Honey Lake Plantation Resort & Spa is one of those places that inspires you to wake up early just to watch the sun rise. Tucked away in the rolling Red Hills region of North Florida, 45 minutes east of Tallahassee, this sprawling property sits like a quiet Shangri-La in the morning. As the rising sun illuminates the grounds, the songbirds and purple martins start up a chorus from their perches high in the towering cypress trees and southern yellow pines cloaked in moss. You won’t hear any cars or other man-made sounds — just the birds, croaking frogs and splashes of fish as they chase insects.
My wife, Diane, and I arrive in Greenville Friday evening; it’s pitch-dark by the time we check into the resort’s Pansy Poe cottage. This is the oldest dwelling on the 4,800-acre property, and it’s named afer Elizabeth “Pansy” Ireland Poe. Miss Pansy, as she was known, is a legend in the Plantation Belt, a stretch encompassing parts of Southern Georgia and Northern Florida, where the nation’s wealthiest built expansive winter retreats. A sporting woman, Miss Pansy built this very cottage in the early 1900s to take advantage of serene Honey Lake. The new owners have renovated it and added two bedrooms, but they kept the cottage’s hardwood floors and the original bedroom’s curly pine paneling with a twisted grain pattern that comes from massive old-growth longleaf pine trees.
It’s tough to tear myself away from the pillow-top mattress in the master bedroom, but when I do, I’m rewarded with a panoramic view of Honey Lake thanks to the wall-to-wall windows on the back side of the house. I load up the coffee maker in the kitchen and walk out onto the back porch.
Unlike so many overdeveloped lakes that have lost their natural coloring, the pristine 73-acre spring-fed Honey Lake retains a rich, tannic hue. I wonder if its dark amber color has something to do with its name. I can’t recall a better morning cup of coffee, as I look out at the lake.
Strolling over to the Gathering Hall to have breakfast, I can’t help but notice how the property’s design brings together the best of Gilded Age plantation living and modern comforts. Over the last three years, owner Bob Williamson invested $30-plus million in the property, adding Five Pines cottages, each of which is named for a different species of pine tree, the hunting-themed Honey Lake Lodge, with six king-size suites, and the Equestrian Lodge, with hotel-like accommodations. Most unexpectedly, the property features a smokehouse, a cigar bar and a chapel, complete with its own steeple.
“I call the design plantation elegant,” Williamson tells me, when we meet for breakfast. “I wanted the property to look like a plantation. The Gathering Hall resembles what would’ve been the main house, or the owner’s house, while the other buildings and cottages take on the look of the tenant houses. When you put it all together, it looks like an old plantation,” says Williamson, who admits he has no formal design training.
The architecture totally complements the setting in the Red Hills region, so called because of the area’s rich, red soil. Sportsmen flock here for the world-renowned quail hunting, and macho-man activities abound, so Williamson added a full salon and spa, a gym, a swimming pool and even a small gift shop for non-sporting spouses to enjoy.
After a hearty breakfast of eggs, harvested that very morning from the chicken coop, we head back to our cottage, where the massage therapist is waiting. As my wife gets into some reflexology, I sneak out with a fishing rod. I make six casts into Honey Lake and catch three bass. I’m also treated to a bald eagle sighting as the massive bird makes lazy circles high above the water.
In the afternoon, we meet up with Rick Almarode, who grew up in the area and wears several hats at Honey Lake Plantation, including head of outdoor activities. We jump in his pickup for a ride to the skeet range. On the way, he charms us with his Southern drawl and sharp wit.
The skeet range is state of the art, with several diferent traps that toss the bright orange clays so they mimic the fight of different birds. To keep things simple we’ll shoot using just two of the traps. I go first and aim the 20-gauge Beretta where I think the clay might appear. “Pull!” I yell, and the clay zings out of the trap. I unload both barrels, but miss. After about five clays I fnd a bit of a groove and finish of a box of shells, hitting about 70 percent of the clays.
Diane encourages me on and then takes a lesson from Rick on how to hold her shotgun and line up the bead sight. She’s never shot a gun before. Not a rifle, not a handgun, not a pellet gun — nothing. He asks her if she’s comfortable. She smiles and nods.
“OK,” Rick says. “Just yell out ‘pull’ when you’re ready.” “OK, pull!” The clay flies out of the trap, and Diane pulls the trigger. Dead on! Rick claps his hands and turns to me with raised eyebrows. “All right! Great job,” he says. Then she nails the second one. And so it goes. Who knew … she’s a shotgun savant.
That evening chef Bill Mann prepares a surf-and-turf dinner of fresh shrimp caught in the Gulf that very day and a rib-eye steak that he bought from a local ranch. The chef prides himself on his farm-to-plate menu, which features fresh ingredients — basil, rosemary, oregano, cucumbers and seasonal greens — grown in his organic garden. Each meal at Honey Lake leaves us feeling spoiled. Of all the chef’s creations, I have to say the bananas foster root beer float we had on our first night reigns as my favorite.
As darkness falls, we’re treated to a chorus of croaking frogs as we meander back to our cottage. Tomorrow we’ll ride the trails on horseback to spot wild turkeys, quail and foxtail squirrels. Country living doesn’t get any better. honeylakeplantation.com