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Vanderford's Travel Column


Pensacola's Fort Pickens is a national treasure

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

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

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.



November 2016 column

Fall has arrived along the Blue Ridge Parkway

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

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


October 2016 column

Revisiting the 'Lane of the Trembling Earth'

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


September 2016 column

Blairsville offers old, new and lots of Blue Ridge

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


August 2016 column

My little Jekyll island surprise

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


July 2016 column

The inexpensive way to enjoy Hilton Head

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

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


June 2016 column

A different look at Myrtle Beach

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

May 2016 column

Wrightsville Beach: A lazy old surfing town with extras

An invisible line of transformation seems to capture the spirit of most sojourners as they cross the bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway to enter the historic surfing town of Wrightsville Beach, N.C. This narrow strip of land near Wilmington is known as the forerunner of surfing all along the East Coast and was even named as one of the top surfing towns in the world by National Geographic Magazine. Today, the waves and the surfing are still a draw, but this sleepy little strip along the Atlantic Ocean has much more to offer.
 
Even before crossing the bridge onto this famous barrier island, travelers should make a stop at the beautiful and eclectic Airlie Gardens with an oak tree that is older than our country. In season, the many flowering plants and gorgeous azaleas are breathtaking, and many couples come here to be married in this picturesque atmosphere. Personally, I found the beauty of the lakes, marshes and wildlife to be stimulating as I walked the many interconnected paths through the spectacular property. For more information, visit: www.airliegardens.org.
 
The next important item on any visitor’s list would have to be a great place to stay, and nowhere on this sleepy island is better than the Blockade Runner. From the outside, this fabulous hotel looks rather drab, but the inside decor and the service provided is some of the best you will ever find. No matter what your desires for activities or eating, you will be as close as the phone in your room ... and, the staff will drive you there when needed. Also, the ocean or Intercoastal views are breathtaking. On the oceanside, sunrises are magnificent and sunsets over the marsh and Intercoastal Waterway on the back are unforgettable. For more information or reservations, visit: www.blockade-runner.com.
 
The salty breeze in your hair and the smell of the ocean are always enough to make the juices flow, but the added mystery of catching something unknown is even stronger for all anglers who venture out on a pier to fish. Probably the most famous fishing pier in this area is the Johnnie Mercer Pier in Wrightsville Beach (www.johnniemercerspier-nc.com), which was built in the 1930s but was reduced to rubble by hurricanes Bertha and Fran during the 1990s. Today it is a model of modern engineering with reinforced concrete capable of sustaining 200 mph winds. It extends 1,200 feet out into the ocean ... making it a prime spot for anglers to catch migrating king mackerel, Spanish mackerel and bluefish during the spring and summer months.
 
The best place to go out and eat at Wrightsville Beach is the Oceanic Restaurant (www.oceanicrestaurant.com) which is right on the ocean. The Crystal Pier attached to Oceanic provides a great outdoor setting and has live music when weather permits. If you just want to grab something tasty to take along when exploring, it would be hard to beat  Chops Deli (www.chopsdeli.com) just on the other side of the Intercoastal Waterway at 7037 Wrightsville Ave.
 
It’s no wonder that the surfers fell in love with this laid-back North Carolina coastal village so many decades ago. Its miles of public beaches and constantly rolling waves bring a fresh breath of life to those seeking to slow the fast pace of society with more easy going adventures where time is not a factor. So, if it’s rest and relaxation you seek in a beautiful setting ... Wrightsville Beach is the place to go!


April 2016 column

Wilmington, N.C., is both laid back and lively

Sitting at one of the watering holes along the scenic Cape Fear River in the old downtown section of Wilmington, N.C., while watching the sun sink slowly over the battleship USS North Carolina (Battleship North Carolina) is an amazing light show! The constantly changing colors are akin to looking into the perfect cut glass of an expensive kaleidoscope!
 
