Editor's note: This story originally published Feb. 14, 2010.
As the sun sets, red rose petals and flaming torches lure Holly Hoag and Wythe Wyndham Owens III to a dock and a porch swing draped in gold fabric.
Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” fills the air as two swans magically glide in their direction.
On cue, Owens drops to one knee and asks for Hoag’s hand in marriage.
It’s all so perfect that it scarcely seems real.
But if this tableau seems like a fairy tale, keep in mind that Owens arranged it all with a little help from a fairy godmother.
And it’s the job of the fairy godmother, Denise Webb, to make dreams come true — even if that means coming out at sunset for three consecutive nights to feed those swans graham crackers and bread, thereby training them to float toward the dock.
Even if it means fighting the wind to light the 30 votive candles that set the mood for Owens’ romantic proposal. Even if it means obsessively checking the weather to make sure neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet would put a damper on the appointed evening.
For Webb, Valentine’s Day is 365 days a year as she’s channeled her inner cupid into a full-time paying job at Barnsley Gardens Resort in Adairsville, about 60 miles north of Atlanta. With the official title of “fairy godmother,” she helps orchestrate two engagements every week and a dozen “love spells” — or romantic adventures for married couples — every month.
Barnsley Gardens isn’t alone. Other resorts also put together romantic packages, with concierge staff happy to oblige. Chateau Elan in Braselton, Ga., has a “guest experience” coordinator who helps orchestrate proposals or other romantic get-togethers.
The Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation in Atlanta offers private, sunset picnics-for-two and rose petal turndowns in the shape of a heart or a special message such as “Will you marry me?”
Scott Mahr, general manager of Barnsley Gardens, said the fairy godmother plays a vital role in the business. While corporate sales are down sharply, the number of leisure travelers increased last year by 23 percent over 2008, he said.
“There’s no doubt people come here specifically to see her,” said Mahr. “We want kids and families, but our niche is couples.”
Mahr said about 60 percent of the guests are repeat guests and he believes the fairy godmother is enticing them back over and over.
Owens gave Webb two pages of instructions, which included requirements for the flowers and decorations to complement the blue hue of the diamond engagement ring.
“He said, ‘Careful about the colors because there’s a pale blue hue to the diamond,’ ” said Webb about the September 2009 engagement. “And I thought, if he cares that much about the roses and everything else matching well, he’s going to love her.”
After the proposal, she hopped on her golf cart and, poof, suddenly appeared on the dock to give the newly engaged couple glow-in-the-dark purple and green wands.
Petite and cherubic, Webb walks so delicately it looks like she walks on her toes. Her curly locks are the color of honey. She rewards kids with good manners in the dining room with little toys. She hides treasures — trinkets from the Dollar Store — in the forest and invites guests to go searching for them just for the fun of it, and gets the waiters to dress up like pirates.
She won’t reveal her age and only says: “I am as old as my tongue and just a little bit older than my teeth.”
“The way her face lights up and she blushes all the time, she really does look like the fairy godmother from Cinderella,” said Hoag, who still gets misty-eyed talking about the engagement.
Just how Webb became the fairy godmother goes back 10 years, when she got a job managing the two restaurants on the property and her heart went out to a lonely elderly woman.
She noticed a forlorn-looking woman in the restaurant who dined alone, wearing white gloves. She eventually learned the woman was mourning the loss of her mother and never had the chance to say goodbye.
Talking with Webb one night, the woman said she’d never seen the stars close up. So Webb went to the store and bought a telescope and set it up outside her cabin. She hung lights and paper stars outside her cabin.
“I pointed to the stars, and I said, ‘Look up at that star — that’s your mother,’” she said.
The then-owner, Prince Hubertus Fugger, came for a visit and the prince was apparently so charmed by her he said she could have any job she wanted. After hearing the story about the elderly woman, the prince of Bavaria crowned Webb the fairy godmother and gave her a magic wand studded with crystals.
Fugger sold the property a few years after Webb got her title, but Webb has kept the job.
Guests can contact Webb to arrange romantic evenings, birthdays or anniversaries. For $135, she’ll put together a “Classic Love Spell,” decorating a couple’s room with rose petals and 40 tea lights and leaving champagne on ice.
For $130, she offers the “Shake your Coconuts Love Spell,” where she’ll leave in the guests’ room grass skirts, leis, a bubble bath and rum island drinks.
For $35, she’ll add geisha fans, a paper parasol and a can of whipped cream plus strawberries served bedside. She puts the whipped cream in doll-sized geisha dresses.
“I do that so the whipped cream doesn’t look lewd or out of place,” Webb said.
She revels in challenges and took pride in driving to a Macon florist to get a dozen ruby red roses so dark they bordered on black.
“There was a guy here recently who was in his 70s, and he wanted to do a love spell for his wife, and I thought maybe I should keep it simple. But I decided, no, I am going to take this over the top.”
So Webb draped lights behind the bed and blanketed the bed with white rose petals. She left chilled champagne and white chocolate strawberries. And she dusted the room with a white dust that made it look like it had just snowed.
The couple left one comment on the comment card: “Snow me that you love me.”
Webb helped Steven Novak incorporate his dog into his marriage proposal. She kept the dog — wearing a pouch holding the ring — hidden behind bushes until the moment he popped the question.
“I met the fairy godmother in the hallway and had to give her the ring,” he said. “Here’s this expensive ring, and I am from New York and pretty skeptical of people. It took a leap of faith. I gave it to her.”
Not all the stories are happy. Last year, a woman asked the fairy godmother to contact her lover to try and reconcile the relationship.
“I told her, no, I don’t do that,” she said. “But I also told her, if he broke your heart, why would you want to go back to him?”
Still, she broke out the Austrian crystal dust, which she considers to be good luck, and sprinkled some in the woman’s hand,
“Then, she got a new boyfriend and is now getting married. ... Oh, those Austrian crystals.”
On a recent afternoon, Webb drove a golf cart to the stagecoach house on the edge of the property, close to her very own garden where she grows roses and yellow and purple irises.
Inside the building, constructed in the 1840s and kept cold enough to keep cut flowers fresh, Webb filled baskets with dark chocolate, heart-shaped soaps and Bailey’s Irish cream.
She scanned her fairy den filling two rooms and took inventory. There’s boxes of dress-up for kids, a helium tank for balloons, ribbons and roses and wands.
“I have to make sure I get it right,” she said. “A fairy godmother always keeps her promises.”
She brings her love home, too.
She and her husband Joe, married 23 years, often surprise each other with loving gestures that rely more on creativity than cash.
Her husband recently placed their bed mattress in the living room for a cozy fireside picnic. The mattress stayed there for three weeks.
For her part, she recently filled a kiddie pool with water warmed on a stove top. She called it the “hillbilly hot tub.”
“Love is going to come and go,” she said. “But, in the end, love is all you’ve got.”