A Hop, Skip and a Holiday
by Amanda K. Brown
From the mountains to the sea, one of these weekend excursions within driving distance from Atlanta will surely satisfy any urge to break away from the shackles of the city for a few days of relaxation, recreation and freedom.
Want a taste of the Old World without using up all of your frequent flier miles? For those who dream of Wiener schnitzel and lederhosen, the recreated Alpine village of Helen, Georgia may be just what the Herr Doktor ordered.
Located about 90 minutes northeast of Atlanta and perhaps best known for its popular Oktoberfest celebration, quaint Helen and its cobblestone alleys, gingerbread lattice and mountain murals exude Bavarian charm. A visit to many of the village's shops such as Classics (706-878-1411) will turn up imported European treasures, from cuckoo clocks to beer steins. For a taste of the Georgia vine, travel one-half mile south of Helen to Habersham Vineyards and Winery (706-878-9463, www.habershamwinery.com) in Nacoochee Village, which offers complimentary tastings and self-guided tours.
The live fire grill at the Nacoochee Village's Nacoochee Grill (706-878-8020) turns out succulent meat dishes, but for true Bavarian fare, try Alt Heidelberg Restaurant & Lounge (706-878-2986) or Hofers Bakery & Cafe (706-878-8200).
Of course, the area's myriad outdoor offerings provide reason enough to escape to this corner of Georgia. Once the weather warms, the rivers surrounding Helen--the Chattahoochee, Chattooga and Ocoee--provide the perfect way to cool off through kayaking, canoeing, rafting, tubing and more. For guided tours of the rapids, let outfitters such as Wildwood Outfitt ers (706-878-1700, www.wildwoodoutfitters.com) or Cool River Tubing (706-878-2665, www.coolrivertubing.com) take care of the details for you.
For lodging, many of Helen's bed and breakfasts, inns and cabins provide Alpine appeal in cozy settings. A comprehensive list of all of these offerings can be found on the Alpine Helen-White County Convention and Visitors Bureau's Web site, www.helenga.org.
For more information and directions: 800-858-8027 or www.helenga.org.
From the Spanish moss-draped oaks lining its famed squares to the carriages lining its cobblestone streets, there's no better place to experience the "moonlight and magnolias" mystique of the old South than Savannah. Located about four hours southeast of Atlanta and founded in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe, serene Savannah is a multi-faceted city, one that beautifully preserves its historic district--one of the largest historic landmarks in the country--and at the same time cultivates innovation through its many cultural offerings, including the acclaimed Savannah College of Art and Design.
Visitors can discover the city by foot, trolley, bicycle, carriage or bus, but don't forget the Savannah River: the narrated sightseeing tour on one of the River Street Riverboat Company's (800-786-6404, www.savannahriverboat.com) replica paddle wheelers entertains with intriguing tales and historic facts. Savannah "possesses" a reputation for being one of America's most haunted cities, so those who are intrigued by the supernatural cannot leave without going on a ghost tour such as the Hauntings Tour (912-234-3571) or Ghost Talk Ghost Walk (912-233-3896).
To truly enjoy the accessibility of America's "first planned city," be sure to book a room at one of the quaint bed and breakfasts in the historic district, such as Planter's Inn (912-232-5678, www.plantersinnsavannah.com) or The Ballastone Inn (912-236-1484, www.ballastone.com). For those who prefer a room with a view, riverfront hotels include the Hyatt Regency Savannah (912-238-1234, www.savannah.hyatt.com) and The Westin Savannah Harbor (912-201-2000, www.westinsavannah.com), home to the Greenbrier Spa and only a short water-taxi ride away from the historic district.
One should not leave Savannah, however, without sampling some classic Lowcountry cuisine. The Lady & Sons (912-233-2600, www.ladyandsons.com), owned by popular Food Network chef Paula Deen, draws large crowds but promises mouth- watering Southern fare such as crab cakes and shrimp and grits, so make sure to arrive early to put your name in with the host. Take advantage of Savannah's proximity to the sea by sampling the fresh seafood at the River Street Oyster Bar (912-232-1565).
For more information and directions: 877-SAVANNAH or www.savannahvisit.com
Located about 85 miles south of Atlanta on the way to Savannah, Macon (800-768-3401, www.maconga.org) has more acreage listed on the National Historic Registry than any other Georgia city. This "Cherry Blossom Capital of the World" celebrates its more than 275,000 Yoshino cherry trees with the Cherry Blossom Festival, Mar. 18-27.
Heralded as the "Song and Soul of the South," Macon also houses the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and Museum (888-GA-ROCKS), the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame (478-752-1585) and the Tubman African American Museum (478-743-8544).
While You Are There: Brunswick & The Golden Isles
Less than 90 minutes from Savannah, Brunswick & The Golden Isles (800-933-COAST, www.bgicvb.com), so named by Spanish explorers in search of gold, include the mainland city of Brunswick and four barrier islands: St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island and historically posh Jekyll Island.
