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Vanderford's Travel Column


Finding Georgia's beautiful covered bridges

Long before Robert Waller’s romantic tale in Bridges of Madison County had every middle-aged woman in the country starry-eyed, covered bridges were a major part of Americana lore! Many a poet tried vainly with ink and pen to capture the unique engineering and dreamy side of these stately structures.

An abundance of reasons have been given for the popularity of covered bridges that were mostly built from around 1830 to 1900. The practical ones were about strength in the structures, protection of the wood from extreme weather and a less intimidating place for livestock to cross a river. They also became known as “Kissing Bridges” where young lovers could express their true feelings without being seen.

Even though thousands of these unique bridges existed at one time from coast to coast, many were replaced by steel structures during the industrial revolution that followed the War Between the States. In rural areas of the country, these beautiful bridges were loved by the local people and have been kept intact. Here in Georgia, we still have around 60 covered bridges, but mostly constructed in recent years. The ones that are more than a hundred years old, however, only number around a dozen.

Elder’s Mill Covered Bridge near Watkinsville is the structure that I am most familiar with in this area. The 100-foot span over Rose Creek was built in another location in 1897 and moved to the current place in 1924 to allow access to the Elder’s Mill. Even though locals often string it with Christmas lights during the holiday season, the old covered bridge comes to life during spring when the Watkinsville Garden Club adds colorful flowers.

Because almost no waterfalls exist in the flatness of South Georgia, the Coheelee Creek Bridge near Blakely is quite picturesque. It is both a long and stately old structure, and has a small waterfall just below the crossing.

The Coheelee Creek Bridge is the southernmost historic covered bridge in the USA, built in 1891 and is 96 feet long. It is quite unique because it uses angled steel rods as tensioners in the truss design which is similar to the Warren truss that was less common in the South.

One of the most modern covered bridges is the Rockdale County or Haralson Mill Covered Bridge. This beautiful bridge has two lanes, is 150 feet long, 36 feet wide and was built in 1997 over Mill Rock Creek. It is in daily use and is equipped with cameras, smoke detectors and a sprinkler system for protection.

The Red Oak Creek Covered Bridge in Meriwether County was built in the 1840s by freed slave and noted bridge builder, Horace King, who died in 1885. His design of planks crisscrossing 45 to 60 degree angles are fastened with approximately 2,500 wooden pegs. Although King built many covered bridges throughout West Georgia, this is his only surviving bridge of that design. It is 391 feet, including the approaches, which makes it the oldest and longest wooden covered bridge in Georgia.

The sites of several of the older covered bridges in Georgia have been made into parks or they have been moved to a park. Among these are the 96 foot long Auchumpkee Creek Covered Bridge in Upson County near Thomaston that was built in 1892 and the Poole’s Mill Covered Bridge north of Cumming in Forsyth County, which is on land once owned by Cherokee Chief George Welch before the Indians were forced off the land in 1838. The original bridge was washed away in an 1899 flood and replaced with the current 96 foot structure in 1901.

The Euharlee Creek Covered Bridge near Cartersville is the centerpiece of an annual covered bridge festival on Labor Day. This 138 foot long bridge is located adjacent to the ruins of an old mill once owned and operated by Daniel Lowry, who allowed the builders to use rock from his land to build the piers of the bridge high enough to be above the flood plain.

Known as one of the most picturesque state parks in Georgia, the 1,118-acre Watson Mill Bridge State Park boasts one of the state’s longest covered bridges, spanning 229 feet across the South Fork River. It was built in 1885 by Washington WW King, son of freed slave and famous covered-bridge builder, Horace King.

Stone Mountain Covered Bridge is also known as Effie’s Bridge and College Avenue Covered Bridge because of its original location over the Oconee River in Athens. It is 151 feet in length and was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1974 after being moved to Stone Mountain Park.

One old bridge built in 1904 near Athens seems to have been practically forgotten and allowed to be partially consumed by the forest. It is the Howard’s Covered Bridge across Big Cloud Creek and was named for a pioneer family that settled this area in the 1700s. The bridge is 164 feet long and is located in a very isolated section of Oglethorpe County where it has been abused.

Some of these nostalgic structures had to be left out because of space, but few things still standing from our past history remind us of a romantic period when horses were king and magic was a stolen kiss inside a covered bridge. That amorous feeling within all of us is still drawn to those fanciful days by books, movies and poetry that exalt the mystery of covered bridges ... so we dream on ... and wish for more!


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.



June 2015 column

Experiencing a French Polynesian dream cruise

Brilliant streaks of gold seemed to explode through the fluffy clouds and illuminated a line of coconut palms that assured early risers on the Aranui III that we were nearing Fakarava, the second largest Tuamotu atoll and the first stop of our journey through the exotic isles of French Polynesia. This was just the beginning of a 14-day, island-hopping trek through the fabled Tuamotu and Marquesas Archipelagoes in the South Pacific aboard the passenger/freighter, Aranui III.

Arriving in Tahiti greeted by welcoming smiles, native drinks and leis of fragrant tiara flowers was just the beginning. A night at the elegant InterContinental Resort Tahiti with its famous swimming pool bar allowed some much needed rest and a chance to become acclimated to the warmth of Tahiti and its people. The following morning we boarded the Aranui III for a unique voyage aboard a special vessel.

Though this 386-foot, 207-passenger-freighter was built in Romania, it was designed specifically to serve the tiny ports it visits and the needs of the island people in French Polynesia. For those of us visiting these enchanting islands for the first time, the name “Aranui” seems apropos. In the Maori language, it means “The Great Highway.”

The true business of the Aranui III is to haul much needed freight to and from the picturesque Marquesas Islands, but thanks to a unique design, this ship provides visitors with a chance to be a part of a working vessel in a graceful style. The Aranui III is the best of any passenger-freighter of this type, but is certainly not a luxury cruise ship. Nevertheless, passenger accommodations are more than adequate and all have windowed views. An outdoor swimming pool is available, as well as a bar-lounge, gym, library and limited use of on-board facilities including fishing and snorkeling.The daily menu is primarily composed of both French and Polynesian cuisine.

