Heading south

I’ve got two words for you: cabin fever. Happily, even as the temperatures dip and the snow descends, there’s a secret weapon for surviving winter: vacation. Even for folks on a meager budget, taking off for sunnier climes may be well within the realm of possibility — if you’re willing to forgo the Caribbean in favor of the following less-praised but definitely praiseworthy Southern gems.

Antebellum meets alt-rock

True to its Mediterranean name, Athens boasts plenty of Greek revival architecture. It’s one of a handful of Southern cities that escaped Sherman’s torch (Macon and Savannah are others). But all that glitters isn’t old — Athens is also home to such fringe favorites as R.E.M and the B-52’s.

The University of Georgia campus gives the downtown area a college-town flavor. Downtown Athens is funky, artsy and full of hip little cafes, bars and galleries. It’s also very pedestrian-friendly.

Destinations include the Georgia Museum of Art (on the east side of the UGA campus), the Morton Theatre (an African-American vaudeville theater dating back to 1910), and the 313-acre State Botanical Gardens of Georgia. Another must-see is the Tree that Owns Itself. Sitting at the intersection of Dearing and South Finley streets, the oak tree was actually willed the land it stands on. And then there’s the Grit, the city’s famed vegetarian restaurant. Many of the patrons (and employees) figure in the acclaimed local music scene; don’t miss it.

Athens is also the kickoff point for the Antebellum Trail, which links a half-dozen Georgia communities in what’s known as the Historic Heartland Travel Region.

They built this city on Southern rock

The Allman Brothers got their start in Macon; so did Otis Redding and Little Richard. If that elite trio isn’t reason enough to hang out here, the place is also chock full of pre-Civil War architecture as well as great museums and historic sites.

The city offers a pair of around-the-town tours. The historic downtown walking tour includes access to the Tubman African American Museum, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Douglass Theatre, a 1920s-era African-American vaudeville theater. There’s also a trolley tour of the historic district, which highlights such antebellum architectural gems as the haunted Hay House and the aptly named Cannon Ball House. The two tours together run about $24 per person.

Macon claims major boasting rights for its 275,000 cherry trees (said to be more than can be found in any other city in the world). So every March, there’s a 10-day Cherry Blossom Festival (this year’s edition runs March 21-30). Visitors can also enjoy Georgia’s lovely early spring at the Ocmulgee National Monument and Indian Mounds, a 10,000-year-old Native American site maintained by the state Parks Department (admission is free).

Notable local events include the “Sequential Art” exhibit at the Tubman Museum (through March 7). The show spotlights African-American comic-book artists. Meanwhile, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame hosts “A Voice of Their Own: Black Classical Music in Georgia” through May 26.

Budget motels like Econo Lodge, Travelodge and Scottish Inns offer low rates, while the Lake Tobesofkee Recreation Area, just outside of town, welcomes RV and tent campers and their pets. Pricier (but worth it) is the 1842 Inn, a B&B in the historic district.

Southern Belle

Savannah is the quintessential tourist town in the very best sense — a treasure trove of antebellum relics, with three historic cemeteries and architecture dating back to the late 1700s. A host of trolley tours will help you make the most of it (they’re regulated by the city, so all the tour companies charge the same price — $16 per adult during the off-season — and show the same attractions). There are also more Irish pubs than you can shake a pint of Guinness at.

Savannah is one of those places you can arrive in with no map, no guidebook and no idea what you’re doing and still make out just fine. That’s because the historic district was designed on a grid: All the streets run either north-south or east-west. Every so often, you’ll run into a lovely little park (they call them squares in Savannah), and if you stand in any one of them and peer down an adjacent street, you’ll see another square.

Speaking of looking for things, the Bird Girl statue (from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) has been transferred from the graveyard to the museum. Savannah also hosts the country’s second-largest St. Patrick’s Day festival — a very, very big deal, so don’t try to find a hotel in town during the festivities unless you’ve booked way in advance. And don’t miss the chance to wander by the water on River Street — sure, it’s a tourist trap, but it’s also one of the few places in the city where you’ll spot a monument to African-American history.

The oldest city

Forget everything you know about Florida. St. Augustine, in the northern portion of the state, has its own special vibe. It’s a little town, buffered from the ocean by Anastasia Island (home to the town of St. Augustine Beach). It’s also the oldest city in the U.S. Officially settled by the Spanish in 1565, St. Augustine boasts a historic district with well-preserved buildings (now a pedestrian mall housing tourist shops); remnants of the original fort; the architectural marvel known as Flagler College (a former hotel that would have turned the Grove Park Inn green with envy); and La Leche Shrine, site of the first parish mass held in what’s now the United States.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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