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Jan. 21, 2018
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Vanderford's Travel Column

Savannah's historic forts are worth a visit

Unknown to many Georgia residents, some architectural masterpieces were built as forts to secure Savannah and its port from Union forces before and during the War Between the States. These were phenomenal state-of-the-art engineering structures for their time that were practically obsolete before they were finished because of the advancement in the tools of warfare.
Slightly south of downtown Savannah on the river is Old Fort Jackson, which was constructed in 1808 and is the oldest standing brick fort in Georgia. It is listed as a National Historic Landmark. Since this gorgeous old fort is slightly off the beaten path, few visitors to Savannah ever have the pleasure of seeing or experiencing this historic treasure.
“While visiting Old Fort Jackson,” said Holly Elliott, Coastal Heritage Society PR & Marketing Director, “it’s easy to feel transported to a different century. Located at a strategic spot on the Savannah River, the site has a distinct vantage point of downtown Savannah, while being a comfortable distance away from the city’s crowds.”
Though Fort Jackson was used during the War of 1812, it is primarily known for being the headquarters of Confederate forces throughout the War Between the States. Every day, costumed interpreters give visitors an idea of what day-to-day life as a soldier was like, and two canon firing programs at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. are very exciting.
Just a few miles farther south is one of the most complete and beautiful forts still in existence in America. Fort Pulaski National Monument on Cockspur Island near the mouth of the Savannah River is a true engineering masterpiece of the 19th century! It is a five-sided fortification that was begun in 1829, and the officer who is credited with designing its complicated channels and dykes that kept the waters away from workers was Lieutenant Robert E. Lee.
Named after Revolutionary War hero Count Casimir Pulaski, the fort was completed in 1844, but was minimally manned until the War Between the States in 1861. Even before the South seceded from the Union, Fort Pulaski was taken by a local Georgia militia.
In December of 1861, federal forces took nearby Tybee Island and began installing batteries of newly-designed rifled canon. They were ready and began shelling the fort with pinpoint accuracy on 10 April, 1862, and though the Confederate forces fought valiantly with their outdated canon, they surrendered in less than 24 hours.
The use of rifled artillery at Fort Pulaski forever changed military thinking about coastal defenses. Works of brick and mortar could no longer stand up against the powerful rifled cannon, and America would never again build a brick fortress to defend its harbors.
Though Fort Jackson can be enjoyed in a few hours, it would be impossible to take in all that Fort Pulaski has to offer. From my experiences of having visited this magnificent structure many times throughout my lifetime, I would suggest that you come as a family or group, bring a lunch and give yourself a whole day to become immersed in wonderful Georgia history!

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 or at his web site:

December 2017 column

Puerto Vallarta ia a warm Pacific paradise

As the cooler weather starts to engulf the South, my thoughts drift back to a time and place of warmer temperatures and gorgeous vistas. I can recall sauntering down the long expanse of beach near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when I noticed live splashes where the waves were breaking along the shoreline. Closer inspection brought an even more bizarre revelation! A small school of manta rays seemed to be actually trying to surf the incoming waves, and occasionally, one would become stranded on the beach until the next curl came.
After watching the “surfing rays” for awhile, I observed another small, dark creature struggling in the crashing surf. I quickly reached down and caught what proved to be a tiny sea turtle that must have hatched on this gorgeous beach no more than a few days earlier. It was quite docile as I held it and marveled at this beautiful creation of nature before carefully releasing it back into the ocean.
These encounters were simply a wonderful introduction to a picturesque Pacific paradise along the Mexican West Coast. In fact, with so many direct or connecting flights now available from Atlanta, Puerto Vallarta is one of the closest tropical areas to the United States. It’s not an island, nor halfway around the world and you don’t have to fly over an ocean to reach this magical destination. Nevertheless, it is half the time and half the cost of going to Hawaii or many of the Caribbean Islands.
Despite being unknown to many in the Atlanta area, this part of Mexico is certainly a hidden jewel. It is located about 900 air miles due south of El Paso, Texas, and is protected from the open Pacific Ocean by the Bay of Banderas, which is one of the largest natural bays on the North American continent. The Sierra Madres mountain range on the bay’s south side holds enough moisture along the coast to create the perfect tropical climate year round. It’s much like Hawaii’s weather but more reliable.
The land area around Puerto Vallarta has a distinctly European flavor of cobblestone streets lined with interesting and inexpensive shops and vendors. Surfers from the US and Canada are always a part of the mix, and Latin rhythms seem to constantly drift on the warm sea breezes.
An almost hippy-like atmosphere of artistic culture and pulsating warmth in the local people makes this area stand out from all the rest of the Mexican resorts. Though fairly close to the USA, the prices and mood are far away, but the safe environment allows visitors to enjoy both an exciting night life and a secluded sun drenched romantic hideaway. The dress code of the day is no more than a bathing suit and T-shirt, so bulging suitcases are unnecessary. And, since prices are so reasonable, it’s easy to buy all the needed clothing at shops in this area.
A tropical vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is not far away and quite affordable. The experience will be unforgettable, and you’ll surely want to return time and again to this crown jewel of the Pacific Mexican Riviera.

