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Vanderford's Travel 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.



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 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 Indians, the gold rush and the moonshine makers is part of the visit. Youngsters even have their own exciting zip line that is completely safe for even really small kids. For reservations or info visit www.zipntime.com or call 706-878-9477.

Though more than one day would be required to try all of these thrilling experiences, White County offers so much more. So, next month I will follow up with something for the adults in an article entitled, “Wine and Waterfalls.”


June 2014 column

Amicalola Falls: A natural wonder with amenities

Gazing up through the tall hardwood trees from the Reflection Pool to the distant falls above, one seems to be drawn up the steep trail for a closer look. The 1/3 of a mile hike to the wooden platform directly below the final cascade is rather steep and might require a rest stop or two, but it’s worth the trip. Just to sit on the old bench and stare up into this magnificent work of nature as the light plays tricks with the ever-changing beams passing through millions of prism-like droplets of water has a soothing effect on the mind and body.

Amicalola in my ancestor’s Cherokee language means “tumbling waters,” and this natural cascade definitely lives up to the billing. The spectacular falls plunges 729 feet in seven continuing cascades and is the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River. The incoming water consists of one mainstream that begins as several small springs flowing from the mountains. This same stream flows through the park, offering guests a chance to try their luck at catching wily rainbow trout during the season.

The park contains nearly 1,000 acres of mostly hardwood trees that encase the majestic waterfall in a shroud of ever-changing colors. Though every part of the year has its own unique shade that ranges from wildflowers to dogwood, mountain laurel and rhododendron, the fall season always displays the most brilliant colors at Amicalola. The winter months also hold a special magic as the deer and other wild animals seek food and refuge within the park when an occasional winter snow covers the area with a blanket of white for several days.

Amicalola Falls State Park offers campsites for those who wish to have an outdoor adventure. These are enhanced by hot showers, flushing toilets and laundry facilities located in the nearby comfort station. In addition to the camping facilities, 14 cottages are available for a nice quiet escape. Some of these are nestled in the woods along a creek, while others are set on a mountain for a panoramic view. No  pets are permitted.

For the best in comfort and style, the park has a four-story, 57-room lodge, Maple Restaurant for fine dining and meeting facility that is available for getaways and group gatherings. This gorgeous structure is located above the falls and offers breathtaking views from the guest rooms, restaurant and lobby area.

The meeting rooms can accommodate up to 250 people including on-site conference planning, catering and audio/visual equipment. Leadership/team-building activities that range from a rope course to rappelling are also available.

In addition, the park provides plenty of open picnic tables, which are available on a first come-first serve basis, and covered picnic shelters. Also, hikers can enjoy nearly three miles of trails on the park plus the Approach Trail to the 2,160 mile Appalachian Trail. The southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is 8.5 miles from the park at Springer Mountain and continues to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Backpackers planning to be out overnight should register their itinerary at the visitor center before leaving, and all vehicles left overnight must be registered. A stocked stream and pond for trout fishing is available throughout the legal trout season. Persons age 16 or older must have a valid resident/non-resident fishing license and trout stamp.

Amicalola Falls State Park and Conference Center has almost anything an outdoor enthusiast or family could want, plus being one of the finest meeting facilities in the North Georgia area. The magnificence and raw natural beauty of the cascading of water, makes every visit here a truly unforgettable experience.

For additional information or reservations, contact: Amicalola Falls State Park & Conference Center at (800) 573-9656.


May 2014 column

Panoz celebration brings back great memories

As I parked the Panoz Esperante GTS behind the pit wall at Sebring in the fall of 2003 after an exhilarating day on the track, my heart was pumping hard, 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 spinning!

Following 10 years of sports car racing in Europe during the 1960s, I had crawled out of a racing car for the last time in 1971 ... never intending to sit in one again. Because of an article that I had written during the summer of 2003 about Panoz, however, I was invited to drive their latest Esperante GTS race car at Sebring in a NASA event just before Thanksgiving, and I was hooked again!

Since that time, I have had a very close association with Panoz and many of their holdings, like Road Atlanta and Chateau Elan through my SCCA racing and writing for magazines and newspapers. So, when I was invited to attend the Panoz 25th Anniversary VIP Event in their new museum and showroom near Braselton to unveil their latest creation – the Esperante Spyder – I excitedly accepted!

