Inn for the Night: Better than the Beach

chesnut

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Chesnut Bay Resort’s many activities, amenities and relaxed, community atmosphere have families skipping the coast for a lakeside vacation.

by OLIVIA GRIDER

We’ve been here before, but it’s still jarring to drive around a curve in remote, wooded Cherokee County, Alabama, and find ourselves at the entrance to a village of pastel-colored, seaside-like cottages framing a view of a magnificent lake.

“It’s the best-kept secret in Alabama,” Tuscaloosa, Ala., resident John Ingram says of Chesnut Bay Resort.

The first time his mother told him the annual, extended-family vacation would be near Leesburg, Ala., he resisted and almost refused to go, preferring the usual vacation spot in Orange Beach for himself, his wife and two sons, ages 6 and 9 at the time.

“Once we got there, the kids just absolutely loved it,” Ingram says. “It was incredible – just how peaceful it was. It wasn’t like the beach with the hustle and bustle. The atmosphere is more laid back. There’s no problem getting around. Everything is all in one place.”

Kids can swim at the resort’s beach on Weiss Lake (see story here) or in its two pools and whoosh down the 120-foot, multicolored slide that empties into the lake. Paddle boats, kayaks and pontoon boats also are available, along with tennis, basketball and volleyball courts, playgrounds, fishing piers, an outdoor movie theater and an array of community events.

Ingram says he knew he’d been wrong when his youngest son, William, told him, “Dad, this is better than the beach.”

That was three years ago. Now, 26 family members, including Ingram’s parents, an aunt and their children and grandchildren, come from Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., and Gadsden, Ala., to spend time together at Chesnut Bay Resort for several days surrounding Labor Day each year.

The resort encompasses 30 acres and includes 43 houses and 20 RV sites in a campground set on a hill with one of the best views of Weiss Lake. Ten original homes were built in 2007, with others constructed in 2009 and 2010 and two going up in spring of this year. The homes are privately owned, but 95 percent are part of the resort’s rental program.

Chesnut Bay is open year round, with its busiest months being Memorial Day through Labor Day.

My family visits during the off-season, over spring break, and finds the resort and lake quiet and tranquil. Our fellow guests are mainly fishing parties who are awake before daylight to head off in boats or fish from the piers.

We enter the home we’re assigned, located between one of the pools and the lake, and admire the soothing color scheme and attractive furnishings while marveling at the space contained in the three-story structure, which looked much smaller from the outside.

Despite slightly chilly temperatures, my kids, ages 11 and 14, swim in the heated pool and play tennis. At various times throughout the day and evening, they join my husband for fishing on the dock right behind the house.

We enjoy having the resort mostly to ourselves, but also appreciated the happy buzz of activity and celebratory mood of the community when we visited friends here last summer.

Standard summer activities, usually led by high school and college students, include arts and crafts, dancing, karaoke, Movie Night on Wednesdays and Fridays and Street Party Night, which is held every Friday and features various themes. Lit by tiki torches, the event often includes the limbo, hokey pokey and hoola hooping to old and new music. “Everybody shows up for that,” says resort manager George Fox. “It’s like a big, community block party.”

Staff also hand out popsicles to kids throughout the day and help them don waterproof glitter tattoos.

Holidays are heralded with additional activities and events. The resort is always full on Halloween, when it hosts pumpkin-carving and costume contests, trick or treating at candy stations and a special movie. On the Fourth of July, there’s a fireworks show, kids’ parade, music and face painting.

Fox says Chesnut Bay guests are primarily from Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, but also have hailed from Brazil, Germany and every state in America except Massachusetts and South Dakota.

Multi-generation get-togethers like the Ingrams’ are common. Some families have been gathering at Chesnut Bay Resort for five or six years.

Word-of-mouth advertising has been most successful for the resort in the past, but because its increasing popularity has made reserving a particular house at a certain time more difficult, patrons now tell Fox they aren’t eager to share the secret.

“This place is really unique,” Fox says. “If you go to Gatlinburg or the beach, you’re going somewhere most of the time – shopping or out to eat. That’s not what people do here. They cook full meals most of the time. They get here, settle into their home and they’re here. They rarely leave.”

Perhaps that’s why the resort’s many return visitors develop a strong attachment to the house they first rent, requesting it when they make subsequent reservations. People call and say, “I’d like to reserve ‘my house,’” Fox says with a chuckle.

It sounds strange, but after staying at the resort just a couple of days, I begin to understand the psychology. We become accustomed to the home’s rooms and location within the resort, and it starts to feel like “ours.”

Most things guests forget to bring – toothpaste, sunscreen, shampoo, etc. – can be purchased at the resort’s general store, Chesnut Bay Outfitters. I even found eggs, which I had meant to bring for breakfast. Soft drinks and snacks are available for $1. “The store is not something we did  to try to make a lot of money on,” Fox says. “It’s just something wethat would be a convenience to people staying here.”

The land Chesnut Bay Resort occupies was once the Chesnut family farm, and the store and information center are housed in the Chesnut home place. When Alabama Power flooded the land to build Weiss Lake, the versatile Chesnuts turned their farm into a fishing camp. The Chesnut family cemetery on the property has graves dating to 1828.

Developer Tim Bell bought the land from the Chesnut family.

The coastal feel of Chesnut Bay Resort is no accident. The community is modeled after a resort in the Gulf Coast town of Steinhatchee, Fla. Bell and his wife decided to build Chesnut Bay after looking for a vacation home in Panama City, Fla., and getting discouraged by the noise and worries over their children’s safety.

The resort’s community atmosphere and activities are styled after The Tyler Place, an all-inclusive, lakeside, family resort founded in Vermont in the 1930s.

“It’s like the old camps, but it’s like a camp for adults and children,” Bell says of Chesnut Bay. “Everybody who comes here turns loose. They feel comfortable and they appreciate that they can let their kids run free.”

Melinda Ingram, John’s wife, backs up Bell’s claims. “We enjoy the get-togethers for fireworks and a little dancing,” she says. “Kids explore and walk the grounds, and adults cook and relax by the pool.”

Chesnut Bay Resort is at 4480 County Road 44, Leesburg, Ala. For more information, see chesnutbayresort.com or call 256-526-7778.