Courtesy Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Ask why the Georgia State Park system built Amicalola Falls State Park Lodge on a mountain in northeast Georgia, and park superintendent Bill Tanner will point to the lodge’s veranda at sunset.
Watch the sun drop to the west of the Blue Ridge Mountains from that spot and “the question of why it was decided to build the lodge where it is answers itself,” Tanner said. “Amicalola is the only lodge in the state park system where you have this million-dollar view.”
Making most of a mountaintop
Architects made the most of a mountaintop, stretching the lodge along it so that when the first guests arrived in 1991, the views would knock them out from two lobbies, any of the 56 guest rooms, the 160-seat Maple Restaurant and of course, the rocking chairs on the veranda.
“If we aren’t up in the clouds, as we are today, you have a huge view,” said Tanner. Ronna Horn, who came to the lodge four years ago as director of sales, agreed. On a clear day “you see nothing but mountains. You are sitting right in the middle of them and up with them.”
The lodge is also a short walk from the top of Amicalola Falls, which cuts a 729-foot liquid swath through the hardwoods, down the mountainside, into a trout-stocked pool at its base. It is the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi River.
It all makes for what Rebecca Hahessy describes as “a very therapeutic environment,” one reason many of the meetings held there are labeled “retreats.” Hahessy works for Deliver the Dream, an organization that offers respite to families dealing with a child or parent’s serious illness. She brings groups of such families to Amicalola to get away from the stresses of their situation for a few days and meet others facing similar struggles.
Business leaders retreat to lodge
Sara Fountain, executive director of Leadership Dekalb, has been holding kick-off retreats for her organization at Amicalola for a number of years. Each September, she brings 50 business leaders from the Atlanta suburb to the lodge for the start of a program that educates them about the challenges and opportunities in their community.
The 829-acre park is 90-minute to two-hour drive from Atlanta and its suburbs, and as the scenery shifts, so do mindsets. “Part of the charm of it is that because it is out in the mountains, by the time you get there, your cares have dropped away,” said Fountain.
There’s sketchy cell phone service; wireless Internet is available, but it can also be spotty, some clients say. The lodge’s meeting space is small — a breakout room and a 2,200-square-foot meeting room on the lower level that can be divided into three equal spaces by airwalls. But add the veranda, just beyond the meeting space and the lobby that adjoins it, and the space becomes much larger.
The veranda plays into almost every meeting. “Up here it can get cold at night, but they all want to be on the veranda,” said Horn. Bars can be stationed on the long veranda, part of which is covered; park rangers will bring in fire pits for bonfires; tables can be set outdoors for dinners and receptions.
For a time, after the economy went south, so did government meetings, one of the lodge’s mainstays. Their absence was partly offset by an uptick in church groups from the Atlanta area.
Now, the lodge is once again seeing corporate and government business, especially from Atlanta. Horn believes that the lodge’s rates are part of the attraction.
Although most groups book rooms in the lodge, one-bedroom to three-bedroom cottages are also available. When JoBeth Allen, a professor of language and literacy at the University of Georgia in Athens, brings doctoral students to the park for a weeklong writing retreat, they stay in the cottages, make their own meals and go to the lodge to sit on the veranda and write on their laptops.
Buffets are extensive and inexpensive
Guest rooms are fairly standard but well tended, said Fountain. “It is not the lap of luxury because it is a state park, but it is a nice facility and the people care about it so much.”
Meals in the restaurant are buffet-style, beginning with a full breakfast — continental items plus bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits and make-your-own waffles — that’s included in the guest room rate. (for two people per room.)
Lunch is equally expansive, with three entrees, three vegetables, two soups, a salad bar and a dessert, from $8.49—“a real steal,” said Horn. Dinner is the same format, but all different food items for $2 more; on weekends, the chef might prepare a special seafood or prime rib buffet and the Sunday brunch buffet is a big draw for locals. The cost of those buffets is about $16.
After a day or so, some want a break from the dining room. Although off-site catering is not offered, the restaurant will prepare box lunches or the sales team will put meeting planners in touch with local caterers who can handle a barbecue or a picnic at the base of the falls or other places in the park.
Amenities are low key
Like the rest of the lodge, amenities are low key. There’s no swimming pool or spa, but the waters of Amicalola Falls (Cherokee for “tumbling waters”) attract hearty hikers who climb 700 steps from the bottom of the falls to the top (If they make it, they can buy a T-shirt in the lodge gift shop that memorializes their feat.)
Two park rangers can plan team-building programs on the park’s ropes course, a 10-minute walk from the lodge, or organize ranger-led hikes. Corporate groups can request themes for their hikes, anything from talks about the business of running a park to the history of the Appalachian Trail.
Extra energetic groups can opt for a bonding experience — hiking the five miles from the lodge to the Len Foote Hike Inn, a rustic hiker’s retreat where dinner and breakfast are included in the room rate and up to 40 hikers sleep in one of 20 rooms outfitted with bunk beds.
Scenery, staff equal satisfaction
As a planner of meetings for corporate attendees, Fountain has been to tony resorts and hotels. She admits that facilitywise, Amicalola’s lodge is not on par. Yet, factoring in the setting and a devoted staff, her experiences there have been equally satisfying.
“This is definitely not going to be the Ritz, but they have the same honest interest in your meeting working,” said Fountain. “The staff is committed to making sure you have a good time.”