This purely American car company was spawned from an idea Dan Panoz had in 1989 to build a special roadster in the Braselton area from a previous creation by famous auto designer, Frank Costin. With the blessing and financing of his famous father, Don Panoz, the original Panoz Roadster was completed in 1990, and the rebirth of American involvement in International Road Racing began.

During 1997, Panoz became heavily involved in both European and American competition with different racing versions of their now famous Esperante sports car. This led to class wins at the LeMans 24 Hour Race, a national championship in the Sports Car Club of America and many other victories in the following years.

In the past few years, however, the Panoz family had pulled out of many of their racing ventures and slowed manufacturing cars, so on their 25th anniversary it was time for something new and exciting. The unveiling of the all new 25th Anniversary Edition Esperante Spyder luxury sports car at the VIP event in the new Panoz Showroom and Museum on Highway 124 in Braselton was perfect. It brought together all of the Panoz family, including Dan and Don, many politicians from local to the national level, movie stars, sports personalities, Esperante owners, top racing engineers and drivers and many other dignitaries. It also brought back many wonderful memories and renewed friendships that were forged during the great Panoz racing days.

The new 10,000 square foot showroom and museum is a living chronicle of the unique racing history of the prestigious Panoz marque that often dominated some of the greatest road racing circuits in the world. Visitors can see the actual cars and with the help of staff and the many signs throughout the premises, relive the excitement of the memorable races. The museum is also available for local functions with all proceeds from the rental going to the Chestnut Mountain Ranch and Eagle Ranch for boys and girls, and the Braselton Library. The Panoz family has always and continues to contribute to these and other charitable endeavors.

Clients can now purchase street-legal versions of any of these racing cars or previous Panoz street cars. They will be built to personal specifications incorporating the latest carbon/aluminum chassis and powertrain. “We will be producing all these cars on a one-off customer basis for the street,” said Panoz LLC Vice President of Sales John A. Leverett. “Clients will be able to choose enough on these cars to make it uniquely theirs.”

One of the main reasons for the VIP event was to showcase the mechanical artistry of the new 25th Anniversary Panoz Esperante Spyder. This all new car externally looks much like the old Esperante, but it is much lighter in weight and incorporates lots more power under the hood. The new Spyder contains too many new innovations to list and has numerous available options, but with every Panoz car, it is built to exact customer specifications and needs.

Even if you can’t buy one of these fine cars, a visit to this new and also historical museum is worth the trip. For more info, contact Panoz LLC at 678-425-1539.


April 2014 column

Helen is a great spring destination, and it's nearby

Even before visitors enter the small Alpine village of Helen, Ga., history and mountain beauty abound! Along this path just below Yonah Mountain, an old Indian mound stands at the junction of Highways 17 and 75, just south of Helen near the Chattahoochee River. It is a familiar landmark to many travelers, but a mystery to newcomers.

According to the legend, Indian lovers from opposing tribes are buried in this sacred place known as the Nacoochee Mound. The story relates that Sautee, a brave of the Chickasaw Tribe, and Nacoochee, daughter of a Cherokee Chief, fell immediately and hopelessly in love when a Chickasaw band stopped in Cherokee territory at a designated resting place. The two lovers met in the night and ran away to nearby Yonah Mountain to spend a few days together. When they later confronted Nacoochee's father with the idea of creating peace between the two nations, Chief Wahoo ordered Sautee thrown from the high cliffs of Yonah Mountain while Nacoochee was forced to watch. Immediately, Nacoochee broke away from her father’s restraining hands and leaped from the cliff to join her lover. At the foot of the cliff the lovers drew their broken bodies together and locked in a final embrace. The Chief, overcome with remorse, realized the greatness of love and buried the lovers, still locked together in death, near the banks of the Chattahoochee River in a burial mound.

Though it is a very poignant narrative, the Nacoochee Mound is actually an old burial site that was probably placed there long before the Cherokee Tribe inhabited the area. An excavation that began in 1915 unearthed 75 burials in the mound. These graves were discovered at varying levels, showing that the burials took place over a number of years. Differences in artifacts found indicate a slight change in the culture, due possibly to the influence of civilization. Within the mound, none of the remains were preserved well enough to enable exact measurements of the bodies.

