I’ve been meaning to get back to the Florida Panhandle for ages. Growing up, I spent several vacations in Panama City and Destin, but I never visited the much-talked-about South Walton coastal communities dotting Scenic Highway 30A. Of course, I’d heard all about these locales that sounded like they’d sprung from a painter’s palette—WaterSound, Seagrove, WaterColor, Miramar— and when the opportunity to discover the area for myself arose, I started packing my bags. After a call to Cottage Rental Agency, the premier provider of rental properties in Seaside, I was ready to hit the road.
When I walked into my cottage, I understood why it was named “This Side of Paradise.” Everything was perfect but not precious or pretentious. The ceilings are high, the floors hardwood, and the home entertainment state of the art. The great room and three bedrooms convey a coastal-chic aesthetic without a hint of beach kitsch, and the well-equipped kitchen is outfitted with modern appliances with a lovely vintage feel.
On the screened-in porch off the second-floor master suite, I found a hammock just begging to be used for an afternoon nap and was happy to oblige. The top floor features two tower decks, which afford alternate views of sunrise and sunset, as well as Seaside’s distinctive roofline. It’s also great for counting stars deep into the night.
Many first became aware of Seaside when it served as the location of the 1998 film The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey as a man aware that his life is a reality TV show. Although the friendly residents, beautiful homes, well-mannered children,sunny skies, and unique shops were part of the movie’s script, the real town is strikingly similar—and that’s by design.
Robert Davis and his wife Daryl began developing Seaside, the first New Urbanist town in the country, in the early eighties on eighty beachfront acres his grandfather had purchased decades earlier. Robert had spent his boyhood summers building sandcastles on the beach and knew it was something special. The community he envisioned would also be one of a kind: easy to get around, with plenty of places for people to gather. The cottages would be harmonious but distinct and offer Gulf views unobstructed by high-rise condominiums.
Bicycles are the preferred method of transportation, and as I meandered up and down the tree-lined streets, I admired the pastel and jewel-tone homes that range from one-bedroom bungalows to mansions that sleep twelve. Many have clever, pun-heavy names like Cow Bella, Whatcha Dune, Sea Ya, and License to Chill.
Nine pavilions, each with its own distinctive architectural style, offer access to the sugar-white sands of the Gulf, and the beach is lined with Cabana Man’s royal-blue beach umbrellas and chairs, offering shade and solace to the sun-weary. After beach-combing or bodysurfing the clear-blue water, head back to 30A and indulge at one of the vintageAirstream food trucks. Grab a grilled cheese at The MeltDown on 30A, a pulled-pork sandwich at Barefoot BBQ, or a shaved-ice treat from Frost Bites. Once you’ve refueled, try your hand at bocce ball or croquet, take a dip in one of the three pools, or check out the totally renovated fitness center.
While sun and fun are always on tap, fall and winter are great times to visit this idyllic area. Seaside’s Seeing Red Wine Festival features alfresco tastings, seminars, and vintners dinners at several restaurants. And the popular 30A Songwriters Festival will bring more than 100 musicians to venues up and down the highway for a weekend of outstanding performances. That’s all the encouragement I need to begin planning a return trip to Seaside and future getaways to the other coastal towns of South Walton.
Treasure Hunting Seashells aren’t the only things worth scouting on Jekyll Island. Search for beautiful artisan glass orbs during Island Treasures in January and February. Inspired by floats used on fishermen’s nets in the early 1900s, the globes are placed all over the island for treasure hunters to find—and keep. Another treasure trove—the Peaches to the Beaches Yard Sale—stretches from nearby Brunswick to Barnesville along US Highway 341, offering 200 miles of merchandise during the second weekend in March.
Deck the Halls December is a great time to see some of the state’s most beautiful historic homes decked out in holiday finery. Madison showcases several on the annual Town & Country Tour, and the Old Governor’s Mansion in Milledgeville shines during its Antebellum Christmas Candlelight Tours.
High-End Quail Hunting For generations, Southern statesmen and business leaders have journeyed to southwest Georgia, the quail hunting capital of the world, to experience this gentlemen’s ritual. Experience the grand tradition at one of the area’s many hunting plantations, such as Albany’s Wynfield Plantation, with private cabins and lodge accommodations; Myrtlewood Plantation in Thomasville (also great for fishing); Pine Hill Plantation outside of Donaldsonville, featuring traditional horse-drawn wagons; or Moultrie’s Sundown Farms Plantation, known for its rustic luxury.
Snow Time! Mother Nature may not drop much snow beyond the state’s northern mountains, but with a little high-tech help, many Georgia sites are transformed into winter wonderlands. Fly down Stone Mountain Park’s 400-foot Snow Mountain on family-sized or single tubes. Catch falling snowflakes during Washington’s Snow on the Square at Christmastime. Lace up your skates and take to the rinks at Atlanta’s St. Regis Hotel and Centennial Olympic Park or The Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro.
Take a Hike If hiking the 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine is on your bucket list, Springer Mountain in northeast Georgia’s Fannin County is the place to start. Serious hikers usually begin their journeys in March or April, when a dazzling array of wildflowers, including lady’s slipper, dutchman’s breeches and jack-in-the-pulpit, come into bloom. The Southern Appalachians are also ideal for unforgettable spring day hikes.