Wilmington is an eclectic city weaving a perfect tapestry of old and new that seems to have something exciting for every taste. To enjoy it all, however, you will want centrally located lodging that is comfortable for all, including pets. Only one location fits those needs perfectly – the Wilmingtonian (www.thewilmingtonian.com) which is nestled in the heart of the historic district and surrounded by restaurants and activities. This hotel allows the best access to historic, downtown Wilmington and sits among beautifully restored 19th-century homes in tree-lined neighborhoods.
 
This section of Wilmington has the First Presbyterian Church that sports a rooster on its steeple. The rooster is a reminder of the Protestant heritage and points to the dawning of a new day. The rooster also points to Peter’s threefold denial of Christ ‘before the cock crows,’ and teaches us not to deny the Lord.
 
The best way to learn some history and acquire a feel of Wilmington is by taking the horse drawn tour (www.horsedrawntours.com) with a costumed driver who narrates as you ride along the riverfront and pass stately mansions of historic Wilmington using rescued horses. Springbrook Farms, Inc. has been in business in Wilmington for nearly 30 years, and has been able to save 16 percheron draft horses.

Another educational tour by water is the catamaran river cruise provided by the Wilmington Water Tours (www.wilmingtonwatertours.net). A variety of scheduled cruises and customizable private charters are offered mornings, afternoons and evenings throughout the year. Choose between historic eco-tours, sunset cruises or narrated tours of the scenic Cape Fear waterways.
 
For local Wilmingtonians, the day begins with breakfast at the Dixie Grill located in the historic district – but don’t come before 8 a.m. Delicious Southern dishes and a relaxed atmosphere entice both locals and visitors every morning. For more information, call (910) 762-7280.
 
It would be difficult to beat the nautical setting, great cuisine and Old South atmosphere for lunch right alongside the Cape Fear River at The Pilot House Restaurant (www.pilothouserest.com). Their Shrimp and Grits entree is awesome, combining shrimp, kielbasa sausage, mushrooms, scallions, low country seasoning, over a fried grits cake with collards.
 
My suggestion for the evening meal would be the Pinpoint Restaurant (pinpointrestaurant.com) near the Dixie Grill and within walking distance of the Wilmingtonian. This modern eatery serves food deeply rooted in southern tradition. The menu changes daily and features the local bounty from Wilmington’s farmers, fisherman, oystermen and shrimpers.
 
No trip to the Wilmington area would be complete without dipping your toes into the nearby sands and ocean waters of Carolina Beach. Anglers can also enjoy productive surf or pier fishing along the beach. Nature lovers don’t want to miss Carolina Beach Sate Park (Carolina Beach State Park) that boasts a marina and a secluded camping area with miles of hiking trails passing through a diversity of habitats. Also, one of the world’s most unique carnivorous plants, the Venus flytrap, makes this park home, and guided trips to see these rare plants are offered.
 
Though golf in Wilmington is not as prolific as in other areas of North Carolina, one semi-private course is well worth a try. Porters Neck Country Club (portersneckcountryclub.com) was designed by world-renowned golf architect Tom Fazio. This 4 star, 18 hole golf course opened in 1991 and has hosted the North Carolina Open, the North Carolina Amateur and the first stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying School. It is gorgeous throughout and has many picturesque and difficult holes.
 
Wilmington and the beaches of North Carolina have much more than can be covered in a short article. Therefore, this topic will be continued next month with the magic of upscale Wrightsville Beach!


March 2016 column

Eatonton, Ga. has Uncle Remus and much more

Long before I could read or write, I remember sitting on the floor at my mother’s feet mesmerized by the wonderful stories that she read. Being a school teacher, who was born, raised and educated in the “Peach State,” mother was very familiar with the tales of Joel Chandler Harris and their effect on young children. Her unique, animated style, my imagination and the exciting words of Harris brought Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit to life!
 