The best part of the Aranui III is the crew. Most of them are direct descendants of the ancient Polynesians who first came to these islands and were some of the greatest navigators of all time. Also, the spectacular cruise visits more than a dozen diverse and fantastically beautiful islands over a two week period. Seeing these remote and exotic places makes one easily understand why they inspired and captivated such great men as Paul Gauguin, Herman Melville, Jack London, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Thor Heyerdahl and countless others.

Though the Aranui III departed Papeete, Tahiti around noon on Saturday, the Sunday dawn was breaking over the Fakarava atoll as we steamed into the inner lagoon through a wide cut in the reef. It was the first stop of a journey that would eventually crisscross an area the size of Europe. We anchored in a crystal clear, brilliantly turquoise-colored lagoon several hundred yards from a white, coral sand beach before going ashore in wooden whale boats.

Friendly native merchants had “set up shop” under the shade of coconut palms near the beach, and displayed their creations made of wood, shells, bone, and especially black pearls. Many of the passengers browsed the merchandise while others snorkeled or swam around the scattered coral formations in the warm, clear waters of the huge lagoon. At the appropriate time, a picnic lunch of local fish was served under a thatched canopy and accompanied by island music provided by a ukulele band. An hour or so of time to explore, swim, or rest in the shade followed lunch, and then it was into the whale boats and back to the ship.

The next stop was Ua Pou, which was the first of the ancient, volcanic Marquises Islands that we would encounter. Because of its towering, pillar-like summits, this majestic island is often called the “Cathedral Island.” This would also be our first taste of the Marquesan culture, which included native dance, ancient and modern religion, food, and totally different arts and crafts. For photography buffs, the contrasts of the blue ocean, the brilliant greens of the island and the 12 towering peaks that encircle Hakahua Bay are spellbinding!

From Ua Pou, we went to Nuku Hiva which is the administrative capital and the largest island in the Marquises. There near the deep bay of Taipivai, Herman Melville was inspired to write his famous “Typee” in 1842. For the passengers on the Aranui III, it was a chance to do some banking, use a very slow, French Internet system, or sit back and watch the precision of the ship’s crew loading and unloading much-needed freight for the island people.

The next stop of our expedition brought us to Hiva Oa, which is the final resting place and favorite island of famous artist, Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer, Jacques Brel. Though nearly a century apart, both of these men spent the last few years of their lives on Hiva Oa and are buried very close together in an old cemetery at Atuona, which is high above the pounding waves of the ocean.

From Hiva Oa, we made a short southeastern passage to the small, mostly undeveloped island of Fatu Hiva. This is one of the last places in the Marquises that women still make tapa, which is a paper like product that was once used for clothing, but is now more popular for tattoo designs or artwork. After skinning the bark from trees, the women pound it for hours with flat sticks of ironwood to produce the tapa, which is a strong vegetal cloth that varies in color depending on the bark that was used. The women of Fatu Hiva are also well-known for wearing umuhei in their hair. These sachets are made from aromatic plants and are said to have extremely strong powers for attracting men.

After leaving the beauty and tranquility of Fatu Hiva, we returned to the port of Puamau on the opposite side of Hiva Oa, which for history buffs was one of the most interesting stops on the trip. On an archaeological site in the hills above the open ocean, we walked among the largest tikis (Polynesian godlike statues) in the Pacific. Some of these are up to eight feet tall and are located in a sacred area of the Naiki tribes that dates back to the 16th and 17th century. Historically, these tribes were always led by women.

After an all night voyage, we reached the mouth of a narrow fiord known as the “Invisible Bay of Vaipaee,” and the captain sailed right into it. For those who came on deck to watch, they were rewarded with an unbelievable show of maneuvering expertise. With less than 10 feet on either end of an almost 400-foot long ship, the captain and crew turned the vessel 180 degrees until it faced outward toward the open sea and then tied it with huge cables between the two shores. It was immediately obvious that this island was far more arid than the other islands in the Marquises chain. The road followed the tops of the ridges with breathtaking vistas of the sea below, and wild horses and goats could be seen grazing on the steep hillsides. After visiting a couple of local handicraft markets, an elaborate Marquesan lunch was prepared by the villagers of Hokatu. We were then transported to a gorgeous, rocky beach where we swam and body surfed until the whale boats picked us up for our next leg of the trip.

Another full day and night of sailing brought us to our last stop at Rangiroa, which is the largest Polynesian atoll and the fourth largest in the world. The jade-green and turquoise colors of the lagoon are spectacular, and its tranquil waters are famous for producing perfect black pearls.
Being aboard the Aranui III for two weeks left us all with wonderful memories of an ancient culture.

It would be hard to see more of the unbelievable beauty of these South Pacific islands in such a short time with so much efficiency and style than that afforded by this cruise aboard the Aranui III! Visit their website at: www.aranui.com.


May 2015 column

Summer can be magic at Hilton Head

The first streaking rays of the rising sun dance along the sparkling surf and illuminate the white sand throughout the 12-mile length of the broad beaches at Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Only the intrusion of an occasional jogger or shell seeker brings this natural setting into the 21st century. Nevertheless, the awesome beauty of this southernmost of South Carolina’s barrier islands is still as much a magnet to people today as it has been throughout recorded history.

Hilton Head’s first inhabitants were Indians who came to this island paradise as early as 4,000 B.C. to experience the great hunting and fishing, but it wasn’t until 1664 that the first white man set foot on this 42 square mile island. He was English sea captain William Hilton, who was sent to explore the region on behalf of a syndicate of Barbadian planters. His report was enthusiastic, and in honor of his explorations, the island was named Hilton’s Head, which is a reference to the headlands that marked the way into Port Royal Sound. Despite Hilton’s discovery, due to threats from the Spanish to the south and Indians to the west, it wasn’t until the closing days of the 17th century that the first English colonists began to settle in the area.

