Lookout Georgia: SHANGRI-LA

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A hidden valley long cherished by a lucky few is now open to the public, offering a restaurant, event venue, recreation opportunities and vacation cottages.

story by KATHRYNE SLATE MCDORMAN | photos by BARBARA ADKINS, GREG BEASLEY and Mountain Cove Farms Resort SHANGRI-LA

DECADES AGO AS MY PARENTS RAMBLED AROUND THEIR beloved Lookout Mountain, they stumbled quite by accident upon a lush, hidden valley accessible only by a steep, twisting road. It was so beautiful and remote that they always referred to it as Shangri-La, the mythical paradise created by James Hilton in his novel “Lost Horizon,” published just a few years after my parents married.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]I like to think that finding that valley sparked memories of their romance as a young couple before those pesky children interfered.

Of course, they longed to share this beauty with their two troublesome twerps, my brother and me, and insisted we go with them to their magical, isolated aerie. They cornered me first. I was old enough to have absorbed better manners, but sighing with boredom and rolling my eyes, I agreed to go. If the word “whatever” had been available to me those years ago, I no doubt would have employed it.

With palpable excitement, they nudged me into the family car. I was even given front-seat privileges, so delighted were they to show me this beautiful valley. We drove atop the mountain for what seemed like forever, along those stomach-lurching, spaghetti-like roads, until somewhere my father turned, and we began our descent into Shangri-La.

At last the road straightened out, and we entered what was indeed a very pretty valley. I remember the fields of crops and the pastures that rolled like gentle waves between two mountainsides. There was a manor house of sorts, built on a slope that seemed to overlook much of the cultivated land. Close by was a series of puzzling-looking little stone cottages.

But what impressed me most was an airstrip with an air sock across the road from the house. I could only admire the skill of pilots in what must have been very small planes diving down into the valley and planting themselves, just so, on the short, narrow tarmac.

Beyond these features and a general impression of another pretty piece of mountain scenery, I cannot remember being exactly enthusiastic. Whatever…

Many years later, with vague memories of that valley drifting in and out of my mind’s eye, I asked several Mentone, Ala., old timers about a valley called Shangri-La. Not only did no one know of it, but quite a few questioned the sincerity of the question and the sanity of the questioner.

Then, magically, at twilight one evening as I drove the mountain road toward dinner at the Canyon Grill in Rising Fawn, Ga., some trick of light shining across the spine of the old mountain brought back a long-forgotten memory. I saw a turn ahead, and, risking running late on my dinner reservations, I answered the call of the ramble and drove down a lovely, tree-lined road, noting a faded sign that read Mountain Cove Farms. The name meant nothing to me, but my heart began to beat faster as the road descended through hairpin curves and then into the most spectacular valley – Shangri-La!

With new eyes I saw the manor house, the old cottages and, yes, the airstrip, but most of all, the gorgeous mountainsides that frame this beautiful place. I drove the entire length of the valley, noting new signs of settlement, horse pastures as verdant as any you would see in Kentucky, barns and charming, tree-lined roads throughout. Much of the valley is still in private hands, but the part that had most impressed my parents is now being developed as a resort that opened in September 2013.

Later, a friend and I return for a short stay and meet J.A. Jones, Mountain Cove Farms Resort’s general manager, at the Country Store, where he begins to tell us the area’s history. Originally known as McLemore Cove, the valley has been farmed and used to pasture livestock for hundreds of years.

In 1943, T.V. DuBois, owner of Procter and Gamble, was so smitten with the beauty of the cove that “this determined fellow announced, ‘I will own it before sundown,’” Jones chuckles. Despite the fact that it was not for sale, DuBois would not be denied and made good on his promise. He restored buildings that had fallen into disrepair and built a show barn to house his prize-winning Hereford cattle.

In 1958, DuBois sold his land, and a subsequent owner, Wayne Rollins, who made his fortune in home security and pest control, added the airstrip that had fascinated me so. Other owners sold off parts of the acreage, but in October 2008, 1,839 acres of the valley were purchased by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Georgia Land Conservation Program, Walker County and the Open Space Institute, Inc.

When the flow of visitors lets up for a bit, Jones hangs a “Back-in-an-Hour” sign outside the store and shows us around this land he passionately loves. As we bounce up a rough track to a hilltop he has visited since he went bird hunting here with his father decades ago, he promises us “a view of heaven.” It is, indeed, breathtakingly picturesque. “I don’t do yoga or meditate, but when I am here, I feel spiritually and mentally cleansed,” he says.

Jones, a native of Walker County, traveled the world building power plants as an adult, but says Walker County was always home, and the cove was always the most beautiful place he had ever seen. After 40 years of roaming, he was happy to return and manage the place he remembered so well.

He plans to create courses for foot golf, played with a soccer ball, and disc golf here. The  disc-golf course is slated to open by January 2015, and the foot-golf course should be complete by March, Jones says. I ask if a family sport area will spoil his special place and he replies, “No, because when the kids come up here, they get to see this, too.” He adds that these kinds of courses are far less disruptive to the landscape than more-manicured golf courses. A public pistol and rifle range recently opened, and quail and pheasant hunts are set to begin on Jan. 1, 2015.