November 2017 column

A Classic cars and southern hospitality mix at Chateau Elan event

Classic cars from every era captivate the imagination and passionate love of the automobile in every red blooded American. Combine that with a gorgeous fall weekend in the elegance of Don Panoz’s Chateau Elan Resort and Vineyards, and you experience an unforgettable event that all can enjoy!
The 2017 Atlanta Concours d’ Elegance, in it’s second year, was spawned by Harry Krix and Bill Wallet and given the blessings of  automotive entrepreneur and owner of Chateau Elan, Don Panoz. This year’s event featured nearly 200 cars and a dozen motorcycles that began with some of the first gas powered vehicles ever made to modern day classics like Ferrari, Bentley, Porsche and Panoz.
Though every attendee seemed to find that one car they have always dreamed of seeing in its original condition, the organizers had some special surprises this year. Fabulous Fins of the Fifties was a big hit which included many bold rear fin designs from the ’50s and ’60s that coincided with the beginning of the jet age in America.
Hundreds of spectators were seen rambling throughout the huge field of priceless cars while conversing with their owners, who were often clad in period outfits. Near the center of the immaculate golf course where all the cars were displayed was an elevated stage where numerous speakers presented interesting information on all facets of the classic automotive world.
For the owners and presenters of these fantastic automobiles and motorcycles, a serious competition was taking place among them. This years Best of Show American was the 1930 Packard SP Phaeton owned by the Cofer Collection in Tucker, Ga., and the Best of Show European went to the 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K owned by Evergreen Historic Automobiles in Missouri. Founder, Harry Krix presented to Rob Adams a trophy that best exemplified the spirit of the show and is dedicated to his late wife Karen. Adams’ car is a 1956 Arnott Sports Climax, which was the first car designed and built by a woman.
The special honoree this year was famous motorsports broadcaster, Bob Varsha, who was the long time voice of the Formula One World Championship. In his youth, he was a world class runner, but has appeared on almost every network for all facets of motor racing throughout his career.
Most of us in this country are in love with our cars because they evoke memories of wonderful times in our lives ... or maybe our Walter Mitty dreams. Whatever the reason, this event has evolved quickly into being one of the premier Concours d’ Elegance destinations in America, and I can’t wait to see what next year will bring!

October 2017 column - A special place in South Georgia

A trip into the southern part of Georgia recently led me through the sleepy town of Cordele to an exciting destination that I had forgotten. The Lake Blackshear Resort and Golf Club is located on the Central and Western portion of the Georgia Veterans State Park. The combination of these two facilities offers enough exciting and relaxing opportunities to entertain anyone for weeks!
Even before reaching the entrance into the park, part of the gorgeous 18-hole golf course can be seen. This championship course, designed by Denis Griffiths, is rated four stars by Golf Digest Magazine, and is one of the most affordable places to swing a club in the Peach State.
During the first 1/4 mile beyond the entrance, visitors cross an old railroad track belonging to the SAM Shortline Excursion Train. It runs through the park on its way from Cordele to Plains, allowing riders to see an antique telephone museum, Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village, President Jimmy Carter’s boyhood farm and other attractions on scheduled trips.
The Georgia Veterans State Park was established as a memorial to U.S. veterans from all wars. It has one of the most interesting military museums that I have ever seen ... with uniforms, weapons, medals and other items from the Revolutionary War through both Gulf Wars. On the outside, one is stunned by the presence of one of the last B-29 bombers in existence and an extremely rare Navy Sea Fury jet fighter from the Korean War era. Additionally, numerous antique armored vehicles are on display, and a nearby open field is maintained for flying remote-controlled, model airplanes.
In the more than 1,300 acres of the park, travelers can choose from a variety of tent, trailer and RV campsites, four picnic shelters and two group shelters that seat over 100 people each. Recreational options include a swimming beach, a flying disc course and a one-mile nature trail. Of course, 8,600 acre Lake Blackshear also borders the park with excellent fishing for bass, crappie, catfish, and bream.
The best part of this destination, however, is the Lake Blackshear Resort and Golf Club that offers 14 rooms in the main lodge, 64 villas and 10 lakeside cabins with panoramic views of Lake Blackshear. Also incorporated in this complex is 10,000 square-feet of conference and meeting space, complete with A/V and full catering services, which can easily handle groups from 10 to 450. Because of the diverse options, this property has become popular for business meetings, family reunions and weddings in recent years. 
The lodge has a complete fitness center, an indoor/outdoor swimming pool and balconies facing Lake Blackshear. Additionally, Cordelia’s Restaurant offers unexpected fine dining with a gorgeous view of the lake, the nearby full-service marina and the always lively Cypress Grill.
Along with the aforementioned options, Lake Blackshear is popular for boating and waterskiing. In fact, many private owners bring their own boats, launch them at the ramp in the park and use the many facilities available.
When visitors venture out to explore the local countryside, they will be amazed at the possibilities. Nearby attractions include: Andersonville National Historic Site; Providence Canyon State Conservation Park; Georgia Rural Telephone Museum; Jimmy Carter National Historic Site; Warner Robins Air Museum; Chehaw Wild Animal Park; and the Jefferson Davis Memorial State Historic Site.
This South Georgia jewel has the ingredients to fit any mood in business or pleasure with a cornucopia of opportunities in a picturesque setting. Both the Georgia Veterans State Park and the Lake Blackshear Resort and Golf Club are impressive on their own, but combined, they are truly one of Georgia’s hidden treasures! 
For more information visit:

September 2017 column - Columbus Ga. has experienced a magical rebirth

  My previous memory of Columbus, Georgia was of a run down old town with eroded river banks that were littered with trash floating down from Atlanta. On the other side of the Chattahoochee River at this point was the Alabama town of Phenix City, which was known as “The Sin City of the South.” So, I was naturally shocked on a recent visit to see a total metamorphosis from the gloom of the past to the traveler’s destination of today!

  The most noticeable and picturesque addition to the old city is the fabulous 15-mile trail known as the Chattahoochee River Walk. Brilliant city planners realized that any rebirth of the city would have to begin with a return to the river which had always been the life blood of this area. Therefore in 1996, the initial stretch of the trail was extended to the main post of Fort Benning, giving walkers and bikers the opportunity to observe wildlife and a part of the city. Now, the River Walk extends through a diverse scenic path all the way to the old cotton mill town of Bibb City.
  Another exciting aspect to the river area of the old downtown is the Columbus Whitewater course which offers miles of wet and wild fun on the Chattahoochee River. It is the longest urban whitewater rafting in the world. The course consists of class II to V whitewater offering two types of trips (Classic and Challenge) on the same 2.5 mile stretch of river due to the dam-controlled release which occurs daily. During the day, the river will run the perfect speed for family fun and adventure, but in the afternoon, the water cranks up to to produce some of the biggest whitewater on the East Coast ... providing a wild and exciting trip!
  While all this is happening, the folks at Whitewater Express ( allow you to take flight on the Blue Heron Adventure on a zip line that crosses high above the Chattahoochee River at speeds up to 40 mph. This is the only dual-zip line that connects two states.
  For the less adventuresome crowd, this reborn riverfront town offers plenty of Southern hospitality, some old-world charm and lots of experiences for history lovers. A stroll through the 28 block National Historic District of Victorian homes, gardens and museums in Heritage Corner will take you back to a forgotten era.
  Columbus also has a rich cultural side ... including opera, symphony and a performing arts center. Families love the Coca-Cola Space Museum to experience a simulated flight and a see the first Coke machine used in outer space. The revitalized old downtown section of Columbus comes alive on weekends with street markets. Known as “Uptown,” this area is home to the best locally owned and operated restaurants, coffee shops and city life. It is the most vibrant area of Columbus! If golf is your game, Columbus boasts two fabulous but demanding courses just a few miles from the city. These beautiful venues are Bull Creek East and West designed by Joe Lee and Ward Northrup. For reservations call 706-561-1614.
  Since I had been here last, the city of Columbus has become a true tourist destination including accommodations of more than 4,000 rooms. Columbus is a vibrant and growing community of 250,000 people who exhibit Southern hospitality every day. It’s a community that has taken pride in preserving the past while maintaining a bright vision for the future, and I would highly recommend it as a great place to visit!

August 2017 column - Natural beauty is synonymous with Florida's Big Bend

Great white heron, the prima ballerina, strikes her pose as blue herons pirouette. An ibis takes flight with grace as a tri-colored heron waltzes, displaying multi-hued plumage. Alone on the observation deck, I am blessed to view the ballet, a most welcome, daily, sunrise ritual. Even the nesting wood stork adds his cries to the harmonious melody, echoing through rising mist on pristine wetlands.