Since the Cherokee Tribe later used the mound as a site for their townhouse and ceremonial rites, they were obviously ignorant of the original purpose of the artificial hill. They also erected an estimated 300 dwellings in a village on the surrounding flatland near the river. Of the 75 skeletons unearthed, 56 were of adults, seven of adolescents, four of children and eight were unidentifiable as to age. The dead were interred with the head directed in varying compass directions. One was buried in a sitting position, two were buried in a face down position, but the direction of burial bears no special significance as to age. Of the determinable burials, 47 were flexed in varying degrees. Six were flexed backward, and four were buried extended full length. Artifacts were found with only 27 of the burials, the others had no accompaniments of any description.

The Nacoochee Mound is located in White County, two miles south of Helen on property that once belonged to the L.G. Hardman Estate. Dr. Hardman was a former governor of Georgia. Today, the mound, the Chattahoochee River, part of the Nacoochee Valley and the Hardman Estate are all part of Smithgall Woods, which is owned by the State of Georgia.

During the summer of 1980 Nacoochee Valley, in which the mound is located, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district. It is a beautiful place to see from the road during any season of the year, but is especially beautiful during the spring!

Not more than 300 yards from the Indian mound is Nora Mill Granary established in 1876 as an operational gristmill alongside the Chattahoochee River. Nora Mill still utilizes the original 1,500 pound French Burr Stones to grind and produce all kinds of corn and wheat based products such as grits, corn meal, pancake and waffle mixes, flours, biscuit and bread mixes, pioneer’s porridge and more. They have an old-fashioned country store and gift shop that’s called “Nora Mill Next Door.” The country store is stocked with thousands of new items and even has a large kitchen built just for cooking and serving samples of the mill. An outside deck and walkway is also free to see the dam and the Chattahoochee River ... but you must pay for food to feed the huge trout in the water below.

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 meal, 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. Clarkesville artist, John Kollock, already had an idea from his days in the Army in Bavaria. He had made many sketches of Alpine villages and was fascinated with the similarity of the landscape to the North Georgia Mountains. Kollock photographed the whole business section of Helen and within a week presented a series of water color sketches of what the face of Helen would look like in Alpine style. The businessmen eagerly accepted the sketches and a week later the townsmen and local carpenters began turning ideas into reality.

Helen became a new town with a new industry for the community. 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.

For more information, contact the Helen Chamber of Commerce (706-878-1619) or Helen Welcome Center at (800-858-8027).


March 2014 column

Winter in Banff is simply magnificent

After a day of “snow plowing” slowly down the “bunny slopes” at Banff and Lake Louise, (in Alberta, Canada), looking down the mountain at the beginning of a real ski run was terrifying! Less than 24 hours earlier was the first time I had ever donned a pair of snow skis, so I naturally questioned the sanity of this decision by my instructor to attack this famous Banff mountain on a pair of skinny boards.

Though the actual ski run for beginners is only slightly steeper in places than the wider training or “bunny” slopes, one can easily see that the sides of the run go straight down. Therefore, as my ski instructor had warned, I was engulfed by what they call “mountain fear.”

I quickly learned, however, that I could still make the turns or stop in the same way the wonderful instructors from the Banff and Lake Louise had taught me, and my confidence continued to grow. By the end of the day, I was like everyone else … enjoying the experience and the gorgeous views of one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Having never seen the Canadian Rockies during the winter season, I was amazed by the majesty of the snow-covered mountains. Also, the elegance and history of the Banff Springs Hotel was like something out of a medieval fairy tale. This spectacular hotel was the world’s largest when it opened in 1888 to accommodate Victorian tourists who came to visit the area’s hot springs. It was designed and furnished to resemble a Scottish castle at the urging of William Van Horne, General Manager of Canadian Pacific Railways. The hotel, which is known as “Canada’s Castle in the Rockies,” remains as Banff’s signature property and is one of the most beautiful hotels in Canada. This picturesque property is also the hub for those who want to ski Banff’s three famous ski venues at Lake Louise, Sunshine and Norquay. A complete ski shop with the latest rental ski equipment is located inside the Banff Springs Hotel, and they can arrange daily passes and ski lift tickets for all venues with reliable transportation to and from each area.

Banff National Park attracts roughly four million visitors each year and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is renowned as a protected paradise that encompasses 6,641 square kilometers of mountains, forests and lakes in the middle of a vast wilderness. The small communities of Banff and Lake Louise are the only townships inside the National Park. These villages have a distinctive mountain lifestyle, a deep respect for the natural surroundings and a local history that is as diverse as the people who inhabit this area. All residents must reside in one of the two villages to own a home, which helps to preserve the family qualities of the two communities.

