Grandparents gather in the lobby to play cards with their grandchildren. A little girl dips candles in a vat of wax with the help of a woman in period costume.
A large family sits around the dinner table. They are talking. There’s not an iPhone, iPod or iPad in sight.
And returning to our cozy room, we enjoy a spectacular view of rolling mountains outside our picture window.
This is what we found on a recent visit to the Lodge at Unicoi State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia.
Our northern neighbor boasts more than 60 state parks with plenty of dramatic waterfalls for viewing, lakes for boating and swimming, streams for trout fishing, as well as forests and mountains for hiking.
Visit the mountains in October or November and the oak, hickory and maple trees will be decked out in red, yellow and orange leaves pierced here and there by an evergreen.
Some of Georgia’s parks also have comfortable hotel-style accommodations.
“It’s been the parks’ philosophy to provide enough different choices so that, no matter your comfort and income levels, you can stay in a park and not have to leave,” says Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for Georgia State Parks.
That’s why the state system offers not only campgrounds, housekeeping cottages and, yes, yurts, but also full-service lodges — including one inn you can reach only by a five-mile hike.
In these lodges, you get not only a room but also restaurants, educational programs and staffs that reflect local tastes.
“We like to be sure our lodges offer a sense of place,” Hatcher says. That’s particularly welcome in this era of lookalike chain motels and fast-food restaurants.
On a recent trip, we had an opportunity to stay at many of the park lodges. We soon learned that beds are often double rather than king or queen, décor may be a bit dated and staffs may be more friendly than efficient. But for us, the fun and convenience far outweighed any concerns.
Here’s what we found that made our stay at each park lodge unique:
The Pete Phillips Lodge at Little Ocmulgee State Park in Helena, about 160 miles northwest of Jacksonville, is the first lodge we hit. It’s a good stopover when you head north.
The rooms in the motel-style buildings are pleasantly reminiscent of a stately home. They are decorated in plum and forest green, with touches of royal blue in the cheery flowered bedspreads. Dark wood headboards and television armoires provide homey comfort.
The Fairway Grill, which serves three meals daily, overlooks the golf course, where you might see deer munching on the rough. Lunches are buffets; breakfasts and dinners feature table service. The menu includes such Southern favorites as pickled okra, fried okra, hush puppies and grilled catfish.
After you settle in, stop by the Visitor’s Center set on a 256-acre lake. It was built in the 1930s with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Sadly, the lake is choked with weeds that are expensive to eradicate, so boating and swimming are limited.
Instead, jump in the swimming pool, play in the splash park, try a round of miniature golf or walk the Oak Ridge Trail, which traverses sand hills deposited by a nearby river many ages ago. Or you can relax and view the lake from a swing set in the shade of moss-covered Live oaks.
What really impresses us about the mountain lodge in Unicoi State Park in Helen is the way families take advantage of its facilities. Having been enjoyed by generations, this lodge often hosts weddings and family reunions.
The rooms are clean, neat and perfectly comfortable with their pine and painted wood furnishings. Our room overlooks a meadow and mountains.
Reasonably priced buffet meals tempt everyone from toddlers to grandparents. At dinner, don’t miss the signature fried whole mountain trout.
The lodge also offers programs to keep everyone interested and entertained. After dinner on our visit, a trio of musicians plays Celtic music. The next day local crafts people demonstrate their skills and let anyone who wants to help dip candles, use a hand saw or make cider.
But things may change. The lodge is slated to close Jan. 1 for extensive renovations including the addition of a bar and grill. It is scheduled to reopen in Oct. 2013. We just hope that the upgrade doesn’t cost Unicoi its charm.
You enter the Lodge at Amicalola Falls State Park on the second story and your first impression is of sweeping mountain views through soaring windows. The lodge was built in 1991 and has been popular with families ever since. In fact, the lodge seems to be filled with rambunctious children.
In our room, we find well-used décor. It puts us off at first but given the mountain views, we come to appreciate the clean rooms with their hot showers and comfortable beds.
We are lucky enough to eat dinner in The Maple Restaurant as the sun falls behind the clouds and mountains and thunderstorms give way to pink skies and plumes of mist rising from the valley floor.
Meals are buffet style and choices are limited. One evening the only entrée selections are fried chicken, fried fish and ribs. But there are also soup and salad makings.
