Friday, March 26, 2021

INTERVIEW: Marykay, Decatur Alpaca Cottage

Atlanta has many fabulous places where out-of-town guests — or staycationers — can opt to stay, but Decatur Alpaca Cottage is among the most unique and utterly adorable! Guests consistently say that their experience was "above our expectations".

Marykay, the owner and awesome hostess, gifted me an interview. Her story is quite fascinating and I'm certain that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Enjoy...

Marykay at Decatur Alpaca Cottage |  | Photo: Sarah Vitel Photography
Marykay at Decatur Alpaca Cottage |  | Photo: Sarah Vitel Photography

wanderlust ATLANTA: Thank you for talking with me, Marykay. Please tell us a little about you. Where are you from? How did you come to live in Decatur?

Marykay: I was born in Ohio and we moved to the South when I was a preteen. I've lived in South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Hawaii, and of course Georgia. Atlanta is "home". I love Atlanta and I love Georgia. My family moved to an urban farm about 16 years ago. Before that we lived in Tucker. I've been in the area for about 30 years. So, that's where I'm from, but you asked about me. 

When I was a kid, I loved playing with my "dollhouse" — this Cottage is the grown-up version of that. As an adult, I've been called innovative and interesting (and sometimes even quirky), and a lot of my guests admire my attention to detail. In addition to caring for the alpacas, the farm, and the cottage, I also have a day job in global executive benefit that I love. I'm also a writer. I've completed about nine chapters for my book, so far and hope to finish it this year.

Decatur Alpaca Cottage
Decatur Alpaca Cottage

wanderlust ATLANTA: Why and how do you have a herd of Alpacas and Llamas in Metro Atlanta? What a delightful surprise!

Marykay: Decades ago, I had wanted to become a veterinarian and was even accepted to vet school, but instead I opted to have kids because the years were passing quickly Instead, I fulfilled my love of animals by having quite a few pets and even doing wildlife rescue back in the day. Some years ago, I was visiting with friends in North Georgia who had a herd of alpacas and was asked "Would you want to take on a herd of rescue alpaca?" With little hesitation, I enthusiastically said “Yes!” and set about learning how to care for them including renovating an existing outbuilding on my farm to serve as their barn. Our first herd was four older males.

Typically, alpacas who need to be rescued is because circumstances have changed, health issues, changes in a financial situation, or even an owner passing away. In the case of this herd, the owner’s husband had died and the herd was too much for her to care for. The life span of an alpaca averages between 15 and 20 years, so having a good plan in place for a herd is important. I actually have a plan for mine included in my Will as well as some financial support to facilitate any transition that might need to take place. In short, a commitment to alpacas and llamas is a long-term commitment.

In addition to the original four alpacas, I have adopted and rescued others over the years. "Skyboy Blue" — yes, they have their own names — is from Florida. He has blue eyes which is unusual. Two are from Kentucky. I currently have four alpacas, one miniature Himalayan llama ("Beau"), and one huarizo ("Mr. Bingley"). A huarizo is a cross between a llama and an alpaca and huarizos tend to be much smaller than llamas given that they are half alpaca. I also work closely with the nonprofit Southeast Llama Rescue as a volunteer to help raise funds.

wanderlust ATLANTA: Okay, we have to talk about the chickens. What's their story?

Marykay: That’s a fun story! One day when my son was 8 years old, he said, "Momma, we need chickens." Of course, I asked, "Why?" His response, "Momma, because they're healthy and the cholesterol in a backyard chicken’s egg is way healthier than a grocery store egg! It's 'green' and we can use our kitchen scraps for compost AND feed the chickens. And they’re educational!! Do you know how much I'm going to learn from having chickens?"

At that point, he’d convinced me, if only because he was so clever in his "chicken sales’ pitch," so I agreed with the caveat that he meet three requirements...
  • They have to fit into the budget I set;
  • We would take great care of them, first and foremost as pets; and
  • They would have to lay pretty eggs (I wanted blue, brown, etc.).
We got the chickens and they each have their own name. We have "Peck-a-rino" and a rooster named "Irma" because it was born when Hurricane Irma came through. We still have chickens today and have fresh eggs every day!