During the early to mid 18th century, Hilton Head prospered from indigo and rice plantations, but it was sea island cotton that made the island plantation owners wealthy. The War Between the States, however, ended the great cotton dynasties. In fact, after the largest naval battle of the war at Port Royal, the fine homes and fertile fields were destroyed by occupying Union troops. Post-war Hilton Head became home to family farmers, commercial fishermen and oysterers until wealthy entrepreneurs began building homes on the island after World War II.

Though Hilton Head Island has been highly developed during modern times, an extreme effort has been made to blend human expansion with the beauty of nature. Therefore, this island has no billboards, neon signs, roller coasters or skyscrapers. The permanent residents on 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. When using any of the miles of nature walks, horseback riding trails or bike paths, one may observe any or all of the aforementioned species.

The island has long been known for hosting world-class golf and tennis championships, and probably boasts more venues for these two sports than any other resort in the world. If all of these offerings aren’t enough to keep one busy, Hilton Head  also has a wealth of cultural and artistic activities as well as great fishing, boating, shopping and dining.

Accommodations at Hilton Head vary from very expensive private villas to reasonable motel rooms. 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.

The turn to the south on Highway 278 toward Hilton Head Island is only a few exits north of Savannah on I-95, and one is within 30 miles of this gorgeous paradise. An excellent first stop, however, is the Hilton Head Island Welcome Center and the Coastal Discovery Museum of Hilton Head. Both of these are located on the right soon after crossing the bridge onto the island, and have experts on hand to answer any question one might have. To be prepared ahead of time for any visit to Hilton Head visit: www.hiltonheadisland.org.

Few summer destinations combine and preserve natural beauty and the cornucopia of fun and excitement that awaits vacationers at Hilton Head. It is truly a nearby magical summer place for everyone!


April 2015 column

The primeval rainforests of Ketchikan are a wonder of nature

A hundred feet above the clear waters of Bostwick Inlet on Gravina Island near the village of Ketchikan a lone bald eagle watches intently. In a boat far below, an angler is in the midst of battling an unhappy rockfish from its home in kelp beds more than 50 feet deep. The hungry eagle knows that fast food is on the way!

Less than a second after the tiny fish made its first splash on the surface, the eagle spread his six-foot wingspan in readiness. Despite having bulging eyes and a good case of the bends from being forced up so swiftly from the depths, the small rockfish was unhooked and thrown back into the water no more than five feet from the boat. It would have only taken 30 seconds for the struggling fish to have regained its composure and head back to the safety of the kelp beds, but that was too much time. In an instant, the huge bird traversed the hundred feet from the tree above, and in one precise movement, sunk its razor-sharp talons into the hapless fish and sped skyward with a tasty tidbit. The anglers were both surprised and amazed by a sight that happens frequently in Southeast Alaska.

Probably one of the least known sections of our most northern state is the region near Ketchikan along the famous Inside Passage from Northern Washington to Anchorage. This area is also one of the best salt and freshwater fisheries in the world. Within a 50-mile radius of the seaport and floatplane docks at Ketchikan, an angler can easily catch five species of Pacific salmon, four species of freshwater trout, three species of sea run trout, Arctic grayling and more than 30 species of saltwater fish, including huge halibut. In reality, it is much easier to catch fish than it is to fail, and that can’t be said of too many places anymore.

Unlike most of Alaska, however, the Ketchikan area is in the middle of a primeval rainforest that is made up of hundreds of islands that are completely covered with forests of 70- to 100-foot tall trees. The abundance of trees combined with snow accumulations in the higher mountains of the area endows this part of Alaska with a unique weather pattern, which is a nice way of saying that it rains nearly 300 days each year. The climate is considered to be mild in comparison to the rest of Alaska. Summers range from the 50s to the 70s, and winters are usually in the 30 to 50 degree range with relatively little snow or ice. Rainsuits and above-ankle boots, known as “Ketchikan sneakers,” are the normal attire for most visitors to the area. Despite the rain, during the summer, local residents go about their business in short-sleeve shirts, shorts and normal sneakers.

Bald eagles are so numerous that tourists often mistake these huge birds for seagulls and are usually astounded by their first close encounter. Visitors to Ketchikan might also see whales, seals, black and brown bears, Sitka black-tailed deer, otters, mink, wolves, grouse, both common and Arctic loons, as well as numerous other waterfowl. In addition, the people are friendly and the surrounding area has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.

Though the logistics of reaching this breathtaking part of the world have become easier because of the abundance or cruise ships, the first glimpse of this vastness and beauty makes one feel as Sherry Simpson did when she wrote these words, “In the slow swell of dawn, the sea stretched before us like time, large enough to swallow all history, legend, desire, imagination ... We sailed on an ocean awash in the stories of all those who came before us in cedar canoes, sloops of war, merchant schooners, steamers, freighters, fishing boats, dories. In the ghostly light, they moved with us ... the Tlingit Indians, the Russian, British, and American explorers, the seafarers and traders, the settlers and sailors, and everyone who ever imagined, like me, to be the first to witness this place.”

Visiting Ketchikan always brings back a host of wonderful memories from my many trips to this unique place. Though known as “The Salmon Capitol of the World” during earlier times, this tiny Tlingit fishing village has been reborn and continues to survive due to the coming of cruise ships. Adventures that once revolved around fishing are now more about experiencing the wildlife and beauty of the area.

If your plans include Southeast Alaska this summer, now is the time to start checking the possibilities. For more information, visit: www.visit-ketchikan.com.