Peace and poise reign until the predatory osprey swoops across the stage, causing other birds to scatter. Even a basking gator’s eyes rise to observe the flutter of wings. Only the great white heron remains composed.” These are the beautiful words of Carolyn Devonshire from her poem: Florida Nature.
Such glorious reflections only begin to describe what visitors can encounter in a forgotten part of Florida that extends south and east from Apalachicola through the Big Bend to Yankeetown. The quiet calm often camouflages the mind boggling possibilities that are available in this natural area. This is a part of Florida that is relatively undeveloped and still looks much like it did before the settlers came. The roads along the coast meander, while forest roads are mostly long and straight, so drive slowly as there is so much to see.
The Big Bend National Scenic Byway passes through four counties, three state parks, a National Forest and a National Wildlife Refuge.This route takes you through little coastal fishing villages, by old lighthouses and lots of bridges. The miles of longleaf pine forests, fields of wild flowers and roadside bogs are home to a plethora of wildlife.
Most serious sea kayakers have experienced multi-day expeditions along Florida’s Big Bend Gulf Coast. This remote area has one of the longest and wildest publicly-owned coastal wetlands in the United States supporting a phenomenal array of bird and marine life. White pelicans and great egrets and numerous other wading birds are seen throughout the marshes. Manatee swim below while bald eagles and ospreys maneuver above the clear waters as they try to spot fish, turtles and small rays in meadows of sea grass. This Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail spans much of the Big Bend from the Aucilla River to Yankeetown, and the northern 105-mile segment from the Aucilla to the Suwannee River is managed by Florida Wildlife Commission.
Though some commercial fishing is still done, seafood harvesting laws tend to favor sport fishing these days. Therefore, the unbelievable revival of spotted sea trout, redfish, flounder and sheepshead has made this part of Florida a mecca for anglers with rod and reel. Also, the fertile, spring-fed, saltwater flats of the Wakulla, St. Marks, Steinhatchee, Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers have made the Big Bend one of the most popular scalloping areas in the world.
Though not one of the wonders of the world, everyone should stop by Steinhatchee Falls so that they can say that they’ve seen it. Any kind of sudden drop in elevation in Florida is noteworthy, but this one was made famous when Andrew Jackson rested here during one of his Indian campaigns.
Yankeetown still has that Old Florida look with magnificent oak trees decorated with long veils of Spanish moss shading the winding lanes leading to the Withlacoochee River. The best way to see both the river and the surrounding area is by boat with any of the available guides. Both fresh and saltwater fishing is excellent in this area, but the 30 minute ride down the river to the Gulf is absolutely breathtaking! Anyone who likes birding or has an interest in ospreys and eagles will simply go nuts taking pictures of birds and nesting areas!
Florida’s Big Bend offers something for everyone who loves and appreciates nature and the outdoors ... and the diverse fresh and saltwater fishing opportunities are great. Regardless of the reasons for coming to this forgotten Gulf Coast paradise, the trip is guaranteed to be memorable.

July 2017 column - Gilmer County and Ellijay are hidden jewels in the Georgia mountains

Mother Nature and so much more are alive and well near the sparkling waters of the Cartecay, Ellijay and Coosawattee rivers in Gilmer County near the historic village of Ellijay. The rivers and mountains of this area are a cool place to spend a few days discovering a hidden beauty that is off the beaten track. 
Unique boutiques, antiques shops, outdoor outfitters, lodging options and a revitalized downtown create a one-of-a-kind experience less than an hour by car north of Atlanta. Visitors find a destination that includes hiking and biking trails, healthy olive oils, handmade soaps and Himalayan salt crystals at specialty shops in and around Ellijay. One can tube, fish or kayak the rivers or boat on Carter’s Lake. Wherever you go around Gilmer County ... adventure awaits, and you can check out the possibilities by going to
Wine has become a huge draw to Ellijay and Gilmer County in recent years, and soon after entering Gilmer County, I would highly recommend a stop at the spacious Engelheim Vineyards ( to taste their interesting wines and have an enlightening conversation with owner, Gary Engel. All of his wines are good, but his Sweet Molly, which he says is the “Southern Belle” version of his Traminette, is the best!
A great place to stay for the night is the old Martyn Farm House ( just on the outskirts of Ellijay. It’s a great “home away from home” and they also offer glamping for the more hardy souls. The Martyn House in Towne is their funky but comfortable breakfast restaurant that seems to attract all of the wine and artsy crowd and many of the local business people.
The oldest winery in Gilmer County is the Cartecay Vineyards ( that was built around a chimney left from a burned out farm house. The land had been inactive for a long time, so the vineyard was created by combining the original farm layout with the specific needs of a vineyard. Wine tasting, live music and weddings are an important part of this unique winery. The owner, Larry Lykins, has been very influential in helping other wine growers get started in the area. 
Most everyone in Gilmer wine country stops for lunch at the Crossroads Grocery to enjoy simple but tasty food and entertaining stories from owner, Ryals Cheek. They are located at: 8994 Highway 52 East, Ellijay.
The final winery on any wine quest should be the elegant Chateau Meichtry ( sporting a two-story wine tasting facility and an outdoor deck with a view. The actual winery and home sits high on a hill surrounded by the vineyards and is beautiful to see!