I usually sell our organic eggs to friends, family, and neighbors, but last Spring, as we all went into quarantine, I told my neighbors I would gift our eggs to the neighborhood for as long as I could. In the end, I gifted more than 123 dozen eggs during the first four months of the pandemic. That eggs were also in short supply at the grocery stores made it all the easier to choose to gift the eggs and it was something my family could do for others during a difficult time.

Decatur Alpaca Cottage
Decatur Alpaca Cottage

wanderlust ATLANTA: Okay, the reason we're all here...tell us about the cottage!

Marykay: If we start at the very beginning, although my house was built in the mid-1950’s, based on architectural clues, we think the cottage was built in the 1940s. When I was in the market to buy a home, Cherie King, of Atlanta Intown Dwellings, took me to this property. It was a 50s brick ranch, the front yard was nondescript, and there was not a lot of curb appeal.

Already in my mind I knew I wanted a more cottage-like home and suggested we skip this one and move on to the next house. Instead, Cherie put her hand on my knee, and said, "Marykay, these people have left their home so you can look at it. Get your ass out of the car and let's go." So I laughed and got out of the car! I kid you not, two steps into the kitchen of the main house, I knew it was "home"...it had everything we needed.

Cherie then said, "Let's go see the rest of it!" Mind you, I had NO idea there was anything other than the main house. As we toured the acre and a half that comprises our urban farm, I saw the cottage, a workshop, several outbuildings, and a large field that was a part of the original dairy farm long ago. My grandparents had a dairy farm in Ohio so it seemed a really amazing symmetry moment! I was very excited, thinking “How many people have an opportunity to live on a legacy farm?

In no time, I crunched some numbers and bought it! That was 16 years ago! I actually have stayed in touch with the former owners' children. The oldest son came and stayed in the cottage a couple years ago and before he left, I shared some starts and plants from my garden that his parents had planted. So part of my garden is now in his garden in Tennessee. With tears in my eyes, he said, "This means so much to me." There is something really beautiful about the gifting and sharing of plants with others. It adds to the story of a garden and keeps the legacy living, so to speak.

When his family lived here, his grandmother lived in the cottage until she moved to a retirement community. At that time, the prior owner turned it into a long-term rental. When I bought the house and moved in, the same renter had been in the cottage for 15 years! When I bought the house I was more than happy to let her stay and she stayed another five years until she decided to buy her own home. After that, I had two more long-term renters and when it was empty again, I thought I would turn it into a writer’s retreat for myself so I started fixing it up.

Remember, I loved playing with my dollhouse as a kid, so this was a FUN project! I then reconsidered because my kids were growing and I would soon be an empty nester, so I started thinking about other uses for the cottage. I knew I didn’t want it to be a long-term rental again. About that time Airbnb was becoming a "thing" so I gave it a try. Now in our fifth year, the Decatur Alpaca Cottage is one of the top wish-listed Airbnb’s in the South!

I'm currently considering a second a "tiny home" Airbnb for my urban farm. Depending on how the rest of the year goes, it may be a really fun project for 2022!

Decatur Alpaca Cottage
Decatur Alpaca Cottage

wanderlust ATLANTA: When is Decatur Alpaca Cottage available for bookings?

Marykay: We are open year-round. Weekends definitely fill up first throughout the year. Weekends tend to book 4 to 8 weeks in advance. I also recommend booking further in advance if there is a specific weekend guests want. Weekdays are typically easier to book with less notice and also have a lower rate than weekends. The Decatur Alpaca Cottage has a a two-night minimum and our pricing varies, like hotels, based on season, events, and day of the week.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I closed voluntarily for 3 months and, before we reopened, I expanded our already-robust cleaning approach with an even more rigorous cleaning and social distancing protocol to ensure our guests’ and my family’s safety. I've known my cleaning team for 25 years and that’s really helpful to know that the protocol I’ve laid out will be adhered to every single time. I have an incredible team of helpers who help me keep up with the demands of running a side business and keeping up with our urban farm.

When I made the tough decision to close the cottage in the first months of the pandemic, I continued paying my team. Their loyalty and diligence are important to me and I didn’t want to create a hardship for them if I could possibly avoid it. Not only were they appreciative, but it further solidified the long-standing relationships we have in partnership to make the cottage an amazing experience for my guests! In my opinion, kindness is rarely a mistake and, although it was a terrible situation, the pandemic created lots of opportunities for kindness, in big and small ways.