March 2015 column

Walter Mitty Race brings historic sports car racing to Road Atlanta

When I stepped out of a race car in 1971 as a professional driver, I assumed that I would never return to my dangerous occupation of the previous 10 years in Europe. I simply walked away without looking back and stepped into a life of raising children, being a fishing guide and writing articles about the outdoors and traveling to interesting places. It was one of those writing assignments in 2003 about Panoz racing cars and Road Atlanta that brought me back in touch with my past. It only took a few laps driving the 2.56 mile course at Road Atlanta and a day reliving memories on the historic concrete of Sebring in Florida in a real racing car to make the old juices flow again!

As I parked the Panoz GTS behind the pit wall at Sebring after an exhilarating day on the track, my heart was racing from the rampant adrenaline rush, and I knew that the racing bug had bitten me for the second time in my life. Though I had no idea of how or when I would ever strap on a helmet again, the wheels in my head were turning fast.

Since I drove a Mazda Miata every day and had owned several of them since 1991, I toyed with the idea of renting one for a driver’s school. Knowing, however, that just the school experience would never be enough to satisfy my new “need for speed,” I began investigating the current Club Racing classes and stumbled upon Spec Miata. I knew this would be the path for me to follow for fun racing.

To make a long story short, that beginning led me to another 10 wonderful years of very competitive road racing during my 60s that I could have never imagined. I even won the Southeastern Championship in 2004, had a number of podium finishes and drove most of the famous racing tracks in the South. But, as I eased in to my 70s, I knew it was time for a new direction that would allow me to drive a few more years in a calmer atmosphere. That’s when I discovered HSR (Historic Sportscar Racing), who happen to host one of the most prestigious vintage car racing events in the world at Road Atlanta every spring.

HSR began during the 1970s at Road Atlanta with the idea of highlighting the race cars from the past ... many of which I had driven in Europe during the 1960s. HSR’s efforts have provided a venue for competitors and spectators alike to share in the wonderful history and excitement created by the cars that competed at race tracks around the world. This includes many race cars and motorcycles that date back to the early 1900s, but includes early Miatas like mine that are now more than 25 years old.

Though I didn’t finish any higher than 4th at the 2014 Walter Mitty at Road Atlanta, I plan to do better this year. Nevertheless, if you want a fun weekend with lots of car lovers, great food, fabulous old cars everywhere and some of the best vintage racing seen anywhere in the world, plan to be at Road Atlanta for the “Mitty” from 24 through 26 April this year!

BMW has a long and storied history in motorsports and will be the featured marque, which means that many of these classic race cars will be on display and on track during the event. Spectators will also enjoy car corrals for numerous marques, diverse vendors, an expansive hospitality tent and over 300 cars competing throughout the weekend. In addition, there will be live music, technical seminars, infield camping, free paddock access, parade laps around the track, and so much more. The “Mitty” is one of the largest automotive spectacles ever in the Southeast. For more information or to buy tickets, go to the Road Atlanta web site: www.roadatlanta.com/the-mitty.


February 2015 column

Iceland: More than just fire and ice

Imagine a remote island inhabited by 300,000 friendly people who speak an ancient language that few in the world even try to understand. This is truly a land of constant fire and ice, where your house can be destroyed by earthquakes, a massive wind burst can blow you down, the smell of sulfur from the water faucet signals the invisible fire flowing not far below your feet, the northern lights can change the sky into the largest light show in the world and hot springs and glaciers abound throughout the fog-shrouded lava fields. It’s a spooky, barren landscape in which anything might lurk, and tales of the “hidden people,” who are said to make their homes in this wilderness, are a huge part of Icelandic lore.

Despite these perceived and real horrors, Icelanders enjoy an unlimited supply of the purest water in the world that flows from every stream, river and waterfall; they have free geothermal heating throughout the country. Therefore, sitting on a crack in the Earth’s crust that pushed through the surface to form an island some eight million years ago with constantly flowing molten rocks within reach of the surface and glaciers throughout the island has made Iceland a unique and wonderful home to these descendants of war mongering Vikings!

Oddities like believing in elves and trolls, or electing a comedian to be mayor of the capital city, Reykjavik – after a financial disaster and being proud of their volcano that managed to break down the European air traffic – make Icelanders very different. Unlike the rest of the world, who would run when a volcano erupts, the Icelanders look for long sticks to roast hot dogs over the lava flows!

Iceland is not simply a diverse and beautiful place to visit anymore. The cultural life has come alive with festivals celebrating everything imaginable, and they boast great native cuisine and a multitude of fantastic local beers. Most of the men and women on this island are tall and very handsome, but the women have Celtic DNA and the men show DNA from the original Nordic tribes of the Vikings who began landing here in the late 9th century.

Because of the nearby Gulf Stream that brings warm waters all the way from Florida, many types of fish and shellfish are plentiful. Also, in different seasons, thousands of geese, ducks, sea birds and upland game birds like rock ptarmigan make Iceland a bird hunter’s paradise. Nevertheless, one only has to look around anywhere on the island and see thousands of sheep, which are the main food source.

The most fascinating animals I encountered during my visit were the hundreds of beautiful and friendly Icelandic horses. They are a unique breed of rather small but quite thick horses that came over with the early settlers from Norway more than 1,100 years ago. These gorgeous creatures are the descendants of an ancient breed that is now extinct beyond the shores of Iceland.

It would take several books to describe all that is possible to see and experience in Iceland, so to make a visit to this remote area of the North Atlantic enjoyable, you need local help. I was extremely lucky and found the right people, which made my trip magical. All you have to do is contact Harpa and Stefan of Iceland Outfitters (www.icelandoutfitters.com), and they can take care of your every need. Stefan can arrange everything for those who want to partake of the fabulous Atlantic Salmon, Trout or Arctic Char fishing as well as exciting duck, goose or bird hunting. Harpa can arrange interesting tours for the ladies, couples or families, find them the best geothermal spas, direct anyone to the best shopping venues or anything else they might desire in Iceland. Contact her at: harpa@icelandoutfitters.com.

