Food Feature: Faking it at Lake Oconee

A real treat at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation

My overnight escape to the new Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Lake Oconee, 80 miles east of Atlanta, turned into a meditation on the real and the fake.

First fake: Lake Oconee. I'm not saying it isn't full of water, but it's man-made, created by a Georgia Power dam in 1980. Since it consists of drowned creek valleys, it has a bewildering, multi-branching shape. Fifty valuable miles of its shoreline belong to Reynolds Plantation, a gated golf-course-and-McMansion residential development, in the middle of which sits the Ritz.

Or should I say sprawls the Ritz? It's a rambling low-slung complex on a peninsula hilltop, which gives most rooms water views. The buildings make a wide U, in the middle of which is a sloping lawn decorated with a burbling, but artificial, creek. The architecture has a just-add-water-and-stir historicism. It vaguely suggests an old New England mountain resort, or maybe the clubhouse at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland — if there is one there.

And the bellmen are all obliged to wear knickers, caps and argyle kneesocks, as if they're Gatsby-era caddies. I bet the humiliation of that is real enough.

The soaring, timbered lobby and Georgia's, the main restaurant, have a kind of baronial hunting lodge look. The huge fire in the stone lobby fireplace was real, as was the pleasure it gave me on that gloomy cold afternoon. I think the antlers and stuffed animal heads studding the walls were authentic. And so were the antique ornithological prints decorating my room.

Occupying the lobby's center was a starter-home-sized gingerbread house, made of actual gingerbread and candy. In fact, the several hundred very real lollipops that decorated its exterior still had their genuine cellophane wrappers, a touch of genuine tackiness. The holiday greenery looped generously around the lobby's balustrades and mantelpieces was 100 percent plastic.

Besides golf, spa treatments are the main activity here. Though it matches on the outside, the huge spa building has a cool, clean, modernist interior that contrasts strongly with the decor of the lodge itself.

On the lower level there is a beauty salon, aerobics studio, exercise room, indoor pool and juice bar. Upstairs are the treatment rooms and, for men and women, lavish separate spaces for dressing and lounging — and for steaming, boiling and baking. I spent a long time simmering happily in the whirlpool tub. It sits next to a gas fireplace — a decorating touch that is not only phony, but pointless: When I needed extra warmth, I just stepped into the 210-degree sauna.

Spas are so much the thing in the hospitality industry now that they each must have a theme over and above the simple pleasure of having your body rubbed and scrubbed. The theme here is the supposed healing traditions of the Muskogee Creek Indians, who long ago frolicked and fished on the lands that now lie beneath Lake Oconee. There's a lot of tranquilizing verbiage about herbs used historically by Creek medicine persons that are now blended into seasonally appropriate massage oils and such.

I decided to go along with this pretense, and opted for the Oconee Mud Wrap, a soporific 90-minute skin treatment. First I was scrubbed all over with an exfoliant. Then I was thickly slathered with a pewter-colored goo, and wrapped up in plastic to stew in my own juices.

Before, in between and after, a Vichy shower — a long boom with a row of nozzles — was swung overhead, and I was drenched in cascades of water. A Vichy shower is an intense experience. Besides whatever value the immersion has for your skin, it's an exercise in trusting that you won't drown — which in the end, given that you survive, can be quite relaxing.

They say that the mud that goes into the gray goo is actually dug from Lake Oconee (real) but that it is shipped off to Arizona to be processed (dubious). Its smoothing and hydrating effect on my skin was genuine, though.

On my way back to the lodge I noticed that the bellmen had parked a pair of huge hideous Hummers at the front door, to intimidate people like me who only drive regular cars, I suppose. Bogus, humbug, sham.

Dinner at Georgia's, however, was pure and true. There's an effort to make the menu appear Southern — with offerings like local quail, grits from a nearby mill and a Lowcountry seafood boil. But the real deal is that this is just a stunningly good restaurant serving luxurious international contemporary food. It's right in league with the revered dining rooms of the two Atlanta Ritz hotels, and worth the drive to Lake Oconee all its own.

I had a creme brûlee of foie gras with fresh figs and poached peaches; an artichoke heart stuffed with goat cheese and roasted, served with a salad of pickled beans and onions; and lamb steak with fava beans, spaghetti squash and a salad of shredded apple and toasted pecan bits. Hardly authentic Southern fare, but dazzlingly good.

While the atmosphere at the Lodge is meant to be country-house casual, that Ritz-Carlton fussiness — like a genetic inheritance, hardwired I guess — was pervasive. I was addressed by name and as "sir" a hundred times, it seemed, in the course of my dinner by waiters, busboys and a host who have been programmed to speak as formally and artificially as possible.

Which did not, in the end, prevent me from having a genuinely lovely time.


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