Harris was born in the middle Georgia town of Eatonton on December 9, 1848. His mother raised and provided for him alone, which made his childhood rather difficult. Nevertheless, despite his distaste for studying in school, young Joel loved to read and write short stories, which resulted in a good education anyway.
 
When not reading or writing, Joel was a normal southern boy who loved spending time in the woods and fields of Putnam County. He was always full of energy and became known as a prankster among his friends. In an effort to help his mother financially, he took a job with Mr. Joseph  A. Turner on “The Countryman,” which is the only newspaper that was ever printed on a plantation. Mr. Turner quickly noticed Joel’s potential and opened his house and library to the hard-working Harris. Joel read everything he could, spent hours talking to the older slaves and began to write more stories. He learned a lot about literature and journalism, but tales and ballads of the slaves that he remembered from Mr. Turner’s plantation would later bring him fame and fortune. General Sherman made a visit and left Mr. Turner’s plantation in rubble, so young Harris had to move on to earn a living. He wrote for the “Macon Telegraph,” the “Crescent Monthly” in New Orleans, the “Monroe Advertiser” in Forsyth, Ga., the “Savannah Morning News” and finally the “Atlanta Constitution.”
 
Joel Chandler Harris was hired by the Constitution to write a column of philosophical sayings, but one dreary day in January, 1877, the sayings wouldn’t come. So, he let his mind wander back to the days on Mr. Turner’s plantation with his slave friends, and a story began to flow from his pen. It told about how Brer Rabbit had invited Brer Fox to dinner, but the old fox decided to make his host the main course. Nevertheless, that wily rabbit figured a way to outfox the fox!
 
That one column brought hundreds of letters from readers who had been raised with many of the same stories that were told to them by their cooks, nannies and field hands. Though quite stunned by the public response, during the next 15 years, Joel Chandler Harris reached back into his memory for one Uncle Remus story after another. He never once gave himself credit for the wonderful stories. “There is no pretense that the old darky’s stories are in the nature of literature,” said Harris. “There is nothing here but an old man, a little boy and a poor reporter.”
 
His book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, was published in 1880 and made Joel Chandler Harris forever a part of literary history. Though he never felt that he did anything but write down the old negro stories from his memory, even presidents were impressed with what he had done. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt once said of him, “Georgia has done many things for the Union, but she has never done more than when she gave Mr. Joel Chandler Harris to American literature.”
 
Though Mr. Harris passed away in 1908, his stories continue to fascinate youngsters around the world. One look at the rabbit statue on the lawn of the Putnam County Courthouse is assurance that Uncle Remus is alive and well in Eatonton!
 
Modern Eatonton has much more history and attention to the arts that are preserved and maintained in the gorgeous old homes which show examples of Greek Revival, Queen Ann and Folk Victorian, as well as Gothic Revival architecture. Also, the Uncle Remus Museum and the historic downtown section of the city are interesting. In addition, people can see how the town was during the 1940s and 1950s by visiting the Old School History Museum, located in the Plaza Arts Center adjacent to the Chamber of Commerce. The high point of this museum is a carefully restored early 1900s classroom, which has the original blackboard, cloakroom, vintage desks and a collection of student memorabilia.

The adjacent Plaza Arts Center is considered the crown jewel of the Eatonton Historic District and is an important, inviting and comfortable community gathering place for a myriad of activities. This includes the visual, performing and literary arts for both locals and visitors.
 
For more information, contact The Eatonton/Putnam Chamber of Commerce at 706-485-7701 or visit: www.eatonton.com.
 


February 2016 column

Eufaula has maintained its quaint, small town feel

My first visit to Eufaula, Alabama to fish in a big bass tournament was over 45 years ago, and winning the competition had nothing to do with falling in love with both Lake Eufaula and this sleepy Southern town built on the high bluffs of the Chattahoochee River.

In a recent return, I pleasantly discovered that except for modern cars and different businesses, the historic center of this picturesque village with its stately antebellum mansions is still intact. Even the people tend to move to a slower beat that was more prevalent during my younger years.

