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Published: Sunday, 1/20/2008

Hear that de-stress signal? Head to one of these southern getaways

BY MARY ANN ANDERSON
McCLATCHY/TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
** FILE ** Luca Paschina, owner of the Bourborsville Winery walks amongst chardonnay vines at Barboursville Winery in Barboursville, Va. in this May 7, 2003 file photo. Wines from vintners in Virginia are drawing favorable attention and holding their own against products from more established regions, which has led the state to focus on growing wine tourism. (AP Photo/Dan Lopez/The Daily Progress. File) ** FILE ** Luca Paschina, owner of the Bourborsville Winery walks amongst chardonnay vines at Barboursville Winery in Barboursville, Va. in this May 7, 2003 file photo. Wines from vintners in Virginia are drawing favorable attention and holding their own against products from more established regions, which has led the state to focus on growing wine tourism. (AP Photo/Dan Lopez/The Daily Progress. File)
DAN LOPEZ / ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

HAZLEHURST, Ga. - Every year in January, my husband and I try to get away for a few days to de-stress from all the holiday hullabaloo. We always select a place where we can drive to rather than fly from our Middle Georgia home.

We've found some great destinations in the South where you can treat yourself to a great post-holidays or spring getaway.

Never do I miss an opportunity to explore Georgia's coast for its one-of-a-kind history and incredible natural beauty, but of all of the state's natural barrier islands that protect the coastline from the tumultuous Atlantic, Little St. Simons Island steals my heart with every visit.

The quiet, remote 10,000-acre Little St. Simons Island, a pristine paradise voted the No. 1 "Top Resort" in America in the Conde Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards 2007, is one of those places that touches the soul.

Geared for only 30 guests at any given time - that's roughly 333 acres per guest - it is rustic yet luxurious, gloriously secluded yet accessible, energetic yet relaxing.

Little St. Simons Island is reached only by boat, and rates are all-inclusive with transportation from the mainland, lodging, and all activities like horseback riding, boating, fishing, biking, hiking, and naturalists' programs where you'll learn about native wildlife and flora and fauna.

Three very Southern family-style meals a day are included, but breakfast is my favorite. There aren't many places left where you can get grits that crawl as slow as sorghum out of the pot, like they're supposed to. And if you've never feasted on "Low Country Boil" or roasted oysters, prepare yourself for a taste of the Real South.

Did I mention that the island has seven miles of wide Atlantic beaches with nary a soul around except perhaps one of the other 29 guests?

For more information, visit www.littlessi.com or call toll-free 888-733-5774. Brunswick, the closest airport, is served only by Delta, but Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah, Ga., each about an hour's drive away, are served by all major carriers.

An island retreat at the opposite end of the spectrum from Little St. Simons Island is Hilton Head Island, near the southernmost corner of South Carolina.

Think soothing top-of-the-line spas, world-class resorts, tennis courts and golf courses galore, upscale shopping, and snazzy restaurants. And when it comes to family-friendly destinations, Hilton Head delivers completely.

Hilton Head, also edging the Atlantic, tempts with miles of uncrowded sandy beaches, clean and safe neighborhoods, and a wide variety of arts and cultural activities including symphonies and orchestras, countless art galleries, theater, and Gullah (also known as Geechee) events centered on the craft of making sweet grass baskets, music and storytelling, and creating distinct African-oriented dishes from rice, okra, wild game, and seafood.

A few of the larger hotel chains offer high-end-yet-affordable resorts including the Westin and Marriott, but also there are more locally-themed places like Sea Pines Resort, Palmetto Dunes Resort, and nearby Daufuskie Island Resort. You can also rent cottages, condominiums, and even luxury homes for longer stays.

Island recreation is first-rate, including boating, fishing, and swimming, but here much of it is geared toward children. The Coastal Discovery Museum and the Sand Box, both children's museums with plenty of educational opportunities, offer year-round activities for kids. There are even concerts and sing-a-longs designed especially for the younger crowd at the Salty Dog Cafe and Shelter Cove Harbour.

