Whether it’s the breathtaking bigness of the view or the tiny lights twinkling on boats as they blast away from the dock at dawn for a fishing tournament, Alabama’s Lake Guntersville stays with you.
Created by the Tennessee Valley Authority when it dammed the Tennessee River in the 1930s for hydroelectric power as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lake Guntersville’s 969,000 watery acres form Alabama’s largest lake. It is also one of the top bass-fishing lakes in the country, according to ESPN, which holds a Bass Elite tournament here each year.
Like the eagles that roost nearby, Lake Guntersville State Park Lodge and Convention Center perches 600 feet above the lake, atop Taylor Mountain in the foothills of the Appalachians in northeast Alabama.
It’s 45 minutes southeast of Huntsville and 1.5 hours northeast of Birmingham.
Lodge reopens after expansion
Built in 1974, the lodge reopened in 2008 after a four-year, $25 million renovation and expansion. It does justice to the lake, which also took four years to build.
Frank Lloyd Wright would like this place. The lodge’s stacked stone pillars seem to rise up from the mountain. Arching wooden beams glow as golden light floods through tall windows. Open, interconnected spaces lead onto terraces that overlook the lake.
Furnished with oak, tan leather and leaded glass reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement that flourished at the turn of the 20th century, the lodge has 112 refurbished guest rooms in wings that flank it; 13 of them are suites and most have private balconies facing the lake.
“‘I can’t believe it’s a state park’” is the reaction we often get from people who come here for the first time,” said Patty Tucker, director of sales and marketing. “It’s such a state-of-the art facility.”
It is, indeed, a treasure tucked away in Alabama’s 22-park system, affordable and also accessible for people with handicaps.
The Alabama Banking Department has traditionally held a biennial training conference at a resort on the Gulf Coast. This year training director John Schindler, watching his budget, chose Lake Guntersville after a site visit.
“I was delightfully surprised by the quality of the facilities, the food and the staff,” he said. “In addition I was able to reduce the cost of the conference by 28 percent.”
Meeting spaces are clustered
The lodge’s 13,900 square feet of meeting and banquet space is divided among seven rooms sized for groups from 12 to 170. The rooms are grouped in four clusters so that several groups can meet here at the same time and not encounter each other.
Lake Guntersville is a popular choice for religious groups, state associations and fishermen, Tucker said. It’s best suited for groups of up to 150 people.
General manager Bobby Miller says corporate meetings account for about 40 percent of business; the other 60 percent is social.
“I’d like to reverse that with some incentives for meeting planners,” he said.
Two popular rooms open onto terraces that overlook the lake. The largest, the 5,000-square-foot Grandview Ballroom, can seat 250 and be divided into spaces for meetings and meals. The 2,700-square-foot Goldenrod Room seats 150 at round tables and has a fireplace.
An interior cluster includes a 3,000-square-foot meeting room fronted by a comfortable foyer and terrace for breaks or a breakout session. There’s also a boardroom for 20.
“It has a very intimate corporate feeling,” Tucker said. “You can meet privately and get away from it all.”
Smaller groups can use a suite of rooms off the main lobby. Three rooms with a central break area hold groups from 18 to 50. These rooms can also be used as breakouts for larger meetings.
And those terraces? When the weather is fine, there is no better spot for an outdoor reception for 150 people.
Wireless Internet is provided in the lobby and meeting rooms but not in guest rooms, and there is a small business center. There’s also an outdoor pool, a small exercise room and private saunas for men and women.
Food gets high marks
Food gets high marks from visitors. The lodge has full catering for meetings and events, and its Pinecrest Restaurant can seat 340 for three meals a day.
The menu includes Southern favorites like biscuits, beignet-inspired New Orleans French toast, and black-eyed peas alongside fresh fish and seasonal vegetables. Food is also available in an adjacent bar and lounge.
Ed Fletcher, the new food and beverage manager, has begun adding specials and spicing up the menu with entrees like pecan-encrusted rainbow trout.
“We do a seafood buffet every Friday night, prime rib on Saturday and a phenomenal brunch on Sunday,” he said.
Meeting planners who book a sufficient number of room nights are eligible to apply for grants to help pay for an event associated with their meeting, said Lisa Socha, executive director of the Marshall County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which administers the incentive program for area hotels that help fund it.
In addition to rooms in the lodge, the park has 19 mountaintop chalets and 15 lakeside cottages. Each has a living room, kitchen and two bedrooms.
Golf course gets redo, too
A short distance from the lodge, the park’s 18-hole golf course reopened in June after a $2 million renovation. Greens were sprigged and reshaped, irrigation and drainage were added, bunkers were lined and tees were added.
The park’s naturalist will take groups hiking on one of 31 trails or do interpretive programs about flora and fauna found on the park’s 6,000 acres. A highlight is the Eagle Watch each January.
“Eagles are easier to see that time of year,” said naturalist Patti Donnellan. “They are migrating south from Canada, and there are a lot of them. Early one morning last year we saw 34 in an hour.”
The park has a beach with a pavilion that can be used for events for 200 and a fishing center that rents boats and pontoons.
Lake Guntersville gets its name from the town of Guntersville, population 7,000, about 10 minutes away.
But the lake made Guntersville, according to town historian Larry Smith.
“After the dam was built, the town really took off,” he said. “Steamboats ran down the lake and locks made navigation possible. There’s still a large amount of river traffic.”
Nearby town offers off-site diversions
The town’s stories are told in the small Guntersville Museum and Cultural Center.
Located in an old armory built of native sandstone, the 3-year-old museum is a place to learn more about a quiet Alabama town that wasn’t always so quiet.
Guntersville was burned twice during the Civil War, and in 1862 townsfolk huddled in a ravine for 12 hours as Union gunboats bombarded the town.
Earlier, in 1838, 1,100 Cherokee Indians, whose land this was, began walking the Trail of Tears from Guntersville to Oklahoma when the U.S. government chose to relocate them.
The museum’s collection includes Native American artifacts, some of which date back 10,000 years, as well as local art, photographs of construction of the Guntersville dam and lake, and a collection of native birds shot and stuffed in the 1920s by self-taught taxidermist Miss Bessie Rayburn Samuel.
Dinners and events for up to 300 can be held in a spacious room that was the armory’s drill hall.
Visitors can also see productions at the newly renovated Whole Backstage Theatre and have lunch (or a private dinner for 15 or more) at the new Garden District Cafe.
For those who are shoppers, Unclaimed Baggage, touted by Oprah as “one of the country’s best kept shopping secrets,” is 40 minutes away in Scottsboro. The company buys and sells the contents of unclaimed baggage from the airlines.
But the main attraction remains the lake and its beauty.
“My boss especially liked the isolation,” Schindler said. “During downtime people got to know each other rather than heading off to outlets.”
Miller agreed. “If you want people to pay attention to your meeting’s business and not be distracted, this is your place.”
For more information, visit www.alapark.com/lakeguntersville.