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Vanderford's Travel Column


Gadsden, Ala. is hometown America with extras

“In the great cities we see so little of the world, we drift into our own minority,” said W.B. Yeats. “In the little towns and villages there are no minorities; people are not numerous enough. You must see the world there where every man is himself a class; every hour carries its new challenge”... this is the feeling I had while visiting small town America in Gadsden, Ala. (www.greatergadsden.com).
 
For a long period following the Civil War, Gadsden was Alabama’s second-most important center of commerce and industry behind the seaport of Mobile. During the span from 1970 to 1990, however, a financial decline occurred, many businesses closed and part of the population moved to other places. The downtown occupancy dwindled to 60 percent, but because of a local Main Street program, Gadsden has seen a rebirth and now boasts more than a 90 percent occupancy that is growing fast.
 
Despite this renaissance that includes a multitude of new restaurants and other businesses that are appealing to both locals and tourists, the Gadsden area has retained its warm, friendly small town atmosphere. This is especially apparent during the many events and festivals that are held in and around the county.

One of the most popular of these is First Friday, which draws thousands of people to the downtown area to see very rare and unique antique cars on display in the streets that are closed to vehicle traffic on the first Friday of each month from March to November. Other events including the Downtown Art Experience, the Third Thursday Concert Series and annual history and ghost walks draw crowds to the shopping district throughout the year, as does the Hadrin Center for Cultural Arts, located in an old department store in the heart of downtown. This catalyst for revitalization attracts visitors to its children’s museum, youth orchestra, dance conservatory and art exhibits.
 
While visiting downtown Gadsden, I was fortunate enough to dine at the elegant Blu Chop House (www.bluchophouse.com) that boasts gourmet farm-to-table dining, inspired by seasonal produce from local suppliers. I also had the opportunity to sup at the unique Sugar Moon Restaurant (www.sugarmoon.me) which has four star quality food in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Also, the best place for a home-cooked breakfast is the Choice Restaurant (256-546-9055).
 
Not far from downtown is one of the prettiest and most historical venues for families and outdoor enthusiasts. Noccalula Falls Park (www.noccalulafallspark.com) has a beautiful water fall that drops some 90 feet into the Black Creek Gorge that has caves with Indian carvings. Overlooking the famous falls is the statue of Indian Princess Noccalula who is said to have fallen to her death from the top of the falls over a departed lover. In the park are beautiful rocks and gardens with an array of shrubs and flowers that may be viewed from the park’s paved trail system or when riding the authentic Huntington miniature train. 
 
Children can get up close to the animals in the Petting Zoo and learn about life in the past in the Pioneer Village. Other offerings in the park include picnic pavilions, souvenir shop and a children’s playground. Noccalula Falls Miniature Golf Course features beautiful landscaping with cascading waterfalls and natural rock formations.
 
The campground has over 120 sites from primitive tent camping to RV sites with complete hook-ups. A swimming pool, laundry facility, picnic pavilions, playground and rental cabins are available. The campground sits along Black Creek Gorge and offers awesome views of the Falls, the gorge and the creek below.
 
The Black Creek Trail is a 1.7 mile crushed stone path with beautiful scenery along the Black Creek Gorge as it works its way down from Noccalula Falls campground to Black Creek Road. The Trail starts at Noccalula Falls Wedding Chapel and allows over five miles of groomed, single-track trails perfect for walking, running and mountain-biking.
 
Golf is a big attraction in the Gadsden area with the challenging Twin Bridges Golf Club (www.twinbridgesgolf.com) right in downtown along the Coosa River. Golfers and nature enthusiasts alike delight in the natural beauty and diverse wildlife that are experienced on the golf course.
 
Only about 20 minutes from downtown is one of the most picturesque golf courses in the Southeast at Silver Lakes, which is one of the courses on the Robert Trent Jones Trail (www.RTJgolf.com). This stunning landscape includes 36 holes of forests, wetlands, grasslands and dramatic elevation changes at Silver Lakes. The Heartbreaker, Backbreaker, Mindbreaker and The Short course provide challenging and scenic varieties of holes to play.
 