Legendary Golf Home to the Masters, Georgia is known the world over for great golf. The Georgia Golf Trail, a collaboration of 16 of the state’s top resorts, offers access to outstanding courses from the mountains to the coast. Eight Georgia State Park Golf Courses promise championship-level play at unbeatable prices across the state. A particularly popular destination for golfers, Georgia’s Lake Country boasts nine courses, including The Landing at Reynolds Plantation, the first course built on beautiful Lake Oconee.
Spirited Celebrations On March 17 everyone’s a wee bit Irish, and two Georgia cities host not-to-be-missed St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Dublin honors Ireland’s patron saint with a number of spirited Hibernian-themed events, and Savannah hosts the country’s second-largest parade and a legendary bash along River Street. Stick around for the acclaimed Savannah Music Festival, which features two weeks of jazz, roots, blues and world music performances at venues throughout the historic district each spring.
Batter Up! Grab a hot dog and get in on the Major League Baseball action at an Atlanta Braves game at Turner Field in Downtown Atlanta, or see tomorrow’s superstars at a Gwinnett Braves game at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville or a Rome Braves game at State Mutual Stadium in Rome. The Augusta GreenJackets, an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, take the field at Augusta’s Lake Olmstead Stadium, and the Savannah Sand Gnats, an affiliate of the New York Mets, play ball at Grayson Stadium in Savannah.
On the Water Georgia’s waterways promise both heart-pounding adventure and slower-paced discovery. Northeast Georgia’s Chattooga, a National Wild and Scenic River, offers one of the longest free-flowing stretches in the Southeast, ideal for whitewater paddling. Shoot the Chattahoochee River in Sandy Springs in rafts, canoes, kayaks, tubes or stand-up paddleboards; farther downstream, hit the rapids at Columbus Whitewater, the longest urban whitewater course in the world. Kayaks are the way to see the blackwater trails of Watson Mill Pond near Twin City, canoes are the preferred mode of exploration on the Altamaha River, and Petersburg boats offer tours along the historic Augusta Canal.
Fresh Produce Nothing tastes more like summer than a sweet, juicy peach, a slice of watermelon or a handful of blueberries. Tour Lane Southern Orchard’s welcoming peach-picking and packing operation in Fort Valley or visit Dickey Farms in Musella for some peach ice cream and a bushel to go. Cordele, the watermelon capital of the world, celebrates the summer staple each June during the monthlong Watermelon Days Festival. Mark’s Melon Patch, a roadside fruit stand just outside Sasser, is a charming one-stop shop for all Georgia’s summer fruit and veggie crops. Also in June, the Georgia Blueberry Festival kicks off the season in Alma, Georgia’s blueberry capital. Visit Byne Blueberry Farms in Waynesboro to fill your own basket with their signature organic rabbiteyes.
Beach Life Summer isn’t summer without a trip to the beach, and Georgia’s coastal communities offer a range of options. Minutes from Savannah, Tybee Island is a funky beach town with a laid-back vibe and flip-flop-friendly restaurants. Farther down the coast lies Jekyll Island, one of Georgia’s legendary Golden Isles. Jekyll was developed as a winter retreat for America’s Gilded Age elite, and modern families will enjoy touring the historic clubhouse and cottages, as well as playing golf and taking in the island’s natural beauty on horseback or by bike. Cumberland Island National Seashore can be reached only by ferry, and day trippers, campers or guests of the historic Greyfield Inn are likely to spy wild horses, hogs and turkeys in the pristine forests and along the undeveloped beaches.
Scenic Drives When the green leaves of summer give way to the vibrant reds, oranges and yellows of autumn, the mountains of North Georgia dazzle. The state is blessed with several outstanding byways, such as the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Highway, which winds past popular Unicoi and Vogel state parks, and the Cohutta-Chattahoochee Scenic Byway, which passes Fort Mountain State Park on its way to a beautiful mountaintop overlook. Lookout Mountain Parkway, which dips across the northwest corner of the state, offers breathtaking views along the length of the two-lane highway. Plan a stop at nearby Cloudland Canyon State Park for hayrides, marshmallow roasting and fall foliage hikes.
Apple Houses and Corn Mazes North Georgia is apple country, and heading east out of Ellijay—site of October’s Georgia Apple Festival—on Highway 52 puts you on Apple Orchard Alley, home to eight apple houses offering a range of varieties and products from fried pies to cider. Another standout, Mercier Orchards lies northeast of Ellijay in the charming mountain town of Blue Ridge. Experience another seasonal rite, navigating a corn maze, at Steed’s Dairy in Grovetown or The Rock Ranch in The Rock.
Fairs and Festivals Fall signals the beginning of festival season statewide. Nearly half a million people head to the Georgia National Fair in Perry each October for 11 days of livestock competitions, big-time amusement rides and concerts by country music stars. Moultrie’s Sunbelt Ag Expo celebrates the American farm, from high-acreage production outfits to the backyard vegetable patch. Alpine Helen hosts a legendary Oktoberfest, complete with traditional German fare, European beers and plenty of polkas and waltzes at the city’s Festhalle.
Screams and Swamps Netherworld Haunted House in Norcross tops several national “best of” lists for good reason: Special effects, over-the-top makeup and costumes, and skilled actors keep the screams coming as visitors move through three different houses and the ghoul-filled parking lot. For a more natural kind of thrill, visit the otherworldly Okefenokee Swamp. Cooler temperatures and fewer bugs make fall an ideal time to explore the prehistoric wetland.
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