When you just want to relax, find an Adirondack chair on the ground level. You’ll enjoy soaring views of circling hawks and rolling mountains. You may even see deer in the woods.
When you want exercise, take a walk to the crashing Amicolola Falls, the tallest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River.
The Len Foote Hike Inn in the Chattahoochee National Forest is as close to camping as I want to get. On state land but run independent of the parks system, it’s the only backcountry lodge in Georgia. And it’s well worth a visit if you can manage the five-mile hike that is the only way to reach the inn.
Check in at the Visitor’s Center at Amicolola Falls State Park, then head for the popular hiking trail lined with oak, red maple and black gum hickory. The path roams along the side of mountains and over creeks, past wildflowers, rhododendron, dogwood, mountain laurel, ferns and a wide assortment of mushrooms.
It takes the average person three hours to reach the inn. The trip has been enjoyed by children as young as 5 and seniors in their late 80s. Remember: You have to carry your overnight things. But when you emerge from the trees and see the welcoming wood lodge, you will be glad you came.
Check in to one of the 20 “rooms” that resemble pine boxes. You’ll find bunk beds and bedding, a fixed ladder, a heating panel, an electric light in a metal cage, an electric fan, a mirror, shelf, stool and a place to hang clothes.
But that’s all you need.
A clean bathhouse at this Gold LEED Certified lodge provides hot showers. Composting toilets are truly odor free and save 150,000 gallons of water a year. Plenty of electricity and hot water are provided by solar panels and cells. And before dinner, you can take a staff-led tour of the inn’s many green features including red worm composting bins.
The dining hall is a gathering place with its long wooden tables and benches. In the afternoon it’s the place for a glass of sweet tea or lemonade or a piece of peach crumble set out in a cast iron skillet.
Meals are simple, healthful and enjoyed with fellow hikers. The nicely spiced roast turkey breast, carrots, au gratin potatoes and homemade herb rolls we had for dinner were satisfying after a day on the trail. At breakfast and dinner, the lodge serves family-style meals; you can purchase a lunch to take on the trail.
After dinner, enjoy a nature talk, then play a round of Sorry or Yahtzee or put together a jigsaw puzzle in the Sunrise Room. If you prefer, you can relax in a rocker on the wraparound porch with mountain views. But be sure to get to sleep early because you have to walk home tomorrow.
On our way back to Florida, we stop at Lake Blackshear Resort & Golf Club in the Veteran’s Memorial State Park at Cordele, which is about 140 miles south of Atlanta. This resort, which opened in 2002, is run by Coral Hospitality instead of the park service. As a result, it has a very different atmosphere than the other lodges we visit.
Coral currently manages South Beach properties including The Perry, The Angler’s Boutique Resort and The Savoy, and it’s slated to run Margaritaville when it opens on Hollywood Beach in 2014.
The three-story lodge and conference center offers modern rooms with updated bathroom fixtures and granite counters. Most rooms have balconies or screened porches.
You can enjoy a drink in the 88 Lakeside Bar, then sit down to dinner at Cordelia’s. This full-service restaurant offers a 10-ounce ribeye, three-mushroom chicken Marsala, seared scallops, pastas, salads, burgers and wraps. Breakfast is also served from the menu unless there’s a convention crowd in residence. Then you help yourself to the buffet.
Although we’ve been talking about lodges, we couldn’t help mentioning the cottages at Smithgall Woods State Park. Although many of Georgia’s state parks provide housekeeping cottages, these are exceptional.
The first thing you notice is how deep into the woods you have to drive to find your lodgings. You even have to pass through a stream. But don’t worry — it’s pretty tame and you ride on pavement.
There are five cottages with one to five bedrooms, all well maintained and nicely furnished. They were part of the private estate of Charles A. Smithgall, Jr., a noted conservationist and businessman. His private cottages were opened to the public after his land was acquired by the state in 1994.
We stay in Laurel Cottage, which even has its own hot tub. All the cottages are near Dukes Creek, where you can enjoy catch-and-release trout fishing. For those who don’t fish, there are plenty of trails to all sorts of natural attractions including a cascading waterfall.
But the biggest treat is relaxing in a rocking chair on your front porch after dark. You won’t believe the cacophony frogs and insects can make.
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at email@example.com.