Fantastic fishing for largemouth bass and crappie in Neely Henry Lake on the Coosa River in downtown Gadsden (www.cityofgadsden.com) is another huge draw to the area. Many tournaments are held out of Coosa Landing on the east side of the river next to the Broad Street Bridge. They have parking for approximately 125 trucks/boat trailers plus overflow parking if needed. The bait shop has refreshments, tackle, fishing licenses and restrooms.
 
The absolute best place to stay in the Gadsden area is the Holiday Inn Express (256-691-0225) located just off exit 181 on I-59 and Highway 77 and near a variety of Gadsden attractions. They have the best service you will ever find in a lodging facility and a full breakfast that will make you want to get up early everyday. Katrina is the morning server in the breakfast area, and she will keep you smiling the whole day!
 
This is but a small portion of what ignited all of my senses during the whirlwind trip in and around the feeling of home in Gadsden. I was about a month too late for the Longest Yard Sale in the world during August (www.127yardsale.com), but like those before me, I know that a yearn to see and experience more of this part of hometown America will bring me back again and again!
 

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.



September 2018 column

Kingwood in Rabun County is still a special place

Many weekends in the days prior to super highways, I would drive up old US 441 to 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 great wines, tasty food, affordable lodging and a picturesque golf course! This perfect mountain venue is Kingwood Country Club and Resort (www.kingwoodresort.com) on Highway 76 East only two miles from downtown Clayton.
 
Meticulously sculpted into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Kingwood offers fine and casual dining prepared by an interesting chef named Gus, an immaculate full-service spa, plenty of meeting facilities, a gorgeous swimming and picnic area, tennis courts and a walking trail to the beautiful Laurel Falls. The rooms are spacious and clean, staff is extremely helpful and courteous and dogs are welcome. Free breakfast is part of the lodging price including eggs, sausage, grits, biscuits and gravy.

Also, within several miles of the resort, one can do whitewater rafting, hiking, biking, fishing, visit three state parks, enjoy horseback riding and do tasting at several wineries.
 
For those who love golf, however, the star attraction at Kingwood is the challenging par 71 mountain course that is ideal for any skill level from four different tee locations. Though only 6,016 yards in total length from the tips, the rolling hills, rippling brooks, huge hardwoods trees, smaller, lush, bent grass greens, many turns with elevation changes and strategically placed bunkers require accurate, well-placed shots to score.
 
This was not my first visit to Kingwood Country Club and Resort, and it brought back special memories. I was first introduced to this gorgeous golf course when it was still private by the late Mr. Dillard of the famous Dillard House Restaurant north of Clayton. Many years later, I came to the resort with my family to ring in the New Year while listening to great music performed by a friend, so I have a long connection to this fabulous property.
 
It is often said that you can never go back to a place from your past and be happy, but in the case of Kingwood Country Club and Resort, that is not true. Some changes have been made that have left the area more attractive to visitors without destroying the best of the past. I was impressed and pleased enough that I know I’ll return soon!

August 2018 column

Brasstown Valley Resort at the top in North Georgia

The mind of a Cherokee Warrior surveying the lush valley below from atop the 4,784-foot summit of Brasstown Bald (Georgia’s highest mountain) must have been running wild as he contemplated the multitude of possibilities below. Though my ancestors, the Cherokees, were forced off these lands many years ago and the outside world has changed completely, the outdoor experiences that await any visitor into Brasstown Valley today would certainly bring a smile to that early sojourner.
 
In reality, the Brasstown Valley Resort near Young Harris, Ga, is built around the site of an ancient Cherokee village the Indians referred to as “The Enchanted Valley.” Thanks to extensive planning, this property blends naturally with gorgeous surroundings without disturbing the historical significance or original flora and fauna. Therefore, the resort’s fieldstone-accented lodge appears to ascend from the forested hills as though it had always been a part of the picturesque, mountain landscape.
 