The town of Banff is in the province of Alberta in the southwestern corner of Banff National Park and 90 miles west of Calgary via the Trans Canada Highway. Because the town is surrounded by mountains and wilderness, the community must share its space with a variety of wildlife. Walking about the town, one is likely to see deer or elk at any time during the winter and spring months. Banff is also known for its shopping and excellent restaurants. One of the best is the Waldhaus Restaurant, which is a Bavarian Cottage-style building that was built in 1927 and overlooks the Spray River. The atmosphere is reminiscent of an old hunting cottage with dark, rich wood paneling, and a large fireplace. The menu consists of authentic German and Swiss dishes.

The very quiet hamlet of Lake Louise is 50 minutes farther west and is also within Banff National Park. Spectacular scenery is the norm at Lake Louise, and it boasts 4,200 skiable acres, which makes it one of the largest ski areas in North America. The unique layout allows families and groups of varying abilities to ski together. Visitors will find beginner, intermediate and expert downhill runs from every chair lift. Beginners and intermediate skiers have access to an abundance of gentle slopes and long cruising runs, and experts can explore endless chutes, glades, gullies and remote bowls in some of the Rockies’ most challenging terrain.

Banff National Park was the first such park in Canada and only the third in the world when it was created in 1885. It was named for Banffshire, Scotland, and because of the natural hot springs, it brought in tourists from all around the world.

Though much has changed in the world since the beginning of the 20th century, little has changed in Banff because of the strict laws inherent with being in a national park. Therefore, developers with deep pockets have been kept out of this pristine part of Canada, and the animals have more rights than the people. As it has always been, Banff National Park is still a quiet, but absolutely awe inspiring natural wonder of the world … especially when covered with pure, soft, powdered snow!

February 2014 column

Return to a Caribbean paradise to escape the cold


Sitting here in my office watching the cold wind and rain, I close my eyes and remember the morning sun caressing the windblown sand along a deserted beach. Its warming rays refracted by hundreds of white objects that became more visible with each degree of sun angle. For expert shells seekers, this expanding spectacle would be like a treasure hunter finding an ancient Spanish galleon overflowing with gold.

Though many varieties of shells are found in the Turks and Caicos Islands, several species of conch shells are the most dominant. Conch has always been an important part of life and survival in this tropical paradise. These huge sea snails are used as an ingredient in hundreds of delectable food dishes that are served in these islands. In modern times, however, conch has become important in jewelry-making, art work and as an exported food.      

The Turks and Caicos Islands are located at the far southeast corner of the Bahamas archipelago. These gems of the Atlantic Ocean are approximately 575 miles from Miami and are comprised of over 40 islands and uninhabited cays, including eight major islands: Grand Turk, Salt Cay, West Caicos, Providenciales, North Caicos, Middle Caicos, East Caicos and South Caicos. To the south, the Caicos Bank is a shallow, pale, turquoise sea that is partly composed of swamp and tidal flats that are filled with an abundant resource of conch, lobster and numerous species of fish. In this area, Sapodilla Bay is a popular mooring for yachts traveling through the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The most inhabited of all the islands and certainly the most visited is Providenciales, also known as “Provo.” It’s a wonderfully friendly place to visit and is home to the only Conch farm in the world. A number of diverse lodging possibilities are found on the beautiful, expansive, white sands and tranquil, turquoise waters of famous Grace Bay, which is within easy sight of the protective coral reef. Each property has their own separate identities, but offer an elegant lifestyle in a natural, tropical setting.

Restaurant service throughout the islands is done on “Island Time” … which is somewhat slower and certainly more laid back than what most visitors expect. Nevertheless, the food, atmosphere and presentation seems to always be surprisingly unique in Provo. However, to enjoy a distinctive island experience and authentic cuisine, drive to Blue Hills Beach for lunch at Da Conch Shack. This open air eatery is right on the beach, serves fresh local seafood in an island-style, and is saturated with loud music and plenty of local flies to swat away.  

From Provo, the full breadth of the Turks & Caicos Islands is open to enjoy and explore, including dozens of small uninhabited cays and sister islands, many of which are tropical wilderness land. Also known for its favorable year-round climate, the average Provo temperature is a balmy, breezy 78ºF. Therefore, regardless of the season, these islands that dangle at the tip of the Bahamas chain like a shiny gold and turquoise pendant in the sun, are a joy to behold that will conjure up memories luring visitors to surely return.

