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Vanderford's Travel Column


Grand Hotel is modern example of southern hospitality on Mobile Bay

Though I was raised entirely in the South, I have traveled the world for so many years that the true warmth and friendliness of my early roots had faded into distant memory until I recently visited the Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa on Mobile Bay in Alabama (www.grand1847.com). Southern hospitality is a well-worn set term that have enough definitions to fill a lengthy novel, but to those of us who lived it … it’s very simple. It always starts with a warm smile that is the same for everyone you meet with no pre-judgment. We keep family and friends close, open doors for ladies and children, enjoy great food and drink and do everything at a slower pace.
 
Even before I got out of my car upon arriving at the Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa at Point Clear, Alabama, a smiling gentleman named George immediately revived that warm feeling of southern hospitality! Although later when I met with my host and hotel marketing director, Kevin Hellmich, he told me that here it’s called “Alabama Hospitality!”
 
Like most first time visitors to the “Grand,” I went for a stroll among the huge live oak trees that give shade to the beautiful lagoon in the middle of the protected compound. Then I ventured out to the big water to enjoy a long walk along the edge of the picturesque and expansive Mobile Bay. One can feel the history of this magical place that has survived wars and hurricanes since its beginning in 1847 … especially every afternoon when the local historian gives a short talk complete with flag and drumbeat before firing the famous canon across the bay.
 
Many wounded Southern soldiers stayed here during the Civil War when it served as a hospital. The hotel was used as a training base during World War II for U.S. Army and Air Force troops to practice amphibious landings. Upon entering the spacious and meticulously appointed lobby through a massive double door, one can see a double-sided fireplace and many comfortable chairs. However, seating is not important because anyone entering is met with a smile of Alabama Hospitality by the front desk staff.
 
My guest room was in Building 3 which was a short drive along the backside of the lagoon to an inside parking spot and an elevator to the 4th floor. The room was well lighted and comfy including a balcony with a fabulous view of the hotel grounds, lagoon and Mobile Bay. Each room has a heavenly bed, chair, ottoman, desk for working, modern coffee maker and mini-refrigerator. The bathroom is large with lighted make-up mirror, a hair dryer. The best part is the roomy shower with instant warm water!

Breakfast the next morning while gazing at Mobile Bay through the huge glass windows of the Grand Hall Restaurant inside the hotel brought other memorable moments. The meal was unique with ingredients that were locally caught or produced and woven into a mouth watering tapestry: The Grand Hotel Lump Crab Scramble is one of Alabama’s 100 Dishes to Try before You Die! However, it was the atmosphere and service created by a wonderful southern lady and restaurant manager, Aniese Harris, that made the experience unforgettable!
 
After the great meal, I drove across the street to enjoy the first of two challenging Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail championship golf courses at the Lakewood Club which is part of the Grand Hotel Resort. The Dogwood course is a picturesque and meticulously maintained 7,104 yard, 18-hole, 72-par course that wanders through pines, magnolias and ancient oaks. It is also the home to a great number of  rare brown-colored fox squirrels and some of the fastest greens west of the Masters! What an adrenaline rush for any golfer or outdoor enthusiast!
 
The evening was brought to a scrumptious crescendo after a magnificent sunset across Mobile Bay from the Grand’s signature restaurant … Southern Roots! The service was perfect and the beef tenderloin, crab cake and gumbo sent my taste buds into orbit!
 
The next morning opened with another fabulous breakfast at the Grand Hall with Ms. Harris and her hospitable staff followed by golf at Azalea, which is the second course at the Lakewood Club. This 72-par course is 7,202 yards of rolling fairways and impeccably groomed, extremely fast greens that is somewhat different than Dogwood, but just as challenging and enjoyable!
 
After a few days of breathtaking vistas, mouthwatering cuisine, historical education, challenging golf and plenty of Alabama Hospitality at the Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa, the thought of returning to Atlanta was not my first choice. Nevertheless, like so many before me, another journey to this unforgettable destination will be high on my bucket list!
 
 

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 jfish51@aol.com or at his web site: www.georgiafishing.com.




November 2020 column

Hard Labor Creek State Park offers nearby staycation

Any visit to the old town of Rutledge and Hard Labor Creek State Park is a memorable experience, but one particular sojourn to this gorgeous section of Georgia’s Piedmont was especially meaningful. It involved a day of fishing and camaraderie with a group of underprivileged children from one of the government housing projects near Atlanta.
 
A youth counselor had called me to inquire about the possibility of putting together an outing that could introduce some youngsters from the tough, inner-city streets to the outdoors. Since it was the end of summer, fishing at Lake Lanier was slow. Boat traffic was still terrific. Then I remembered the beautiful natural setting and two fishing lakes at Hard Labor Creek State Park. So, we picked a day, collected enough fishing gear together for each child, packed our boats with food and drinks and took the youngsters south to the park near Rutledge.
 
Upon entering the park that morning, we experienced the first of many highlights. Several whitetail deer were eating grass along the edge of the road, and for many of the children, it was the first time they had ever seen a deer. It was a genuine thrill to watch their eyes melt into excited fascination. And that was just the beginning!
 
Through countless smiles, shrieks of happiness and constant questions, we must have baited a thousand hooks and released several hundred bream before the day was over. Despite cut fingers and wet clothes, few moments in my life have proved as rewarding as the transformation seen in those young people in such a short period of time. I know that we didn’t change their lives, but hopefully it opened a window of hope for them. It will always be a special memory for me.
 