Walker County has marked much of the land for preservation, but the structures already on the property – manor house, cottages, show barn and store – have been remodeled and upgraded for guests and special events. The manor house had fallen into significant disrepair, but the county has turned it into a restaurant that is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday for lunch and dinner and serves Sunday brunch in addition to catering events. The second floor is now suited for conferences, with break-out rooms as well as space for plenary sessions.

Chef Mike Sylman proudly shows us two of his specialty dishes, shrimp and grits and blackened tilapia. He enjoys the challenge of providing “a menu suitable for fine dining, but in a casual atmosphere.”

Sylman and his staff prepare light lunches, sandwiches and salads, dinners and, every Saturday night, a prime rib and seafood buffet. The menu, as in all fine restaurants, is always evolving. “We may buy only local meats” soon, Sylman says. “Almost all of the vegetables we serve are grown on our land.”

Local Angus beef was recently added to the menu. On Thursday nights, a buffet offers  homestyle Southern cooking, and Sunday brunch features omelets cooked to order.

The restaurant staff is cheerful and accommodating. One luncheon customer really wants breakfast, a meal not being served, but she notices they do offer chicken and waffles. In a scene reminiscent of the movie “Five Easy Pieces,” she asks the waiter, “May I have the chicken and waffles, hold the chicken?” Not only does the chef prepare her waffles, but he adds strawberries and whipped cream to produce a festive dish.

Karen and Chuck Betz from Rome, Ga., are frequent visitors to the cove. They own a cottage nearby, but love to ride their bicycles down through the cove and stop for lunch. Karen grew up nearby and remembers going through the cove as a child on the way to visit family in Scottsboro, Ala. “I am thrilled to be coming back to the cove,” she says. “It’s like coming home.”

In September, the couple and Karen’s parents were delighted to attend the first Walker County Fair in 39 years, held in the cove.

The cottages I had noticed on my first trip were built about 1947 for agricultural workers who came to the area for seasonal employment. The formerly no-frills structures have been  renovated into luxurious rental cabins with amenities like fireplaces, Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and laundry facilities.

Liz and Brian Hudes of Atlanta, out for a motorcycle adventure, first rode into the cove late at night having, on a whim, reserved one of the cottages. Her reaction was the same as mine upon first glance: “Oh no, I can’t stay THERE!” But as one unlocks the door, the transformation is amazing – beautifully appointed and spotlessly clean accommodations greet you. Liz and I agree the interiors are astonishing.

Jones explains that when Walker County undertook the renovations, it lavished so much attention on comfort inside that “budgets ran out before the outside could be touched.” Exterior renovations are planned for late 2014 and early 2015.

The cottages vary in size, but most can sleep at least eight guests. The largest cottage, the Cove House, where the Hudeses and friends stay on this return trip, sleeps 16 and is equipped with a full kitchen and outdoor grill. A game room complete with a pool table serves as an entertainment alternative to the satellite TV. It’s perfect for a family reunion, gathering of friends or a wedding party. Cottages can be rented for up to two weeks at a time.

The Mountain Cove Country Store, where one checks in for accommodations, features practical items for guests as well as snacks and souvenirs. The store was built in 1838, the same year as the manor house. It served as a place where plantation slaves picked up their provisions. After the slaves were freed and became wage earners, they continued to buy goods there, and later it served the same function for agricultural workers hired by various owners of the land. At some point it was even a post office, Jones says.

On the restaurant’s porch is a model of the store that no one seems to know who made or when. It fascinates children and parents as they wait to be seated.

The most spectacular building available for rent is the newly remodeled and expanded show barn. Previously it was a focal point of the working farm and a popular place for livestock shows. It stands high upon a ridge and today provides a spectacular venue for weddings, meetings, concerts and other events. Comprised of 5,700 square feet, the show barn can seat 300 guests. The flexible space can serve, for example, as a wedding site, then convert quickly to accommodate a large reception or dinner. It includes a fully functioning gourmet kitchen for catering.

The largest events Mountain Cove Farms’ new management has staged thus far were the Walker County Fair and the June 2013 re-enactment of the battle of Chickamauga. Thousands of re-enactors arrived to camp and replay the strategies of their historic counterparts. Organizing and serving the 10,000 to 15,000 participants and spectators was a massive challenge, Jones says.

More recently, after decades without a county fair, Walker County held a successful one at Mountain Cove Farms. In late September, the cove hosted the last phase of the Ironman competition that began in Chattanooga, Tenn. Jones says church groups love the cove because it is quiet and offers spiritual renewal to the time- and work-worn.

Walker County hopes to keep the venue busy, renting to those who appreciate a spectacular background for their event or need the convenience of comfortable digs near hunting or wildlife preservation sites.

Having put much heart and expense into bringing the facilities up to resort standards while keeping prices modest, the resort’s management is eager for those who love Lookout Mountain and the beauty of the seasons to enjoy refreshment and celebration in the gorgeous valley. Truly the harmony and romance of the fictional Shangri-La my parents discovered at Mountain Cove Farms was worth my effort to find it again.

If You Go

GETTING THERE: Mountain Cove Farms Resort is at 994 Dougherty Gap Road, Chickamauga, GA 30707.
RESTAURANT INFO: The restaurant is open Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 1010 Dougherty Gap Road; 706-539-3276.
CHRISTMAS IN THE COVE: To be held Dec. 12-14, this event will feature entertainment by local groups and hand-crafted gift items by local artisans.
MORE INFORMATION: mountaincoveresort.com; 706-539-2683

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