Conclude any foray into the Gilmer County wine country in style with a palate pleasing visit to Ellijay’s own, Lee’s on River Street at the 1907 ( Mouth watering cuisine, fine wines, friendly service and local music in a laid back atmosphere is the perfect way to end a day of wine tasting!
Gilmer County is changing fast, but the wonderful folks up there are also trying to maintain a glimpse of their past. It is very different from many small towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains, including being very pet friendly. I found it to be very welcoming and naturally beautiful with remarkably good wines and mouthwatering food, and summer is a great time to visit this beautiful area!


June 2017 column

Lumpkin County has a golden history and much more

During the 1800s, gold was discovered in the hills and streams around the town of Dahlonega. In fact, the quest for that precious yellow metal was partly responsible for the Smith House, which today is one of Georgia’s most famous eateries. In 1884 Captain Frank Hall purchased an acre of land east of the town square and found a rich vein of gold ore. The city officials, however, wouldn’t allow a mine just one block from the public square. So the captain built his house right on top of the gold so the Smith House still stands on that vein of Dahlonega gold. 
The riches in Lumpkin County today consist of wine, food, art and scenic byways. Therefore, no trip to North Georgia would be complete without first visiting Dahlonega and spending a day on the courthouse square. It has the most wine tasting venues in Georgia, great art and plenty of history. 
My suggestion is to acquire an elegant room at the Hall House Hotel ( overlooking the famous square and decorated with art by hotel owner Mike Miller. It’s the perfect place to stay in the center of the action.
In just one day in downtown Dahlonega, one can breakfast at the Picnic Cafe, eat lunch at the famous Smith House (, taste wine in all of the tasting rooms and see more quality art than you could imagine by just walking near the square. Top all that off with a fabulous halibut dinner and fine wine at the Back Porch Oyster Bar (, then proceed across the square for an evening of entertaining music at the Crimson Moon Cafe (
Before going into the countryside to explore the wineries and gorgeous landscapes of the Dahlonega Plateau, which is a narrow, northeast-southwest part of the northern foothills of the Georgia Piedmont, check out the beautiful Cane Creek Falls inside Camp Glisson near Dahlonega.
Entering Montaluce Winery and Estates ( in Lumpkin County reminds one of the elegant beauty of Tuscany in Italy. The estate structures, winery and restaurant have that old world feel in a spectacular postcard setting, and thanks to a delightful Aussie winemaker named Tristen, the wines are excellent!
From there, travel into the heart of the Dahlonega Plateau to another stately place with a more California style, operated by an elegant lady named Cydney. Her Frogtown Cellers and Vineyards ( feature estate grown wines that have achieved recognition and acclaim from national and international wine critics, writers and judges.
Less than a quarter mile away at the famous Three Sisters Vineyards (, owner Sharon Paul will introduce you to some fabulous wines and allow you to photograph her beautiful barn. Though her Fat Boy wines are famous, her Chestatee White wine is one of the best in the state! Three Sisters Vineyards is Dahlonega’s first family farm winery and Lumpkin County’s founding wine grape grower.
A visit to the quaint and friendly Cavender Creek Vineyards ( also has beautiful grounds and very good wines. There is a nice tasting room but the highlight is the circa 1820s historic log cabin.
In wine country, a restful night in the sprawling but picturesque Dahlonega Spa Resort ( is the perfect place to stay in the middle of all the wineries on the Dahlonega Plateau. The meals are gourmet excellent, the cabins are comfortable, they have 72 acres of open meadows and woods with a 40 foot walking labyrinth and 1.5 miles of walking trails.
Lumpkin County is a picturesque place that 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 visiting the North Georgia mountains.

May 2017 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 ( 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.

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 ( 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 (, The Cottage Vineyard and Winery (, Yonah Mountain Vineyards (, CeNita Vineyards and Winery ( and Kaya Vineyards and Winery (

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 ( 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 ( 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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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 pre