Though bass boats with big engines are not allowed on the lakes today, the waters are still beautiful, tranquil, and full of fish. The larger of the two lakes is 275 acre Lake Rutledge, which has rental cottages, group picnic shelters, a swimming beach and boating facilities along its shoreline. The smaller Lake Brantley features a campground with electrical and water hook-ups.
 
The star attraction of the 5,805-acre state park is The Creek, which is one of the finest, most challenging, and best maintained public golf courses in Georgia. This 18-hole, 6,682 yard, par 72 championship course is demanding to even the best golfers. The course is surrounded by woodlands with several picturesque ponds, and has the meandering Hard Labor Creek, plenty of wildlife, an old mill wheel and a gorgeous waterfall on one hole.
 
Hard Labor Creek State Park was named for the stream by the same name that cuts through the park. It is believed the name was applied by either slaves who tilled the fields in summer or Indians who found the stream difficult to ford. Visitors, however, won’t find much hard labor. Instead, the park is filled with unique activities for everyone and is near several other worthwhile attractions.
 
On the lakes one can rent pedal boats, canoes, kayaks or fishing boats. A horse trail is available for those who bring a horse. Bike rentals are offered, or one might choose to hike on the two and one-half miles of trails provided for that endeavor.
 
Other than eating at The Creek Golf Course, one can drive a few miles to the tiny village of Rutledge, Georgia to enjoy the best deli sandwiches in the area at the Caboose! Hard Labor Creek State Park has many picturesque habitats woven into the historic landscape transformed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that offer solace and solitude for recreation and reflection. It’s a great option for a nearby “staycation” during the current pandemic. For more information, reservations or directions, call 706 557-3001.

October 2020 column

Costa Rican beauty revisited

As a travel writer and photographer, this coronavirus has made my world shrink dramatically into the realm of my computer. Therefore, I find myself looking back through photos and remembering unforgettable places and times from the recent past. Probably the most vivid of these was nearly two years ago when I spent a glorious week in the rainforests of Costa Rica at the Rio Parismina Lodge: www.riop.com.

On my return, I shared my experience in words and pictures on a smaller scale in Lakeside, but after reviewing the photos again … I would like to share less writing and more visual.
 
The Costa Rican rainforest is difficult to describe, the ever-present beauty is even harder. However, an old friend of mine, Lynn Hannon, once wrote, “The immensity and energy of the jungle might overwhelm the spirit if it were not so surely a part of it. Monkeys and sloths move against a tall forest that presses so hard against the river’s edge that it seems ready to stride across. There cannot be a more fertile place on earth!”

Photos>>>
 

September 2020 column

Cloudland Canyon is Georgia's hidden jewel

Though I have lived in the Peach State most of my life and have visited both the Tennessee and the Alabama sides of Lookout Mountain, the breathtaking beauty of Georgia’s own Cloudland Canyon had eluded me. This magnificent and picturesque state park located on the western limits of Lookout Mountain is one of the most scenic geological marvels in the USA.
 
Over millions of years, this wonder of nature was slowly cut more than 1,000 feet into the rocky crust of the Earth by Sitton Gulch Creek. Numerous trails are available to see the canyon, but my suggestion would be the popular – but very strenuous – Waterfall Trail that takes you right down to the bottom of the canyon. This is the signature trail in Cloudland Canyon that allows you to see and experience two beautiful waterfalls. The hard part of this venture into the canyon is going down and returning the 600 stairs to enjoy the falls. Such an undertaking is quite difficult for smaller children and extremely tough on dogs because of the small metal grates on the stairs that seem to hurt their feet.

Many people end up having to carry their dogs up the many stairs. Nevertheless, I took my service dog, Yogi, who weighs 125 pounds, and he made the trip without incident. But slowly.
 
If you follow the signs down along the Waterfall Trail, after a short distance, the trail splits with one going toward the nearby Cherokee Falls and the longer one down to Hemlock Falls. I would suggest going down about a mile to the bottom of the canyon to see the Hemlock Falls that plunge more than 90 feet into huge boulders. This is a tall, skinny waterfall that has different amounts of water falling according to the season. It is very picturesque and well worth the effort to see!
 
After the long climb back to the trail juncture, take the other fork down a much shorter distance to Cherokee Falls that is bigger but only falls about 60 feet into a big pool that many people use for swimming and wading. Also, scattered big rocks make excellent tables for picnickers.
 
Here are the other trails and hiking opportunities in Cloudland Canyon State Park:
• Overlook Trail - 1-mile round trip, easy
• West Rim Loop Trail - 5 miles round trip, mod/strenuous
• Sitton’s Gulch Trail - 6 miles round trip, Strenuous
• Two Mile Backcountry Loop -  2 miles round trip, moderate
• Meadowlands Trail - 1-mile round trip, moderate
 
In addition to hiking, the 3,538-acre Cloudland Canyon has 16 cottages, 10 yurts, 72 tent, trailer, and RV campsites, 30 walk-in campsites, 13 backcountry campsites, four pioneer campsites, six picnic shelters, one group shelter that seats 175, one group lodge that sleeps 40, a gift shop/camper store and a playground. For more information, call 706-657-4050.
 
Before it was bought by the state in 1939, this gorgeous canyon was simply known as Sitton Gulch. Today this geological paradise known as Cloudland Canyon State Park has become a place where visitors can hike to view deep canyons, scenic waterfalls, sandstone cliffs, caves, winding creeks, dense woods, and diverse wildlife. It is truly a rare Georgia jewel that is unforgettable!
 
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