For more information, check their website: www.turksandcaicostourism.com.


January 2014 column

Huatulco is a secret Mexican paradise


As the curtain parted in my suite at the exquisite Quinta Real Resort in Huatulco, Mexico, the predawn colors were as abundant and diverse as those of a light beam passing through a prism. It seemed each degree of angle in the rising sun over the islands and beaches in the Bay of Tangolunda unveiled a new and exciting visual feast for the senses!

The name Huatulco comes from the Náhuatl word cuaúhtolco, meaning “the place where the wood is adored.” It is said that 2,000 years ago, in the time of the apostles of Jesus, the native Indians of this area saw an old, white man with long hair and a beard in an overcoat arrive from the sea. He arrived carrying a beautiful timber, like a cross, which was unusual and amazing to the people of the area. When he departed, the man told them that the holy timber should remain on the beach. Due to these events, large pilgrimages of native Indians from many places would come to the beach to admire the holy timber. Therefore, it seems appropriate to tell the story of Huatulco just after the Christmas season.

In the mid 1600s, the region was used by Hernán Cortés to distribute the produce of his farms along the coast, which turned Huatulco into an extremely active port. This attracted pirates during the second half of the 16th century, including Drake and the famous Thomas Cavendish. Thereafter, the place became a quiet fishing village, until the Mexican government began developing it as a planned tourist complex in 1983.

For more than 20 years, Huatulco has served as the perfect getaway for native Mexicans looking for a gorgeous destination to enjoy a romantic holiday, but few outside of Mexico even knew of its existence. Recently, however, knowledgeable travelers from the USA and Canada have ventured into this secluded section of Mexico. Due to the new influx of international tourists, Huatulco now offers a number of diverse activities and trips for every taste.  

Many choose a frolicking trip on one of the tour boats that sail frequently from Santa Cruz Harbor to view the nine bays and numerous white sand beaches of Huatulco. Instead, I would opt for the eco-adventure tours into forested countryside via ATV or horseback. This is an excellent way to observe the local flora and fauna in a forest area that is protected as a nature reserve.

I found the most interesting and educational day trip available was a visit to the Finca La Gloria coffee plantation in the nearby mountains. A virtual kaleidoscope of nature unfolds all around, and it is easy to see the changes in plants and trees as the altitude increases. Numerous birds, lizards, armadillos and multicolored tarantulas are seen before passing through an ancient village after an hour of driving. This small village has existed and remained untouched for more than 400 years, and has a church that dates back to the 1600s.

Before going on to the coffee plantation, we took a side trip to visit a magnificent waterfall near the headwaters of the Rio Copalito. Several Mexican families were enjoying the cool waters, diving from the rocks or swinging from a rope into the pool below the falls. At the plantation we were shown the process of the coffee from its cultivation to the final product. The best part of the visit to the plantation, however, was an Oaxacan style, freshly prepared lunch by the owners.

At the Quinta Real Hotel, we enjoyed plush accommodations, fantastic service, scrumptious meals and hospitality that is rarely matched anywhere in the world! Because the hotel is perched high on a hill overlooking the blue Pacific Ocean, the vistas alone are among the best in Huatulco. Reservations are required and can be obtained by visiting their website at:  www.quintareal.com/contact-reservations.

In retrospect, I was wrong to have judged Mexico harshly before I had visited Huatulco. This gem that is located south of Acapulco on the Pacific rim is a bastion of ecological-friendly development, natural beauty and historical interest, which makes this hidden treasure one of Mexico’s finest destinations!


December 2013 column

Seeing America's oldest city in a new way

The first streaking light beams of sunrise illuminate the beautiful panorama of America’s oldest city,  St. Augustine. It has always been and still is one of the favorite places for many Georgians to visit, but unique changes have made it even better! One of the most notable is the complete, modern restoration of the old Bridge of Lions going to the lighthouse and beach. In the past, it would have taken nearly a half hour to let a boat through the harbor area, but the state-of-the-art drawbridge now opens and closes in less than 10 minutes.