This gorgeous old city was first settled in 1816 and built on the site of a former Creek Indian village. It is home to numerous structures that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places ... most being immaculately restored mansions of the Old South. The most famous of these is the Shorter Mansion that was constructed on the main highway through town in 1884 and completely renovated in 1906. The Classic Revival type house was bought by the Eufaula Heritage Association at auction in 1965, and now serves as the headquarters of the oldest tour of homes in Alabama.

Another of the famous homes in Eufaula is the antebellum Italianate mansion, Fendall Hall, which was built in 1860 by businessman E.B. Young and remained in the family for five generations until 1973. It was purchased by the Alabama Historical Commission at that time to become a house museum to show period furnishings that include marble mantles and a black and white tiled entryway.

Historians love to wander through the grave stones in the old Fairview Cemetery that contain the remains of all of the notable families who settled this area. The huge marble statues with diverse designs not only show the wealth of these people, but display the artistic values of the Italian stone cutters who made them. Because the cemetery is located on a high bluff overlooking Lake Eufaula, it is a reverent place to reflect and combine the wonders of nature as well. This old burial ground also has a section that is reserved for those of the Jewish faith, which is not found in many Southern cemeteries.

Since the dam was constructed on the Chattahoochee River in 1963, Lake Eufaula has been a huge attraction to bass fishermen from all over the world. It is a 45,000 acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment that straddles the border between Georgia and Alabama. Also, the lock at Ft. Gaines, Georgia has the second highest drop east of the Mississippi River, and on the northern section of the lake the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge is a birding paradise.

Not far from downtown Eufaula is the Lakepoint Resort State Park, a 1,220 acre park that has a lodge, convention center, modern campground, vacation cabins and lakeside cottages. It also offers a complete marina, launch ramps, boat slips and fishing guide services. Lakepoint is the site of numerous bass and crappie fishing tournaments and championships from the local to the national level.

Despite all these diverse opportunities, the highlight of any visit to Eufaula, Alabama, is because it is one of the most beautiful remaining examples of antebellum architecture in the Old South. So many of these preserved and restored homes are often open to the public, and the gracious people in this town are always happy to share their time with visitors. For more information, check their web site at: www.eufaulachamber.com.



January 2016 column

Winter blahs? It's never too cold for a mid-winter trip to St. Simons

By Pamela A. Keene, Guest Travel Columnist

It may be a bit chilly in January to get your water fix on Lake Lanier, but a short drive south to St. Simons Island is just the ticket. And when you’re looking to be pampered, check out The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort. Even if you’re not a golfer, January – well, truly any time of year – is a great time to visit the Atlantic Ocean and spend a little time on the Georgia Coast. With an average temperature in the low to mid-50s in January, dozens of restaurants featuring fresh-caught seafood, close-by historic sites to explore, and miles of biking and walking trails, St. Simons is the perfect getaway for a long weekend or a full week away from cold North Georgia.

If you haven’t been to The King and Prince for a couple of years, you’re in for a treat because the resort has undergone extensive remodeling and renovations. The expanded lobby’s high ceilings, curved staircase and comfortable living-room seating set the tone for relaxed elegance and a view of the ocean. The indoor swimming pool is gone to make way for additional dining, a two-sided bar that serves signature cocktails, and a welcoming atmosphere. Although the weather may be a bit on the cool side to take a dip in the outdoor pool, the patio’s fire pits encourage enjoying the fresh sea breeze overlooking the pools and the ocean.

With 14 choices for accommodations, from the 4-bedroom Meadow’s House with its fabulous veranda and roof-top views of the resort to cabana ocean-front rooms in the historic part of the hotel, The King and Prince offers lodging choices for romantic getaways, family reunions, girls’ weekends or a family vacation.