A common misconception about Iceland is that it’s a hard place to reach. Not so! Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, is a five-hour direct flight from Boston, Washington, DC and New York on Icelandair. The airline has direct flights from Iceland to seven major airports in North America including Seattle, Orlando, Toronto, Minneapolis and Denver. Flights are normally less expensive than you might imagine, and Icelandair allows passengers to stop in Iceland at no extra cost en route to over 18 cities in Europe and Scandinavia including London, Paris, Madrid, Milan, and Copenhagen.

The unique geological beauty of Iceland is akin to looking in a kaleidoscope that changes multiple times with every mile traveled. Icelanders are a friendly and physically beautiful people who speak English as a second language, include tips in all purchases and offer free Wi-Fi throughout the country. They have the Northern Lights, Icelandic horses, millions of sheep, fantastic seafood and great hunting, fishing and touring. So, if you haven’t added this magnificent place to your “Bucket List” it’s high time that you do!


January 2015 column

Massage and WAT PO are woven into culture of Thailand

The magic feeling and culture of what we now know as “Thai Massage” began in Thailand as early as the 12th Century, and was continually developed at a gorgeous palace in Bangkok. It was an ancient practice of using pressure on the muscular and nervous system of the human body along with special herbs grown near the Wat Po temple to improve health and well-being. From these beginnings, a school was begun to teach traditional courses in massage, medicine, pharmacy and midwifery, which evolved into the world famous Wat Po Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School (WatPo TTM) in 1955.

Wat Po TTM eventually outgrew its location inside the temple, so the monks had it moved across the street to a very ordinary-looking facility. It is a five-level building at the end of a dead-end alley that backs up to the Chao Phraya River. The open-to-the-street reception area sits just beyond chipped marble steps in very tight quarters that accommodates mismatched furniture, makeshift shelves for instruction materials and a small alcove for retailing signature brands of oils, herbs and body care products. It’s not exactly prestigious, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Wat Po TTM’s reputation far outweighs its humble surroundings.

Current facilities include a main floor registration area, a classroom for theory, two large practice rooms equipped with massage mattresses, a consultation room and a rooftop cafeteria where students can eat for less than a dollar per helping of rice, stir-fried veggies, spiced pork or other Thai dishes. Areas in the building are also available to administer massages to the public.

More than 10,000 students visit Wat Po TTM each year from all over the world with no paid advertising other than word-of-mouth. The courses have a broad appeal that draws participants from all walks of life and ranging in age from 16 to 80. Almost a third are foreigners, who wind their way through the steamy back streets of Bangkok in search of  Wat Po TTM’s traditional Thai knowledge.

Course content is the same for locals and foreigners alike, even though the teachers are generally poor at the English language. Nevertheless, language barriers are normally not an issue. Wat Po TTM selects its massage teachers based on overall knowledge, aptitude and experience rather than their expertise in English. This is probably one of the reasons that the Wat Po TTM faculty has grown from 10 to more than 100 teachers. Except for the advanced courses, there are no entrance requirements, and with a student/teacher ratio of four to one, learning can be quite intense.

Advance registration is preferred, but it’s not uncommon for international students to be accommodated on a drop-in basis. Therefore, during any given class, tutors might be teaching several levels to various nationalities. Beginners are easily identified by numerous ink spots running up and down their limbs to illustrate the pressure points of the body.

Completing the General Thai Massage course covers 30 hours of practical and theoretical classes, which are taught over five days. The key learning areas include pressure points to release energy, massage techniques to relax muscles (especially a deep method that relaxes nerves and readies the muscles for stretching), a reflexology-style foot massage, additional techniques for women and the application of herbal compresses to de-stress core muscle groups.

To complete the course, students must attend 100 percent of the classes and are assessed via a practical test. However, a teacher might choose to reject a student who doesn’t seem to have the right attitude, focus, intuition, touch or academic grooming. Foreign students who complete the course earn a Certificate of Pride which recognizes their acquisition of the basic concepts and is quite impressive to other spa people around the world.

Two walled compounds bisected north to south by Sanamchai Road and running east and west make up Wat Po. The northern walled compound is home to the famed reclining Buddha and the massage school, and contained in the southern walled compound is a working Buddhist monastery and a school for monks. This is the oldest and largest religious structure in Bangkok and is home to more than 1,000 images of Buddha. It also houses the largest image of Buddha in Thailand known as the Reclining Buddha, which is 46 meters long and 15 meters high. The body is covered in gold plating and decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay on the eyes and the soles of the feet.

All of the Wat Po complex is still just a small part of what can be seen in and around Bangkok and Thailand. This historic country is a fascinating place to visit with some of the friendliest people on the planet.



December 2014 column

Christmastime in Las Vegas

Combining spectacular orchestrated water hydraulics, multi-colored lights and fabulous Christmas music into a breathtaking aquatic show in front of the Bellagio Hotel that anyone can enjoy from the Las Vegas Strip is enough on its own to visit the Sin City! This fabulous gambling mecca, however, comes alive during the holiday season in a multitude of ways.

Inside the Bellagio, the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens located just off the lobby is an eclectic and ever-changing presentation of fabulous colors in a dramatic holiday theme. The flowers and plants are vibrant, and each is well-lighted to bring out the best ambience for public enjoyment.

With more than 1,000 venues, shopping in Vegas is, well, almost unbelievable! Each store has beautifully designed windows to celebrate the season and entice you to spend money. Some of the best include the Fashion Show Mall with nearly 250 stores and restaurants, the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian, Boulevard Mall or Le Boulevard at Paris and the high-end Via Bellagio. Also less expensive places like Town Square Shopping Center, Las Vegas Outlet Center and Boulevard Mall are available.

The holiday season is always a great time to visit Las Vegas as the Strip is alive with the Christmas spirit and every casino tries to out perform their competition with huge Christmas trees and imaginative lighting. It can be quite crowded and very cold, and many shows book up fast. Nevertheless, if you make plans as early as possible Christmas in Vegas can be a memorable experience!

For plenty of info, go to the Las Vegas Official Tourism website: www.lasvegastourism.com.


