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These Are Some Of Georgia's Best-Kept Secrets

  • McClatchy-Tribune News Service
  • Published Monday, May 3, 2010, at 11:52 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, May 7, 2010, at 12:27 p.m.

Pssssst! Want to hear a secret? Actually, want to hear five secrets? With the summer vacation season fast approaching, there are a few places that are little known outside the Peach State — but once you visit they will always keep Georgia on your mind.

In all of Georgia there is no place better to canoe or kayak than the Altamaha River. The Altamaha, named by The Nature Conservancy as one of the "Last Great Places" in the world and also called "Georgia's Little Amazon," is created at the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers and then meanders 137 miles to the coast near Darien. On that undammed run to the Atlantic, only six times is it crossed by roads and just twice by active rail lines.

Parts of the river are so solitary and remote that you can paddle for miles without seeing another living soul. For long stretches, it's just you, the river, turtles and fish, whitetail deer, a few egrets or herons singing through the deep forests, and maybe on rare occasions a manatee.

The Altamaha is considered one of the finest natural areas in the entire southeast, for the woods, river, and surrounding floodplain are habitat to at least 120 species of rare or endangered plants and animals, including the gopher tortoise, red- cockaded woodpecker and indigo snake.

Having lived just a few miles from the river's edge for most of my life, I know that it can take on a thousand hues, a thousand scents, a thousand sounds. The clay-covered banks and forested bluffs of the river — some of them reaching to 70 feet high — are woven into a palette of cinnabar red and spicy orange, and the air holds an intoxicating, almost ambrosial fusion of sugary jasmine and fresh pine needles. It is a magical place, ideal for canoeing into the quietness of a Georgia summer afternoon.

Contact Vidalia Area Convention & Visitor Bureau at www.VidaliaArea.com or call (912) 538-8687. For canoeing guides, contact Three Rivers Outdoors at (912) 594-8379 or email at OnTheRiverManYahoo.com.

There is something about Sapelo Island, one of the myriad barrier islands that scallops Georgia's coastline, that cannot be completely defined. Perhaps it's because the island, just eleven miles long and three miles wide, looks much the same as it did a thousand years ago: pristine, undeveloped, unspoiled, and certainly uncrowded. Or maybe it's because of its sheer isolation. After all, there is only one way on the island and one way off: by either private watercraft or public ferry. There are no in-betweens.

In a sense, it is a remote and haunting paradise that is a fusion of sky, earth, and water, but don't bother conjuring up images of a garden-speckled Shangri-La or Eden. Instead, Sapelo's beauty is uncomplicated and stark, and its natural community encompasses forested uplands and vast salt marsh curled and scores of creeks and tributaries teeming with critters and birds of every sort.

The best thing about Sapelo, once owned by R.J. Reynolds, is that it melds its layers of nature and history into several distinct components, including Nanny Goat Beach that is one of the most extensive undisturbed natural beach dunes along the Georgia coast, the candy-cane striped Sapelo Island Lighthouse, the ruins of Chocolate Plantation where Sea Island cotton and sugarcane were once grown, and the R.J. Reynolds Mansion.

Also included in the mix is the African-American community of Hog Hammock, a veritable wealth of African-American symbolism, history, and culture. Deeply rooted in African traditions and religion, Hog Hammock is one of the few remaining Gullah — sometimes called Geechee — communities along the Atlantic coast. Even the lyrical and colorful Gullah language, a Creole-like melange of English and West African dialects, is still spoken here.

Access to Sapelo Island is by reservation only. Contact Sapelo Island Visitor Center at (912) 437-3224 or visit www.gastateparks.org/sapelo.

Georgia has another coast besides the one that borders the Atlantic Ocean, only this one is freshwater. The mosaic coastline of Lake Lanier in Cumming etches a cluster of enchanting islands and magical bays and lagoons that shimmer like sapphires under the blue skies of Forsyth County.

Fancy a fish fry now that this secret is out? Lake Lanier, one of the largest reservoirs in the eastern U.S., is undoubtedly one of Georgia's richest underwater kingdoms. This angler's paradise has more than 640 miles of shoreline and 38,000 acres from which to cast a reel, sling a cane pole, or whip a fly rod. There's plenty of room to swim, raft, float, water-ski, sail, windsurf, jet-ski, canoe, kayak, or simply lull away the hours on a houseboat.

About thirty percent of Lake Lanier's shoreline is in Forsyth County, with its heartbeat being Port Royale Marina, a sort of one-stop mini-mall for boaters and fishers. With fueling stations, a restaurant, food, beverages, ice, boat accessories, outdoor clothing, and plenty of dazzling neon lighting, it's certainly a bright spot on the lake. Conveniently complementing the marina is Paradise Rental Boats with its enormous fleet of "party barges" cruisers, runabouts, and Waverunners, so you don't have to worry about getting your own boat past airport security.

Ken Sturdivant of Southern Fishing in Cumming is one of Lake Lanier's most renowned guides. He explains that the lake is best known for its "stripers" — the striped bass that's grows up to thirty pounds and are challenging and fun to catch. All sort of other ichthyologic cousins share these waters, including spotted bass, catfish, yellow perch, bream or sunfish, and smallmouth bass.

Contact the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce at www.CummingForsythChamber.org or call (770) 887-6461.

North Georgia's natural beauty and its counterpart of the Blue Ridge Mountains are known for remarkable gifts for those who enjoy the outdoors. With the pure seduction of lofty elevations, green valleys, scented orchards, shaded forests, and percolating mountain creeks and streams that practically tease one to cast a line or hop in for a swim, Blairsville is a lightning rod for those who enjoy nature and the outdoors.

And although Blairsville is relaxed and quiet in the shadows of the Blue Ridge and Brasstown Bald — Georgia's highest peak at 4,784 feet — it is quickly becoming a southern legend for its seemingly endless possibilities for high octane outdoor recreation and adventure including hiking, horseback riding, golfing, exploring multitudes of waterfalls, fishing, swimming, and deciphering ancient archaeological sites.

At the end of the day, just find yourself a verandah and watch those fabled sunsets as the crest of the Blue Ridge silhouettes itself in the distance. The mountains, smothered in a perpetual soft haze, become golden and lazy, almost like a pride of sleeping lions. Then finish off the evening by gazing at the constellations undimmed by city lights or the fireflies flitting among Blairsville's profuse woodlands thick with rhododendron.

Visit www.BlairsvilleChamber.com or (877) 745-5789.

Albany, way down in the southwest corner of Georgia, is especially worth a visit, particularly if you're a student of the civil rights movement. This small city has a big history. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy spoke at Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum at Old Mt. Zion Church, the premier repository to learn about the Civil Rights Movement in Albany and South Georgia.

But the real secret is that every second Saturday of each month, the Albany Civil Rights Institute Freedom Singers, led by original member Rutha Harris, shakes the rafters with their soulful, heartrending renditions of songs, hymns, spirituals, and narratives dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. The singing is so emotional, so powerful, so dramatic, that at the first incredible note I nearly jumped out of the pew. Fair warning: Bring tissues, as you'll be in tears before it's over.

Ray Charles is from Albany, and so are Paula Deen, Wild Kingdom's Jim Fowler, singer Ray Stevens, and golfer Nancy Lopez. Radium Springs, one of Georgia's Seven Natural Wonders, is here. Its sapphire blue water bubbles from underwater caves and caverns in a naturally orchestrated spectacle. And take an exotic safari at Chehaw, a wild animal park that was originally begun by Fowler.

Visit www.albanyga.com, www.albanycivilrights.org, or call (229) 434-8700.

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