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Melhana, Georgia's Grand Plantation
From Log Cabin to Luxury Resort
by Murray D. Laurie

The audacious pink complexion of the great house at Melhana casts a glow of romance over the grand design of this Southern plantation resort. Hard to believe that this blushing beauty began life as a four-room log cabin, but Fran and Charlie Lewis, the owners, can testify to it. They have the proof, in the thick interior log walls that challenged their successful efforts to accommodate an ambitious modernization of the venerable building.

But forget the illusion of the log cabin built in the 1820s by cotton planter Paul Coalson. Like the pit of a peach, it's there all right, but what's important is the good taste of the luscious fruit. And Melhana, the Grand Plantation Resort, is the very essence of good taste.

On a balmy spring weekend, I drove a few miles south of Thomasville, Georgia, on Highway 319 to the heart of the red hills plantation district to slip into the lifestyle of one of the most exclusive enclaves of understated wealth in the country. The dogwoods wore lacy white blossoms, azaleas were popping out in every shade of pink, and time seemed to slow to a gracious meander as I drove down the oak-canopied drive leading to Melhana and surrendered my car for the duration of my stay. Imagine not having to drive, to be so pampered that you only have to murmur a request for a golf cart to whisk you around the grounds or a van to take you sightseeing, to one of the area golf courses, or to join a shooting party on one of the nearby plantations!

Open since early 1998 as a luxury hotel and restaurant, Melhana nevertheless has a long tradition of gracious living. For years I had heard of the wealthy northerners who bought up impoverished cotton plantations late in the nineteenth century for a few dollars per acre and turned them into private hunting preserves. Later these aristocratic winter retreats would host visiting luminaries like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, presidents and cabinet members, movie stars and artists, and fellow financiers and industrialists.

Howard Melville Hanna (called Mel Hanna, thus the name Melhana), a Cleveland, Ohio, shipping-mining-oil-steel magnate, bought the seven-thousand-acre-plus property for his winter home in 1896, and eventually members of the extended Hanna family owned forty-one of the more than seventy old cotton plantations between Thomasville, Georgia, and Tallahassee, Florida. The Hannas and their friends comprised one of the most affluent and influential circles in the United States, and their lifestyle was as lavish as it was low-key.

The former cotton fields proved to be ideal for quail and dove, and turkey and deer abounded in the woods. The new landed gentry imported the finest horses and bird dogs and had special hunting wagons built to take them in comfort deep into the rolling countryside to the choicest shooting sites. Some of these quaint vehicles are on display at near-by Pebble Hill Plantation, another Hanna family estate now operating as a museum.

These northern-bred winter residents got into the spirit of country living in Georgia and also imported prize dairy cattle, competing among themselves to see whose Jersey cow gave the richest cream. They installed their herds in colonial-revival-style buildings that resemble those on the campus of a posh private college rather than a farm. Some of Melhana's former red-brick barns and stables have been converted into comfortable, chic guest rooms and suites.

Gardening, particularly the roses for which Thomasville is famous, also became a pet hobby. Melhana's formal rose garden, presided over by stone statues of children posing as the four seasons, complements the main house and is often the setting for outdoor weddings. Following the ceremony, the newlyweds may take a short horse and carriage drive to the bridal suite in the Hibernia Cottage, the former creamery. There they can enjoy delicious privacy and an outrageously romantic bed and bath in the little Greek Revival gem.

The good taste with which every part of Melhana has been furnished is matched by the good tastes that await you in the formal dining rooms or the more informal verandah . . . or breakfast in bed, if that is your desire. The refined Southern cuisine includes fried green tomatoes topped with Gulf shrimp and sweet potato custard, which blend magically with specialties like beef Wellington or rack of lamb.

I was perfectly content to linger on the verandah after breakfast to admire the hummingbirds, do a few lazy laps in the gorgeous indoor heated swimming pool, contemplate a game of tennis on the clay courts, work up an appetite in the fitness center, sink gratefully into a high-backed chair in the Hanna Room to sip a glass of wine in the early evening, and languidly listen to someone playing the baby grand piano before strolling across the hall to examine the dinner menu, but there are other options.

If you stay at Melhana in late April, do take in the Thomasville Rose Festival, but make reservations well ahead. It's wildly popular with the horticultural elite. Horseback riding is available, and hunting and shooting at nearby plantations can be arranged. I'm not a golfer, but a chat with other guests over the sumptuous breakfast buffet table confirmed that there are excellent courses nearby.

One afternoon I watched the resident peacock and his retinue of peahens gathered in front of Melhana's Showboat Theater, for all the world like a crowd of glamorous movie stars assembled for another premier. The Showboat Theatre, a private cinema, was built in the early 1930s so that the Hanna family and their staff could avoid the hassle of going into town for the movies. On very good authority, it is said that the first showing of "Gone with the Wind," even before its gala opening at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, played here at the request of its principal backer, Jock Whitney, a pal of the Hannas. At any rate, photos of Rhett and Scarlett adorn the pecky-cypress walls of the little gem of a playhouse. The front façade looks like the stage set of the musical "Showboat," complete with a gangplank entrance over a small pond.

Melhana is a marvelous place to celebrate a special occasion, to get away from the ordinary cares of life, to hold a conference in a private and exclusive setting, or to slip back in time and pretend that your papa left you millions and you can't think of anything better to do with your inheritance.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Melhana has an excellent website for making queries and reservations. You'll find not only rates and menus, but special events and the newest amenities at this Grand Plantation Resort.

You can contact Travel Writer Murray Laurie by Email - Click Here



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