A civilized take on camping

We found a Bohemian rhapsody outdoors

Photograph by Wicker Paradise/Flickr

Interested in pitching a tent, battling the elements, and using the great outdoors as a bathroom? Me neither. For those of us who appreciate Mother Nature but prefer a few creature comforts, hooray for the Martyn House. This Ellijay bed-and-breakfast puts glamping—short for “glamorous camping”—within an easy drive of Atlanta. The trend, which has historic roots in African safaris and Mongolian nomads, caught on recently in Europe and then crossed the pond. Websites like glamping.com and glampinghub.com now promote luxury stays in tents, tree houses, motor homes, tepees, even igloos—some complete with butlers. The Martyn House may not appeal to the no-trace crowd, but it is a charmingly civilized way to sleep under the stars.

Six years ago, photographer Rick Lucas and his wife, Jo Ann (a potter, furniture and interior designer, life coach, and gourmet cook), bought the 1930s farmhouse built by the Martin (original spelling) family. While they were renovating, Jo Ann traveled to southern Rajasthan, where she was enchanted by richly patterned tents indigenous to India. The “serial entrepreneur” decided to bring “canvas chic” back home and began renting out elaborate pavilions for special events. Next, the couple added a series of open-air farm-to-table dinners. After one feast, they invited guests to spend the night in one of their tents, and another business was born. Their first official glampers arrived in 2009.

“It’s amazing how many people love the idea of camping, but sleeping on the ground, using outhouses, wandering the woods for firewood . . . not so much,” says Jo Ann. “So we took the camping experience and smoothed the edges a bit.” Their four tents have twelve-foot ceilings and front porches, and are outfitted with heaters, showers, composting toilets, and antiques. Each is uniquely decorated with paisley prints and other brightly colored fabrics, so that sleeping in one makes you feel like Alice stepping through a magical looking glass. Not surprisingly, the Martyn House’s fairy-tale setting is popular for weddings.

But smaller experiences make up the usual stay here. A nightly bonfire in the meadow is an ideal place to relax, and the property has vegetable gardens, chicken coops, and other farmstead elements to explore. Rick’s photography studio and Jo Ann’s pottery studio are always open. There’s even an outdoor shower and tub for those so inclined. Guests can request photography classes, massages, or an al fresco dinner party. Weekends with a group of women sometimes involve informal life-planning sessions with Jo Ann.

The Martyn House may sound more Northern California than North Georgia, but traditional Ellijay activities are just a few minutes away. During October, half a dozen apple farms offer family activities and pick-your-own orchards. A hearty breakfast (and dinner if booked in advance) is part of the Martyn House experience, but downtown spots like Cantaberry Restaurant are where guests go for lunch.

The rolling hills and fall colors are another reason to head north. Hiking, zip-lining, and mountain biking are all popular, and after all that strenuous exercise, there’s now a winery to cap off the day. Cartecay Vineyards has a tasting room with a few of its own wines (the Vidal Blanc is particularly refreshing), plus samples of other local wines. Live music on weekends and an outdoor fireplace add to the ambiance.

Jo Ann likes seeing city folks unwind and notes that the Martyn House often turns skeptics into repeat customers. “Interestingly enough, most of our guests have never been camping,” she says, “so we’re thrilled we can offer them an outdoor experience they may never have gotten otherwise.”

This article originally appeared in our Septembe 2013 issue.