Photos courtesy of Champions Retreat and Britt Croft Photography
This story appears in Birmingham magazine's Winter/Spring Weddings 2017 issue. Subscribe today!
In the world of weddings, barns are hardly ever what they seem. Inside classic wood exteriors, under traditional red roofs, hay and grain become chandeliers and banquet tables. Equipment and tractors make way for a dance floor. Horses and cows are traded in for smartly-dressed wedding guests. At Champions Retreat Golf Club in Evans, Georgia, the same holds true. The Barn at Champions Retreat opened at the end of March 2016, and has quickly become a standout wedding venue for many in the area--and beyond. The Barn hosted seven weddings from April to December 2016, and more are slated for 2017.
Like most barn venues, its exterior is traditionally designed with high A-frames, wood paneling, and a red tin roof. And its interior, decorated with rose gold chairs and innovative chandeliers made of empty bottles, is on trend with today's rustic chic barn weddings. But, somehow, The Barn at Champions Retreat remains distinct, entirely different from others in its class.
Likewise, a wedding at Champions Retreat is in a league of its own.Part of that might have to do with The Barn's location as part of a private golf resort designed by three of the world's biggest golf legends: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player. Between the three, there are 13 green jackets, 34 Major victories, and 159 tournament wins.
The story goes that in 1999, at the Masters Champions Dinner, Player recruited Palmer and Nicklaus to help him build a 27-hole private golf club. Once the two agreed, Player had them draw straws to decide which area of the 365-acre property would be home to their nine holes. Nicklaus got the Bluff; Palmer the Island; and Player the Creek. The rest, as they say, is history.
Only a 30-minute drive from Augusta, where the Masters is played, Champions Resort exemplifies the South of our dreams, the one we're always quick to claim as our own. Magnificent Georgia pines and hardwoods speckle the immaculate greenways that give way to wetlands and panoramic views of the adjoining Savannah River.
Nestled into the lush landscape, 18 private cottages are available for rent. The cottages, actually large Arcadian-style homes, accommodate anywhere from four to eight couples. Often wedding parties rent a cottage or two during wedding weekends, giving friends and family plenty of space to visit and celebrate before and after the big event. Each cottage features hardwood floors, expansive windows, vaulted ceilings, fireplaces, and sprawling porches--making them the perfect place to relax after a day on the links (or a full day of wedding preparation!). Homey leather couches, patterned rugs, open living spaces, and state-of-the-art kitchens make the cottages as comfortable as they are beautiful. Bedrooms are kept light and tranquil; white sheets and king-sized beds are accentuated by natural light, and bathrooms feature jetted tubs and glass walk-in showers.
The Barn, which has been open for less than a year, is the newest addition to the property. It is also the main factor in the increase in weddings Champions has hosted recently. In the 12 years since Champions opened, they hosted four weddings. That number nearly tripled in the year since The Barn opened.
Just a short golf cart ride from the cottages and Grille House, the 10,000-square foot barn screams of country charm and Southern elegance. The main room can accommodate 150-175 people and features rough sawn pine walls, rustic dining tables, plush leather couches, upholstered chairs, and a massive floor-to-ceiling bricked fireplace to anchor the space. The private dining room connects to the main room through a huge set of barn doors; when opened, the venue's total accommodation expands to 250.
"I just love seeing peoples' faces when they walk into The Barn with the rose gold chairs and the chandeliers," says catering and sales manager Shelby Toro. "It's just a setting different than anything else I've currently seen."
The Barn also features a welcome area where couples often put a guest table and bar, as well as a green room, aptly named for its light mint decor, and a lounge room. The green room's bay windows filter in plenty of natural light, making it the choice spot for bridal parties to get ready. With its dark leather couches and cozy lodge feel, the lounge room plays the masculine counterpart for grooms' parties. In warmer months, The Barn's back patio provides the perfect place for guests to mingle, while taking in views of the links. An event lawn adjacent to The Barn is often used as a ceremony location.
But The Barn isn't the only place at Champions to celebrate a wedding. Toro says the pavilion outside the Grille House is a popular choice for both ceremonies and receptions, as is the Grille House porch for smaller, more intimate weddings. An upcoming wedding for 45 will be held in a cottage's backyard, with the reception to follow inside. The Bluff Overlook, overlooking the Bluff Course, includes a sizeable deck, and full bar. It has been used for laid- back rehearsal diners and receptions.
"That's the nice thing about our property," Toro says. "There are all these different locations to tailor to what you're going for, what the goal of your wedding is, and what look you want."
Toro says when helping couples plan weddings at Champions, her top priority is making sure the wedding fits the couple. She starts by sending them a questionnaire asking their favorite foods, music, colors, and anything else that could help her plan the wedding of their dreams. For example, in a past Champion's wedding, a bride was obsessed with llamas so the resort created a signature drink based on llamas--a pisco sour with Peruvian liquor, topped with foam to look like llama fur.
"That's kind of been our style going into it," Toro says. "We wanted to go custom and personalize, and that's definitely been the reason we've been successful this year."
One of the main areas where a couple can customize their wedding is through their menu. All food and beverage (except wedding cakes) is done on-site and led by Executive Chef Jeremy Miller, Director of Food and Beverage and Certified Sommelier Doug Snyder, and Pitmaster and Pastry Chef Hal Rowland. Miller, an Augusta native, spent time working at French Laundry, among other fine dining restaurants before returning to take over the kitchens at Champions. The three work together to produce some of the best upscale Southern food around. From Glazed Lamb Ribs and Dry-Aged Heritage Pork Chops, to Grilled Georgia Shrimp and Cast Iron Skillet Foie Gras with Hoe Cakes, there's always something new to choose from--and for weddings, nothing is off-limits. Past weddings have featured a chicken wing bar with loaded potato bites and a bleu cheese fountain, a taco station, and a chili cheese fry station with burger sliders. Low country boils featuring local seafood, as well as world-class barbecue and house-made sausage courtesy of Rowland also are popular.
"We'll basically do anything you want," Toro says. "It's fun for us because we're getting to innovate and come up with creative menus, and for couples, they're not going to have that experience with other caterers."
Nearly every part of a Champions wedding experience is customizable. Outside of just wedding day activities, the resort offers plenty to do without ever leaving the property. From personal training sessions to in-cottage spa treatments and massages, there's something for everyone. Private wine and spirit tastings and cooking classes also are a hit. Toro jokes that the resort has a helicopter pad, so there's a possibility for adventure. For grooms' parties and other wedding guest golf-enthusiasts, the retreat will host private tournaments or other golf outings, according to preference.
Toro says even with so many activities to choose from, the best thing about having a wedding at Champions is the quiet relaxation the resort provides. Every detail is taken care of by friendly, professional staff, so all that's left for couples and their families to do is enjoy the big day.
"We build the experience based on what [couple's want] and take care of the rest," she says. "The setting of Champions is really what sets it apart--it's rustic, it's Southern, it's elegant. From the time you step onto the property, you don't know where you are anymore. You're nestled in between beautiful trees, the cottages, the paths, everything is landscaped. Its green, it's floral, it's beautiful. It's hard to get people to leave once they come."
Find more information on Champions Retreat at championsretreat.net. To schedule or inquire about a wedding booking, email firstname.lastname@example.org.