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GEORGIA PEACH

Written by Tracy Cottrell


What is it about a lake? The word conjures images of pleasurable ease. I imagine the rustling hush of tall pine trees swaying with the breeze and the water lapping on the shores. It is more of a murmur than the crash of ocean waves. I imagine walking lakeside, the wet sand pushing between my toes. People are relaxing in beach chairs and on the towels scattered about the shore. Children squeal with glee as they rush to the water's edge, scooping up another pail of wet sand to bury the next willing victim. I relax into end-of-day bonfires under the deep indigo sky, stars scattered across the heavens like a splash of glitter. There is an intimacy within the circle of a lake that soothes and refreshes hearts and souls.

Clearly, I am a fan of lakes.

As my friends and I contemplated a getaway weekend, the Ritz- Carlton Reynolds on Lake Oconee in Georgia seemed like a perfect fit for all of us. It checked all our boxes for travel requirements: an abundance of activities and opportunities for relaxation, all underscored with luxury, comfort, and fun.

We were all ready to reconnect and enjoy ourselves. The resort arranged for a driver to pick us in a comfortable Mercedes van stocked with water and snacks for the 100-mile drive from Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta to Lake Oconee. There was a rush of catch-up conversation, followed by the obligatory technology check-in until everyone seemed to slide into a peaceful quiet, content to enjoy the ride to relaxation.

After about an hour on the road, we turned onto Linger Longer Road. How can you not love anyplace that is located off a place with such an endearing name? As we approached our destination, luxuriant longleaf pines rose to greet us, punctuated by well-tended grounds, and smooth greens of golf courses visible through the trees. We pulled up to the hotel and were greeted by what seemed like a family of staff members, all intent on welcoming us and heading us towards the lobby and front desk. Check-in was friendly, informative, and expeditious. With dinner plans already made, we agreed to head to our rooms for a quick change before meeting downstairs.

We gathered in the lobby, a vibrant space that reflects the beauty of the outdoors with elegant lodge-style décor imbued with the luxurious elements you would expect from a Ritz-Carlton. The central area is filled with generous and comfortable seating, but the focus is Lake Oconee, visible through the wall of windows. The lake measures just under twenty miles in length, and about thirty square miles total is surrounded by abundant woods, dotted with lovely homes, and edged with private boat docks. Soaking in the beauty of the lake spread out before us felt like a quick visit to a mini spa.

Our evening commenced with a cocktail party at the recently renovated Wisteria Cottage to sample artisanal cocktails prepared by the head mixologist. A master of flavors, his vehicle of choice is simple syrup, which he mixes with herbs and other ingredients grown on the property.

That evening we sampled a cocktail of gin mixed with a simple syrup infused with thyme and blueberries. Typically, I'm a Chardonnay kind of girl, but I was a convert to the artisanal cocktail with my first sip. Unlike anything I had ever tasted, the flavors were distinct yet beautifully blended. As we enjoyed our beverages, Kent Duffy, the property's resident floral designer, joined us to share his floral design philosophy. Duffy's elegant creations, born from flowers and plants sourced on the property, reflect his mission to enhance a space or the event, not to overshadow or disrupt. His passion for his artistry was contagious and inspiring. Dinner at the Lake House was prepared by resident Chef Edgar Carrera. Often referred to as the Presidents' House, the Lake House has been a popular destination for several past presidents. The house sits back in a wooded area near the lakeshore and boasts the elegant, discreet ease you would expect for vacationing presidents. We headed to the comfortable kitchen for an enjoyable cooking demonstration that resulted in some ceviche deliciousness with shrimp and avocado. There is a particular pleasure in watching a highly skilled professional demonstrate his skill while relishing the sharing of his expertise. Chef moved with his team to the veranda, and we all followed, lured by the promise of a special dinner cooked just for us. We gathered at a long table set up poolside and at lake level. The moon was full, smudged into a glowing soft gold by the misty moisture that hung heavy in the air. Listening to the music of cooking sounds as Chef and his team prepared our food, all my senses were heightened. Hearing the gentle lapping at water's edge, savoring a meal of fresh ingredients transformed into unique yet simple dishes, and sharing the origins and components for the different recipes, all blended into a bonhomie that enfolded us all like a light summer shawl. The start of luxurious, lakeside restoration.

A visit to the Reynolds Kingdom of Golf was the first item on the agenda the following day. A distinguished facility for golf aficionados, experiencing the Reynolds Kingdom of Golf when visiting the Ritz- Carlton Reynolds is highly recommended. At this point, I will share that I grew up in a family of golfers. Despite many efforts to love the game over the years, I am still not a fan. It seemed I was not alone in my feelings about golf. When we met for breakfast, a few confessed to being less than enthusiastic about the sport, but willing to give it a shot.

The Kingdom of Golf was not what any of us expected. There was no recitation of the game's grand tradition, rather a passion for excellence through a unique approach to the sport. The facility serves both tour professionals and novices, leveraging technology and individuality to show golfers how to improve their game. The process is the same for all. Using technology, a team of professionals, including Sean Cain and professional golfer Blake Adams, analyze what the client is doing now, gain an understanding of how that person's body moves, and develop strategies to leverage strengths and heal weaknesses. The program also shows golfers how to avoid injuries by working with their bodies instead of continuing movements that initially resulted in injury. Finding the best, most authentic path for all to golf their best game is the program's overriding goal.

