The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | AJC.com
As a nation of drivers, we like the safety and convenience of cocooning in our cars. When it comes to traveling during a pandemic, that may be a good thing. Getting away from it all by driving there with our COVID buddies may be a less risky option than flying with a bunch of strangers. According to a recent Skift Research survey, “The private and controlled space offered by a car is most likely to be the first transportation method used by Americans who return to travel.” In a throwback to the “See America First” slogan of the 1960s, created to promote tourism to national parks, travelers are getting behind the wheel and exploring. Here are some options for overnight getaways within driving distance from Atlanta.
Off-road enthusiasts will want to gun it for Iron Mountain Resort, 68 miles north of Atlanta. This new destination is a 4,300-acre outdoor facility with more than 150 miles of off-road trails that have been GPS mapped and are ideal for Jeeps, four-wheel drive vehicles and dirt bikes. No wheels? No problem. Daily rentals of two- and four-seat vehicles are available. Park your RV or camper in a full-service site, or sleep under the stars in tents or hammocks. Primitive camping sites are also available. (Iron Mountain Resort. $25-$30 ride, $20 camp, $425-$700 rentals. 116 Iron Mountain Parkway, Dahlonega. 706-216-7275, ironmountainresort.com)
Indulge your inner child by booking a stay in The Treehouse Grove at Norton Creek Resort, 203 miles north of Atlanta. Here, on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can kick back, commune with nature and climb into bed in a sophisticated tree house. The Gatlinburg property has eight one- and two-bedroom abodes designed by Pete Nelson, host of Animal Planet’s “Treehouse Masters,” who picked the location and tree for each house. Interiors are finished in a casual, rustic style but with all the modern amenities — air conditioning, heat, wireless internet, TV and a kitchen area with sink, microwave and mini-fridge. Some houses have sleeping lofts under the rafters with ladder access. (The Treehouse Grove, $299-$399, 475 Norton Creek Road, Gatlinburg, Tennessee. 865-409-1410, treehouse-grove.com)
While the coronavirus might be keeping people home, some are taking home with them and hitting the road. The popularity of RVs has mushroomed as travelers find it a safe and often more convenient way to travel with everything they need in one personalized space. Capitalizing on that trend, the owners of Homestead RV Community south of Mobile, Alabama, are opening a new RV park this fall to accommodate the demand. But they’ve also noticed that RVers want more than a place to plug in; they’re looking for amenities as well. The first phase of the new park will have 59 over-sized sites, a stocked fishing pond, private hot tubs with locking covers, laundry service, activities and high-speed internet. When fully finished, it will have 250 sites, all large enough to handle an RV, a pick-up truck and a spa tub that can be reserved through an app — no face-to-face interaction required. (Homestead RV Community, $63-$116, 10550 Pioneer Road, Theodore, Alabama. 251-973-2484, homervc.com)
If you’ve always wanted to try RV or van camping but didn’t want to make the financial investment, you can always rent one. Scamper Van rents small 16- or 19-foot vans with pop-up roofs and rear doors that open to reveal two sleeping areas for up to six travelers. A sink, mini-fridge and side awning are a few of the features. The company also rents camping gear and delivers it all to your door. Acworth-based North Atlanta RV Rentals rents luxury RVs that sleep as many as 10 and come outfitted with flat screen TVs, full-sized refrigerators, ranges, microwaves, dinette areas and full bathrooms. Travel trailers and Coachmen RVs are also available. At CruiseAmerica in Duluth, a compact motorhome about the size of a big pickup that sleeps three and features a gas stove, fridge, microwave and full bath makes for an intimate getaway. (Scamper Van, $149-$159 per night, scampervan.com. North Atlanta RV Rentals, $160-$429 a night, northatlantarvrentals.com. CruiseAmerica, $120 a night, cruiseamerica.com.)
