A creative vision is emerging from the catastrophe of a global health pandemic, and it’s bringing with it a new concept in South Mississippi’s hospitality industry.
The Lodge at Sweetwater Studios is an ecolodge located in rural Mississippi and scheduled to open in October with six glamping tents, two cabins, an art studio, a yoga dome, and a tropical greenhouse spa with a hot tub, sauna, and saltwater pool.
The natural beauty of the outdoors features a 3-acre lake with an island and various nature trails. Artist-led retreats will feature a variety of art experiences from local artists such as drawing, painting, weaving, photography, and more.
The Lodge is the brainchild of Airon Whitt, a 32-year-old native of Moselle who has spent her adult life traveling and working around the globe. But her plan for her endeavor is homegrown. She is the granddaughter of the late Warren and Martha Koon of Natchez, the former publishers of the Natchez Democrat.
“This updated version of the vision came from my back porch,” she said, which overlooks 26 acres of pine forest owned by her parents in southern Jones County.
But it wasn’t necessarily a new idea. Her desire to open her own hotel began with her degree in Sustainable Tourism and Development Management from the University of Hawaii, where she graduated in December 2009. She had dreams of an ecolodge, a type of tourist accommodation that aims to lessen its impact on the environment and local culture, somewhere a bit farther from home. Yet with international travel shutting down in 2020 she decided to make a small pivot.
Whitt began drawing up her plans during the lockdown days of the pandemic. She was wrapping up a tour escorting students in foreign countries and was in the African country of Ghana when news broke that the pandemic was sweeping across the United States. After a stop in Morocco and Washington, D.C., her team was called back home a week early.
Following a recommended quarantine on her return, Whitt began mulling the idea and pitched the idea to her parents.
“We often say Mississippi is America’s best-kept secret. The culture and natural surroundings of this state are well worth a visit from those not from here and deserve to be enjoyed by those of us who do”, she said.
Groups and individuals are invited to stay for artist and wellness retreats or enjoy a relaxing nightly get-away. Whitt aims to highlight the art and food of the South while also promoting sustainable living practices and organic food from local farmers.
“After working for several Waikiki hotels and learning how to run a high-end luxury hotel, I decided to join the Peace Corps,” she said. This gave her the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with rural tourism and community development projects.
The Peace Corps allowed her to work in Costa Rica researching and helping locals in the tourism industry develop business plans and improve existing businesses.
Following her Peace Corps commitment, she received a master's in Business Administration and in International Policy and Development from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.
By creating The Lodge at Sweetwater Studios, Whitt said she wants to help restore wellness in the wake of the pandemic and provide southern Mississippi, a place not typically known for its wellness offerings, with unique and rejuvenating experiences.
“The intense quarantine of 2020 made the world realize how important having access to natural spaces truly is,” she said. “Nature heals, reduces depression, improves wellbeing, and builds community bonds.”
The Lodge at Sweetwater Studios will be the third iteration of the property Whitt calls home. Her parents, Mississippi artists John and Kim Whitt, purchased the land in 1977 and built a substantial wholesale greenhouse business. John’s parents purchased 10 acres of the land to build a cabin nearby.
“Sweetwater Studios was born out of loss,” Kim Whitt said. Hurricane Fredrick destroyed their greenhouse business in 1979. John Whitt decided to learn to craft stained glass while Kim Whitt took up weaving. They both attended Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and studied intensively with the nation’s best, she said.
While in Gatlinburg, the couple opened a studio and store on the Craftsman's Loop called Sweetwater Studios, a name that ultimately moved back to Mississippi with them and has continued to operate for the past 40 years.
A Family Endeavor
Airon Whitt’s passion for sustainable tourism has now joined with her parent’s creative love of art. The Whitts are offering an opportunity for a solo nature escape, an art and wellness retreat, an executive business retreat, or even family reunions.
“I believe in the power of travel to connect people and to highlight the beautiful differences of diverse cultures around the world,” she said. “In the future, I would love to bring people from my community or travelers from around the world to experience some of my favorite artists and art forms from other countries, like the weavers of Guatemala and Morocco or the potters of Cuba and Costa Rica.”
The Lodge’s first artist retreat titled “Responding to Nature” is scheduled for Oct. 22-24 featuring Chatham Meade Kemp from William Carey University as the instructor. The retreat will focus on “the organic, natural world around us through intuitive abstraction. We will explore mark making and the choice of value or color in approaching drawing or painting.”
One day, Airon Whitt said she hopes to open more ecolodges that support local artists and promote sustainable and responsible tourism in other rural communities.
For information, visit lodgeatsweetwater.com