PINE MOUNTAIN, Ga. — Behind every garden is a story, and Callaway Gardens, scattered atop the slopes of Georgia’s Pine Mountain, is no different.
Cason Callaway, a Georgia textile gazillionaire, once said that every child should see something beautiful before he’s 6 years old so he would remember it all his life. So he carved 2,500 acres out of about 40,000 he owned that had been eroded by poor farming practices and created Callaway Gardens, a beloved Georgia landmark threaded with woodlands, pastures, golf courses and spectacular gardens.
Callaway Gardens does deal in superlatives – a number of assorted eye-bending attractions said to be a “largest” – and is about 480 miles, or 8 1/2 hours southwest of Raleigh, via Interstate 85 and (from Atlanta) I-185.
This spring, I went to see this horticultural dream.
As we drove down a sun-spackled narrow lane to the visitor center, a mama turkey skittered across the roadway in front of us, protectively shooing along two tiny poults. A wild turkey is a notoriously difficult bird to see in the first place, and I practically gobbled with delight at the sheer cuteness of the chicks.
Before the day was over, I saw so much other wildlife that lit the gardens with living, breathing color: vibrant red of cardinals galore, bluebirds, Canadian geese, blue herons and the plumpest fox squirrel I’ve ever seen.
The four-season Callaway Gardens, which opened in 1952, isn’t just another run-of-the-mill Garden of Eden filled with flowers, baby turkeys and fat squirrels. The 13,000-acre preserve includes Callaway’s original acreage of azalea-covered gardens, an inn, several restaurants (serving everything from fried chicken to fancy gourmet fare), cottages and villas for rent, and even residential communities.
Spring undoubtedly is the showstopper. The Callaway Brothers Azalea Bowl is touted as the world’s largest azalea garden, and the Easter lily display at the John A. Sibley Horticultural Center as the nation’s largest.
Most of the azaleas were gone by the week I visited, but the grounds were covered with pockets of oak leaf hydrangea, mountain laurel, rhododendron and a few remaining wild and hybrid azaleas. But perhaps the most spectacular sight was the more than 5,000 magnolia trees, their limbs practically sagging to the ground, heavy with ghostly white blossoms.
The transition to summer comes when planting begins at Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden, which serves as a site for the PBS series “The Victory Garden.” More than 400 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers and vineyards grow there; it’s one of the most popular spots to visit at Callaway Gardens.
Callaway has a weeklong Summer Adventure Program that has had families returning for generations.
The package includes accommodations for a family in a two-bedroom cottage. Each day, kids participate in age-appropriate activities – maybe swimming in the indoor-outdoor pool, hanging out at Rockin’ Robins with its malt-shop atmosphere, interacting with the Florida State University Flying High Circus, zip-lining the tree tops with TreeTop Adventure, or soaking up the sun at Robin Lake Beach, the world’s largest inland manmade white sand beach.
While the kids are at supervised play, parents have the week to do what they want. Options? Hiking through the gardens, lobbing tennis balls, going cane-pole or fly-fishing in one of the resort’s myriad lakes, shopping in the antique shops and boutiques in nearby Pine Mountain, playing golf on one of two 18-hole courses, or hitting a few balls at Twin Oaks Golf Practice Facility, one of the largest practice facilities in the world, or simply relaxing.
Autumn is for festivals and festive leaf color along the ridge of Pine Mountain. Hiking and biking are both popular. The farmers market, which begins in spring at Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden, runs through the end of October. You can buy bounty from the garden or other goodies like Georgia-made cheeses and wines.
Winter brings the Fantasy in Lights, one of the largest holiday light and sound production in the Southeast. It is so elaborate that work on it begins in August. And the Southern Gardening Symposium, perhaps the South’s premier gardening event, takes place each January.
Not many blooms in winter except the camellias and holly – the Holly Trail in the Meadowlark Garden area is one of the top 25 arboreta of holly in the world – so as has been the tradition, admission to the gardens in January and February is free.
No matter the season you visit, take in some of the many attractions that are open year-round, such as the country store, the Birds of Prey show that features live raptors or the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center, one of the largest butterfly conservatories in North America.