THOMASVILLE, Ga. —When you think about it, there has to be something pretty impressive about a place that few people outside of Georgia have heard about but was once referred to by Harper's magazine as "the best winter resort on three continents."
That place is Thomasville. Deep in the farthest reaches of Georgia, about a rock's throw from the Florida line, Thomasville is a town where time seems to have stood still and the Old South never completely faded away.
It's no exaggeration to say that Thomasville is one of the prettiest towns in America for a number of reasons. Rolling green hills. Furrows of red clay in hues of carmine, mahogany, and cinnamon. Graceful plantations that bespeak of an era long ago. Victorian architecture. Southern breezes. Bobwhite quail whistling among the pines. Kudzu-covered roadsides. Towering magnolias and oaks drizzled with Spanish moss. And plenty of warm Southern hospitality.
It once was the happy hunting grounds of the Creek and Apalachee Indians. Hernando De Soto eventually traipsed through here and opened the doors for the pioneers of the 1820s. From then until the Civil War, Thomasville evolved to a plantation society where King Cotton ruled.
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The war ended, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s Thomasville was the end of the railroad line in Georgia. With near-perfect winter weather, wealthy snowbirds flocked here for its clean, pine-scented air, to escape the cold from "up north," and to hunt and fish its verdant pastures.
The moneyed magnates — the Vanderbilts, Goodriches, and Hannas among them — visited and built luxurious homes. Their lifestyles were lavish, and their winter cottages architectural jewels, many of which still hold their original grandeur.
This was the gilded age of Thomasville, which eventually became known as the Winter Resort Era. But in any case it all ended when around the turn of the century rail lines snaked their way into Florida and tourism opened up in the Sunshine State.
When the loaded Yankees moved on with their money, their architecture, a combination of antebellum plantations and Victorian homes, remained in place and are at the core of Thomasville's beauty.
While Thomasville is off the beaten path, it is one of the very few places remaining to learn about plantations and the fabulous Winter Resort Era.
There's plenty to do here, but the first thing is take the self-guided Historic Thomasville Walking and Driving Tour that takes you to more than 70 locations in the historic districts of the city. Driving around and seeing all those colorful, gorgeous homes and buildings gives you a sense of just what Thomasville's history is all about.
And the plantations? Seventy-one of them are strewn over 300,000 acres on Plantation Parkway between Thomasville and Tallahassee, yet the only one open to the public — the rest are private homes — is Pebble Hill, a 25,000 square-foot house museum dating to the 1820s and that was once a shooting plantation. Think Scarlett O'Hara, and you get the idea of what to expect.
Thomasville is noted for its historic inns and buildings including the Victorian-style 1884 Paxton House with 13-foot ceilings and a dozen fireplaces, the African-American Mitchell-Young-Anderson House filled with century-old furniture, and Freedom Oaks, a restored Queen Ann Victorian surrounded by azaleas and oaks. And Gecko Gardens, the former 1854 Wright House Inn, bedazzles with more than three acres of retail landscaping goodies. The Lapham-Patterson House is an asymmetrical wonder in that it was built with no right angles.
In the midst of all that exploring, you'll have to eat. Thomasville's perfect storm of restaurants, many of which are on downtown's red brick-paved streets, blends everything from meat-and-three joints to Southern-style barbecue to gourmet. Jonah's Fish & Grits is the go-to place for fried oyster sandwiches and shrimp and grits and Liam's of Thomasville has for wonderful wine and cheese selections and a European brunch on Saturdays.
The Plaza Restaurant, with its Greek dishes, is the oldest restaurant in downtown. Cafe Marebella is in the historic train depot serving outstanding Northern Italian food and offers al fresco seating under the old depot canopy. Grassroots Coffee roasts its own coffee in small batches on location, and the dough is freshly made every day and shaped by hand at Moon Spin Pizza. Savannah Moon Bakery & Cafe is a local favorite, and so is the Billiard Academy for pool room chili dogs. Try George & Louie's Restaurant for the best hamburger in town, Izzo's Soda Fountain for old fashioned milk shakes and malts, and finish at Bella Woods Cafe for high tea.
History, history, and more history. Check out the Thomas County Museum of History, the Jack Hadley Black History Museum, or the Thomasville Genealogical, History & Fine Arts Library, a major repository for family research and one of the better genealogical libraries I've seen.
Love roses? How about lots and lots of roses? Like maybe a gazillion of them? A good time is visit is during the 90th annual Thomasville Rose Show and Festival scheduled for April 21-23. That's when Thomasville, nicknamed the City of Roses, plays host to the festival that's been a Georgia tradition and top event since the 1920s. With parades, pretty blossoms, and parties galore, the beloved festival has been voted a Top 20 Event in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourism Society.
Pick either roses or fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables or jams and jellies at the Thomasville Farmers Market, or smile and say cheese with a fun visit to Sweet Grass Dairy, which produces sumptuous cow and goat cheeses onsite in the complete process from the milking to aging.
Then there's the Big Oak. Dating to about 1680, it's the largest oak tree east of the Mississippi River. Covering about an acre, its long, gnarly limbs make it wider than Niagara Falls is deep. It has survived windstorms, hurricanes and snowstorms to become an enduring symbol of Thomasville.
IF YOU GO:
Visit www.ThomasvilleGa.com or telephone toll-free 1-866-577-3600 or locally at 1-229-228-7977. Thomasville is 230 miles from Atlanta and 154 miles from Jacksonville. The nearest commercial airport is Tallahassee, Fla., about a half-hour's drive.