Thank goodness some things never change, and one of those is the immaculate St. Francis Inn Bed and Breakfast, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and less than a block from the certified “Oldest House in St. Augustine.” The St. Frances is certainly the oldest inn in the city and the structure dates back to 1791 when it was built as the home place of Spanish soldier, Gaspar Garcia. Though the building had quite a few owners, it wasn’t until 1845 that the house was converted into a lodging place.

For nearly 30 years, the St. Frances Inn has been owned and operated by the Finnegan family and is always considered one of the finest B&Bs in the nation. It is located at the juncture of two narrow, ancient brick streets ... St. Frances and St. George and boasts a cozy tree-shrouded garden courtyard just inside the entrance gate. Visitors find a plethora of collectable items, great service, quaint rooms, gourmet breakfasts, and even a famous ghost at the inn.

A room on the third floor has become known as “Lily’s Room” because of many strange happenings associated with it over the years. The story goes that a young nephew of the owner in the 19th century fell in love with a servant girl who worked at the inn. One day when the lovers were discovered by the uncle, he dismissed the girl and forbade the boy from ever seeing her again, so the young man committed suicide. According to many former guests and staff members, Lily has been seen in the room, around the inn or passing in the hallway dressed in white ... apparently looking for her lover. More about Lily and the inn is available on their website: www.stfrancisinn.com.

Tasting the marvelous creations of French Chef Jean Stephane Poinard at the Bistro de Leon (www.Bistrodeleon.com) was the highlight of my first day in St. Augustine. His culinary invention of a thin-crusted brioche, which he labeled the iBun and filled with pulled pork, is mouthwatering. This magical iBun has the capability of keeping any filling warm for more than two hours, and unlike wraps or other types of buns, it is never messy to eat. No matter what filling is used, the brioche part of the iBun tantalizes your taste buds.

One of the most recent additions to St. Augustine is the Colonial Quarter which consists of two acres sandwiched between the main street across from the old fort and the pedestrian only part of St. George Street. This exhibit gives the whole family a fun, hands-on glimpse of St. Augustine’s history from a Spanish settlement of the 16th century through the time of the British during the 18th century. It also includes a tower that allows anyone to climb up to get the best view of the harbor and the Castillo de San Marcos fort.

I found that one of the best parts inside Colonial Quarter complex is the Spanish tavern called Taberna del Caballo as a lunch stop. If the weather is great, sampling their Cuban sandwich, tapas and flatbreads with an interesting assortment of fillings is the perfect culinary break during a busy day of touring. For more information, check their website: www.colonialquarter.com.

An evening spent tasting a variety of the best Irish whiskey in St. Augustine with the owner of the relatively new Meehan’s Irish Pub and Seafood House (www.meehansirishpub.com) forced me to hang onto a friend while walking back to the St. Frances Inn. Nevertheless, the beverages were outstanding, the atmosphere was entertaining, and the seafood and real Irish dishes were superb.

Almost across the street from the famous Flagler College is a unique place that has pictures all over the walls of people with strange facial expressions. These victims have all earned their 15 minutes of fame at the Hot Shot Bakery and Cafe (www.hotshotbakery.com) by biting into one of Chef Sherry Stoppelbein’s chocolate-dipped datil peppers. These mild-looking little peppers will burn your mouth like you had sipped gasoline and lit a match! However, I found that hot tea with lots of sugar would bring your mouth and taste buds back to life enough to savor Sherry’s famous pumpkin/pecan waffles with syrup for breakfast.

On the historic side of eating places in St. Augustine is the world-renowned O.C. White’s Restaurant (www.ocwhitesrestaurant.com) that began in 1790. It boasts both inside and outside dining from a fabulous seafood menu with live entertainment along the waterfront.

An excellent way to have an eclectic taste of many local eateries is to take a food and wine tasting tour with St. Augustine City Walks (www.staugustinecitywalks.com). Cost is quite reasonable and allows sampling of chef’s specials at several restaurants over a couple of hours during the middle of the day.

For the most part, you will find that the historic section of St. Augustine is a very small town that is easily covered on foot. Just to learn your way around when you first arrive, I would suggest taking the Old Town Trolley Tour (www.historictours.com) or a more personal trip in a stately car with the St. Augustine Vintage Car Tours (www.staugustinevintagecartours.com).

