Reynolds Lake Oconee Ascends the Throne as the Ultimate Vacation Playground

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Written by Ashley Burns / Islands Magazine

It wasn’t until he laid eyes on a Buc-ee’s billboard somewhere on I-75 that my five-year-old son first uttered those words that parents dread: “Are we there yet?” For as thrilled as he’d been to embark on his first road trip, the boy’s patience started wearing thin around the fourth hour of our journey, but we assured him that a vacation experience unlike anything he’d ever imagined was so close that he’d probably be there before his next Scooby Doo movie concluded.

We’d had our eyes on Reynolds Lake Oconee for a change of pace vacation destination as far back as 2019, but other than what our friends in Atlanta had told us about their favorite staycation spot, we didn’t know what to expect. We’ve always been an island family, and our son has already been to the Bahamas more times than I had by age 18. So, when we started planning a getaway to this almost mystical community, set between Atlanta and Augusta, we first had to not only convince our beach boy that life on the lake is just as good as the Caribbean Sea, but also that a six-hour road trip could be as pleasant and convenient as a one-hour flight.

Gulp.

Even Mary Kay Ash would have struggled to close this deal, but we assured him with every “are we there yet?” that he was in store for something truly special. Little did we know that we were, too.

Every Moment Feels Like a First Impression

The first thing you’ll notice about Reynolds Lake Oconee, other than the old school, My Cousin Vinny vibe of taking a two-lane road into town, is the landscaping. There’s not a square-inch of this community that doesn’t rival Walt Disney World in terms of colorful flowers and impeccably maintained shrubbery. It’s no wonder why the Instagram account pays tribute to the artists responsible for maintaining the natural beauty of the region.

As beautiful and serene as it all seems, it’s all still packed with so much character, charm, and energy. One of the things I love most about visiting new places in the Caribbean and Mexico is meeting people and learning about the history of their cities, and this was no different. Well, other than the fact that it’s a far quicker flight and I don’t need a passport. But this is a place that was chosen as one family’s retreat more than 100 years ago, so it’s almost poetic how it has grown into one of the best all-ages vacation spots on the East Coast, if not in the entire U.S.

From the shopping areas and restaurants to the golf courses and sporting grounds, you’d be hard-pressed to find one spot that doesn’t elicit first-sight gasps or utterances of “Wow” and, for me, “Holy moly.” It’s not so much a concept designed to make people want to return year after year, as much as it’s one that was conceived to make us never want to leave.

An Overwhelming Sense of Familiarity

At the heart of this vacation experience is a very familiar name: The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee. It’s undoubtedly a brand we’ve all come to expect the best from, but at the same time this is not your typical Ritz. At least it doesn’t feel like one. When you check into this sprawling lakeside retreat, it feels like someone took a summer camp, mixed it with a country club, and added a dash of ski lodge. It’s… amazing.

One knock on this property that we’d heard ahead of this visit was how the pool was too small for so many families, so we had a hearty laugh when we learned that we were a week early for the grand opening of the brand-spanking-new family pool. The greatest cliché we hear in the travel industry is “they’ve thought of everything,” but this Ritz really has, and there’s an overwhelming sense of pride in that—especially with the way employees go out of the way in making young guests feel like the most important people on the planet.

We saw it every step of the way—little snacks delivered to the room, servers “sneaking” kids extra treats, hotel staff stopping on a dime to help teach a child who has never held a fishing pole how to catch his first catfish (he caught six in an hour!). And that’s what makes this entire community feel like a home away from home, even for first timers.

It’s not an artificial warmth with a forced smile. This is immense pride in a bigger picture, and it shows in every element. The best example occurred when I was having dinner at the National Tavern. In between sampling the phenomenal whiskey menu (the pecan old-fashioned is one of the best cocktails I’ve ever sipped) and devouring the signature char-grilled pork chop (with a grit cake and chili corn relish that I can still taste weeks later) I silently marveled at how this restaurant was packed with residents who’d simply arrived for dinner and cocktails, but turned the evening into one giant party simply because Harris English and Kramer Hickok ended up in a playoff for the ages at the Travelers Championship.

If it feels like everyone knows each other, it might be because they do, but it’s more likely because Reynolds Lake Oconee makes everyone happy to be there and appreciate their surroundings. And the way that they include complete strangers in the fun is as special as it is generous.

This is Way More than a Golf Destination

If you tell someone that you’re visiting Reynolds Lake Oconee, there’s a good chance they’ll mention golf. With six absolutely amazing courses (five public and one that we can only play as members or, more likely, in our dreams) and the mind-blowing Kingdom of Golf, you should expect to have that conversation; however, it shouldn’t limit expectations for anyone who doesn’t play. And while I didn’t think it was possible, there’s one element that possibly outshines the links and maybe everything: the Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds.

Describing just how massive this whole community is feels impossible—it’s huge. HUGE! Almost as if it’s the first place on Earth and the rest of the world has yet to be built around it. So, when you consider all of the neighborhoods, the Ritz-Carlton property, every golf course, and obviously the water, it’s impossible to imagine there could be much else. But set within 100 acres of forests, hills, and even more water is this showcase of outdoor adventure that is guaranteed to turn even the biggest city slicker into Wyatt Earp.

Led by director, designer, and international shooting champion Justin Jones and bolstered by a spectacular crew that features a legitimate superstar in Jasper Copeland, the Chief Shooting Instructor, the sporting grounds pushes this destination over the top in terms of not only excitement and adventure, but also possibilities. It’s not every day that we choose places that offer clay shooting courses and games, archery, and fishing, especially not with a team of instructors as friendly and especially patient as this.

But the absolute cherry on top is the off-road course that takes guests on a unique tour of the surrounding natural beauty—on a well-designed course, naturally—in a Land Rover Discovery or the new and thrilling Jeep Rubicon vehicles that the staff was especially eager to show off when I visited.

For family getaways, bachelor or bachelorette parties, milestone birthdays and celebrations, or, heck, even a destination fantasy football draft, this is a next-level experience that takes some people out of their element, in the best way possible, and introduces them to unbridled excitement. For others who are more familiar with these activities, it provides new challenges.

And for everyone, it means new memories. A true win-win scenario.

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