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Vanderford's Travel Column


Monticello, Fla. is laid-back and lovely

Finding a beautiful town with a slow pace in the midst of chaos in our electronic “speed of light” world these days is refreshing. Appropriately named after the home of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, Monticello, Fla. is just such a place. Though less than 30 miles from the bustling university and capital city of Tallahassee, this tiny village has numerous historic buildings and a small town feel that is rarely seen anymore.
 
One only has to spend a night at the Avera-Clarke House Bed and Breakfast (www.averaclarke.com) with Troy and Gretchen Avera to taste the true Southern charm and hospitality of another wonderful era. The gorgeous property and their historic 1890s Victorian home sits on an acre amidst towering oaks and colorful magnolia trees. Within two blocks of the magnificent old courthouse at the center of the town, the Avera-Clarke House is the perfect hub from which to explore the rest of Monticello on foot.
 
Other than the massive courthouse in the center of the town square, the Monticello Opera House is a prime attraction. This immaculate structure built in the 1890s has been restored to its original beauty and is in use constantly for all of the arts ... including musicals and plays in the theater on the second floor. One of the highlights, however, is having dinner on the first floor prior to enjoying entertainment on the upper floor.
 
Monticello is also famous for sheer numbers of restored and nationally registered homes and other buildings in the Historic District. Almost 600 buildings are in this area that were built before 1930. Among these is the Wirick-Simmons House, which was built in 1831 and is said to be the oldest house in Monticello. This antebellum home survived the War Between the States and is now owned by the Jefferson County Historical Society. Rumor persists that it is haunted, and a lady in pink is often seen looking out the upstairs window.
 
For the sporting crowd, the nearby Jefferson Country Club is a picturesque public golf course that meanders through old pecan orchards dotted with small ponds covered in colorful lily pads and aquatic wildlife. The towering oak and pecan trees highlight the course with the greens of the leaves and the swaying grays of the Spanish moss. Scampering among the trees and fairways playing and looking for nuts are a few rare fox squirrels that are much larger than the grey squirrels and have very long tails.
 
Despite being only a 9-hole golf course, by playing different tees, the Jefferson Country Club can be made into an 18 hole venue. Also, because of the moderate cost to play this attractive course, many golfers come here to play from more expensive places in Tallahassee and Thomasville, Ga. For more information, call 850-997-5484.
 
Old plantations, historic homes and natural beauty are synonymous with the forgotten town of Monticello in North Florida’s Panhandle. This area contains much of the more than 100,000 acres of forest, swamp, lakes and rivers know as the Flat Woods. As far back as the time of the Paleo Indians, men have hunted, trapped and fished in this prehistoric environment. Add to all that history a community of friendly folks who invite you into their laid-back atmosphere to experience the ambience of another era, and you will fall in love with Monticello, Fla.
 

Bill Vanderford has won numerous awards for his writing, photography, videography, and has been inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Guide. He can be reached at 770-289-1543, at jfish51@aol.com or at his web site: www.georgiafishing.com.




April 2017 column

Wine and celebrities bring sparkle to spring in Helen

The Georgia hills around the Alpine village of Helen come alive with the echoes of powerfully hit golf balls and the popping of wine corks during the awakening of spring. This colorful season in the mountains kicks off with the 15th annual United Way Celebrity Golf Tournament on April 17th, 18th & 19th benefitting United Way of White County. The host hotel is the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Helen (706-878-1084), and the golf event is played at the nearby Innsbruck Golf and Country Club (www.innsbruckgolfclub.com). In the past, this tournament has given fans the opportunity to see and speak with celebrities like Bobby Cox, Bill Elliott, Darrel Chaney, Phil Niekro, and many more.
 
Also, the fast-growing White County wine corridor makes it easy for visitors to taste a wide variety of excellent North Georgia wines during even a one day sojourn. Because of unique eateries, plenty of outdoor activities and a chance to mingle with heroes of the past, Helen and the surrounding area has become a destination that couples and families are using for unforgettable “staycations” in the springtime.
 
Though my first memories of Helen were of fishing the Chattahoochee River in an almost abandoned village with one run-down motel, its miraculous rebirth into a scene from “The Sound of Music” has been astounding! Helen’s transformation began without much fanfare or any federal or state handouts. Quite simply, the Alpine Village idea began when several local businessmen gathered at a riverside restaurant, looked out a window, and saw their bleak hometown with its dull, dreary row of block structures. During that fateful luncheon, it was decided that something should be done to attract the tourists on their way to the lakes and national forest recreation areas in the Northeast Georgia Mountains.
 
Today the businesses of Helen employ more people than most mills in a tiny Alpine village with a public park, flowers everywhere, fountains, quaint street lights and freshly painted store fronts. It’s also a rarity to find a village where one can easily park a car in the business section and go trout fishing or simply float on a tube in a gorgeous river meandering through a picturesque village that appears to have been transplanted from another time and place.
 
Visitors returning to Helen and White County for the first time in a few years could never envision how these picturesque mountains and valleys have exploded with fine wineries. The White County wine corridor makes it easy for visitors to taste a wide variety of excellent North Georgia wines that include: Habersham Winery (www.habershamwinery.com), The Cottage Vineyard and Winery (www.cottagevineyardwinery.com), Yonah Mountain Vineyards (www.yonahmountainvineyards.com), CeNita Vineyards and Winery (www.cenitawinery.com) and Kaya Vineyards and Winery (www.kayavineyards.com).

