabin, the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center, and my favorite, The John A. Sibley Horticultural Center, which has a koi pond (bring quarters for fish food), and a 3-story green house with enormous folding glass doors that house a tropical paradise with a waterfall. There is also a children’s maze that has only one entrance and exit so parents can sit and relax under the magnolia trees while the kids play safely in the maze. Our boys used the maze for a nice long game of hide-and-seek. The whole garden is breathtaking. 

Callaway Brothers Azalea Bowl
pioneer log cabin
Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center
John A. SibleyHorticultural Center

There is so much more to do including two golf courses and a birds of prey show, but there just were not enough hours in the day.

birds of prey show
At the far end of the gardens is The Callaway Gardens Country Store.  It sits across from the entrance to the F.D.Roosevelt State Park and has a stunning mountain view.  The store is adorable with wine, preserves, fudge and gifts.  There is also The Country Kitchen restaurant attached with a gorgeous view from the mountain top.  The drinks came in mason jars, which always makes this Southern Girl smile, and the chicken tenders were coated with what I assume they use for the fried chicken as well- they were delicious.  My club sandwich was good but I should have opted for one of the Southern cooking menu options. As with everywhere else we went, the staff was gracious and polite.  It is well-worth a visit.

The Callaway Gardens Country Store

Before we headed home, we took a small side-trip a few miles up the mountain through the state park to see The Little White House, FDR’s vacation home, and the warm springs which first brought him to the area looking for healing from the paralysis he faced after contracting polio.

The Little White House
Since I enjoy history, and since we had just visited Truman’s Presidential Library on a visit to Kansas City where they referenced The Little White House and FDR, I was glad we took the kids and made the connection.  The property is lovely and the small town of Warm Springs had a short main street with a few shops, a motorcycle museum, and a handful of restaurants.  We wanted to try The Bulloch House Restaurant, it had great atmosphere, but it is closed for a few hours between lunch and dinner so instead we tried Paradise Grill which was a brightly painted, eclectic little place with outdoor seating, friendly staff, root beer in glass bottles, and delicious fried green tomatoes.
(a note from Kara: I have been to The Bulloch House Restaurant with my brownie troop and their moms several years ago ~ DELICIOUS food.  They offer an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet and a regular menu!  The fried chicken is juicy and crunchy, just what you look for in a piece of fried bird.  There is a great antique/gift shop right next to the Bulloch House!  As a side note the motorcycle museum got great reviews on Tripadvisor.)

motorcycle museum
Paradise Grill
There is a Bed & Breakfast right on the main street nestled in between the small row of shops, a winery right down the street (a note from Kara - many happy wine people on Tripadvisor, they offer Hotlanta Red - a red wine with a touch of jalapeno, great with spicy foods), and F.D.Roosevelt State Park has hiking trails that all might be worth checking out on another visit, but we were out of time.  We headed back to Atlanta tanner, more relaxed, and a few pounds heavier after all the good home-style cooking and fried foods.  Definitely a destination I would recommend for a romantic weekend, girls’ trips, business conventions, small weddings, family reunions, or a family vacation.


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