Nestled in Pine Mountain, Georgia, less than 2 hours southwest of Atlanta, is Callaway Gardens. Based on the name, many people think it is just a sedate flower and vegetable garden. Even past visitors may think of it as just bicycles and butterflies. However, this 13,000 acre property is much more. With several new outdoor activities, Callaway Gardens is a fantastic family destination. Here is what you need to know to plan your family’s active get-away, including the best bargains we found.
What To Do
Tree Top, just opened in mid-May, is an aptly named high ropes course for the adventurous family. Each adventurer must be at least 54 inches tall and wear closed toe shoes. The 60-90 minute course includes five zip lines and about 20 other challenges. Safety is a key concern. You learn how to use your harness, 2 safety ropes and clips, gloves, and a zip line shuttle before getting off the ground. There is plenty of clipping in and out along the way to keep you from meeting the ground (or a tree) at an undesirable speed. Depending on your balance and coordination, this is a moderate to strenuous activity. However, there is a significant sense of accomplishment for completing all the challenges. Individual cost is $30.
Imagine a large set of connected inflatables in the middle of a lake. That is the brand new Aqua Island attraction, located at Robin Lake Beach. Slide, jump, bounce, swing, balance, and climb. And when you fall, you just land in the lake and float in your life vest under the watchful eyes of several life guards. There are “docks” with hand holds so that you can pull yourself up to try again. Aqua Island was a big hit with kids from 7 into their teens. The cost for a one hour excursion is $10.
If you need to work out some of your aggression, Light Strike Laser Tag is for you. Callaway just opened a wooded and obstacle-strewn battle area a few steps away from Robin Lake Beach. The high tech laser weapons are accurate to a range of 400 feet. And no vests are required! Each warrior dons a head band that creates the target zone around him. Each $10 admission allows participation in at least two games of 15 minutes each. My son and I were the only combatants when we played, so we enjoyed four rounds of blasting away at each other. The equipment worked flawlessly.
If you would rather get wet in battle, you can choose the new Blaster Boats, also near the beach. Each engine-powered boat includes a static 35 foot water cannon. The boats are simple to operate; my nine year old son handled it with no problems. A 30 minute naval battle is just $10 for each captain.
The Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center offers a very different challenge, at least for photographers. With 1,000 butterflies flitting around the specially maintained indoor environment, you would think it simple to capture a digital image of one. Go ahead and try. Or just meander through and consider the wonder of God’s creation. This Center has been the most popular attraction at Callaway for years.
Bicycle rentals are long-time fixture at Callaway Gardens. We enjoyed the 2.5 mile Discovery loop trail. You can certainly bike much further if you wish. And, don’t worry about your younger children who can’t ride yet. You can also rent one of various-sized burleys and let them trail behind a rider. The extra weight makes for a better workout for dad, too.
The Robin Lake Beach offers a perfect way to cool off during those hot, summer days. There is plenty of soft sand, but also shaded perches among the tall pine trees further from the lake. Other fun and free activities in the area include shuffle board, ping pong, miniature golf, beach volleyball, and a playground. Changing rooms and a well-staffed Beach Cafe are conveniently near by.
The Florida State University Flying High Circus is a summer tradition at Callaway dating back to 1961. The Friday 8 pm show featured talented and daring performances on trapeze, high wire, and other aerial stunts. The “around the world” theme also included some comedy, tumbling, roller-skating, and juggling. You should definitely try to catch this free, one hour show. Sit near the fans, though.
If that isn’t enough to do, Callaway also offers more traditional outdoor activities, too. There is golf, tennis, fishing, boating, and miles of hiking trails among the beautiful woodlands and gardens. There really is something for everyone.
Where to Eat
After all that activity, you will want to re-energize with delicious calories. Callaway offers several different restaurants to meet that desire. Vineyard Green, at Mountain Creek Inn, provides ala carte menu service. It features lighter dinner fare with a few larger entrees and is family-friendly. The kid’s meal includes a drink, fruit cup, entree, and dessert for $5. Everything tasted exceptionally fresh and was better than we expected. The multiple slider appetizer, with 3 different mini-sandwiches, is quite delicious and fun to share.
The Plant Room, also at Mountain Creek Inn, is an upscale buffet. We dined there for Saturday night’s southern buffet. It featured prime rib, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, and several other southern favorites. Everything we tried was exceptional, especially the potato salad. It was perfectly done! (Yes, I’m picky about potato salad.) The fresh blackberry cobbler and lighter-than-expected chocolate cake were great finishes.
Discovery Cafe is a bit of a hidden gem right near Tree Top and the Discovery Center. It serves several lunch meals including hamburgers, hot dogs, and ham sandwiches. Like the other restaurants, food and service here were a notch or two above the standard attraction fare.
The Country Kitchen offers an overlook view with a Cracker Barrel-type environment. There is country cooking, a country store, and even a Christmas shop. We ate breakfast looking out over the wooded valley. The food was plentiful and tasty. A nice regional touch is the muscadine jelly (a local grape served in various ways at many of the restaurants). However, this is the one place where the prices felt a bit too high. The breakfast omelette meal was over $10.
Where to Stay
I had previously considered Callaway Gardens to be just a day trip. But with all that they now offer, a weekend (or more) is a great choice. Our family stayed at the Mountain Creek Inn, operated by Callaway Gardens. It is a newly renovated motel equivalent to 3 star lodging. Our room had two comfortable double beds. There was also wired internet access, room service (which we didn’t try), and a fairly noisy (but effective) individual air conditioning unit. The shower head was placed for short people, but the room was clean and more than adequate for our stay. Callaway also offers multi-bedroom cottages and upscale villas. All lodging prices include admission to the Gardens, which makes them a better value. (Regular daily admission to Callaway is $18 for adults and $9 for children 6-12.)
All of Callaway’s attractions, restaurants, and lodging could be ruined if the guest service was poor. On our visit, though, we found all the employees to be courteous, helpful, well-trained, accessible, and interested in providing fun. Their service quality was far above all seasonally-staffed attractions in the area.
More Tips for the Trip
Buy the Summer Fun Package. For about $50 we were able to do any of the paid attractions above for a day. In our case, the “day” lasted from 9 am on Saturday through 4 pm on Sunday. This is the best value we found. For golfers, it is an ever better deal. A round of golf is normally $64. The Summer Fun Package is only available if you stay at the Inn or the Villas.
There is a local Farmer’s Market on Friday nights from 4-7 pm near the beach. Pick up fresh produce and other local items. Live entertainment is scheduled, too.
Waiver mania. Most of the new activities require participant to sign a waiver. Parents must sign for their minor children. Be aware that you will not be able to just send the kids off with cash (or their Summer Fun card) for an activity.
Value sipper. You can purchase a re-fillable fountain drink at the Beach Cafe for just $2.
Thank You, Dad
Callaway Garden’s mission is to “connect man and nature in ways that benefit both.” On our weekend there, we accomplished something even better. We re-connected with our family and marveled at our Creator’s majesty and creativity. The truest testimony I can offer is that my son has still not stopped thanking me for taking him to Callaway Gardens. Enjoy your visit!
For more of this author’s personal experience:
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