Renowned wine guru, Jane Garvey had this to say about this wine industry, “The hard work is beginning to pay off as wineries show their stuff in the Georgia Trustees Wine Challenge and in competitions outside the state. Visitors should look for wines made from grapes other than the familiar varieties, because wines made from Petit Manseng, Grüner Veltliner, Vidal Blanc, Blanc du Bois, Chardonnel, Sangiovese, Lenoir, Lomanto and Norton are laying a foundation for the next level. It’s so exciting ... and, there’s more to come!”
 
Since my last visit to Helen and White County, many fantastic and interesting changes have been made, and I plan to see them all during the week of the 15th Annual United Way Celebrity Golf Tournament this year! It’s a great time to visit this active and picturesque area and possibly interact with many sports celebrities.

March 2017 column

The eagles of Bluffton and more

I received a call recently that took me back to a special era of hunting and fishing with the late AtlantaBraves coach, Bobby Dews, and their retiring traveling secretary Bill Acree, in a magical section of Georgia just south of Ft. Benning. An old outdoors friend, Lester McNair, had made a unique discovery and wanted to share.
 
“Bill, you ain’t gonna believe what’s going on down here in Bluffton,” excitedly proclaimed Lester! “We got more bald eagles down here than you can count, so you need to bring your cameras and come on down!”
 
After calming him down, he explained White Oak Pastures (www.whiteoakpastures.com) and the phenomenon of the eagles. It seems that a few years ago, fourth generation farmer Will Harris and his family decided to raise thousands of organic free-roam chickens that have become the new rage with a health conscious population.
 
With an average of 60,000 nearly grown chickens wandering around in open farm country, it didn’t take long for Mother Nature to step into the fray. Soon, almost 100 eagles and numerous hawks showed up for a free feast that never ends but has become very expensive for White Oak Pastures. This caused a huge problem for Will Harris and his family as they were averaging a loss of $1,000 per day. Because of all the federal and state laws on the books to protect eagles, shooting or injuring them was never an option, so Harris tried noisemakers and other non intrusive methods with minimal results. 
 
In addition to the chickens and eagles, White Oak Pastures also raises and prepares organic meat for market of several different types of pigs, cattle, sheep, rabbits, goats, guinea fowl, geese, turkeys, and ducks. Their products are sold in Whole Foods stores from Florida to New Jersey, and they seem to find a use for every part of any animal ... including dog treats and leather jewelry.
 
Due to the huge increase in visitation by people trying to see and photograph the eagles and children coming to see all of the farm animals, Will Harris’s daughter Jodi came up with an idea that is helping to recoup some of their losses from the eagles. Jodi is event manager for White Oak Pastures, and she has developed eagle tours, horseback riding and other possibilities along with very nice cabins to rent. The six cabins are on the farm and can sleep up to six people, and during their monthly Farm Day are usually booked solid. The most beautiful cabin sits on a little strip of land jutting out into a gorgeous pond, known as Pond House.
 
White Oak Pastures has a restaurant that features farm cooking utilizing meats and vegetables that were grown on their farm. They also have a cottage that has an adjoining corral for people who bring their own horses,which they are allowed to ride on the farm.
 
Within a few miles of downtown Bluffton is the Kolomoki Mounds State Park that features large Indian structures built between 350 and 950 AD. They also have an interesting museum, camping, fishing, boating and nature trails throughout the park.
 
On nearby Lake Eufaula, the George T. Bagby State Park (www.georgetbagbylodge.com) has hotel-type lodging as well as cabins and a championship golf course. For those who want to fish or boat a full service marina and boat ramps are available.
 
Will Harris may never be able to solve his eagle problem, but his dilemma has had a positive effect on his community. Thanks to him, his good friend Lester McNair and hundreds of hungry eagles, the tiny town of Bluffton is now on thousands of folks “bucket list” of must destinations! 

February 2017 column

Rabun County is home to great wine, lodging, food and golf

Many weekends in the days prior to super highways, I would drive up old US 441 into the tiny mountain town of Clayton, Ga. before hitting the backroads in search of huge trout in a multitude of productive Rabun County streams. Just the trip to Clayton back then would take several hours, but times have changed. Even if you abide by the speed limits, Atlanta residents can use I-985 and Highway 365 to Clayton in less than two hours and discover a place that offers top-of-the-line wines, great food, unique and historic lodging and beautiful golf courses.
 
I made it into downtown Clayton just in time to have lunch in an old service station converted to an interesting eatery known as Universal Joint. On the menu I located their signature burger called the U-Joint with tater tots on the side and great sweet tea. Their rendition of the hamburger had secret spices with all the trimmings that was mouth watering with a bit of a bite for the taste buds.
 
Next on my list was 12 Spies Vineyards near Rabun Gap that produces a Traminette wine which is one of the best American wines I have ever tasted. They also bottle Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc. For more info: www.12spiesvineyards.com.
 
