Outside Atlanta: Spring Travel Guide
By Tony Jenkins
With its longer days, warmer temperatures and flowers in bloom,spring is the perfect time of year to pack up the car and hit the road for an overdue vacation. And your new home offers plenty of options for a long weekend of sightseeing, soaking up the sun and exploring the outdoors. From one-tank trips just a couple of hours from Atlanta to exciting excursions into a few of our neighboring states, we’ve compiled some of our favorite springtime escapes.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, less than two hours northeast of Atlanta, is the enchanting town of Helen. This former logging town reinvented as a re-creation of a Bavarian village is most famous for its Oktoberfest gathering each fall, but Helen also celebrates spring in grand style. Springfest (April 21 and 22) commemorates the season with German music, dancing, food and drinks on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.
Spring is also a perfect time of year to take in the distinct charms of Savannah. Less than a four-hour drive southeast of Atlanta, Georgia’s oldest city—and one of its most beautiful—boasts trees draped with Spanish moss, attractive garden squares, historic homes and antebellum architecture. The picturesque Bonaventure Cemetery is a captivating landmark, as is lively River Street. Lined with renovated cotton warehouses, this dining and entertainment center offers sweeping views of the Savannah River and its port traffic.
Each spring, the city of Vidalia, two and a half hours southeast of Atlanta, bustles with family-friendly activity during a four-day festival celebrating Georgia’s official state vegetable. Called one of the “Five Don’t-Miss Festivals Across the U.S.” by MSNBC, the Vidalia Onion Festival (April 20-23) includes a children’s parade, an arts and crafts show, sidewalk sales, an air show featuring the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, an onion-eating contest and, of course, a Vidalia onion recipe contest.
About five hours south of Atlanta, the city of Gainesville (Florida, not Georgia) is the perfect spot for a spring getaway, with a wealth of cultural attractions and outdoor recreational activities. Visitors can stroll through downtown Gainesville and enjoy live music at the Bo Diddley Plaza or take in a performance at the Hippodrome Theatre.
The Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History features hundreds of butterflies in a tropical landscape of plants and waterfalls, while the popular Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo is home to more than 75 species, from bald eagles to tree kangaroos. Nature lovers can enjoy canoeing on the Santa Fe River, hiking in gorgeous Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park or exploring The Devil’s Millhopper, a lush rainforest situated in a large sinkhole.
The main attraction in Jacksonville, less than five hours from Atlanta, is its sandy beaches, but the city offers much more. There’s fishing, kayaking and surfing, a bustling downtown, a thriving arts and culture scene, more than 1,200 holes of golf on 70 courses, professional sporting events; the list goes on and on, much like the 22 miles of beaches.
Tallahassee, just a four-and-a-half hour drive away, offers a diverse mix of culture and activities for the entire family, including more than 600 miles of trails perfect for hikers, bikers and horseback riders. And on April 14 and 15, the state capital also becomes the jazz and art capital, as the Cool Breeze Art and Smooth Jazz Festival fills the Florida air with the sound of live music and the sights of artworks for sale.
Just more than three hours from Atlanta, Huntsville offers countless hiking trails, beautiful mountain views and, of course, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, a must-see for space travel buffs and astronauts in the making. And just a short drive from Huntsville, you’ll find Cathedral Caverns State Park, which is just as out-of-this-world, with 14 acres of underground caverns to explore.
It’s hard to argue with the idea of spending some of your spring looking out into the Gulf of Mexico. Gulf Shores, a little more than five hours southwest of Atlanta, is a popular travel destination for its white-sand beaches, deep-sea fishing and other activities. Gulf Shores is also home to the annual Hangout Music Festival, which this year takes place May 19-21 with performers including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lil Nas X and many more.
Gulf Shores is also known for its golf courses, and in fact golf is a popular draw throughout the state. One of Alabama’s top tourist attractions is the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which consists of 26 courses, with 468 championship holes at 11 locations across the state.
The South Carolina region known as Upcountry, a little more than two hours from Atlanta in the northwest corner of the state, boasts more than 120 beautiful waterfalls, some of which (like Reedy River Falls and Wildcat Falls) are easily accessible, while others (like Rainbow Falls and Raven Cliff Falls) are for serious hikers looking for more of a challenge.
There’s a reason that such luminaries as rocker John Mellencamp, NHL legend Mark Messier and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank have homes on Hilton Head Island; it’s a great place to relax. But the calming powers of walking along the Atlantic Ocean are just one of the features of this island located just four hours southeast of Atlanta. There are also more than 350 tennis courts, 24 championship golf courses, fine dining choices and enough biking paths to keep you riding all day.
Only a three-and-a-half hour drive from Atlanta, Asheville offers a plethora of activities to take advantage of its beautiful location in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Be sure to check out the Biltmore, a luxury hotel with majestic gardens. Completed in 1895 as the Vanderbilt family estate, it’s billed as America’s Largest Home. The Omni Grove Park Inn, which boasts a 40,000-square-foot underground spa, is also worth a visit.
Outdoor enthusiasts will love viewing the city’s mountains via the Blue Ridge Parkway, which also has several parking areas that serve as trailheads for hiking trails that cut through it. If you love beer, Asheville is hops heaven, with more than 50 breweries to choose from and tours offered.
The city also offers ghost, waterfall hiking and literary tours. For something out of the ordinary, visit the Asheville Pinball Museum, which pays tribute to pinball machines and arcade games.
If you want to enjoy Blue Ridge Mountains activities on a smaller scale or slower pace, try Hendersonville, which is 25 miles south of Asheville. Hendersonville’s pedestrian-friendly Main Street, which includes sidewalk dining and public art, is a great spot to stroll, shop, eat and drink.
For More Information
Asheville, North Carolina
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Hilton Head Island
Hendersonville, North Carolina
Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail
Upcountry, South Carolina
Vidalia Onion Festival