Designated as a bird sanctuary, the 503 acres of Brasstown Valley Resort is home to more than 100 species of birds, including bald eagles, hawks and peregrine falcons. Other regular visitors like red foxes, black bear, deer, and numerous species of smaller animals enjoy the protection provided by prolific oak, sycamore and white dogwood trees. 
 
Though not easy, fishing for rainbow and brown trout is possible on-site along the clear, spring-fed waters of Brasstown Valley Creek, but a small pond on the resort property better affords kids and elders a chance to catch bass and bream. Other outdoor activities include hiking on the Brasstown Trail, which winds along forested paths that pass babbling brooks and beautiful vistas. Boating, fishing or other water sports exist nearby in Lake Chatuge or Lake Nottley.
 
The most impressive part of Brasstown Valley Resort, however, is the championship, Scottish links-style golf course. Constructed in the hills below and within sight of Brasstown Bald, this challenging golfing venue is one of the most environmentally sensitive facilities in the country because of the efforts that were made to preserve and protect the local animals and the magnificent Blue Ridge Mountain surroundings. Despite the constant test of golfing skills needed to play well here, the panoramic views at every hole have most people stopping frequently to drink in the beauty with their eyes and their cameras.
 
In addition to the natural beauty that surrounds this golf course and resort area, one is equally impressed upon entering the Lodge’s Great Room. It has a hexagon shape highlighted by a very impressive fieldstone fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows that frame spectacular mountain scenes. Massive chandeliers made from naturally-shed antlers hang from soaring ceilings with exposed wooden beams. The unique fireplace seems to have a perpetual fire that automatically makes guests feel right at home!
 
Accommodations at Brasstown Valley Resort include rooms, suites and cottages. The lodge proper contains spacious and well-appointed guest rooms and suites. One may also choose to stay in secluded cottages on the property that feature large guest rooms and a grand parlor with a wood-burning fireplace, kitchenette and hillside verandah.
 
Abundant regional recipes and ingredients are always a part of any culinary experience in The Dining Room of the lodge. I enjoyed one of the best steaks I’ve ever tasted! For those who prefer a more laid-back atmosphere, Brassies Grill is perfect for a relaxing lunch, quick afternoon snack or cozy fireside dinner. Guests are invited to play a game of pool or darts, or catch the latest game, race or news of the day on the big-screen TV.
 
Other offerings include: A fitness center, Equani spa, a picturesque wedding venue, tennis courts,  an arcade, indoor-outdoor swimming pool and equestrian stables. For corporate and business people, the resort offers more than 14,000 square feet of meeting space. For directions, more info or reservations at Brasstown Valley Resort, visit: www.brasstownvalley.com.
 
This naturally spectacular place is a part of Georgia that would enhance anyone’s itinerary. It offers some of the finest scenery in the Peach State, and affords one a unique experience while taking in the beauty of the North Georgia mountains!


July 2018 column

Carolina coast nature is phenomenal

The Carolina Coast offers a plethora of habitats including tidal creeks and flats, salt marshes, beaches and sand dunes, thickets of coastal shrubs, aquatic vegetation and maritime forests. These diverse places become the home and feeding grounds for countless species of birds, mammals, reptiles and fishes. Therefore, this unique environment affords visitors and photographers the possibility to experience some of the best wildlife and bird watching opportunities in America!
 
Though the terrain is mostly flat with high grasses and mud-bottom creeks that wind their way through the marshes to the sea, sporadic patches of oaks and cypress trees with hanging Spanish moss give the area a calming look of a painted landscape. This naturally beautiful setting is home to a wide range of common, migrating and rare species of birds and wildlife.
 
