I grew up in South Georgia, which, at fifteen, was hard to think of as a tourist attraction. My neck of the woods seemed like a place you’d travel through, not to. “It’s a land of red clay and despair,” I recall churlishly telling a college friend.
Well, consider this a public apology for selling South Georgia short. I’ve since lived in a couple of large cities—Atlanta and Washington, D.C.—and though urban America is full of impressive things, rural parts of the country get short shrift as backdrops for a culture that never felt legitimate until I was hundreds of miles away from it.
In college, it seemed unfair how peers from elite Atlanta high schools had had access to resources a girl from a small town just wasn’t privy to. Now I think it’s unfair none of them got to watch my classmate Daniel Bass, dressed as Baby New Year, descend from the Cochrans’ barn on New Year’s Eve 2000.
I found my perspective had shifted as I traveled through a half dozen or so towns south of Macon. I’m beginning to identify with Leslie Knope, the big-hearted optimist at the heart of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, who said: “You know what, America is awesome. It’s so full of hope. And small towns, and big cities, and real people, and delicious beverages, and hot guys.” And big trees, and transcendent wine slushies, and people who wave at the train when it goes by.
Thomasville (population 18,413)
Sweet Grass Dairy has a store downtown where you can stock up on great sandwiches (like the Pickled Pig, which includes prosciutto cotto, Sweet Grass Georgia Gouda, and a sweet pickled green tomato), as well as the dairy’s signature cheeses. And it’s walking distance from the Big Oak, a sprawling three-centuries-old tree. Call 229-236-0053 and the “Big Oak Cam” will take your picture and post it online, instantly creating the perfect Thomasville keepsake.
Bainbridge (population 12,697)
A burrito is hand-painted on a window of Taqueria los Sanches, and the specials are on a Post-it note attached to the inner cover of the menu. Residents, who describe the eatery’s location as “where the Chinese restaurant used to be,” love this place, and rightfully so. The chips are freshly fried, and the lengua tacos are a must. Down the street is Plenty of Stuff, which used to be a grocery store called Henderson’s; Elvis trading cards and old VHS tapes overflow from the former produce cooler. There’s chaff, surely, but some wheat, like a set of four vintage patterned Pyrex bowls in pristine condition for $15.
Blakely (population 5,068)
Atlanta has some incredible fried chicken, but the two-piece thigh box from Blakely Chicken is so affordable and delicious that it justifies a stop. As do the fried corn nuggets. Nearby is Kolomoki Mounds State Park, one of the largest preserved Native American mound sites in the country, and White Oak Pastures, Georgia’s chef-loved certified organic farm, which welcomes visitors to pop in any day of the week and has an on-farm restaurant, Seasons, open weekends.
Americus (population 17,041)
Americus has become an incubator for rural revitalization. The grand Windsor Hotel, built in 1892, has undergone massive community- and grant-bolstered renovations that have restored the Queen Anne structure to the splendor of its Victorian heyday. The Rylander Theatre has been similarly returned to its flapper-era elegance, and many performances are preceded by a short concert on the theater’s Moller organ, which is one of only two theater pipe organs in the state. (The other is at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.)
You can see models of the kinds of houses Habitat for Humanity builds all over the world at the Americus-founded organization’s Global Village & Discovery Center. (At the entrance, you can also see the kinds of impoverished housing available before Habitat comes along.) And if you like your good intentions caffeinated, the organic, fair-trade coffee shop Cafe Campesino is nearby.
Plains (population 776)
If you love peanut butter soft-serve ice cream and the thirty-ninth president of the United States, you will love (love!) Plains. Jimmy Carter memorabilia is big business—the small downtown commercial district features several stores full of political memorabilia spanning many decades. You can tour Jimmy’s birthplace, his high school, the old train depot that served as his 1976 presidential campaign headquarters (because it was the only available building downtown with indoor plumbing), and, if you venture a couple of miles down the road to Archery, the house and farm where he grew up. True Carter completists, be sure to check out Billy Carter’s Service Station, which to my knowledge is the only museum dedicated to a colorful presidential sibling that’s housed in a former gas station.
Plains’s resident population is dwarfed by the number of tourists who visit via the SAM Shortline train, which stretches to Cordele. The train is a vintage and quite literal vehicle for the rural tourism that provides an important economic stimulus for the towns along its eighty-four-mile route. One new area attraction is the Richland Distilling Company, located in a restored brick storefront built in 1896. The distillery, which is open for tours, crafts small daily batches of premium rum.
Cordele (population 11,147)
The Daphne Lodge has been serving up its signature catfish since 1952. Adventurous and well-executed regional dishes like fried cauliflower and mushrooms with curry sauce or smothered quail are also culinary highlights. The nearby Lake Blackshear Resort and Golf Club is located in Georgia Veterans State Park, where you can relax with coffee on your villa’s screened-in porch, hit the fairways, or do some serious fishing on the lake.
Lakeland (population 3,366)
Reminiscent of the rise of public art in Atlanta, Lakeland’s Milltown Murals are a uniquely poignant way of documenting the town’s history. Thirty murals scattered throughout downtown depict real people who lived here in the 1920s. And refreshing muscadine wine slushies await you at Horse Creek Winery’s tasting room in nearby Sparks.
This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.