Novmeber 2014 column

Glen-Ella is an elegant tast of history with modern touch

The triangle of land and water contained within lines drawn from Clayton to Hiawassee to Clarkesville holds an abundance of special family memories that became part of my life. During their courtship in the 1920s, my dad and mom would often stir the summer dust along the unpaved roads that led from Cornelia to the cool, clear waters of lakes Burton, Rabun and Seed. They spoke of a picturesque waterfall along the way known as Minnehaha and an elegant old inn that was in disrepair near the Tallulah Gorge, which must have been Glen-Ella Springs.

Following the War Between the States, many people became quite health conscious and sought areas with natural springs for their vacations. So in 1870, Glen Davidson began building Glen-Ella near a healthy mineral spring within a short distance of the stagecoach line. Finally in 1881, the Tallulah Falls Railroad was completed into Turnersville that was a 16-mile surrey ride back to Glen-Ella. A year later the railroad was extended to the village of Tallulah Falls making it a resort destination until a Christmas fire destroyed the town in the early 1900s, and Glen-Ella was closed. It sat boarded up until the Aycock family purchased and restored the inn to its former glory in 1987 and ran it through 2006. It was then bought and continues to be operated by Ed and Luci Kivett who have greatly expanded on the Aycock’s dreams.

The Kivetts, including their sons Edward and Andrew, fulfilled a lifelong ambition when they reopened Glen-Ella Springs as a complete historic inn and restaurant in 2008. Their passion for perfection is seen and felt by every patron, and most who stay or simply have a meal at Glen-Ella become regular clients. “Our goal is to delight each guest and enrich their experience through a combination of an inspiring environment, outstanding food and exceptional service,” stated Ed Kivett. And, according to their record and the number of accolades ... they have accomplished that and much more!

Glen-Ella Springs Inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of only 10 inns in Georgia admitted to the Select Registry of Distinguished Inns. Speaking from personal experience, the restaurant has to be among the finest culinary experiences in North Georgia and has been recognized as one of the top dining destinations in the state by Georgia Trend Magazine.

A plethora of outdoor opportunities are easily accessible when using Glen-Ella Springs Inn as a home base in the mountains. Just the gardens at Glen-Ella could keep a bird watcher, entomologist or plant lover occupied for hours. Hiking trails abound, the aforementioned lakes are close, gorgeous waterfalls like Minnehaha are numerous and of course the natural wonder of the 1,000-foot deep Tallulah Gorge is only minutes away. One of the best experiences for anglers, however, is the fabulous fly fishing for huge trout in the world-renown Soque River.

Glen-Ella has recently become affiliated with Brigadoon, which is a world-class fly fishing operation on the Soque River where anglers routinely catch and release over 30-inch Rainbow and Brown Trout on a fly. Few places on earth offer the chance to spend quality time in such breathtaking natural scenery as Brigadoon! Call (706) 754-1558 for reservations or more information or go to their website at www.brigadoonlodge.com. You can stay in the comfort of Glen-Ella at night and their award-winning chef will prepare you a fantastic box lunch for your day of fishing.

In addition to all of the outdoor possibilities, Glen-Ella Springs Inn is open on holidays like Thanksgiving Day (serving a buffet lunch), New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day. They also offer on-site catering services for wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners, wedding brunches, weekend retreats and family reunions.

Few times in my travels as a writer have I found such personal attention to every aspect of my needs for interesting activities or places to see. The Kivetts have literally replaced the word “no” with the words “how can we help.” Like one former traveler wrote in the guest book, “When the pavement ends ... peace begins!”

Glen-Ella Springs Inn
  • Address: 1789 Bear Gap Rd., Clarkesville, GA 30523
  • Phone: 706-754-7295, Toll Free: 888-455-8786
  • Web: http://glenella.com


October 2014 column

A gem on Georgia's coast: Little St. Simons

Since I grew up near Savannah and my mother’s ancestors were among the first English settlers to inhabit the Georgia Coast, I have always been intrigued by the flora, fauna, fish and history of the barrier islands. These ever-changing gems of drifting sand have constantly been formed and shaped by extremes of nature and the whims of man. One of them, however, is changing fast in a surprisingly good way!

Unobstructed by any dam, the fertile soils of  north and middle Georgia drift down the Altamaha River to be deposited along the shores of Little St. Simons Island on the Atlantic Coast. Such a constant flow of rich top soils makes this pristine island the fastest growing land mass on the Eastern seaboard of the USA.

Both day trips and longer stays are available to anyone through the Lodge on Little St. Simons Island by visiting their web site (www.LittleSSI.com) or calling 912-638-7472 for reservations. This privately owned, 10,000 acre, all-inclusive, historical hunting lodge was built in 1917 and is accessible in 15 minutes by boat from the Hampton River Marina on St. Simons Island. Other than day trippers, accommodations are only possible for about 30 people to stay overnight or longer on the island. These folks are always in for a rare treat of three squares a day with an island flair that are mouthwatering experiences ... but leave your calorie counter at home.

Seven miles of pristine beach with magnificent sunrises beckon all who love the fresh salt air and the open sea, and the shelling is phenomenal! When they are cruising the beaches chasing the larger schools of menhaden and finger mullet, big redfish and other species can be caught in the surf with rods and bait provided by the staff. Young naturalists are always around to teach anyone who is interested about every aspect of the island or the sea life, and 20 miles of nature trails can be enjoyed by bicycle, hiking or on guided tours. It is also possible to explore the waterways around the island with outboard-powered skiffs or paddle kayaks furnished by the lodge, but only after taking a class about water safety and proper procedures.

For photographers or bird watchers, your head needs to be on a swivel because of the never ending possibilities. The naturalists are also studying the alligator population and every other aspect of the island ecology and love to share their knowledge with each guest.

All of the rooms in the main lodge and cabins are rustic but very clean, comfortable and without the annoying sounds of radio or television. With the exception of box lunches or special occasions, all meals and cocktail hours are held as a group in the main lodge.

