Callaway Gardens

By Evelyn Theiss / September 14, 2011

Walking among the pine-forested hills of Callaway Gardens, biking past the blue lakes that seem to dot the landscape at every turn, it seems impossible to believe that just 80 years ago, this very land was desolate and barren from overuse. But old black and white photos offer proof. After many decades in the 19th century as overfarmed cotton fields, the land here in Pine Mountain, Georgia, had been stripped of topsoil and, apparently, of value.

The very existence of forests here now is a miracle, a joining of nature and man’s desire for repair, and, ecologically speaking, a very recent one. When Atlanta textile mill owner Cason J. Callaway thought about what to do with this land that he owned in the 1930s, the first thing that came to him was “Water.” For Georgia is a state with not one single natural lake. Eventually, he dammed up some rivers, which helped protect the natural watershed, and created a lake. Well, not just a lake but what is now Robin Lake Beach, the lake with the world’s largest manmade white-sand beach.

But back then, one of Callaway’s thoughts was that a lake would offer a place in pre-air-conditioning days for Atlantans to cool off during the endless hot summers. And, even more importantly, with the water that a lake—or several lakes—held, one could irrigate gardens. That was Callaway’s true passion and real mission: to create the most beautiful gardens possible, in particular, gardens that would promote and protect Georgia’s native azalea species. He’d have a place for the public to appreciate that bounty, too.

So Callaway created “green” (and pink and red and purple in spring and summer, when the azaleas bloom on many acres) where there was barren brown. Today, Callaway Gardens continues that mission for “green,” but on a level Cason Callaway couldn’t have imagined.

What visitors who now stay at The Lodge & Spa at Callaway Garden’s notice first is the vast expanse of Callaway’s pure natural beauty— 13,000 acres of it, to be precise, much of it forest. It’s amazing how fast Southern pines can grow. That beauty—so easily enjoyed on the hiking and biking trails that penetrate and encircle the property—is supported by eco-friendly hospitality and surroundings.

Though Callaway Gardens officially opened in 1952, it’s only been in recent years that the resort has been truly reinvigorated, with an eco-friendly foundation. The lodge was built in 2003 as a conference center, at a time when the Callaways (now Cason’s son manages it) decided that all new commercial buildings would have to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. So, construction of all buildings, roads, and paths took the natural landscape into account, minimizing the removal of trees and reducing the impact on the land.

Native plants were used in landscaping because of their low water consumption, and 2,507 acres of the property were set aside as a permanent preserve through Georgia’s Forest Legacy Program. Some of the many other green decisions: Callaway recycled used asphalt from old golf cart paths to create the driveways of the Lodge and Spa; it installed recycled carpet in the Mountain Creek Inn and Conference Center; and management promotes the use of alternative fuel vehicles and carpooling by guests and employees.

But the appreciation of nature is here in education, too. There is a large enclosed butterfly habitat at the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center, where butterflies in shades of cobalt blue and other tropical-fish-like hues fly; various programs at the John Sibley Horticultural Center, and the “birds of prey” demonstrations that have children and adults (even those who have seen other raptor shows) ducking when they’re not slack-jawed with fascination.

And the dining at Callaway? This is after all a place that has gardens in its name, and quite a bit of the food served in the restaurants (particularly the vegetables and herbs, and some fruit) is grown here, often in “Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden,” which is another place that offers plenty of workshops for children and adults. The fine-dining Gardens restaurant at Callaway carries the “Slow Food” designation, meaning it emphasizes locally grown and raised foods.

For some guests, though, the true test of a resort with a spa comes with the level of spa services. The Spa Prunifolia (the Latin name for azalea) at Callaway is on par with some of the country’s finest. The spa opened in 2007, delayed for several months because Callaway management decided on serious consultations with spa industry leaders, to create a spa that lived up high industry standards, and it’s clear they took the advice seriously. The spa is a sanctuary where services are consistent in the organic message—products are botanical-based and organic, as well as specific to the guest’s needs (say, arnica oil in a massage if you are having trouble with bruises).

Most rooms on the lodge open onto gardens with fountains. As you drift off to sleep to the sounds of gurgling water, you can’t imagine any place more restorative. The message of this place, where the land was once so desiccated, resonates. It’s never too late for healing.

Evelyn Theiss

Evelyn Theiss

Evelyn Theiss is a print and online reporter who has covered everything from national politics to fashion in her journalism career. Now, she's a health reporter whose beat is nutrition and wellness. But this Midwesterner has found the greatest inspiration for her own journey to well-being at spas--whether those spas are in the U.S., Europe or Asia.
Evelyn Theiss

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