When Nick Phoenix set out on a long-distance bicycle ride in 2012, he didn’t know it would lead him to a new home and job in Northwest Florida. But when he found Coldwater Gardens, he decided not to leave.
Who wouldn’t want to live and work amid 350 acres of natural woodlands with nearly 2 miles of waterfront on a crystal-clear creek?
Nick lived in a tent for a year and didn’t get paid.
“It’s been phenomenal,” he says, describing his eight years at Coldwater Gardens.
Nick is now general manager, performing duties ranging from maintenance to marketing to tour guide and everything in between. He quickly moved from being a volunteer to a full-time employee, and has never looked back.
“I’ve been hands on in all areas of the property,” he says.
In 2012, Nick and some friends were touring Florida in search of organic farming operations as part of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms—an international effort to promote an educational exchange about ecological farming practices.
At the time, Coldwater Gardens was just beginning an effort in organic farming and in reforesting hundreds of acres of longleaf pine.
Since then, the property has evolved into a one-of-a-kind camping and event venue.
A short drive from Interstate 10, Coldwater Gardens seems a world away, off a rural highway and surrounded by forest. The Milton property has become a popular event venue. Its terrace—adjacent to the gardens—provides a setting for weddings, reunions and other gatherings.
“One of the major parts of our business is weddings,” Nick says.
“The main building—we call it the terrace—is used for that.”
Outside the terrace is one of the few manicured lawn spaces on the property. Just beyond the green space are the gardens, filled with native plants and seating areas.
While events fuel much of the property’s revenue, the real buzz about Coldwater Gardens comes from its overnight lodging opportunities. Clustered on approximately 30 acres, accommodations include six glamping tents, four cottages, a modern treehouse, a tiny cabana house and three primitive campsites.
“The glamping tents get a lot of attention,” Nick says.
By camping standards, the large canvas tents offer an experience that’s far from roughing it.
“They have lots of comforts of home,” Nick says, citing electricity, two queen beds, a refrigerator, a coffee maker and an outside living area that includes a picnic table, fire pit and charcoal grill.
Traditional rustic campsites are an option. On the upland area of the property, the hillside campsite sits in a clearing among the trees, with space for up to eight people.
There are two platform sites: the Stargazer, which sits high atop a pitcher plant bog with a wide-open view of the stars, and the Creekside, situated on a sandbar along the Coldwater Creek.
The cabins, cabana and modern treehouse each have air conditioning, full kitchens and bathrooms. The kitchen with the cabins is in a covered outdoor space, with dining and seating areas.
Some lodging options have sunset views over a nearby field, while others are tucked into the woods.
Nick notes one thing is not found any place on the property: a clear link to the outside world.
“No internet, no TV and very little cell service,” he says. “You can definitely disconnect for a while.”
He says that is what inspires many guests to return.
Among the tents, blueberry bushes and other native vegetation flourish.
Overnight guests are invited to explore the entire 350-acre property. Along with the gardens and greenhouses are 5 miles of hiking trails and 1.5 miles of the spring-fed Coldwater Creek waterfront.
Nick says the underlying mission of Coldwater Gardens is to offer visitors an opportunity to experience the land and the environmentally friendly techniques used in the gardens in hopes of fostering a greater awareness of the resources.
“For anybody who enjoys being out in nature, it’s a great spot to experience that,” he says. “We want people to be able to get out, see the different agricultural techniques, see the land and gain an appreciation for it.”
In the garden greenhouses are two 900-gallon aquaponic systems. Koi provide the fertilizer to grow tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, lettuce and more.
Outside, chickens roam the yard, and herbs and succulents flourish. Nearby, shiitaké mushrooms are cultivated and bee colonies prosper.
If visitors want to enjoy the fruits of the harvest at home, they may buy plants, honey, seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Primitive trails offer a glimpse into reforestation efforts, along with views of pitcher plants and tiny sundews.
“One of our major aspirations is conservation and protection,” Nick says of the reforesting effort.
He points to longleaf pine. Stands were once common throughout the southeastern United States and beyond, but only 3% of those forests exist now, Nick says.
“We have 350 acres, which is a small chunk, but we’re doing our little part,” Nick says.
As for his part, Nick still lives onsite—in a tiny house now—as does another resident manager and the property owner. Together with a staff horticulturalist, they are growing what began as an organic vegetable farm into a special destination.
Visitors may come for an event or a glamping adventure, but they leave with new insights and what Nick hopes is an appreciation about ways to enjoy the fruits of the land, while still protecting and preserving the resources.
IF YOU GO:
7009 Creek Stone Road, Milton
For those who want to make a day trip to Coldwater Gardens, the facilities’ gardens are open to the public. Guided tours can be arranged for a small fee. This is a popular option for school and retirement groups.