BRASELTON, Ga. - What started as a winery two decades ago has transformed into one of the South's best golf resorts.
Chateau Elan is a blockbuster of a resort on 3,500 acres about 45 minutes north of Atlanta. Mixed among acres of vineyards, the vision of Don and Nancy Panoz, are 54 holes of championship golf, and another executive nine, that will tantalize and tease any player.
Your senses will drink up the natural rolling settings of the unbridled country and savor the serenity of the resort and its European-style 16th century theme.
It's an elegant retreat from the cruel winter months for Midwesterners and a simple escape for locals from Atlanta and its surrounding metropolis. The resort is virtually right off the highway, making it accessible from all angles.
The resort is the headquarters for the Chateau Elan Hotels and Resorts, which owns and operates four other elegant vacation jaunts. There's another Chateau Elan Hotel and Spa in Sebring, FL, the Granite Steps Historic Mansion in touristy Savannah, GA, and the Diablo Grande Golf Resort and Spa in Patterson, CA.
But the company's grandest effort is just evolving - the St. Andrews Bay Golf Resort and Spa in Scotland. Yes, that St. Andrews, just minutes from the Old Course and many of the other famous courses in the birthplace of the game of golf. The resort opened in June, 2001, and two championship courses are planned, one that should open all 18 holes by fall.
If you didn't have a reason to visit Chateau Elan in Georgia, you do now. The crown jewel of the resort is the almost-private Legends course. Resort officials plan to make the course completely private once its membership caps out at about 400 golfers. It's bound to happen as the population around the resort grows, so play it while you can.
The Legends course, which was ranked as the 16th best course in the state in Golf Digest's 1999 rankings but fell off the list in 2001, is named after three golf greats, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Kathy Whitworth, who assisted architect Denis Griffiths in its creation.
The foursome built the Legends as a tribute to the world's greatest golf holes by recapturing the spirit and challenge of holes from Pinehurst, St. Andrews, Merion, Augusta National, Olympic and many other great designs of the 1900s.
The result is a roller-coaster ride of 6,898 yards, with dramatic downhill tee shots to tight tree-lined fairways and even more ominous uphill approach shots to elevated greens. Elegant homes line a private neighborhood, which is protected by two gated entrances leading to the clubhouse.
The course, which opened in 1993, hosted the Gene Sarazen World Open for several years, before it moved to Europe, but resort officials hope to bring the tournament back again soon. With the American Junior Golf Association headquarters literally right next door, the Legends hosts its fair share of AJGA events as well.
Two holes, the 394-yard sixth and the 508-yard par-5 14th hole, both have rock walls fronting the green, so don't even attempt to roll the ball onto the putting surface. Play the ball far enough back to allow a simple chip over the wall. The 150-yard 15th plays one club longer over the water and No. 18 is a splendid finish, requiring a 200-yard-plus carry over water to the fairway, which leaves a 150-yard uphill approach to the green.
"A lot of times you can go out there and not even see a soul," said Director of Golf Jeff Sarazen, who just happens to be Gene's grandson.
The transformation to a golf resort actually started with the par-71, 7,030-yard Chateau course in 1989. Griffiths designed it, and then added the Woodlands course in 1996. The Chateau course mingles with three lakes and two creeks, flirting with water on 10 holes. The 6,851-yard Woodlands, which is the most demanding off the tee with some tough carries, also has 10 water holes. With a peak rate of $77, both courses are fun and more affordable than many other resort courses.
The par-3 course is more than just a great stop for families with children, Sarazen says it's fun for any player, no matter how good or bad.
"The par-3 is a neat place," he said. "We have a lot of night events, like casino night. It's great if you don't have that five-hour window to play."
After your rounds, the service, lodging and food are top of the line.
Of the seven restaurants at the resort, the Versailles Restaurant, named after the Palace de Versailles, is the centerpiece at the heart of the Inn under a grand three-story glass ceiling. The Clubhouse Grill at the public clubhouse is casual, while Paddy's Irish Pub, believe it or not, was shipped all the way from Ireland in 1997!
With 277 guest rooms at the inn and another 80 in the lodge and 25,000 square feet of meeting space and two ballrooms, the resort can cater to weddings, business trips and other large groups, yet it feels small enough to be intimate.
Four pools, the spa, a tennis center, jogging trails and parkland settings for volleyball, horse shoes and cookouts will keep any non-golfers busy.
And let's not forget why the resort was born. The winery annually produces more than 40,000 cases of some of the world's finest. Wine-tasting and winery tours are popular distractions.
Just don't drink too much of the good stuff at dinner. It might produce a crooked swing the next morning.
Chateau Elan Winery and Resort
100 Rue Charlemagne, Braselton, GA 30517
Statistics from the tips: Legends: Yardage: 6,997. Rating: 74.1. Slope: 135. Par: 72; Chateau: Yardage: 7,031, Par: 71. Woodlands: Yardage: 6,851, Par: 72
Year opened: Chateau: 1989. Woodlands: The Legends: 1993, Woodlands, 1996
Course designer: all Dennis Griffiths
Tournaments hosted: The Legends has hosted the Gene Sarazen World Open
Rankings: The Legends ranked as the state's 16th-best course in Golf Digest's 1999 rating, but dropped out in 2001. The resort annually earns a silver medallist honor from Golf Magazine as one of the nation's best resorts.
Green Fees (2001 rates): In April through November, the Woodlands and Chateau courses cost $65 during the week and have a peak rate of $77 on Friday-Sunday. The Legends has limited availability for $125