The original hotel, opened in 1935, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has retained its historic charm while being completely renovated with larger bathrooms with granite countertops and comfortable bedding. Over the years, the property has added ocean-front villas with patios or balconies, six private guest houses with kitchens and finely appointed living areas, plus deluxe suites.

Hotel guests and island locals frequently dine at the resort’s brand new ECHO Restaurant, featuring seasonal menus made from local ingredients. Chef de Cuisine James Flack serves up innovative farm-to-table creations for all palettes, from Georgia Wild Shrimp and Southern Grits to Wagyu Beef and Southern comfort foods with a twist. The extensive wine list complements the varied flavors he pairs when creating such dishes as the coastal catch with wild mushroom risotto and truffled tomato broth, or the chef’s 4-course tasting menu that changes daily depending on which ingredients are freshly available. ECHO is the island’s only ocean-front dining experience.

Exploring St. Simons Island
The King and Prince’s central location makes navigating St. Simons Island easy. Some of the most popular areas include Pier Village, accessible from Ocean Boulevard down Mallery Street. It’s the social, shopping and dining hub of the island with boutiques, the Lighthouse and Heritage Center, a wide range of varying-priced breakfast lunch and dinner choices. Be sure to stop by the wonderful hardware store midway down the block that sells kitchen supplies, gigantic pots for cooking crabs or low-country boil, and just about everything a real hardware store offers. Fish off the pier, chat with locals as they bait their catch, or just relax under the 200-year-old live oaks.

The recently renovated Neptune Park offers an ocean-side swimming pool, a playground and miniature golf. In the winter, the park and streets are less crowded than the spring and summer months, making it easy to while away your time without the hustle and bustle of the beach in summer.

At Pier Village, check out dining choices, including tried-and-true Sandcastle Café, a favorite with the locals, and the new Georgia Sea Grill with meals that rival the cuisine at restaurants in major cities.

Gnat’s Landing, serving lunch and dinner, is a must-stop. Located in Redfern Village off Frederica Road, it’s famous for its Vidalia onion pie and fried dill pickle chips. Hint: go to Gnat’s, as the locals call it, for lunch because it’s less crowded. Wait times on weekend nights can be long, but the live music, bar and island-themed décor help the wait pass quickly.

For a true beach experience, East Beach at Gould’s Inlet on the northeastern side of the island is perfect for shelling, a quiet walk or bike ride on the beach, or a chance to be where the locals hang out. From the pier, you can view sand bars and jetties, tidal pools and shallow slews, but be sure to dip your toes in the sand and go down on the beach. The area’s Massengale Park has a shaded picnic area, a children’s playground and ample parking. Dogs are allowed on the beaches in the off season, but not between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

While visiting East Beach, stop and see the seven galleries at the Maritime Center at the Historic Coast Guard Station. The exhibits interpret the beaches, marshes and forests and their relationship to the coast’s military and Coast Guard history.

Many visitors take in the historic sites at St. Simons, and these attractions are more accessible and less crowded in the winter. Visit Fort Frederica, the Bloody Marsh Battle Site (fought between the Spanish and the British long before the Revolutionary War), Christ Church and Cemetery on the site where John and Charles Wesley preached their first sermons in the mid-1700s, and the First African Baptist Church built in 1869 by former slaves of the island’s plantations.

It’s never really too cold to head south to Georgia’s beaches. You’d be pleasantly surprised at how much fun you can have. Remember to pack a jacket in case it’s breezy. Otherwise, enjoy the smell of the ocean, the crashing of the waves and an out-of-the-box trip away from home.


December 2015 column

Alabama's Lookout Mountain is diverse wonderland

It would take a master artist with a huge canvas to even begin capturing Alabama’s portion of Lookout Mountain. This palette of land, water, history and people is an eclectic tapestry woven through sheer rock walls of gorges, majestic rivers with picturesque waterfalls, massive lakes and dotted throughout with quaint, historic villages that tell stories of both American and Indian history. Therefore, I will simply try to list and picture places and activities that I experienced during my few days traveling this extraordinary triangle bordered by both Georgia and Tennessee.