Tasting fine wines is hard work, so I soon checked in to the nearby York House Inn which is Georgia’s oldest bed and breakfast and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is owned and operated by a delightful couple, Stan and Christine Penton, who sold an equestrian training and boarding facility in Littleton, Colorado. Both have extensive careers in the hotel industry. The original home dates to the 1840s, with dove tailed chestnut log construction visible “behind the chimney” off the living room and in the former servants quarter’s “Roc Room” in the lower level. The Inn began operating in 1896, and expanded in 1907 to care for workers building the Tallulah Falls Railroad. The inn is the oldest continuously operating business in Rabun County. For more info: www.yorkhouseinn.com.
 
After a short ride back into Clayton, Mama G’s was discovered sitting up on a hill overlooking Highway 441. This laid back restaurant has an extensive menu of tasty Italian dishes, local wines and superb service at reasonable prices. Their pizza dough and garlic rolls are made from scratch daily, using the very best ingredients. More info: http://loveisgoodfood.net.
 
If you love golf, not much can compare to the Sky Valley Country Club, which is the highest course in Georgia, and was redesigned in 2007. It is just over 6,900 yards with five sets of tees to accommodate every level of golfer. The vistas on this high mountain course are breathtaking, and every hole is unique and demanding. After the first nine, be sure to stop at the clubhouse to taste one of the best hamburgers in the world! For info: http://skyvalleycountryclub.com.
 
On my way to the famous Lake Rabun Hotel for the evening, I made a couple of stops near the old town of Tiger to do some additional wine tasting. The first was to spend time at the Stonewall Creek Vineyards with the wonderful owners, Carl and Carla Fackler. Their winery is properly named after a tiny winding creek that begins on Glassy Mountain and trickles down past their property bringing life-giving nutrients. “We planted our first grapevines, a half-acre of Malbec, in May 2005,” said Carla. “For the next four years, we added an acre or more of vines each year, experimenting with different varieties, clones and rootstock. Some 3,000 vines now grow on what was once a tired, old apple orchard and pasture.” The Facklers have produced numerous award-winning wines from their tiny vineyard, and Carl continues to experiment, making even better wines in the future. To learn more about their winery visit: http://stonewallcreek.com.
 
Since it was just past lunch hour on a Saturday, I happened into the Tiger Mountain Vineyards at the perfect time to partake in their famous Soup and Wine Event. Though it was a packed house complete with live jazz music, palate-pleasing soup and fabulous wines, the owner and famous journalist, Martha Ezzard, took the time to give me a tour and allow me to taste some of her award-winning wines. Tiger Mountain Vineyards cultivates all of its grapes and produces its handcrafted wines in the mountains of Rabun County. The winery, along with its historic Red Barn Cafe, is jointly owned by four native Georgians, John and Martha Ezzard and John and Marilyn McMullan. Despite being a very successful writer with the Atlanta Journal and a lawyer, Martha Ezzard left the security of the big city to help develop this marvelous vineyard in the small village of Tiger. The whole story is eloquently revealed in her interesting book, The Second Bud. For more info visit: www.TigerWine.com.
 
The Lake Rabun Hotel and Restaurant is not only the last surviving mountain lodge on a lake in Georgia, but it has meals that are unmatched in all of North Georgia! Cuisine prepared here is American with influences from French and Middle Eastern to down-home Southern. It’s unique and adventurous, with ample selections for even a vegetarian. The Lake Rabun Hotel introduced the Farm to Table dining movement to the mountains of North Georgia several years ago, and maintains a close working relationship with regional farms and farmers. This old hotel also specializes in small intimate weddings that are set in nature, but will do everything possible to satisfy any needs. In my opinion, it is one of the best places to stay in the South! For more info: www.LakeRabunHotel.com.
 
Though a lot had been packed into a short visit to Rabun County, I couldn’t leave without swinging the sticks one more time at a picturesque but demanding golf course ... Kingwood. This par 71 mountain golf course has plenty of blind shots, over-water drives and changes in altitude, but can be perfect for all skill levels with its four different tee locations. More info: http://kingwoodresort.com/golf.
 
It is always said that you can never go back to a place of your youth and be satisfied, but in the case of Rabun County ... that might not be true. The changes are many and quite diverse, but much of it has made the area more attractive to visitors without destroying the best of the past. So, I was impressed and pleased enough that I know I’ll return!

January 2017 column

Beautiful Liberty County is worth a visit

 Following a revitalizing presidential election and a wonderful Christmas season in America, it seems appropriate to visit an area that was instrumental in the birth of this great nation of ours. Nowhere in the South are the answers more readily available than in one cradle of the revolutionary spirit around Liberty County on the Georgia Coast!
 
Many of the early residents in this part of Georgia were very brave, quite political, and were heavily involved in the early fight for our independence. One of these patriots was Lyman Hall who was a well-known member of the Midway Church and a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia during 1775. Hall, Button Gwinnett from St. John’s Parish and George Walton from Augusta were the three Georgians who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Though not present for the signing, Nathan Brownson was also a member of the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1778 and is buried at Midway Cemetery.
 