Many years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of spending a few days at the Lodge on Little St. Simons Island for a few days ... and always wanted to return. It is said that you can never go back to the places of your dreams and see them as they were at another time ... and I found that to be true. Change is inevitable, but what seems different for one person, could be wonderful for many others ... and so it is for this magical island.

During my first visit, European fallow deer were plentiful, horses roamed freely and cows fed in the open fields. The clientele at that time was mostly comprised of romantic couples looking for peace and quiet in a natural coastal setting. Today, the deer population has dwindled, the horses and cows are gone, and the island is more geared to families and lots of activities. Nevertheless, Little St. Simons Island is still a breathtaking place of natural beauty with a remnant of its original luxury and a memorable experience for every visitor.


September 2014 column

Late summer is magical at The Ridges on Lake Chatuge

As the path of the sun begins its slide toward the Southern Hemisphere and days become shorter, the sweltering heat of summer starts to subside and the Georgia mountains exhibit a slow but spectacular change. With kids back in school, quiet calm takes over, which allows birds, wildlife and fish to again appear in greater numbers. Football is again a part of the weekly routine, and receding waters have many people putting their boats in storage until next spring. For folks who love the peace and quiet, are interested in diverse flora and fauna or simply enjoy the fall season, this is the best time of year to visit The Ridges Resort at Lake Chatuge (888-834-4409 or www.theridgesresort.com).

In less than two hours from anywhere in the Atlanta area, couples or families can be comfortably nestled in a friendly atmosphere with superb amenities on a gorgeous lake that is completely surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. Though originally built in 1987 as the Fieldstone Inn, a completely renovated Ridges Resort and Marina has retained the friendly Southern atmosphere and added so much more. The grounds and flora are colorful and immaculate, resort staff will do anything within reason to make each visitor’s stay memorable and cuisine at The Oaks Restaurant on resort grounds is diverse and mouthwatering.

Just across the cove from the resort is another unique place to eat that serves those coming in from the lake as well as from the road or resort property. The Blue Otter offers casual dining and a sports bar with great food and a magnificent view of the lake. This restaurant is operated by the same folks who run The Oaks, so they know what people want.

Because the resort borders Lake Chatuge, a great number of water-related activities are within walking distance. Pontoon boat, kayaks, peddle boats and canoes are available for a rental fee. Excellent fishing guide service is possible by calling Perry Graves at 828-557-8519 to spend a relaxing day fishing this beautiful lake. Also, the Mountain Wake Cable Park (just across the cove from the resort) for wake boarding is perfect for guests who are feeling a little more adventurous and don’t mind getting wet.

Many other activities like golf, tennis, lawn games, a playground and sand volleyball are easy to reach by car or connecting walking trails. My favorite was the Trackrock Stables located on more than 250 acres of land just outside Blairsville and adjacent to the Chattahoochee National Forest. They offer horseback riding in a beautiful valley that is home to wild turkey, deer and many other types of wildlife. These rides are good for both first time and skilled riders who can learn better horsemanship from the experienced trail guides while fording crystal clear mountain streams and cantering through peaceful green meadows. For reservations, call 706-745-5252 or 800-826-0073.

In one direction, the town of Hiawassee has interesting shops and local eateries and in the other direction is Young Harris with its picturesque college. Behind and just above the college campus is the little known ... but scenic Cupid Falls, which was given the name by students who would often sneak away from the college for romance in this secluded spot.

Another aspect of Ridges Resort that seems to bring everyone together before bedtime each evening is the roaring fire in a pit on the walkway just outside the lobby area on the lake side. Kids and families have a blast making smores over the fire on sticks provided by the resort employees. This magical ... but messy Southern tradition always brings out the best in people from every part of the country or the world, and many of the stories that are told over the sound of the blaze are unforgettable! It is truly a magical ending to any day in this spectacular surrounding.


August 2014 column

The waterfalls and wine of White County

Few things are more captivating than the sound of rushing water as it cascades downward over rocks and through intricate passageways into a serene pool far below. Add to that the sheer pleasure of savoring the unique taste of homegrown North Georgia wines, and you can visualize the excitement of visiting the waterfalls and wineries of White County.

Though access trails have been made much better in recent years, the gorgeous waterfalls have been here long before recorded history. The diverse and fabulous wineries, however, have been increasing at a rapid rate in the last decade.

Many years ago, the folks in Helen reinvented the tiny town by giving it the look of a Bavarian village, but that allure has waned a bit recently. A new and explosive renaissance of the area is based on beautiful vineyards, great Georgia wines and an abundance of natural mountain splendor.

One of the first successful and award winning wine establishments is the Habersham Winery www.habershamwinery.com, which also happens to be right across the highway from a picturesque, man-made waterfalls at the old Nora Mill and Granary. Though Habersham has many wonderful wines, I was extremely impressed with their 2010 Creekstone Cabernet Sauvignon that is made from real Georgia grapes.

The best white wine I found on my tasting foray into White County was the 2011 Bianco Bello from Serenity Cellars www.serenitycellars.com. This Italian style blend of Pinot Grigio, Vidal Blanc and Traminette has a unique flavor that both lit up and calmed my palate in one sip!

A tasting room with a spectacular view of Mt. Yonah on one side and Blood Mountain on the other was found at The Cottage Vineyard and Winery www.cottagevineyardwinery.com. While visiting, I was both entertained and educated about the Mountain wines by Nathan Beasley, who is one of the most upbeat personable young men you will ever meet.

Another impressive winery I visited that has an unbelievable panorama and gorgeous architecture is the Yonah Mountain Vineyards www.yonahmountainvineyards.com. Despite already having promising wines, this massive and still growing vineyard is certain to produce many award-winning wines in coming years.