Jensen Beach, Florida
Avoid the crowds along Florida’s east coast with a visit to the Caribbean Shores Waterfront Resort, on the Indian River 560 miles south of Atlanta. The recent $500,000 renovation of the property’s 18 rooms and five cottages includes new furniture, hardwood and tile floors, flatscreen TVs, contemporary décor and refurbished bathrooms. The exterior was treated to a new “Florida pink” facelift that preserves a collection of 12 original murals painted by local artists 20 years ago. The grounds and landscaping also got an upgrade that included a rebuilt dock. Cool off in the pool, in the shade of the new tiki hut or beside one of the barbecue grills in the picnic area. Dining options are being added now that the resort secured a food, beer and wine license. (Caribbean Shores Waterfront Resort, $159-$249, 2625 NE Indian River Drive, Jensen Beach, Florida. 772-919-1030, caribbeanshoresproperties.com)
Launched in August, the James Brown Journey Sidewalk Vinyl Tour highlights 12 locations significant to the life and career of the legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Access the free audio tour on your smartphone, and check out Brown’s childhood home on Twiggs Street, the Bell Auditorium on Telfair Street where some of Brown’s performances were recorded live and the commemorative statue on Broad Street. Each site is identified with a different street medallion. Get a map to the self-guided walking tour online or at the Augusta & Co. experience center. Augusta is 145 miles east of Atlanta on I-20. (Augusta & Co., free, 1010 Broad St., Augusta. 706-724-4067, visitaugusta.com/soul-starts-here)
In the mood for Louisiana-inspired French and American dishes? Head to this new restaurant across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans. Located 465 miles southwest from Atlanta on the river that gives the restaurant its name, Tchefuncte’s opened in July. Georgia native Michael Gottlieb’s menu features sweet potato ravioli gratin, herb and Dijon-crusted chicken with shaved country ham and raclette cheese, and a selection of locally sourced meat and seafood dishes. Gottlieb, whose family owned a bakery in Savannah, pays attention to the sweet side, too. Save room for family recipes of warm, sticky praline cake, brûlée’d banana rice pudding and flavored souffles. Guests can dine in the main seating area, the wine room or several smaller rooms overlooking the water. Drive-up dock slips are available for diners arriving by boat. (Tchefuncte’s Restaurant, $7-$55, 407 Saint Tammany St., Madisonville. Louisiana. 985-323-4800, tchefunctes.com)
In the heart of the Mississippi Delta, this quaint city about two hours northwest of Jackson is home to Delta State University and the state’s Grammy museum, and now, its first downtown hotel. The Cotton House in the city’s historic area was carved out of a former hardware and lumber store, and elements of that original structure can be found in the exposed brick and arched windows. Along with 95 guest rooms, it boasts Bar Fontaine, led by James Beard-nominated chef Cole Ellis, who features locally sourced ingredients in a small plates menu and extensive cocktail program, served on a rooftop deck perfect for sunset watching. The Delta Meat Market on the lower level serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Cotton Row area is the town’s go-to spot for special events and celebrations throughout the year. Cleveland is 416 miles west of Atlanta. (The Cotton House, $156-$192. 215 Cotton Row, Cleveland, Mississippi. 662-843-7733, cottonhousecleveland.com)
Banner Elk, North Carolina
Think of it as a sort of roller coaster you get to control. That’s one of the chief attractions of the new Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster that opened in May in this Blue Ridge mountain town. Built by Wiegand Sports, one of Germany’s top alpine coaster companies, the ride begins as two-person carts are hauled by cable to a height of 770 feet. From there, gravity pulls the cart along the 3,160-foot track with twists and loops. Riders use hand brakes to control speeds that top out at about 27 miles per hour. The six-acre complex also has a clubhouse, observation deck and gift shop. Banner Elk is 278 miles northeast from Atlanta. (Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster, $5-$35. 3265 Tynecastle Highway, Banner Elk, North Carolina. 828-898-7866, wildernessrunalpinecoaster.com)
Aiken, South Carolina
Save for the white-columned exterior and dedication to hospitality, The Willcox Hotel of 2020 has come a long way from its previous incarnation. After a recent $250,000 upgrade, the Aiken landmark boasts a newly decorated lobby with refinished hardwoods, new furniture and accents in guest rooms, and the addition of complimentary valet parking. While in residence, visitors enjoy rooms with high ceilings, fireplaces, four-poster beds and glamorous baths with soaking tubs. Dig into breakfast before diving into the saltwater pool, working out in the cardio room or challenging the kids to games in the library. In-room fitness sessions are available on request, as are cashmere hot water bottles to warm the sheets before retiring. Not only is The Willcox pet friendly, given its location in the heart of South Carolina’s equine region, it’s not surprising that a horse concierge is on staff. The hotel is 168 miles east of Atlanta. (The Willcox Hotel, $229-$450. 100 Colleton Ave., Aiken, South Carolina. 803-648-1898, thewillcox.com)
After two years of construction, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley unveils its newest attraction, The Trails, in November. The $9 million project features three miles of trails (turf and paved) and boardwalk suitable for walking, running and biking that traverse a 90-acre park of fields, wetlands and forest. Located 600 miles northeast of Atlanta, the museum’s permanent exhibitions include the Glass Collection, featuring furniture, paintings and decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries; the Taylors Miniature Collection of more than 4,000 tiny houses and furnishings; and the Shenandoah Valley Collection of regional arts and crafts. Current temporary exhibits feature outdoor artworks of giant bugs, a photography retrospective of the Appalachian Trail and The Bodice Project, torso sculptures in various media that honor those who have had breast cancer. (Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, $15, trails free. 901 Amherst St., Winchester, Virginia. 888-556-5799, themsv.org)
COVID-19 travel tips
- Research destinations and query tourist sites and hotels about their safety precautions and restrictions.
- When entering a hotel, clean frequently touched surfaces such as light switches, door knobs, faucets and the TV remote control with sanitizing wipes.
- While on the road, use disposable gloves or sanitizing wipes when using public restrooms.
- Bring your own food or purchase food from restaurants offering drive-thru or carry-out service. If you dine at a restaurant, sit outside at least six feet away from other tables.