Before COVID, 60% of our guests were locals. Our farthest guest came all the way from Singapore! Since the pandemic, 90% of our guests have been locals. I expect that this ratio will fluctuate a bit as travel restrictions ease, but it is wonderful to have a safe haven to offer Atlantans and surrounding communities during this time!

We only do bookings on Airbnb. There are two parking spaces next to the cottage and it sleeps four in a cozy 600 square feet.

We're also available for weddings, birthday parties, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and other special events on a limited basis. During the pandemic, however, we are only hosting micro-events with no more than 15 guests. Although we've hosted events with up to 50 guests, the niche for our venue is smaller, more intimate events. The brand is about beauty and peace and intimate gatherings are more in alignment with that.

From time to time, I get requests to host pets. As much as I love animals (and I do!) we are unable to host fur babies. Alpacas see strange dogs as predators and it’s just not worth the stress on the herd. Our guests are very understanding and respectful about the need to prioritize the health of the herd and I appreciate that!

Decatur Alpaca Cottage
Decatur Alpaca Cottage

wanderlust ATLANTA: What are the most common questions you receive?

MarykayOver the years there have been many questions, a few bizarre, but all respectful. The most frequently asked questions are:

#1 Don't they (alpaca) spit? 

Answer: Yes, they do, but there’s always a reason when this happens. It's not a random occurrence. Usually, there's competition involved. It's usually to do with food, breeding, or space, or neglect. I've only been spit on once, on purpose, and I totally deserved it. I was being somewhat clumsy with one of the monthly injections the herd gets and Loverboy (one of our alpacas) let me have it. Rest assured that spitting on people is the exception, not the rule. If you hear a warning gurgle, they might be getting ready to spit, but it's probably at each other.

#2 What's the difference between an alpaca and llama?

Answer: They're cousins and they get along well. There is a pecking order in a herd, always an Alpha of the herd. Both are Camelids, the same family as camels. Llamas tend to be more independent and have longer banana-shaped ears, and alpaca have short ears. All need to be in a herd of at least 3 and preferably 5 alpacas/llamas to be healthy and safe. No matter how cute it is, solo alpacas living with a family are not healthy and are apt to have behavior issues down the road. I’m a big advocate of responsible alpaca/llama ownership and pretty cut and dry about this aspect of alpacas, particularly as alpacas and llamas have become more popular.

Decatur Alpaca Cottage
Decatur Alpaca Cottage

wanderlust ATLANTA: This is how sweet Marykay is...she added my new book, "111 Places in Atlanta That You Must Not Miss" — some of the places are in Decatur and DeKalb County — to the small collection of books in the cottage for guests to enjoy and the response has been excellent! Thank you, Marykay!

wanderlust ATLANTA: What can guests expect upon arrival at Decatur Alpaca Cottage?

Marykay: I host from a place of generosity. I truly enjoy going the extra mile and our guest reviews reflect this. Upon arrival guests are treated to a bottle of wine and special, custom cookies from a local bakery (Cookies by Kacie). One of my favorite special touches is a piece of art that I commissioned with Tiny Doors ATL. It is a copy of the cottage door in miniature and is absolutely adorable. It’s a wonderful feature next to the front door of the cottage.

The cottage is just a few steps away from the field gate. I'm meticulous about keeping the field clean to ensure the health of the animals and manage any odor. That said, alpacas are incredibly clean so it is very manageable. Many guest have commented that there's no odor and it’s important to me that they notice that! Guests can interact with herd from outside the field gate any time during their visit. I also give guests a bag of carrots with an instructional note of how to feed them. Our guests LOVE treating the herd with carrots and the herd loves it as well (of course!). After the pandemic, we hope to start up a "Meet & Greet" with the alpacas again, but won’t be able to offer those for the foreseeable future.

We are an ideal option for a staycation. We're near downtown Decatur and we're close to Atlanta, but far enough away to enjoy a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.

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Decatur Alpaca Cottage
Decatur Alpaca Cottage

Doesn't Decatur Alpaca Cottage sounds like a marvelous getaway? Be sure to follow Decatur Alpaca Cottage on their social media channels: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. And Marykay has a newsletter, too!

A big "Thank you!" to Marykay for the interview and for giving Metro Atlanta a delightfully unique experience!

(NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of Decatur Alpaca Cottage.)

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