Few places in the Americas command the historical respect and significance of St. Augustine. Its narrow, brick streets, ancient buildings, and Mediterranean atmosphere appear much as they did during the 17th century. Because of this construction, most of the building boom in Florida bypassed St. Augustine and allowed a thoughtful restoration program to proceed. The result is a historical showcase of old and new that draws vacationers from all over the globe. For Americans, St. Augustine is one of those special places that must be seen and experienced at least once in a lifetime!


November 2013 column

Vista Verde Ranch is the best of the west

The cow all the guests at the Vista Verde Ranch had named “Diabolical” had his vicious-looking eyes piercing into mine as he made an instant pirouette, but my anticipation was way ahead of him! Even before his athletic move, I had jerked my horse Gunnar’s head in the right direction and slapped him with the reins to cut off the bad cow. That turned him back toward one of the best cowboys in the West ... Terry Wegener, where he would have no escape!

Terry and I had cut this bad boy out of a herd of Texas cows to teach him a lesson and make him behave. We ran him to the middle of a corral about the size of a football field with Terry and his prize horse, Gun Shy Gangster (better known as Gunny) on one side and me and Gunnar on the other. In order to wear the cow down, we cut him off at every angle to keep him between us until his tongue was hanging out. In retrospect, I labeled our efforts ... Cow Soccer!

No doubt riding and learning about horses and cows is one of the main reasons that people visit dude ranches in Colorado, but Vista Verde Ranch offers so much more. They truly make an extra effort to let you experience everything that they offer, but will go out of their way to see that all of your other requests are satisfied. Much of the staff is comprised of seasonal young people from all over the country who are checked thoroughly ... including a personal visit from General Manager, Ben Martin. Therefore, the youngsters and the permanent staff all have a zest for life, love to engage with guests in conversation or ranch experiences, and have the best attitudes I have ever seen in all my days of traveling the world!

Though I have ridden horses off and on since my childhood, I learned more about them during my week at Vista Verde than I could have imagined. Just being around Terry Wegener is an education in the mannerisms and psychology of horses. He and his wife are also involved in the training and riding of the Denver Broncos horse Thunder at the football games.

The horse program at Vista Verde Ranch is top of the line when compared to any other in the West ... partly because of the very large heated indoor riding area. This venue allows Terry and other trainers like Annie Bolognino from Montana and Nicky Throgmartin    from Indiana to work with the younger horses and give special Horsemanship Clinics for guests regardless of the weather.

The Mare Barn also gives the breeding stock a quiet place away from the central ranch to deliver and raise the foals. Though Terry is in charge of the breeding and horse sales, Annie and Nicky primarily work with the younger horses and share this experience with guests of the ranch. Because Vista Verde Ranch is located in the National Forest and has access to the wild and beautiful Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area, horseback riding and hiking trails are numerous, adventuresome and breathtaking! You can even ride your horse to a hidden sanctuary among colorful Aspen trees to partake in Wild Yoga with expert instructor Kelli King.

I found the fly fishing and guides at the ranch to be knowledgeable, personable and quite talented in the numerous waters available to anglers visiting Vista Verde. The possibilities range from small creeks to rivers to still water lakes and from very simple fishing to extremely difficult. Rainbow, Cutthroat, Brook and Brown Trout are always possible catches as well as Mountain Whitefish and Grayling.

A true hero from the US Army’s Special Forces, Brandon Martin, is the Director of the Fly Fishing Program and a pleasure to be with anytime. His expert fly fishing partner in the program is Bubba Veteto from Colorado who loves to hang out with the chefs in the kitchen when he’s not guiding guests.

It would take a book to relate all there is to see and enjoy at Vista Verde Ranch near the famous ski resort village of Steamboat Springs, CO. One of the most important things to know is that any visit to this ranch is All-Inclusive ... and they live by that even to the point of free pick up and delivery to the airport that is nearly an hours drive from the ranch.

The Lodge and Cabin rooms are authentic log structures with all the comforts seen in other fine resorts with one exception ... no TVs in the rooms. The diverse cuisine created by top chefs can range from simple barbecue to intricate gourmet meals with many different wines. Summer activities include numerous horse-related opportunities, barn dancing, fly or spin fishing, mountain biking, hiking, yoga, cooking classes, wine tasting classes, rock climbing, rafting, local shopping tours, and photography just to name a few.