Lyman Hall was a physician by trade, but because of his stand for liberty, he fled north during the Revolutionary War with his family and worked for the fledgling Continental Congress. He settled in Savannah after the war and was the first elected governor of Georgia where his efforts led to the charter of the University of Georgia.
 
The combination of St. John’s Parish, St. Andrew’s Parish and St. James Parish became Liberty County in 1777. This county was first in Georgia to vote for liberty.
 
The most famous building in Liberty County is the old Midway Church that was first built in 1752 and destroyed by the British during the Revolutionary War. Even during those early years and still to the present, black members of the church worshipped with the white population. The Midway Church was rebuilt in 1792 and still stands today as a beautiful, living monument to the birth of our country.
 
The old cemetery across Highway 17 holds the remains of many great men from that era and throughout American history. Buried there are two generals from the Revolutionary War – Daniel Stewart, who was the great grandfather of President Theodore Roosevelt and James Screven, who died in a battle with the British about a mile south of Midway Church in 1778. A statue honoring these heroes was erected and dedicated in the center of the cemetery in 1915.
 
Five counties in Georgia (Screven, Hall, Gwinnett, Baker and Stewart) were named for men from Liberty County. Also, many other famous people came from this small area including John Le Conte, who became the first president of the University of California and Rev. Abiel Holmes, who was the father of celebrated writer, Oliver Wendell Holmes.
 
Another interesting and historical place in Liberty County is the small town of Flemington near the gates into the US Army base of Ft. Stewart. This beautiful village has the sister church to Midway Church (the Flemington Presbyterian Church) built in 1832. Flemington is also home to the Davis House Bed and Breakfast (www.facebook.com/DavisHouseInFlemingtonGA). This home was constructed in the 19th century and still contains many historical photos and objects. Jackie Davis is a gracious hostess and terrific cook who has a wonderful style of relating the history of her home and Liberty County.
 
Within a couple of miles of the Davis House is the Taylor Creek Golf Course just inside the gates of the Ft. Stewart Army Base. This is an immaculate military/public 18-hole golf course that opened in 1950. It measures 6544 yards from the longest tees and has a slope rating of 119 and a 69.9 USGA rating.
 
Fort Stewart is also a fishing paradise with more than 80 species of freshwater fish, but you must buy a permit. Because military training is Fort Stewart’s top priority, angler access into all areas of the installation must be controlled to ensure unimpeded training and safety. Consequently, all anglers who have purchased a fishing permit must check in with the Pass & Permit Office before going fishing.
 
With new hope in our country from the recent election and a fresh new year, I find it inspirational and very rewarding to visit places like Liberty County to rejuvenate the passion and dedication that it took to give us the freedoms that we enjoy. It is also important to introduce our children to the wonderful history and commitment of our founders with the natural beauty of the Georgia Coast as a picturesque bonus!


December 2016 column

Pensacola's Fort Pickens is a national treasure

As I stood next to an old, worn cannon on the ramparts of Ft. Pickens and gazed across the bay toward Pensacola watching the setting sun (as Geronimo must have done during his captivity here) I was moved by this special place and the beauty and colors of the fading sun. Though he had been forced to be so far from his native lands, Geronimo must have had similar feelings too.
 
The great warrior, Geronimo, was born free in America’s vast Southwest during a much simpler time as he described in these words, “I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures. I was warmed by the sun, rocked by the winds and sheltered by the trees as other Indian babes. I was living peaceably when people began to speak bad of me.”
 
Following the War Between the States, thousands of settlers moved West and the U.S. government began forcing the Apaches from their lands. Geronimo was a leader of the Chiricahua Apache, who felt a duty to defend his people’s homeland against the military might of the United States. He said, “I cannot think that we are useless or God would not have created us. There is one God looking down on us all. We are all the children of one God. The sun, the darkness, the winds are all listening to what we have to say.”
 
Though he and his warriors fought valiantly, Geronimo and his band were eventually captured at Skeleton Canyon in 1886. The Chiricahua Apache were then shipped by rail to Florida. On October 25, 1886, 15 Apache warriors arrived at Fort Pickens. Geronimo and his warriors spent many days working hard labor at the fort in direct violation of the agreements made at Skeleton Canyon. To this, Geronimo later said, “I should have fought until I was the last man alive!”
 
Ft. Pickens was actually constructed in the 1830s and has a long history of service to the nation – including a battle in the War Between the States. Today, this beautiful National Park sits at the end of Santa Rosa Island at the end of a long, narrow road sitting between sand dunes with Pensacola Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.

Daily visits are possible for a small fee. It opens the door to so many wonderful endeavors. These include: fishing, swimming, hiking, biking, birdwatching, picnicking, camping, historic structure tours and ranger-led programs. Lifeguards are on duty 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. during the summer season at Langdon Beach. The visitor center at Fort Pickens hosts a bookstore, and a museum is located near the historic fort. A snack bar is open during the summer season on the sound side of the Fort Pickens Museum. Food services and limited camping supplies are available at the campground store near the entrance to the campground year-round. For more information call (850) 934-2600.
 
On your own, it is possible to tour the historic Ft. Pickens and island gun batteries, hike the several hiking and nature trails in the park, bike the roads in the park and bike the road between the park and Pensacola Beach. 
 
