PINE MOUNTAIN, Ga. —Behind every garden is a story, and Callaway Gardens, scattered atop the slopes of Georgia's Pine Mountain, is no different.
The back story is that that Cason Callaway, a Georgia textile magnate turned gazillionire, once said that every child should see something beautiful before he's 6 years old so he would remember it all his life.
Callaway then carved out 2,500 acres out of about 40,000 of cotton farms 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 that defy generalizations.
"We don't want just to build the finest garden seen on earth since Adam was a boy," Callaway said decades ago of his masterpiece. "We want to build the prettiest garden that will ever be se en on earth 'til Gabriel blows his horn."
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Gabriel hasn't yet blown his horn, so in late spring off I went to this popular place that is a horticulturalist's dream. If you like "largest" superlatives, as will be soon clear, then you'll love Callaway Gardens.
As we drove down a sun-spackled narrow lane from the main gate 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.
"I've lived in Georgia all my life," said a friend from the back seat of the car. "But I've never been to Callaway Gardens and I've certainly never seen baby turkeys."
Ditto, I was thinking to myself, wondering how I missed coming here for so long. Before the day was over, I saw so much other flowers and 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. In a, um, nutshell, it's a 13, 000-acre preserve including Callaway's original 2,500 acres of azalea-covered gardens, an inn, several restaurants that feature everything from fried chicken to fancy gourmet fare, cottages and villas for rent, and even residential communities.
Spring undoubtedly is the showstopper. If you watch the Masters and marvel at the azaleas, then Callaway Gardens is sort of a supercharged Augusta National on steroids. The Callaway Brother s Azalea Bowl is the world's largest azalea garden, and the Easter lily display at the John A. Sibley Horticultural Center is the largest in the nation.
"In spring, everything glows with pink, purple and white," says Callaway's Rachel Crumbley, who serves as media and public relations director. "The color will knock your socks off."
During my visit in late spring, which in the South is really early summer, most of the azaleas were gone, 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 with heavy ghostly white blossoms.
Then spring transitions to summer when planting begins at Mr. Cason's Vegetable Garden, which serves as a filming site for the PBS series "The Victory Garden." More than 400 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, and vineyards grow at Mr. Cason's, one of the most popular spots to visit at Callaway Gardens.
Remember the great family resorts of the 1950s and 60s? The resort has a week-long Summer Adventure Program that has had families returning for generations.
Here's how it works, says Crumbley. The package includes accommodations for a family in a two-bedroom cottage. Then 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, whether it's 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.
In other words, Crumbley says, "It's a vacation for parents within a vacation."
Autumn is for festivals and festive leaf color along the ridge of Pine Mountain. Hiking and biking are both popular during fall, and 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, 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 Symposi um, perhaps the South's premier gardening event, takes place each January.
Not much 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 are free.
No matter the season you visit, take in some of the many attractions that are open year 'round like a country store, the Birds of Prey show that features live raptors, or the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center — and here's that superlative again — one of the largest butterfly conservatories in North America with more than a thousand jewel-tone butterflies flitting about in a serene, peaceful, stress-busting tropical garden setting.
Cason Callaway's original plan for Callaway Gardens was deceptively simple, and it is something that no 6-year-old, or 60-year-old, for that matter, will forget.
Says Crumbley with a contented sigh, "It is a place to slow down and enjoy your day."
IF YOU GO:
Callaway Gardens is just over an hour's drive southwest from Atlanta. For more information or to make a reservation, call 1-800-CALLAWAY (225-5292) or visit www.CallawayGardens.com.