A popular way to see and photograph the intricacy of the Carolina Coast is with a small boat, canoe or kayak. Thanks to the network of creeks that skirt in and around the heavily used Intracoastal Waterway, miles of bird and wildlife watching and views of stunning scenery are possible. These trips should be planned to coincide with the high tide to ensure plenty of watery paths that are deep enough to paddle.
 
Many of the almost deserted beaches along the coast are picturesque and ideal for swimming, surfing, fishing and hiking. However, with no lifeguards on most beaches and the ever-present danger of ocean currents and uneven, soft bottoms, visitors should never venture too far into the waters alone.
 
Though not as productive as many beaches in Florida, shelling is another possibility for avid collectors. Shell seekers should patrol the beaches at low tide to look for whelks, olive shells, moon snails and even the rare Scotch Bonnets which periodically wash ashore.
 
For those who wish to camp along the Carolina Coast, it is necessary to check federal, state and local regulations. Some laws are strict about litter, personal items, campfires, wildlife, pets and the protection of beaches and dunes.
 
Besides offering constantly changing magnificent vistas with an abundance of diverse wildlife, the Carolina Coast and the South Carolina Lowcountry boasts dozens of picturesque and challenging golf courses. Many of these have ocean or marsh views, and some like Rose Hill Golf Course in Bluffton, S.C. have as many different species of wildlife as you might find in a zoo.
 
During most of the year, festivals can be found that highlight almost every aspect of the area as well as most of the native creatures. These celebrations include events for gopher tortoises, shrimp, watermelons, rice, catfish, chili, harbors, wine, beer and more.
 
Accommodations range from a reasonably-priced rest to the finest four-star resorts, bed & breakfasts, inns or beach-front cottages. Great campgrounds are abundant and numerous state parks dot the coastal landscape.
 
Warmed by Southern breezes, the miles of pristine beaches, expansive marshes and maritime forests of Coastal Carolina beckon. Beach lovers, thrill seekers, history buffs, outdoor enthusiasts, bird watchers, foodies, fishermen, golfers artists and authors will all love the laidback lifestyle, lush landscapes, natural attractions and diverse culture of this unforgettable area!


June 2018 column

St. Marys is one of the last wild, scenic rivers

Canoeing and fishing through one of the most beautiful, natural settings in the South on one of the last remaining wild, scenic rivers in our country is still possible. This unforgettable experience can be accomplished on the historic St. Marys River near Folkston, Ga. by even a novice paddler with a little planning.
 
The physical character of the St. Marys River changes tremendously over the 135 miles that it traverses from its beginnings near Ellicott’s Mound in the heart of the Okefenokee Swamp until it empties into the Atlantic Ocean near the southern tip of Cumberland Island. Nevertheless, the beauty of this natural river, throughout its length, is too magnificent to be described with mere words. 
 
Just below its headwaters in the Okefenokee Swamp, the St. Marys River is a small, beautiful stream that is slow when the water is low and quite swift after rainy periods. Majestic cypress forests outline the St. Marys River as it flows over and around sugar-white sandbars in every bend. When the river is low, these wide, sandy areas are excellent for campsites.
 
On the Florida side of the river, the St. Marys River Canoe Trail has been officially designated as part of Florida’s Statewide System of Greenways and Trails. It begins at County Road 121 Bridge, which is north of Macclenny, Fla. Wildlife is abundant along this wilderness trail, especially herons, egrets, ospreys, turtles, and occasionally a bear or deer. 
 
Other access points are also possible, but some of these are private and may require a fee for launching or parking. The absolute best place to kick off any trip on the St. Marys River is on the Georgia side at Traders Hill Recreation Area, which was originally an Indian trading post known as Fort Alert that became the county seat of Charlton County in 1854. This 32-acre recreation park on the St. Marys River has a boat launch, campsites, fishing and swimming area, and a place to simply enjoy the natural beauty of the river. It is close to the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, and can be excellent for watching a variety of wading and woodland species of birds that are often seen in the waters and trees around the park. Amenities include plenty of RV hookups, tent campsites, showers, a dumping station, and picnic tables. In addition, canoe rentals, nature guides, parking and shuttle service to and from any of the available canoe launch areas south of the Okefenokee Swamp are available.
 