Marshlands, winding rivers and golden beaches define Brunswick, and the area features historical sites and museums, world-class golf courses, tennis, fishing, shops and restaurants--a perfect side trip from Savannah for those desiring a little sun, surf and recreation.
Escape to Paradise: Callaway Gardens
When Cason J. Callaway and his wife, Virginia, opened their retreat, they envisioned a place where man and nature could enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship.
Just an hour southwest of Atlanta in Pine Mountain, GA, the 14,000-acre woodland and display garden, resort and preserve offers something for everyone: educational opportunities at the Callaway Discovery Center; up-close looks at nature at the Backyard Wildlife Habitat and at the Day Butterfly Center, glimpses of a lush, tropical rainforest in the Sibley Horticultural Center; inspirational ideas at Mr. Cason's Vegetable Garden (so don't forget to bring a camera and notebook!) and more.
There's no better time to experience Callaway than in the spring, when the world's largest azalea garden is in full bloom. Those craving outdoor activities can enjoy the 10-mile, paved Discovery Bicycle Trail; spin and fly fishing in any of Callaway's 13 lakes; swimming, miniature golf and paddle boats at Robin Lake Beach; and three golf courses, including the renowned Mountain View course, which has played host to the PGA Tour's Buick Challenge.
Convenient, luxurious accommodations dot the resort--including Mountain Creek Inn, and for a little more privacy, The Southern Pine Cottages and Mountain Creek Villas--and Callaway has broken ground on a new, luxurious lodge and spa, due to be completed this fall. Dining options include the Plantation Room, which features a Friday night seafood buffet, a local favorite.
For more information and directions: 800-CALLAWAY or www.callawaygardens.com
Escape to the Sea: St. George Island, FL
Situated in the northwest corner on the "Forgotten Coast" of Florida's Panhandle, just over six hours from Atlanta, St. George Island remains one of the last inhabited, but unspoiled barrier islands of the Sunshine State. With 29 miles of pristine beaches, St. George Island offers the choicest beach accommodations, making it a perfect place for a serene get-away full of sun and surf.
Sampling the fresh, local seafood is a must during your stay on the island--Blue Parrot Oceanfront Cafe (850-927-2987) offers a large deck, beachfront dining a nd a selection of seafood, steaks and more. Across the bay in historic Apalachicola, Tamara's Cafe Floridita (850-653-4111) dishes up delicious Caribbean and South American fare. A variety of recreation options on the island mean that you can be as active as you desire on your trip, and for fishing charters, kayak, canoe, sailboat and powerboat rentals, guided trips and more, check out Journeys of St. George Island (850-927-3259, www.sgislandjourneys.com). Also, the nearby St. George Island State Park (850-927-2111) provides miles of hiking trails, bay fishing and a campground for those who prefer to snuggle in the sand.
For more information and directions: 800-824-0415 or www.florida-beach.com
For those wishing to escape the confines of a cramped cubicle or a stuffy office, a reunion with the fresh air of nature and a stretch of the legs may be in order. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites, and there's no better place to celebrate than popular Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge, located an hour and a half north of Atlanta.
"Amicalola"--Cherokee Indian for "tumbling waters"--perfectly describes the 729-foot waterfall that reigns as the centerpiece of this picturesque park. The falls, which are the tallest east of the Mississippi River, can be accessed by an eight-mile trail that leads from the park to Springer Mountain, the southern end of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail. Numerous shorter trails wind through the park as well. Pooling at the bottom of the falls, trout-stocked ponds lure the rod and reel, and many spots along the park's trails provide breathtaking views for the perfect picnic.
While many tent, trailer and RV campsites are available, sleeping bags and campfires are not the only option for overnight visitors. The Lodge at Amicalola Falls State Park (800-573-9656, www.amicalolafalls.com) offers comfortable rooms with amenities and 14 one, two and three-bedroom cottages equipped with kitchens and linens--six located at the base of the mountain and nine located at the top. Also, the Len Foote Hike Inn (800-581-8032, www.hike-inn.com), accessible only by a five-mile trail originating at the top of the falls, provides hikers with soft beds, hot showers and satisfying dining.
Events will be held throughout the year at the Georgia State Park locations to help celebrate the 75th anniversary, including Winter Wildlife Fest at Amicalola on Feb. 11, an exciting investigation into North Georgia wildlife.
For more information and directions: 706-265-4703 or www.gastateparks.org
Nearby City of Note: Madison, GA
Just an hour drive east of Atlanta toward Augusta, Madison (706-342-4454, www.madisonga.org) certainly lives up to its title of "#1 Small Town in America," as it was named by Travel Holiday Magazine. Antebellum and Victorian homes, along with many shops, restaurants, churches, galleries, parks and gardens dot the historic district.
The perfect combination of the past, present and future, Macon is home to the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center (706-342-4743), which presents exhibits on regional history, visual arts and performing arts, the Morgan County African-American Museum (706-342-9191) and the Steffen Thomas Museum and Archives (706-342-7557), three must-see spots for culture lovers.