Little River Canyon National Preserve:  (www.nps.gov/liri/index.htm) is one of the deepest gorges east of the Mississippi River and boasts DeSoto State Park (www.stateparks.com/de_soto_state_park_in_alabama.html) and the stunning DeSoto Falls, as well as the nearby, picturesque Little River Falls. This area also includes Cherokee Rock Village (www.ccparkboard.com/parks/cherokee-rock-village), which has unforgettable vistas of “The Crappie Fishing Capital of the World,” Lake Weiss (https://apcshorelines.com/our-lakes/weiss), and the surrounding valley ... plus great opportunities for rock climbing and rappelling.

One of the most rewarding places I visited was Tigers for Tomorrow, (www.tigersfortomorrow.org), which is slightly off the beaten path ... but very near I-59. It was founded to provide a last home for predatory animals that were discarded when they were no longer wanted or could no longer work or earn money for their proprietors. More than 160 animals, including several species of tigers, mountain lions, African lions, bears, wolves and black leopards will spend the rest of their lives here and be treated with loving care. It is a fabulous place for children and families to see these great animals in a positive way!

I was mesmerized watching renowned glass artist, Cal Breed, create beautiful art treasures out of molten glass at Orbix Hot Glass (http://orbixhotglass.com) near Ft. Payne, Alabama. Cal and his team of glassblowers hand-craft each piece with great attention to form, balance and color, and the results are beautifully unique!

My favorite village in the area is Mentone, Alabama with its mountain top scenery, friendly people and laid back surroundings. With the exception of modern cars, it’s almost like traveling in time back to the 19th century. I especially enjoyed my stay at the famous Mentone Inn B&B (www.mentoneinn.com)  that is in easy walking distance of everything in town ... and the breakfasts at the inn are more than worth the stay!

The best place to eat in Mentone is the Kamama Gallery and Café (www.kamamamentone.com), where you can find original fine art, enjoy a casual lunch or savory gourmet dinner, and listen to live music. On the different side, the Wildflower Café (www.mentonewildflower.com) is known for its menu of hearty homestyle meals with organic and vegan options.

Probably the best view from Lookout Mountain and the most romantic place to stay is The Secret Bed and Breakfast Lodge (www.secretbedandbreakfastlodge.com). It has a 180 degree panoramic view of the foothills, valleys and beautiful Weiss Lake, and is spectacular both day and night!

This is but a small portion of what ignited all of my senses during the whirlwind trip in and around the magic of Alabama’s Lookout Mountain. Like those before me, I know that a yearn to see and experience more of this artistry will bring me back again and again!


November 2015 column

Hidden treasures are found in Scottsboro, Ala.

Coming from the Georgia side down through the misty clouds of early morning from the heights of the southern portion of Lookout Mountain, one gets glimpses of the sprawling Lake Guntersville and the old town of Scottsboro, Alabama. Though this little community is slightly off the beaten path, it has much to offer the traveling public.

Probably the most famous business in Scottsboro is the Unclaimed Baggage Center, which was begun in 1970 by Doyle Owens with a great idea, a borrowed pick-up truck and a $300 loan. He bought a load of unclaimed baggage that he sold on old card tables in a rented house with the help of his wife and two sons, thus becoming the only lost luggage store in the USA.

By developing working relationships with airlines and other transportation companies ... and being featured in numerous newspaper and magazine stories, this center of unclaimed luggage began to draw curious visitors from all over the world! Doyle’s son Bryan bought the business from his dad in 1995 and has expanded it into a building that covers a city block. It is now one of the top tourist attractions in Alabama drawing annually more than a million lookers and buyers from all 50 states and 40 foreign countries.

For the history buffs, the Scottsboro-Jackson Heritage Center was opened in 1985 as both a historical
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