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Discovering Callaway Gardens

Callaway Gardens Raptor Specialist Mark Wetzel holds a red-shouldered hawk as he conducts a birds of prey program for the Albany Garden Club Center. joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com

Callaway Gardens Raptor Specialist Mark Wetzel holds a red-shouldered hawk as he conducts a birds of prey program for the Albany Garden Club Center. joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com

Jennifer Maddox Parks

jennifer.parks@albanyherald.com

PINE MOUNTAIN — Located about 120 miles northwest of Albany is a 13,000 acre-resort that its founders built 60 years ago from worn out cotton fields, one that continues to have the reputation of offering solace, inspiration and discovery.

It is Callaway Gardens at Pine Mountain.

Cason Callaway, one of the resort’s founders “was an engineer as far as I’m concerned,” said Tim Chason, executive vice president of Callaway Gardens. “He left a legacy of connecting man with nature.”

Callaway Gardens was opened on May 20, 1952 by Cason Callaway and his wife, Virginia Callaway. Cason Callaway was from LaGrange. His spouse was a native of Pelham.

While the gardens are what the attraction is perhaps best known for, there is more to see and do there.

“They (the founders) felt it was their job to leave plants better than they found them,” said Patricia Collins, director of the gardens. “However, they realized gardens weren’t the only thing that could bring people there, so we also have recreational activities.”

The two main azalea gardens, Callaway Brothers Azalea Bowl and Overlook Azalea Garden, are expected to be close to — it not already at — their peak bloom. The resort is now concluding a gardening school, which was expected to coincide with the peak bloom this month.

There were some areas revamped last year including Callaway’s birds of prey show, so there are more opportunities for people to get an up-close experience with the birds.

In all, there are 18 birds — and at least eight take flight every day.

“They zip and soar right over your head,” said Mark Wetzel, a birds of prey specialist at Callaway. “It is a very unique experience.”

As part of this, Callaway does the “Hawk Walk” and “Vulture Stroll.” On the trail, the hawk follows you and the vulture strolls with you.

For those activities there are usually 15 or 16 people in a group.

“We really focus on the personal experience,” Wetzel said.

Callaway Gardens is also home to Robin Lake Beach. It is considered the world’s largest manmade white sand beach, stretching a mile around 65-acre Robin Lake. The beach is the hub of summer activity at the resort, and the center stage for its Summer Adventure program — which includes fishing, tennis, hiking, laser tag, archery, pottery, golf and the Florida State University Flying High Circus.

Robin Lake Beach is open daily from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. The Masters Water Ski & Wakeboard Tournament, now in its 52nd year, will be taking place at the attraction on Memorial Day weekend, Chason said.

“We have over 400 families come each week during the summer,” he said. “We are trying to bring families back together, get them to put down the video games and enjoy nature.”

As part of the summer program, the younger guests get to take advantage of children’s activities from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday while their parents get the days to themselves until it is time for the families to reunite for the nightly programs.

One of the evening activities includes an astronomy program. For that, the Columbus State University Coca-Cola Space Science Center brings in a telescope for visitors to see the stars.

As part of the attraction’s activities, the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center remains open as part of the gardens. It features over 1,000 tropical butterflies, representing more than 50 different species fluttering freely through the air.

The John A. Sibley Horticultural Center, Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden, TreeTop Adventure and the annual Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival — set this year for Aug. 31-Sept. 2 — round out the late summer action.

Of course, Callway is also famous for its annual Festival of Lights display during the winter holiday season, with more than 8 million lights and music attracting more than 2 million visitors since its inception 20 years ago. This year’s Festival of Lights runs from Nov. 16 through Dec. 30.

“It’s hard to put everything into a little ball,” Chason said. “It’s time to rejuvenate your soul and understand there is a place to enjoy yourself (and the gardens).

“(Callaway Gardens) was built around Cason’s vision of everyone having the opportunity to learn.”

For more information, visit www.callawaygardens.com or call 1-800-CALLAWAY.