Ft. Pickens and the sugar-white sand dunes and beaches are also perfect for bird watching. In fact, nearly 300 species of birds have been seen and recorded in this area.
 
Though Ft. Pickens is off the beaten track for most visitors to Florida, its unique history, gorgeous sunsets, numerous activities and possibilities are certainly worth the extra effort. As Robert Frost said so many years ago: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference.” 


November 2016 column

Fall has arrived along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Cooler air drifting in from the northwest has opened the door to the beauty in the hills that we call fall. The changing seasons and the kaleidoscope of gorgeous colors that go with this natural metamorphosis is a special gift for those who love nature, the mountains and the outdoors. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in 1833:
 
“Go, sit upon the lofty hill,
And turn your eyes around,
Where waving woods and waters wild
Do hymn an autumn sound.
The summer sun is faint on them –
The summer flowers depart –
Sit still – as all transform’d to stone,
Except your musing heart.”

Though Northern Georgia has begun to experience this change, in the higher altitudes of the mountains to the north, beautiful colors are abundant. Even without the colors, however, a weekend trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway will reward travelers with a multitude of breathtaking vistas.
 
The 470 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway are ranked by many noted travel writers to be “The Most Scenic Drive in America.” The southernmost part of the parkway begins slightly north of Cherokee, N.C. and follows an elevated path over the crest of ridges all the way to Front Royal, VA. From its nostalgic beginning near the Indian Reservation at Cherokee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park of Tennessee and North Carolina to its panoramic end along the Skyline Drive of the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway passes through awesome natural scenery and near much of this country’s pioneer history.
 
The unique colors that are seen along this path over the mountains are partly due to the altitude, but mostly because of the variety of plants and trees in this part of the Appalachian chain of mountains. In fact, more different species of trees and other flora exist here than in all of Europe ... from the fjords of Norway to the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea.
 
According to the late-North Carolinian journalist, Charles Kuralt, who loved this area, one of the prettiest places that the Blue Ridge Parkway passes is Grandfather Mountain, which towers to almost 6,000 feet. Kuralt said that if you view the mountain the proper way from the back side, it has the aspect of an old man staring up into the sky.
 
Many more interesting side trips are available for those who have the time to venture off the parkway. These could include the Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, the Biltmore Estates of Asheville, Chimney Rock Park and Blowing Rock in North Carolina. Virginia also offers the Natural Bridge and both the Luray Caverns and Skyline Caverns near the end of the Parkway.
 
Villages that are seen as patches of a giant, natural quilt from atop the Blue Ridge Parkway are easily reached by connecting roads. These friendly places offer food, lodging, fuel and supplies to all travelers.
 
Though visitors travel the Blue Ridge Parkway for a variety of reasons, during the fall of the year, it is usually the explosion of red and gold colors that has the most attraction. It is truly one trip across a historical part of America that everyone should experience at least once. This colorful mountain sanctuary for trees and wildlife that traverses a path thousands of feet above the patchwork of villages, farms and fields is a sight that will forever be a part of each visitor’s memory.


October 2016 column

Revisiting the 'Lane of the Trembling Earth'

Since the beginning of recorded history in Georgia, stories of the Okefenokee Swamp, which in the Seminole Indian language means, “Land of the Trembling Earth,” have been passed down from generation to generation. This vast, aquatic wilderness has been the basis for horror stories and legends too numerous to count. Something about a meandering wetland inhabited only by many species of animals, birds, snakes, fish and alligators seems to amplify everyone’s imagination. In addition to the other creatures, it also supports 600  species of plants. This diversity makes the Okefenokee one of the most interesting and beautiful places in the world.
 
The Okefenokee Swamp encompasses more than 700 square miles, 438,000 acres of freshwater swamp and covers a 38- by 25-mile area. The swamp is actually a huge peat bog that rests in a saucer-shaped depression which was once part of the ocean floor. These peat deposits cover much of the swamp and are so unstable that trees and surrounding brush can be made to tremble simply by stomping the ground, which is certainly the reason for the Seminole name.
 
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is more than 402,000 acres and comprises a major portion of the swamp. The wilderness area, however, consists of 353,981 acres and was created by the Okefenokee Wilderness Act of 1974, which is a part of the Wilderness Preservation System.
 
Despite the dark watery corridors of huge cypress trees and hanging Spanish moss that one must traverse by boat or canoe to really see this natural area, the Okefenokee is a fairly safe place. Out in the open prairie and away from the trees on one of the more than 80 miles of aquatic trails, one begins to realize how much land is a part of the Okefenokee Swamp. To fully appreciate this unique area, one should rent a canoe, small power boat, or sign up for one of the guided tours at Okefenokee Adventures: www.okefenokeeadventures.com. Regardless of how it is seen, the Okefenokee Swamp is well worth a detour away from the heavily traveled path to see and experience this rare Georgia treasure.
 
In nearby Folkston, it’s easy to become interested in one of the newest fads throughout the world … train watching! The “Folkston Funnel” is world-famous because all of the CSXT trains moving from anywhere in North America to Florida pass through the middle of downtown Folkston. To accommodate all of these “train watchers,” a special platform has been built complete with a scanner to hear the train radio communications, ceiling fans for warmer weather, electric outlets and inside lights, flood lights to illuminate the trains, and even a picnic table and grill for eating needs. It is a genuine phenomenon.
 