More than 65 species of fish have been identified in the St. Marys River, but largemouth bass, many species of sunfish, and several types of catfish can be found inhabiting much of the middle and upper portions of the St. Marys. At the river’s mouth, the estuarine system (the wide, lower portion of the river where the river current meets the ocean tide) provides fishing enthusiasts with an abundance of redfish, spotted sea trout and flounder. Anglers may fish both sides of the river, but need a Florida or Georgia fishing license. 
 
In the past, the most popular fishing and canoeing area has been the second stage of the river. This section starts at Highway 2 near St. George, Ga, and continues for 35 miles with a wider berth and slower current which allows more maneuverability for fishing, canoeing or kayaking. Nevertheless, the river still maintains the scenic beauty and intimacy it had upstream and has many sand beaches that are perfect for picnicking or camping.
 
The breathtaking beauty of the pristine, tannic acid tinted, dark waters of the St. Marys River is highlighted by extremely contrasting ribbons of pure, white sands on either side, and surrounded by a kaleidoscope of interesting flora and fauna. Also, the fishery for sunfish and bass in the river is certainly worthy of any angler’s time. Add to this the solitude of rarely seeing any manmade structures, boats or people, and any nature lover will realize that this wild, scenic river is one of the last of its kind on the planet.

May 2018 column

The timeless world of Rio Parismina in Costa Rica

The rainforest is a paradise of plumage that swoops through the tall tangled trees spreading seeds in the forest amid animal and bird songs that constantly fill the air. These are the thoughts that in moments of solitude have filled my mind for more than 25 years.
 
It is often said that you can never go back in time and find the same magic that had peaked all of your senses when you wore a younger man’s shoes. In some respects because of the natural aging process and the ever-changing world ... that is true, but time makes some things even better!
 
More than a quarter of a century ago, Judy Heidt, a beautiful lady from Texas, came to the mouth of the Parismina River on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica to do battle with the huge schools of 100 pound tarpon that live there. She loved it so much that she purchased 50 acres of land with the idea of building a retirement home. She had so many requests from friends to visit that her retirement home idea expanded into carving out space for a first class fishing lodge in the middle of the rainforest.
 
To further expand the visitation among anglers to the new Rio Parismina Lodge, Judy invited me and numerous other outdoor writers to experience and photograph the fabulous fishing, the breathtaking beauty of the rainforest and the unforgettable culinary opportunities.
 
All of us spent at least 10 days partaking of the world class fishing and other unique experiences. We returned home with a diverse collection of photos and stories that we have used in numerous articles since that time.
 
Recently, Judy invited me to return to her paradise on the Parismina River and to spend a week with Carlos Prendas, who was the same guide I had 25 years ago. With visions of the rainforest and memories of one of the best trips of my lifetime, I couldn’t say ‘Yes’ fast enough!
 
On my first trip to the Rio Parsimina Lodge, my interests had been more about the fantastic fishing, but this trip would be different. With better cameras and a deep yearning to see and photograph the natural diversity of the ageless rainforest, my eyes were soon opened wide to a world I had only slightly seen 25 years ago.
 
My first morning began with the deep bellowing sound of a tiny howler monkey, who sounded like King Kong, perched high in a mahogany tree! This was the first of many shocks to all of my senses as the rainforest is never quiet and seems to both startle and entertain intruders with a constant kaleidoscope of ever-changing sights and sounds.
 
I could go on forever trying to convey the overflowing cornucopia of the beauty in the Costa Rican rainforest, but I must save space for the photojournalism that says so much more! So, feast on the pictures and if you want to live the experience, contact the Rio Parismina Lodge at: www.riop.com.
 



 
 
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