This is an interview with Gwen North owner of Lake Rabun Hotel & Restaurant
What’s your story?
I don’t have a clear logical answer to this question. I had no plan to buy a hotel and restaurant anywhere, let alone one nearly 700 miles from where I was living and working in a successful business that I had co-founded. But for some reason, I did. While on vacation in the mountains of Georgia a realtor friend of mine said “Hey I hear there’s an old mountain lodge/hotel coming on the market, and it’s a really neat place. Everybody on the lake loves it. Let me show it to you,” She knew I was a preservationist. On a cold November day in 2008, I walked into a place that looked like it was about to tumble down the hill due to a failing foundation. It had no heat, smelled like a man’s locker room, and was a complete mess. No people were there, not even the owner but, the door was open so we could check it out. BUT…big BUT, there was a beautiful lake right across the street and when I opened the door to the hotel there was an old large bark stripped tree holding the place up and a large artfully constructed stone fireplace made by very talented stonemasons, as well as charming custom made furniture, fascinating timber fretwork dividing rooms, and spaces all made of local wood built into repeating designs. It was so unique and completely original; a real manifestation of local appreciation for what was there in nature that could be used to build a building inside that reflected and honored what was outside. That was it. I fell in love. As a preservationist and nature lover, I had found my place. Not long after I had completed an extensive restoration of it National Geographic Traveller saw it too and listed it in their annual 123 Top Hotels in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean Magazine.
What exactly does your company do and who benefits from the service?
The Lake Rabun Hotel & Restaurant is a Historic, nature-based Boutique Hotel across the street from one of the most beautiful lakes in Georgia and surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. It offers fresh locally grown food in its award-winning restaurant rated among the Top 10 Farm to Table dining restaurants in the state. It also features craft cocktails as well as local and international wines in its Moonshine Bar. Great Food, unique, but highly comfortable lodging reflects the laid back atmosphere of the lake and mountains. It offers a wide range of massage services for relaxation and wellness. Active people have many choices for outdoor adventures including outstanding hiking trails, boating, fishing, whitewater rafting, horseback riding and many more.
The Lake Rabun Hotel & Restaurant campus expanded 3 years ago to include Lake Rabun Fish Camp which consists of 5 two-bedroom cottages tucked back in the woods that offer privacy and quiet It’s an ideal gathering place for families with children and pets as well as wedding parties, reunions, and romantic getaways.
Early on after we opened, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Georgia’s major newspaper, sent their reporter to check us out. She started her article with “Lake Rabun Hotel is a place to love, or fall in love.” That’s turned out to be true. It’s a romantic place. Couples get engaged here, get married here, come back and celebrate anniversaries here. One lady who was dining with us looked at me with a smile and said: “I was conceived over there.” I’d say love has been a big part of what’s kept the Lake Rabun Hotel around for such a long time.
It has served guests from Atlanta and other parts of the south, more recently the entire world, for nearly 100 years. It has a 4.5 rating from Trip Advisor and 4.8 rating on Open Table. It has been featured in many publications including Conde Nast, Frommer’s, National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Southern Living, Garden & Guns, Southern Lady-Great Southern Getaways, Best of Atlanta-Atlanta Magazine.
What makes you unique?
All of the above.
The Lake Rabun Hotel & Restaurant is within walking distance to the lake. It’s the last surviving hotel built on a lake in Georgia in 1922. It’s original. I saved everything I could while adding modern amenities that blend in and supply the comforts that make us happy today. You’re in a Georgia Landmark that celebrates the best of the natural world. The Moonshine Bar is made of cedar trees from South Georgia, the old tin roof that had to be replaced is recycled as a ceiling in the bar and some of our bathrooms have old dry sinks lined with copper, our dining room features a sunburst of yellow locust logs. Visually, these are examples of what sets us apart. More than that, though, I think there’s something intangible that our guests feel and comment on. The place has a feeling. It’s very welcoming, a natural come as you are, be yourself, look around, make yourself at home. There’s no pressure here, no phones in the rooms, no TVs except in the parlor and bar. We offer full concierge services to help guests plan and make every day enjoyable. This area offers so many unique places to explore and things to do. Within a 15 minute drive is Tallulah Gorge State Park, a natural wonder with amazing views, trails, waterfalls, magnificent rock formations. It’s a not to be missed place and we’re the closest hotel to it.
What are you most excited about for the future of your company?
We are so excited about our new Forest Lodge Wedding, Conference and Retreat Center that will be opening in a few months. It’s an impressive timber frame lodge that has a very large roofed deck with a huge stone fireplace and views of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. It can accommodate weddings of up to 150. Entering the lodge is a waterfall of large boulders and a koi pond. Another possible wedding site.
There’s a fully equipped conference room, a reception and dance area, a Great Room for gatherings, gardens of native plants, and meditation gardens. We’ll host business and education conferences as well as spiritual, wellness, yoga, human potential, artistic and environmental retreats.
It is up the mountain and adjoins Fish Camp cottages for lodging.
Do you have core values at your company? If so, what are they and how do they impact your business operations?
Here are some:
Devotion to exceptional service, memorable experiences for our guests, help connect people to the natural world and each other, celebrate life, protect our environment, fun, kindness, attention to details, growth, learning, out create problems, winning, optimism.
What are some stats that help showcase the impact your company has?
Nine years ago we started the Farm to Table movement in Georgia involving our farmers and creating specials using locally grown seasonal ingredients. The movement expanded from there. Other chefs and restaurants followed and in 2015 the Georgia House of Representatives named Rabun County the Farm To Table Capital of Georgia. This has resulted in new restaurants and lodging facilities in the area, making tourism one of our largest industries.
Lake Rabun Hotel has grown from 8 rooms to 25 in the last 7 years. Our restaurant has grown to include 2 outdoor dining areas as well as our bar and dining room. Weddings and Special Events have grown by 120% in the last 2 years which is why we’re building Forest Lodge that will open in 2020.
If you could give your clients one piece of advice, what would you say?
If you’re looking for a Holiday Inn, you won’t find anything like that here. We’re a charming old mountain lodge. If you can’t live without a TV in your room, you’ll be disappointed. We only have one in the bar and one in the parlor. Our original rooms are not large, we put in private baths which reduced the sizes of those rooms. Our third floor has larger rooms that were built a few years ago in the style of a mountain lodge. Originally, the founder of the hotel owned all the land around the lake, but over the years sold it off to wealthy Atlanta families to build summer homes here. A few years ago a house was built across the street partially blocking our view of the lake. Getting out on the lake is easy though. We arrange for you to rent boats that come up to the marina also right across the street from the hotel.
This is a place for nature lovers. It isn’t a place for everyone, though you are wholeheartedly welcome here! We try to give our potential guests a realistic picture of who we are and what to expect so that there are no surprises. We’re a step out of time. We’re described as a place of rustic, casual elegance away from crowds where you truly feel that you have “gotten away.” Almost all of our guests love it for those reasons. We hope that you will too.