For more information, visit www.hiltonheadisland.org or call toll-free 800-523-3373. Most major carriers serve both Hilton Head Airport, about five miles from the resorts, and Savannah, about 45 miles south.

Cascading waterfalls, winding roads, verdant forests, sapphire-colored lakes, Appalachian arts and crafts, mountain culture, vibrant wildflowers, and evocatively stunning views. Mix all these ingredients together and you get Highlands, N.C.

Most visitors come to Highlands primarily to relax and take in the quiet mountain atmosphere. With an elevation of about 4,000 feet above sea level, Highlands is the highest incorporated town east of the Rocky Mountains. We like to visit during winter to see snow, something we rarely get in our hometown. But in summer, visitors come to cool down in this place where the temperature hardly ever rises above 80 degrees.

Highlands is a well-regarded cultural center of the South. Browse the shops, boutiques, and galleries of downtown Highlands, and chances are you'll come away with something handcrafted, hand-stitched, or handwritten by a local citizen.

Where to stay in Highlands? Mountain homes, cottages, and lodges dot the landscape and are available for rent, but for a romantic escape, try one of the bed and breakfast inns in the area. We really like the Old Edwards Inn and Spa, a historic luxury property dating to 1878. With a fireplace in every room, onsite dining at Madison's Restaurant and Wine Garden, and a wonderful spa, we could spend weeks here if our bank account would allow it.

Ready to head to the mountains? Visit www.highlandschamber.org or call 828-526-2114. For more information on the Old Edwards Inn and Spa, visit www.oldedwardsinn.com or call toll-free 866-526-8008. Asheville, N.C.; Greenville, S.C.; and Atlanta are the closest airports.

Another destination that very nicely combines city with country is Georgia's "Hospitality Highway," which comprises about 50 miles linking the Georgia Highway 400 communities of Sandy Springs, Roswell, Alpharetta, Cumming and Forsyth County, Dawsonville, and Dahlonega.

The Hospitality Highway showcases some of Georgia's best shopping, natural attractions, and scenery. As many times as I've been in the area, I've never been able to see it all just because of the sheer volume of things to do.

In Sandy Springs, for instance, there's the Sandy Springs Historic Site and Big Trees Forest Preserve, a serene 30-acre park where city noises completely melt away. But just up Georgia 400 in utterly charming Roswell, you'll find historic homes, plantations, and hundreds of boutiques, galleries, and bistros in the 640-acre Historic District. Both Sandy Spring and Roswell have several access points to the Chattahoochee River for nature and river excursions.

Alpharetta is well-known for its parks and green space, including Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Big Creek Greenway, while Cumming and Forsyth County, edging the shores of Lake Lanier (now at incredibly low levels because of the severe drought in the Southeast), is home to Sawnee Mountain Preserve for nature, picnicking, hiking, biking, and Indian history.

In Dawsonville, visit the Kangaroo Conservation Center, which has more than 300 kangaroos for the largest concentration of the marsupials outside of Australia. Not only does the center offer kangaroo education, but also incredible views of the North Georgia Mountains. And at Amicalola State Park, you'll find Amicalola Falls, the Southeast's highest waterfall, before hitting the trail - the Appalachian Trail, that is - from an approach within the park.

At the far northern tip of the Hospitality Highway is Dahlonega, site of America's first gold rush and home to portions of the Chattahoochee National Forest; mountain festivals like the Bear on the Square in April and Gold Rush Days in October; and several award-winning wineries and vineyards including Wolf Mountain, Three Sisters, Frogtown Cellars, and BlackStock Vineyards. While you're there, explore the historic town square and perhaps pop into the Crimson Moon for coffee, dessert, and live bluegrass music.

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson is about a half-hour drive to Sandy Springs, the closest Hospitality Highway community to the airport. For more information, visit www.hospitalityhighway.com.


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