By J.K. Devine
Photos courtesy Ark on Lanier
When Jeff Hylton stepped onto a lakefront property just west of the Sardis area in Hall County, he knew he had found a new home for his family.
“I fell in love with it,” the Gainesville father of three said. “I could envision ATVs and ziplines.”
His daydream was just that, a daydream. The owners of the 5-acre property were not willing to sell.
“I made a deal with God,” Hylton said. “I said to God ‘If I am meant to have it, then you will find a way to bring it back to me.’”
Six months later, God agreed. The owners were ready to sell.
“It was like God saying ‘OK. Here you go,’” Hylton said with his wife, Alycea, nodding in agreement.
Ark on Lake Lanier was born as a home for a family. Fast-forward 10 years, it is now self-proclaimed as a premier luxury vacation rental with a higher purpose by providing a refuge for nonprofit organizations.
“It is a ministry house that is self-sustaining,” Jeff said. “We now rent it out as much as we can to cover the costs of providing a haven in the off-season to those who need it most.”
A place to relax and recharge
The Ark on Lake Lanier offers plenty of space for groups large and small. The lake house with 14 bedrooms and 12 bathrooms sleeps up to 45 people in the 12,000-square-foot space.
Amenities of all types can tend to the needs of the young and old.
Outside is a hot tub and pool for visitors looking for a dip. Or they can enjoy Lake Lanier with boats, jet skis or canoes.
To play on land, visitors can jump on the trampoline or smack around a volleyball on the sand-filled full-size volleyball court. Tether ball, cornhole boards, croquet, a small basketball court and some frisbee golf targets are available, too.
For those looking to relax, they can sit in a hammock-style swing in a couple of spots on the property or under the covered and screened deck.
“My favorite place is the fire pit,” Jeff said.
If the weather is chilly, visitors can play a game of a billiards and or watch a movie in the 16-seat theater.
“The theater is my other favorite place,” Jeff said. “It’s a glorified man cave.”
Alycea’s favorite place is the upstairs master bedroom with its private bathroom.
“You can watch both the TV and the fire while sitting in the jacuzzi tub,” she said. “I could stay there all day.”
This place of relaxation and refuge, however, did not start out as one.
A place to renovate and rebuild
After the Hyltons bought the home, they started renovations.
“We gutted the interior,” Alycea said. “We added the kitchen. And we added a theater room (on the second floor.)”
Five months later, disaster struck. A fire destroyed a half of the home. At the same time in September 2008, Lake Lanier had reached a low point, dropping 25 feet.
“The stock market crashed that year, too,” said Jeff, who is an financial adviser with Merrill Lynch.
“That was when our personal dreams died,” Alycea said.
Jeff, Alycea and their children — ages 8, 7 and 4 at the time — moved out of the house for nine months while it was cleaned. Once they returned, the Hyltons contemplated their next move.
God answered, but the Hyltons were unsure. Jeff said he felt pulled to build more rooms despite having plenty of space. He delayed acting on it until 2010.
“I couldn’t shake the idea that we needed to add to the house,” Jeff said.
So, the Hyltons answered God’s nudge. They turned the barn and stable into guest cabins, renovated the house for a second time and increased the number of rooms.
Once they finished, Alycea learned a mission group’s housing accommodations had fallen through. She suggested letting four boys from the group stay in the cabin. Jeff countered with letting the 18 girls stay in the house while they rented another home.
“I said ‘Ok, let’s try it,” Alycea said, adding her family lived with the mission group for a couple of months before finding a rental home in Gainesville. “And that was the beginning (of Ark on Lake Lanier.)”
A permanent place for visitors
After the mission group stayed for 11 months, the Hyltons started renting out the home. First, it was to mission groups and families. Then it expanded.
Now, it can be used for family reunions, corporate retreats and other getaways, according to its website, arkonlakelanier.com.
In the meantime, the Hyltons continued improving the property. They added a fire pit and other outside amenities.
“I designed the inside by collaborating with an Atlanta space planner,” Alycea said. “And Jeff did the backyard.”
Their hard work is paying off. Several companies and even organizations such as LoveNotLost.org and the Boys and Girls Clubs regularly reserved the space.
“We have one family from Alpharetta who books it every Labor Day,” Jeff said.
Of course, the Hyltons block out a few dates during the year for their own use.
“In April, we will have my son’s birthday party here,” Jeff said. “And in May, we will have our daughter’s graduation party from high school here.”
Having the place constantly filled with people is the Ark on Lake Lanier’s purpose.
“It was hard to be here with five people,” Alycea said. “It feels right with 20.”