While listening to the program's details, I could not help but feel the implications could be broader and more personal. A person's prescription for an improved match transcended into general life lessons. Work with what you have and who you are; move authentically to achieve the best results; and bypass conventional strategies that have not worked for you. For at least a few minutes, I gave serious consideration to relearning how to play golf!

The Kingdom of Golf was impressive because of the foundational science, but also intriguing because of the individual focus. The commitment of the extraordinary staff was compelling. Here again was an opportunity to watch professionals demonstrate their prowess, witnessing their passion and love for the subject matter.

As we had gone about the property, I had noticed an area on the lakeshore with pairs of Adirondack chairs set around small fire pits. My current novel of choice and I had selected this area as a destination point for the afternoon. It was perfect. Quiet enough to read and close enough to the many endeavors guests could enjoy. Participation by osmosis is not an official offering on the list of activities, but I absorbed the joy and pleasure of those around me while I relished the opportunity to simply read. Not far beyond this section of the shore, a copse of pines intersected by a path leading to a clearing is a sought-after location for wedding ceremonies. The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds is a preferred destination for not only weddings but events of all kinds. As I wandered through the tall pines, drawn to a small dock lakeside, there was a solemn majesty that would be an enchanting setting for the exchange of vows and promises for the future. It was not hard to imagine families and friends gathered to celebrate happy couples on their special day.

Past the clearing, a small dock seemed to be calling me, so I headed down to the water. I could not resist sitting down and dipping my feet into the lake. The strength of the tall pines at my back held me as I relaxed into this pocket of peace. At the same time, the sounds of lake life skipped across the water, reaching out as a muted melody. Skiers behind speedboats slicing through the water, snippets of overheard conversations about what to wear to dinner, the steady hum of people enjoying themselves.

Did I mention that I am a fan of lakes?

Dinner that night was at Georgia's, a restaurant located at lake level in the hotel's main building. Our group was in one of the private rooms off Georgia's main dining space, an elegant, wood-paneled room that was both sophisticated and cozy. The food was mostly sourced from local farms, fresh from the garden to the table, and impeccably prepared. The dishes were traditional Southern favorites, such as fried green tomatoes, succotash and shrimp and grits, prepared with thoughtful twists that elevated the food from traditional fare to the extraordinary. The service was solicitous and unobtrusive. Chef Shawn Thomas came out at the beginning of each course to describe to what we were having. He was both shy and passionate about his food, a charming advocate for this style of cooking.

As often happens, the combination of excellent food, wonderfully paired wines, and the best of company resulted in an unforgettable evening. With two brides-to-be in our party, both with weddings only weeks away, it was essential that all details be discussed. Our conversation continued through bread pudding and coffee, ending around the firepit as we contemplated S' mores, including a "topping bar." We were delighted to learn that Lake Oconee had recently set a record for the largest s'more in the country.

The next morning, we headed down to the lake for a pontoon ride to Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds, located on the other side of the lake, for clay shooting and off-roading. Once we arrived at a small dock, it was a short ride to the refurbished barn that is the hub of all Sandy Creek activities. When I use the word “barn,” think shooting parties and the English countryside. The facility is also used for events of all sorts, including corporate retreats.

Everywhere you look, windows frame spectacular views of the lake. The same comfortable elegance that is a hallmark of the property was present at Sandy Creek as well. Some of us headed to the blinds for clay shooting while the other half hopped into what looked like one of the larger model Range Rovers. Not exactly. This Range Rover was an extraordinary masterpiece of engineering, with all-wheel drive and all-terrain technology. Our guide for our off-roading adventure is a champion target shooter as well as an experienced driver of off-road vehicles.

He drove us away from the barn until he made a sharp left off the road and headed down a hilly, wooded area with felled tree limbs and deep ditches from recent heavy rains. With minimal human assistance, the car drove us down a hill, trees inches away on both sides, into ditches I was sure we would not get out of, and through spaces that seemed to get smaller as we got closer. We marveled at the car and our unflappable guide, squealing a little at the sharper turns and steeper hills, and cheering as the car took us through all of it.

For our last afternoon, pampering at the hotel spa was the activity of choice. In keeping with the property's mandate to incorporate local, many native ingredients were featured in the selection of treatments. I chose a luscious all body wrap and scrub that left me liquid with relaxation, my skin softer than I can remember.

As I headed back to my room to get ready for the evening, I luxuriated in the unexpected pleasures of the past few days. They wove together as a single body of delights that would travel with me, every bit as tangible as the contents of my suitcase.

Linger Longer Steakhouse, the restaurant of choice for our last dinner together, offered all of what we had come to expect, including top-notch service, excellent food, and inviting ambiance. Not every steakhouse will accommodate both a pescatarian and a vegan, but Linger Longer's Chef Casey Burchfield did just that with creative and delicious alternatives. To finish our meal, we were treated to a smorgasbord of desserts. We could not help but take our time leaving, feeling the quickening of time running out.

Like our car ride from the airport, the journey back was quiet. We each looked to reconnect to our daily lives while reminiscing about the last few days. It was with bittersweet reluctance that we parted at the airport while anticipating the joy of heading home!

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