The fascinating Okefenokee Swamp, the Folkston Funnel for train watching and a beautiful, sleepy little South Georgia town are well worth a trip to this area. Natural and local history abound in this out-of-the-way area near the Georgia/Florida border.


September 2016 column

Blairsville offers old, new and lots of Blue Ridge

Memories of racing with friends in old Fords over this winding mountain road out of Dahlonega up to Neel Gap and down into the old town of Blairsville, Georgia nearly 50 years ago flooded my brain. I remember twirling with all the pretty mountain girls at square dances being called by my old friend Duel Lockaby, who died racing these roads one night.
 
I quickly realized that many things were new, but much of the past is still woven into the picturesque fabric of the Blue Ridge Mountains and will never disappear. Though slightly wider in some places, the old road is practically the same, and the rock building at Neel Gap where the Appalachian Trail crosses Blood Mountain is still an oasis for youthful dreamers who hike this famous trek and often leave their hiking shoes in the “Shoe Tree.”
 
Farther down the mountain, I took a detour along a narrow winding, gravel road that ended in a small parking lot. I carefully descended and then climbed along a well-traveled path past the lower falls to an elevated platform to view one of the most beautiful waterfalls in North Georgia. The Upper Helton Creek Falls cascades more than 50 feet into a picturesque pool that is also a great fishing hole for trout. For my photo of the falls, I was lucky to have bright sunlight filtering through the trees, two attractive young ladies and their cute Dalmatian puppy to highlight the shot.
 
On my return to the main highway, I stopped by Vogel State Park www.georgiastateparks.org/vogel to photograph the lake and the scenic waterfalls below the lake spillway. I also visited the Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center on US 129 a mile north of Vogel State Park. Several buildings have been saved that the local farmer and writer Reece used during his lifetime. The displays provide detailed information about farm life in the early 20th century, but they also teach about Reece’s three books of poetry and two novels.
 
No trip to this area would be complete without grabbing a bag of the best boiled peanuts in North Georgia at the old Sunrise Grocery (www.sunrisegrocery.com). This country store started in the early 1920s, and is like walking through  a history lesson.
 
It was then time for me to find a great place to stay in a natural area away from the main roads, but with great hospitality and a tasty breakfast! I found the perfect spot built into a hillside and unseen by passing tourists. It is owned and operated by Bonnie and Paul Hayward, who are two retired school teachers with a great intellect and warm hearts. Their home is known as Your Home in the Woods B&B, and they can be contacted by phone at 706-745-9337 or email at: haygramma@windstream.net.
 
On my way back into town, I had to stop to taste the nectar of my youth “Corn Liquor” or Moonshine as most people call it at Grandaddy Mimms Moonshine Museum and Distillery www.grandaddymimms.com. It still lights up your insides from the the first sip.
 
Since breakfast is best at the B&B, I found a lunch restaurant with local products that will make you want to come there everyday ... if you can find a parking spot! The Sawmill Place (www.thesawmillplace.com) is a family run eatery that features fresh, seasonal, local foods that will excite your taste buds! Also, the homemade desserts are worth saving space to enjoy.
 
In the evening, I would suggest a nice seat at Michaelee’s Italian Life Cafe’ (italianlifecaffe.com) on the square across from the historic old courthouse for some excellent Italian cuisine and atmosphere. After a great eating experience, go downstairs to visit their dessert and coffee bar for fresh Italian spumoni and other treats!
 
If this is your first visit to the Blairsville area, a visit to Georgia’s highest mountain is a must! Brasstown Bald is 4,784 feet tall and part of the Wolfpen Ridge which is a main spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A 360 degree view allows visitors to see Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and South Carolina on a clear day. You can shop at the gift shop and tour a visitor center that focuses on Georgia history, geology and the natural world. Just the view is worth the trip!
 
My favorite part of this trip was playing 36 holes of golf at the gorgeous but demanding Butternut Creek Golf Course (www.butternutcreekgolf.com). This picturesque course features rolling valley holes and challenging slopes with mountain views from all 18 holes. Each hole is unique – none remotely similar to another, and I guarantee that one round won’t be enough for you! On the second floor above the pro shop is The View Grill, which is the perfect location to wind down with a cool beverage, relive your game and watch the sunset over the golf course. It’s a casual bar/grill with tasty sandwiches and more.
 
Regardless of the reason you might come to Blairsville and Union County, you will be immersed in the raw beauty of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Breathtaking views, natural waterfalls, wild descending streams, lakes, hiking trails, golf, great food, history and warm  wonderful people are everywhere! It is an inspiring place to visit or live, and a perfect tapestry of nature and modern adventures woven into the ageless Blue Ridge Mountains!


