On a warm, sunny afternoon, I headed down I-20 for a short, two-hour ride to The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee, a lakeside resort tucked away in the northeast corner of Georgia. Eagerly anticipating this trip, I wondered what offerings a Columbia city girl like me might find. It did not take too long to find out.
Traveling with a fellow mom buddy, we left behind our five teenagers and their accompanying drama. Thus, we were happy to find ourselves alone in what we would come to love as our own little summer camp by the lake — free of our children, dogs, appointments, and stress.
The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee enjoys a reputation as a preeminent destination for families. With its wide array of kid-friendly activities and programs, it presents itself as a sort of exaggerated summer camp. But rather than sleeping in tents and fishing for supper, guests enjoy the sumptuous accommodations that The Ritz-Carlton is known for. The rooms overlook the lake and feature large, welcoming beds with soft down comforters and a bathroom setting that rivals any.
In addition to the luxury and splendor of a five-star resort setting with an expert and welcoming staff, The Ritz-Carlton offers a superior dining experience for all guests, from its on-site restaurants –– Georgia’s and Gaby’s by the Lake –– to several other restaurants on-site at the golf courses.
We entered the beautiful hotel and were greeted by a host of argyle-sock wearing valets and bellhops. The lobby has the feel of an elegant but comfortable lodge. In addition to the fireplace, there is an expansive view of beautiful Lake Oconee below, and the hotel seems to sit in an arc around the shore with its accompanying beach, dock, kayaks, and boats. Also visible is the infinity pool, situated next to Gaby’s by the Lake restaurant. I couldn’t wait to get started!
But first, it was time to enjoy a glass of wine on my balcony, which afforded an even better view than the one from the lobby. Lake Oconee is a reservoir in Central Georgia, created in 1979 by Georgia Power via the creation of the Wallace Dam on the Oconee River. With 374 miles of shoreline and a surface area of 18,971 acres, it offers plenty of room for watersports and recreational activities. Reynolds Lake Oconee sits on its shores and features championship courses offering 99 holes of resort play. It is the ultimate lakeside escape.
Our first excursion that evening was to Georgia’s. With its focus on supporting local farmers and making use of its own garden, Georgia’s specializes in contemporary cuisine. First up on the menu was a “Southern Meat and Cheese Board” with a “Spotted Trotter Southern Smash,” duck prosciutto, and an assortment of cheeses, including the delicious rondelé, similar to a goat cheese. For my entrée, I chose the New Zealand King Salmon with creamed lentils, parsnips, and brussels sprouts, all mixed in an herb butter sauce. The restaurant opens onto a large, stack-stoned area with outdoor seating that is conveniently located next to the famous outdoor campfire where families, couples, and friends gather each evening to roast s’mores and gaze at the stars in comfortable Adirondack chairs.
We awoke the next morning to a fabulous breakfast, again at Georgia’s. Featuring a fantastic buffet, the restaurant’s outdoor patio is a must on a beautiful spring morning. We couldn’t resist the cheese grits that were clearly loaded up with real cream — a yummy and decadent delight we relished each morning thereafter, though we swore before arriving each morning that we would refrain. This breakfast feast and a steaming cup of coffee, enjoyed while listening to the birds and looking over the lake and surrounding woods each morning, are not to be missed!
Next, we headed over to my favorite pastime at every resort I visit — the spa! This 27,000-square-foot retreat offers heaven behind its quiet closed doors. It also features a full fitness facility below, which includes an indoor swimming pool. In addition to standard spa fare –– such as massages, facials, and the like –– the spa offers a menu of “spa experiences,” including the “Oconee Rain,” which synergizes the use of the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water to relax the nerves and soften the skin, all in conjunction with the body’s energy pathways.
I selected something new for me, the “Personalized Body Wrap.” This treatment begins with a process that is trending today in the world of spas, and that is dry-brushing — designed to promote lymphatic drainage and to detox the body of swelling and aches. It also creates “endorphin release,” and since I had plenty of that by the fire pit the night before, I decided to continue the fun. After dry-brushing, the entire body is scrubbed down with a detoxifying seaweed bath infused with mandarin and essential oils, then wrapped in a type of material that closely resembles a mylar balloon.
While baking in the wrap, one enjoys a scalp massage with mud. The body is then rinsed using a Vichy rain shower overhead spray. The entire process is finished off with an oil rub. Hats off to Emily Chell, my therapist, who worked her magic, deftly managing to wrap and unwrap the body in a discreet and calm fashion, while quietly describing each phase of the treatment.