There’s probably not a bad time of year to visit Vista Verde Ranch, but I feel that I hit it at the most opportune moment for the best photography in the early fall. At the beginning of the week, the weather was like summer with midday temperatures reaching into the high 60s and falling to the 40s at night. Soon the mercury began to fall, and all the bright gold Aspen trees changed in two days. During the last part of the week, we were blessed with a blanket of more than a foot of powdery snow. It was the perfect time to experience the gorgeous metamorphosis that occurs annually in the mountains and valleys of Northwestern Colorado.

In my opinion and that of other guests, this is the best, most diverse, and client friendly working ranch in the Western USA. However, it is very busy throughout the year, so reservations in advance are necessary for couples or families. For more information or bookings, go to the Vista Verde website (www.vistaverde.com) or call them toll-free at: 800-526-7433.

Just one week in the early fall was a revelation to me of this part of Colorado and gave me a taste of summer, fall and winter on a ranch. Now, my dream is to return one day to experience the winter ski season when the ranch is all decked out for a Cowboy Christmas.


October 2013 column

Special tastes of a Boston trip

This is the final segment of a two-part series on Boston.

Before biting into the mouthwatering bone-in filet mignon on my plate, I was mesmerized by the colorful view of the Boston Harbor panorama from my table at Del Frisco’s of Boston. This architectural masterpiece was built on the popular Liberty Wharf allowing picturesque vistas of the harbor and downtown. Patrons can choose the lengthy waterfront patio dining area or just plop down at the impressive circular showpiece bar. The grand entrance leads to a stylish main dining room, flanked with deep booths and private dining rooms. The interior design features modern fixtures, slashes of color and a unique art collection that highlights the complete dining experience.

The dinner menu is elaborate, but these are suggestions for an unforgettable palate pleasing evening:
  • Appetizer: Crab Cakes with Cajun Lobster Sauce
  • Salad: Del’s Salad with Mixed Greens, Tomato, Carrot, Crisp Bacon and Croutons
  • Soup: Boston Clam Chowder
  • Entree: 16 Ounce Bone-in Filet
  • Side: Lobster Macaroni and Cheese
  • Dessert: Lemon Cake with Lemon Buttercream Icing and a Lemon Glaze
(Unless you’re a big eater, this order is easily enough for two people.)

Del Frisco’s of Boston is THE best steak place in the area, has a special ambience and atmosphere and the friendliest most accommodating staff. Both the Maitre d’ (Jaimie), General Manager (Anthony) and their servers make sure that no guest is overlooked. For more information or reservations, call 617-951-1368.

While touring downtown Boston on the Upper Deck Trolley with Boston Super Tours (617-742-1440), I found two great places for lunch. Both the Granary Tavern in the Financial District and Durgin Park in Quincy Market offer unique tastes using traditional dishes.

Granary Tavern is a 250 seat restaurant in a building built in 1816 that has two floors, two bars, an exposed kitchen, a sun-soaked patio and an atmosphere that bridges the gap between historic and modern. Their focus is on healthy preparations with locally sourced ingredients. My suggestions are to try a cup of the freshly made soup of the day followed by their special Granary Burger with beef from Archer Angus Farms topped with Vermont cheddar on a brioche roll and hand-cut fries. For information or reservations, call 617-449-7110.

Though Durgin-Park in Quincy Market goes back to Revolutionary days, its true fame for serving purely Yankee meals started almost 150 years ago when John Durgin and his partner, Eldridge Park took control of the restaurant. These old Yankees decided that the best advertising is plenty of good food on the table which has carried through to modern times and still works. The lunch specials are: Poor Man’s Roast Beef, Homemade Fish Cakes pan roasted or fried, Chicken Livers sautéed in wine with bacon, Chicken Pot Pie, Shepherd’s Pie, Frankfurters steamed or grilled, Knockwurst steamed or grilled, Potted Beef with onions, Boston Schrod broiled or baked with seasoned breadcrumbs, Yankee Pot Roast or Fish And Chips. Of all these historic Yankee offerings, the absolute best is the Yankee Pot Roast, which will melt in your mouth and cause your taste buds to do gymnastics! For a pleasant break in the middle of a day of touring Boston, have lunch at Durgin-Park for a taste of history and local cuisine. Contact them at: 617-227-2038.

Nobody comes to Boston without dining on great New England seafood, and one of the best and most famous eateries is Legal Sea Foods. This renowned restaurant is just across the street from the harbor at Long Wharf that is the home port for numerous cruise ships and whale watchi
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