Probably the easiest falls to reach is Anna Ruby Falls, but it is one of the prettiest in White County. It is formed by Curtis and York creeks that race over 150 feet down the steep slopes of Tray Mountain in twin waterfalls. You can drive almost to the falls by taking GA 75 north from Helen for one mile. Turn right on GA 356 for 1.5 miles, then go left on the entrance road to the falls, gift shop, visitor center and bathrooms.

Horse Trough Falls is another easy trek along a great trail of less than 1/2 mile from a parking lot. To get there, take GA 75 north from Helen for eight miles to Unicoi Gap, turn left onto Forest Service Road 44 (Wilkes Creek Road), go 5.4 miles to a sharp curve and take the right fork, travel 0.2 mile, ford the stream and follow colored blazes on trees.

One of the highest falls in Georgia is Dukes Creek Falls that descends over 300 feet into Dukes Creek Gorge in a series of cascades. Though moderate enough for most people to hike, the trail from the parking lot is about a mile one way. To find it, take GA 75 north from Helen for 1.5 miles, turn left on GA 356 (75 Alternate) and go 2.3 miles to the Russell- Brasstown Scenic Byway. Turn right and go two miles to the Dukes Creek Falls Recreation Area.

The Upper and Lower DeSoto Falls are on Frogtown Creek, which is just over the line into Lumpkin County. The upper waterfall plummets some 200 feet while the lower waterfall drops a mere 35 feet, but both are scenic. A hike of  about 1/4 mile is required for the upper falls and around 3/4 miles for the lower. From Helen, take GA. 75 Alternate south for just over 8 miles to U.S. 129, then turn right on U.S. 129 for 7 miles. As it merges with U.S. 19, continue straight ahead on U.S. 19/U.S. 129 for another three miles or so until you see the entrance on your left.

To see gorgeous Raven Cliff Falls on Dodd Creek requires a 5 mile round-trip hike that can be a little steep at times. These falls are one of the most unusual in the North Georgia area because the water flows through a split in the face of a solid rock outcropping to the ground 100 feet below. Behind the split, the water drops approximately 60 feet and then rushes through the rock face and drops 20 feet into a deep pool. The water then cascades 20 more feet to Dodd Creek, but to see all of this, you must have very good rock climbing skills.

Since the entire trail follows Dodd Creek upward to the falls, some of the most beautiful cataracts are easily viewed from the path. To find this beautiful area, take GA 75 N from Helen for 1.5 miles, turn left on GA 356 (75 Alternate) and travel 2.3 miles to the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway. Turn right and travel 2.8 miles to the trailhead and parking area.

The central hub for all of the wine-related activities and waterfall excursions seems to be the Sylvan Valley Lodge, www.sylvanvalleylodge.com, which is great place to enjoy a good glass of wine in quiet, fresh mountain air. The owners are heavily involved in both the White County community as well as all of the wine related activities.

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 breathtaking waterfalls, however, White County has become a destination that couples and families are using for unforgettable “staycations!”


July 2014 column

Exciting entertainment is endless in White County

It would take a book to reveal even half of the diverse entertainment opportunities available in nearby White County, but the first consideration should be a base of operations with great accommodations. My first choice for the perfect place to stay is the Sylvan Valley Lodge, which is just far enough outside Helen and Cleveland to stay away from the crowds and enjoy a good glass of wine in quiet, fresh mountain air. The lovely gardens of native plants around the lodge allow the odor of nature to permeate the calm atmosphere in a serene setting.

The decor on the inside of the lodge is casual with soft earth tones that gives every guest a feeling of home. Mountain forest views are plentiful and easy to enjoy from semi-private balconies and large windows in the tastefully appointed rooms. For more information or reservations, visit www.sylvanvalleylodge.com or call 706-865-7371.

Best eateries in the area would have to include Bernie’s Restaurant in the Sautee-Nacoochee community that has been serving excellent meals since 1989 and is in a house that was built in 1920. It is fine dining in a casual, comfortable atmosphere and is operated by a mother/daughter team with extensive culinary training. To learn more, call 706-878-3830 or visit www.letsgotobernies.com.

For the tastiest food in the area with an interesting local flavor, nothing can beat Mully's Nacoochee Grill in a rural north Georgia farmhouse that was constructed in the Leaf Community of White County in the early 1900s. It was moved to the Nacoochee Village in 2000, and was restored and renovated into a fine dining facility. It is run by life long resident and former Mayor of Helen, Greg “Mully” Ash, who is an unforgettable character! For info, call 706-878-1020 or visit www.nacoocheegrill.com.

No trip to White County would be complete without a little fishing with the folks at Unicoi Outfitters located just outside Helen near Nora Mills. They are the oldest full service fly fishing shop and guide service in all of North Georgia and offer regional fishing information and trophy rainbow trout and brown trout in privately-owned waters including the exclusive 1.5 mile section of the Chattahoochee River near their shop. To hook up with them, call 706-878-3083 or visit www.unicoioutfitters.com.

Since I love horseback riding, the chance to ride for an hour along the Chattahoochee River including a couple opportunities to ford the cool waters was a must for me! So, I booked a trail ride with Chattahoochee Stables at 706-878-7000 or www.ChattahoocheeStables.com for a relaxing ride on a gentle horse named Abby.

Mountain biking is one of the fastest growing sports in the North Georgia Mountains, and I had the distinct pleasure of riding with former Florida Mountain Bike Champion, Woody Wood, to the gorgeous Horse Trough Falls. Woody owns Woody’s Mountain Bikes near Helen and operates a full-service bicycle shop, featuring bicycle trips, bike sales, repairs and rentals. It’s fun for all, ages and there are more than 60 trails in the Northeast Georgia Mountains to fit all skill levels. For information or reservations, call 706-878-3715 or www.woodysmtb.net.

Another great place for the whole family is ZipNTime located right next to the Habersham Winery and run by Danny Otter. It offers lots of excitement and some of the best zip lines in the South. Additionally, a taste of history specifically related to the Nacoochee Valley, including the Cherokee In
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