All good things must come to an end, and with great reluctance we left the spa, only to realize we had exciting plans ahead — an afternoon relaxing by the infinity pool with Bloody Marys in hand. For lunch we feasted on Gaby’s by the Lake’s renowned “Lobster Grilled Cheese.” Made with Havarti cheese, a personal favorite, and coupled with sweet potato fries, this fabulous lunch made me grateful I had worn my one-piece swimsuit. I silently swore off any more late nights at the campfire. I looked around the pool, enjoying the laughter of the children and parents, briefly thinking of my teenagers at home and how much they would enjoy it here, but the moment was fleeting, and I lay back in the quiet and warm sunshine with my book.
It was my great pleasure to get out and about around the Reynolds Lake Oconee development the next morning. I toured the stunning model home and resisted the urge to suggest that I stay there that night to try it out. Instead, I viewed the golf courses and the Lake Club, the residents’ fitness center overlooking the lake. Many of the residents here are retired, though there are many families living at Reynolds as well. Reynolds is a “hybrid” of both a community and a resort. As such, it provides both residents and guests the opportunity to play a different golf course each day and to enjoy the seven different restaurants to be found at Reynolds. Adding to the allure of Reynolds is that this part of Georgia offers four distinctly different seasons. Also, unlike resorts on the coast, there are no hurricanes, no alligators, and no sand fleas. Residents and guests enjoy a fuller resort experience and vacation atmosphere by making use of the lake and not just gazing out at it like one would the ocean. From fishing to watersports and boating, Reynolds provides a full array of lake living year-round.
Even more fun was in store for the afternoon — a bike ride down to the marina! We gallantly rode off on our bikes, with parting words from the bike man, “Be careful. It’s very hilly!” We set out through the trails, enjoying the tall Georgia pines and the fresh smells from all the woods around us. Shortly the trail began to dip and climb. Soon I was huffing, puffing, and gasping for breath. But we had promised ourselves that we would make it to the marina, a feat accomplished with lots of groaning and complaining on my part, along with promises to eat no more s’mores ever again (after tonight of course). We both laughed at our great accomplishment of completing the seven-mile hilly ride, and then set off for dinner!
The National Tavern at The National Golf Village sits on the finishing hole of the Bluff nine of The National Golf Course and, like all the other restaurants at Reynolds, provides one-of-a kind fare and superior service. Quiet and professional, our server, James, proffered descriptions and suggestions from an irresistible menu of selections such as “Georgia Quail Poppers” and “Rosemary Lamb Meatballs.” We started our meal with the bread and olive oil centerpiece. Featuring sea salt flakes, a three-blend peppercorn shaker, and olive oil infused with garlic, rosemary, and peppers, the blend goes nicely with a sherry vinegar made locally at Reynolds. This fun twist to traditional bread and butter made a great start to the evening meal, which included a “Grilled Shrimp Picatta” with asparagus and angel hair pasta, one of the best pasta dishes I have ever eaten. We finished off the night with a caramel chocolate torte. Light and fluffy, with a delicate crunch of Heath Bar, it was the perfect end to the day.
The next morning we rose to enjoy our last morning of our beloved grits and coffee before venturing off to yoga. Afterward, we enjoyed our final day by the pool before one last evening of culinary adventure at the newly re-opened Eighty8 Kitchen & Cocktails. With its “Restoration Hardware” mix of furniture, texture, and colors, the vibe is light, airy, and fun, all enjoyed while sampling a great menu of Southern cocktails.
We started off with cottage cheese and dill biscuits with spent beer grains butter. A bit of a lightweight, I sampled a “vesper” martini and shortly realized that it would be my only drink for the evening! Cocktails at Eighty8 are not for the faint-of-heart. They include the “Blushing Dutchess,” a concoction of Pinnacle Vodka, Merlet Trois Citrus, Turbinado Sugar and Muddled Grapefruit, and the “Between the Sheets,” featuring Ketel One Oranje, Benedictine Liqueur, Merlet Trois Citrus, simple syrup, Angostura Bitters, and fresh squeezed lemon.
One look at the cocktail menu, and I realized why everyone was having so much fun! That, and the Southern style menu featuring traditional fare such as old-fashioned meatloaf (purported to be the best in Georgia) and sautéed fresh calf livers. The “Ms. Carolyn’s Salad” was brought back from the original menu before the restaurant closed for renovations due to frequent requests from faithful long-term patrons. The restaurant sits at the tee off and the 18th hole of The Preserve Golf Course, an unusual design element in golf course layout. Built in 1988, it was the first clubhouse at Reynolds, Lake Oconee. Foodies will be interested to know that the executive chef at Reynolds is vegan, explaining the wide offerings at each of The Reynolds seven restaurants.
We rolled back to the room for our final night, but couldn’t resist one last excursion to the campfire. The night was late, and most of the families were gone. We grabbed a couple of s’mores to bring back to the room, where we could each retreat to the down comforters of our respective beds that had been our home for the week. Time to go home and back to normal life. But perhaps another trip, this time with kids, was in order. After all, it wasn’t fair to keep the s’mores all to myself.