August 2016 column

My little Jekyll island surprise

Since I was a kid, any visit to Jekyll Island on the beautiful and historic coast of Georgia is a highly anticipated sojourn ... and I have never been disappointed with the natural beauty and laid-back atmosphere. A poignant moment this time, however, made it my best visit ever! 
After 75 years of pushing life to the limit, very few things surprise or fascinate me as they did when I was young, but this special encounter did. Though my eyes were stunned by the grotesque features of what should have been a lovely little furry animal, a sudden feeling deep within attracted me to this tiny creature. It was an otter that was smaller than normal and of unknown age, but one that seemed unafraid of an old man carefully negotiating the jagged rocks along the north shore. He was wet ... yet adept at scurrying across the incongruous rubble, but when our gazes met, there was an instant bond.
 
Upon closer inspection of his face, it was easy to see that his bottom teeth protruded straight out and the whiteness in his right eye told me that he was blind on that side. His wetness made it obvious that he had been scrounging for food in the nearby waves, but his approach to me revealed something else about his character. He had learned how to use humans as a source of food that was certainly more palatable to his deformed mouth than shell bearing creatures and bony fish. So, I quickly shared part of my peanut butter sandwich with him, which relaxed him so much that he fell asleep on a flat rock very near me.
 
As we both rested in the warm sunlight on this deserted beach, my mind traveled back in time to my recent experience with cancer. In the beginning, the VA gave me every test possible to find where this unexpected killer lurking in my body, and followed that with several months of treatments that surely bought more wonderful years to my life. I had the best doctors, nurses and specialists working diligently every day to save my life and preserve my happiness ... but my little furry friend had nobody. If he wanted to survive, he had to mend himself and change his natural survival habits in ways that went against all of his inherited instincts. I couldn’t help but imagine how hard that must have been, but his will to live was much stronger than his fear of the unknown.
 
As always, my trip to Jekyll Island was full of wonderful golf outings, unforgettable sunrises and sunsets, fabulous cuisine, walks on the beaches and time with friends, but only one chance encounter with a tiny creature captured my imagination. 
 
Even in my dreams, I keep going back to an hour spent with a magical little deformed otter who displayed more courage and tenacity than all the humans I know. His example has changed my outlook forever and has taught me to find the best in life ... no matter how bad it may look!
 


July 2016 column

The inexpensive way to enjoy Hilton Head

The area around Hilton Head Island in South Carolina has been highly developed during modern times and can often be far too expensive for many people during these hard economic times. With a little knowledge, however, even we common folks can enjoy the magical blend of beauty and nature.

Permanent residents near Hilton Head live in harmony with an abundance of deer, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, alligators, ospreys, pelicans, herons and a multitude of other land and water birds. Therefore, by utilizing the miles of free nature walks, bike paths, beaches, public parks or affordable golf courses, visitors may observe any or all of the aforementioned species. 
 
Accommodations near Hilton Head vary from expensive private villas to reasonable motel rooms within easy driving distance of everything. Dining options are also available for any taste or pocketbook, and the nightlife seems to mix the gamut of humanity into a happy throng of cohesive revelers with the fading of the sun in the west each evening. In fact, even outsiders can easily visit the Harbor Town area and the famous lighthouse for a glorious sunset at Sea Pines.
 
Golf inside the Sea Pines complex, however, demands prices that only the very rich can afford, but less than 20 miles away in Bluffton, two great public courses are waiting. Davis Love III designed the gorgeous Eagle’s Pointe Golf Club that combines great risk/reward holes and an abundance of low country wildlife in a natural setting. Its sister venue nearby is the Rose Hill Golf Club that was built among huge live oak trees and numerous fresh water lakes. This combination makes it attractive to numerous species of wildlife and home to the most fox squirrels that I’ve ever encountered in one place.
 
The lure and the smell of the ocean is an attraction that seems to be paramount with old and young alike, and this section of South Carolina offers plenty of affordable public beaches. In fact, from the ocean to the high water mark, the entire Hilton Head Island beach is public, but access is mostly private. Therefore, my suggestion would be to take a scenic drive north to Hunting Island State Park that has three miles of beautiful beaches right on the Atlantic Ocean ... with only one high rise. That structure is the historic Hunting Island Lighthouse, which is the only lighthouse freely open for the public to climb in South Carolina. A breathtaking view of the ocean, beach and the marshland is possible from the top platform of this famous building.
 
Fishing and bird watching are very popular along the beaches, in the lagoon or from the fishing pier, which extends 1,120 feet into the Fripp Inlet. The Nature Center at the pier’s entrance has some interesting exhibits of the local wildlife and marine life.
 
Walking and experiencing local birds and wildlife is the only theme at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. This natural gem can be reached by car and has 14 miles of trails that can be enjoyed by walking or biking. Motorized vehicles and pets are not allowed, portable restrooms are only located in the parking area, no drinking water is available, but maps and information about the preserve can be obtained at the entrance.
 
This natural wildlife preserve is a major stopping point on the north-south flyway that is a key nesting ground and a great place to view many birds including egrets, herons, ibises, coots, buntings and numerous others. The walking paths are flat, easy to navigate and visitors can view an abundance of nesting water birds, alligators, turtles, frogs and other marsh species.
 
Even without great riches, visitors can enjoy the unique experience of combining the natural wonder of the shifting sands and ever-changing flora and fauna at Hilton Head with great golf and so much more. The key is taking advantage of the multitude of free or low cost opportunities within miles of one of the most famous haunts of the rich and famous!


