Salt Creek Golf Retreat

by Barney Quick

What is more quintessentially Brown County than a family operating as a team to run a scenic destination for tourists and recreation lovers and declaring they’re here to stay? Such is the case with the VanNess / Gabriel family and Salt Creek Golf Retreat, located at 2359 State Road 46 East.

The actual golf course had been in existence since the very early 1990s. Since January 1999, when the current team, headed by longtime Brown County resident Mark Gabriel, came in, new developments, added amenities, and course improvements have come along at a steady pace.

Golf pros, brothers and stepsons of Gabriel, Tony and Ben VanNess, had played the game since their youth and served in that capacity at various other courses. Their wives, Heather and Jennifer respectively, found their niches in the management of particular aspects of the resort.

Heather and Jennifer VanNess

Heather and Jennifer VanNess

Jennifer VanNess was originally from the Anderson area and had been a first-grade schoolteacher prior to her current position as general manager. “I told the family I’d help out for about six months, but I discovered I love this,” she says. She did play some golf in her youth, but hasn’t been on the course too much since having children.

Heather manages Overlook Lodge, a collection of thirty-six condominium units, each with a full kitchen, washer and dryer, and ample living area. Investors own the condos, all of which have sold, and Salt Creek rents them for the owners on a night-by-night basis, or for longer periods.

For years prior to ownership by the Gabriel / VanNess family, Salt Creek mainly offered sandwiches, but now the Overlook Restaurant, under the culinary vision of Executive Chef Wayne Hawrys, boasts an array of steaks, seafood, pasta dishes, and special recipes, as well as an impressive wine list. Several diners have become regulars, showing up for particular occasions, such as holidays, in some cases year after year. For those still hankering for a great sandwich, all that’s required is a trip downstairs to the 19th Hole, where Beni Clevenger’s nationally acclaimed Gnaw Bone tenderloin is available. The 19th Hole also features live bluegrass music on Friday nights. Both eateries have full-service bars as well.

The swimming pool and hot tub were opened to the public in May 2005. Both have proven popular with visitors.

“We wanted to make it possible for guests to have a total getaway experience right here on the property,” says Jennifer. “Someone can come here and enjoy golf, fine dining, scenic views, entertainment, and relaxation without ever leaving.” She does note that frequently, husbands will spend their days golfing while wives go into Nashville to shop and occasionally, vice versa.

Celebrities who like to golf and who have occasion to come to Brown County have discovered the Salt Creek Course. Little Nashville Opry headliners such as Trace Adkins and Neil McCoy have played there. Crews of some Opry acts have played the course as well.

One improvement that the family has made to the course is flood management. Clear-off time for standing water has been reduced from several days to about four hours.

Jennifer VanNess wishes to stress that the golf course, restaurant, and other Salt Creek facilities are open to the public. “We’d like to dispel the misconception that there’s anything private about our retreat,” she says. “We do offer a membership to our guests, which offers some special advantages, but we welcome everyone.”

Some Brown County attractions are geared toward autumn, when tourism is at its peak, but Salt Creek’s busy season goes from March through November. “We start seeing golfers when the first blooms appear,” says VanNess.

It’s not just the nature of her work that appeals to VanNess; it’s the sense of community and the nature itself. “I never thought of myself as a Brown County girl,” she says, “but now I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Salt Creek Golf Retreat can be contacted at (812) 988-7888 and visited on the web at