June 2016 column

A different look at Myrtle Beach

South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach is renowned for a carnival atmosphere of putt putt golf, 60 miles of beaches, franchise eateries and many nice public golf courses, but I was lucky enough to find a different world within this artificial madness! With a couple of exceptions, this magical revelation was centered around the old fishing village of Murrells Inlet.
 
Even before beginning my exploration of the area, I was lucky enough to find the perfect place to stay. The Inlet Sports Lodge (www.inletsportslodge.com) is located ideally near the center of Murrells Inlet, and despite being slightly off the main roads, it is one of my best lodging experiences ever. The staff is friendly, very efficient and the rooms are spacious with useful amenities.
 
Visitors soon discover that Murrells Inlet is a laid-back village with a history that includes the famous pirate Blackbeard ... plus the invention of hushpuppies. Local ghost stories abound in the community, and the town is complete with colorful characters ... many of whom still make a living from the bounty of the sea.
 
The best place to immerse yourself into this one of a kind place is by walking the Murrells Inlet Marsh Walk that is dotted with open air restaurants and bars along a wooden boardwalk next to moored fishing boats. My favorite of these places is the Dead Dog Saloon, which offers a cornucopia of artifacts and memorabilia hanging on walls or from the ceiling throughout the establishment. Nevertheless, from the honey butter covered hushpuppies to the fresh seafood ... to the constant party atmosphere that is complete with live music, the Dead Dog Saloon is the prime spot to spend an unforgettable evening in Murrells Inlet.
 
Using the Inlet Sports Lodge as a base, I was able to find and experience many other wonderful adventures. Since I love being in or close to the water and nature, I found a way to fish and explore with the help of the friendly folks at the Black River Outdoor Center (www.blackriveroutdoors.com). Their guided kayak eco tours through the marshes or the Waccamaw River are both educational and picturesque, and their kayak fishing guides can take you into shallow areas where the big fish go to feed.
 
Another nearby setting of beauty and nature is the Brookgreen Gardens (www.brookgreen.org) that boasts many interesting sculptures and colorful gardens. However, I was more attracted to their Lowcountry Zoo which is home to many wild species of birds, animals and reptiles that can be viewed at very close range.
 
The real natural jewel of the Myrtle Beach area is Huntington Beach State Park (www.huntingtonbeachstatepark.net) with a perfect combination of quiet beaches, salt marshes, coastal woods, walking trails, a stone castle and an abundance of wildlife and birds. The stone castle inside the park is a Moorish style structure named Atalaya by artist, Anna Hyatt Huntington. The castle is full of interesting rooms where the Huntingtons and their staff lived and Mrs. Huntington painted.
 
No trip to the Myrtle Beach area would be complete without sampling one of the fabulous golf courses, and I found probably the best public golf course I have ever played. Though it was necessary to drive almost an hour to the northern shore of Myrtle Beach, the Tidewater Golf Club (www.tidewatergolf.com) was well worth the drive. It has been named one of America’s top 100 Public Courses by Golf Digest multiple times and is often among the top 10 courses in South Carolina. All those honors are fine, but they pale in comparison to the beauty visitors see when playing this ocean course!
 
During my visit to Myrtle Beach this time, I purposely stayed away from the high rises, roller coasters, putt putt golf and neon lights. Instead, I discovered a natural world of outdoor beauty near a village full of history, ghosts and unforgettable characters.
 

May 2016 column

Wrightsville Beach: A lazy old surfing town with extras

An invisible line of transformation seems to capture the spirit of most sojourners as they cross the bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway to enter the historic surfing town of Wrightsville Beach, N.C. This narrow strip of land near Wilmington is known as the forerunner of surfing all along the East Coast and was even named as one of the top surfing towns in the world by National Geographic Magazine. Today, the waves and the surfing are still a draw, but this sleepy little strip along the Atlantic Ocean has much more to offer.
 
Even before crossing the bridge onto this famous barrier island, travelers should make a stop at the beautiful and eclectic Airlie Gardens with an oak tree that is older than our country. In season, the many flowering plants and gorgeous azaleas are breathtaking, and many couples come here to be married in this picturesque atmosphere. Personally, I found the beauty of the lakes, marshes and wildlife to be stimulating as I walked the many interconnected paths through the spectacular property. For more information, visit: www.airliegardens.org.
 
The next important item on any visitor’s list would have to be a great place to stay, and nowhere on this sleepy island is better than the Blockade Runner. From the outside, this fabulous hotel looks rather drab, but the inside decor and the service provided is some of the best you will ever find. No matter what your desires for activities or eating, you will be as close as the phone in your room ... and, the staff will drive you there when needed. Also, the ocean or Intercoastal views are breathtaking. On the oceanside, sunrises are magnificent and sunsets over the marsh and Intercoastal Waterway on the back are unforgettable. For more information or reservations, visit: www.blockade-runner.com.
 
The salty breeze in your hair and the smell of the ocean are always enough to make the juices flow, but the added mystery of catching something unknown is even stronger for all anglers who venture out on a pier to fish. Probably the most famous fishing pier in this area is the Johnnie Mercer Pier in Wrightsville Beach (www.johnniemercerspier-nc.com), which was bui
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