Monday, August 4, 2014

Albany - Southwest Georgia's Hidden Gem

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Have you ever visited a city and fell in love with it so much you want to move there? Well we did when we visited Albany, GA. Albany is a the perfect getaway for a day, weekend or an entire week. This beautiful Southwest Georgia town offers visitors of all ages a wide variety of award winning museums and attractions, first class hotels, fine dining and of course true southern hospitality.

I'm a history buff so before I give you the inside scoop on where to stay, eat and have fun let me first tell you a little bit about Albany.

The first inhabitants of the area which is now Albany were the Creek Indians. They resided alongside the "Thronateeska" riverbank. This strange word means "the place where flint is picked up." The river was renamed Flint River, eventually by settlers, but as you can see it kept part of it's original meaning. Nelson Tift founded the city in 1863 in hopes that the settlement would prosper as a trade center like Albany, New York. So in the mid 1800s Albany integrated several plantations. They were one of the few Georgia cities that saw no battles during the Civil War, however the plantations did provide cotton and food for the Confederacy. Due to the low water and sandbars in the Flint River, Albany turned to rails for transportation and became a rail center by the turn of the 20th century. Industry and commerce followed the railroads, and an active arts community ensured cultural as well as economic growth. Albany also played a major roll in the Civil Rights Movement. Today, Albany is riding high, thanks to a private-public partnership that is redeveloping the downtown by playing up the area’s premier natural resource – the Flint River. Albany has an estimated population of over 77,000 people, but don't let that number fool you. This city still has all its charm and small southern town feel. The residents of Albany are amazing and some of the best people we have met in Georgia over the last 14 years. Albany has lots of stories to tell and is waiting for you to visit.

10 Places To Visit:

1) Flint RiverQuarium -
This one-of-a-kind aquarium is the centerpiece of the redevelopment of downtown Albany. The highlight of the aquarium is the 175,000 gallon, 22-foot deep Blue Hole which is filled with over 120 plants, fish and reptiles that can be found in the Flint River ecosystem. The Blue Hole tank allows visitors to explore it from the surface to the depths through a panorama of discovery points. The Common Snapper, Spotted Gar and Gulf Sturgeon were some of our favorites. After checking out the surface viewing area you will make your way through the Flint River Gallery.

The Flint River Gallery explores the Flint River from its urban headwaters in a culvert at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta to its confluence with its sister river, the Chattahoochee, at Lake Seminole and onto Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Over 40 species of both freshwater and saltwater fish, reptiles and amphibians are on display in individual exhibits in this area. It is truly a unique journey offering a first-hand look at life all along the river's path. Throughout the exhibits are interactive touch pads where children can learn more information about each of these magnificent creatures. Since we had a guided tour the children even got to touch a gopher tortoise. Some of our favorites in this area were the Tiger Salamander, Longsnout Seahorse, American Eel and Green Tree Frog.

The next stop was the hatchery. This was my favorite part of the aquarium because we got to see baby sharks still inside their eggs. This exhibit is constantly changing so you never know what you may see. The fish here are raised from egg to fingerling and once they are big enough they are transferred to other exhibits in the aquarium or sometimes shared with other aquariums.

Next we made our way through the World of Water and Spring Run Creek exhibits. These areas had lots of activities for the children and taught them the importance of rivers, introduced them to rivers around the world and discussed pollution and water conservation. There was a limestone cavern to crawl through, a make your own river table, interactive learning station and of course more fish, reptiles and amphibians. Throughout this area there were also beautiful photographs and wall murals on display. One of our most memorable moments in this exhibit was when our guide stuck his hand in the Piranha tank to debunk the myth about them being human attacking fish.

Our final stop of the day was the Cypress Creek Aviary. This 35 foot high enclosure is located behind the aquarium and gives visitors an up-close look at passerine and wading birds indigenous to the Flint River basin. Gwyn even got to have a conversation with a Blue Jay.

After you tour the aquarium you an head over to the Imagination Theater. Here you can watch a nature film on a three-story IWERKS screen with digital surround sound. And don't forget to stop by the gift shop too where you can check out a tank made by the guys from the Animal Planet show "Tanked".

We were very impressed with the aquarium and will definitely return again. The layout was fabulous and it flowed nicely. Staff members were very attentive and ready to answer any questions we had about the aquarium, animals, etc. The tanks were large and some even offered multiple viewing angles allowing you to view even the shyest of fish. The tanks were very clean and the animals looked happy and healthy.

Be sure to check out Flint RiverQuarium's website for more information on pricing and special programs including alligator feedings (you must see Moonshine the rare Albino Alligator), dive shows, educational programs and more!

2) Historic Bridge House Visitors Center:
The visitor center is located in the Historic Bridge House and FREE to visit. The house is a restored circa 1858 home which was built by African-American bridge builder Horace King. Horace was a freed slave and was commissioned by the Tift to construct a toll bridge as well as the house. The archway served as the entrance to the bridge. At the visitor center you can learn the history of the Bridge House, watch the film “From the Heart of Southwest Georgia," view some artifacts, rent bicycles, check out the historical photographs, and even find a geocache. This is also the place to pick up informational brochures on Albany as well as Albany souvenir's like stuffed turtles, books by local authors, postcards by a local photographer and kitchen and cooking items inspired by Albany native and queen of southern cuisine, Paula Deen.

3) Art Park on Pine:
BYOP (bring your own paint) and get ready to create your own street art! The Art Park is a place where everyone is welcome to observe, create and/or perform all forms of art, and an extraordinary venue for public and private events. The Art Park is FREE to visit and was designed to enhance the quality of life in the Downtown Albany Area while also providing a Community Center for Artists and lovers of the Art, alike. There are many plans in the works for this amazing art mecca in Albany including a co-op garden within the park, gallery enclosures, studio spaces, an art supply store and more. Several local artists watch over the Art Park walls to ensure a small measure of appropriate content and the sharing of space.

We spent over 3 hours enjoying this one of a kind open air community art gallery. It is the only one in Georgia, but hopefully it will pave the way for more throughout the state. Everything in this dilapidated, re-purposed structure can be used as a canvas including the porter potties (yeah those were my son's favorite item to paint on). Local artist Cameron met with us teach us the art of street art. Gwyn my aspiring artist was brimming with ideas. She finally settled on the perfect space and with Cameron's help she created an alley scene with rats, trash cans and a hungry stray dog. She even utilized the holes is the walls as part of her design. Even I couldn't resist picking up a can of spray paint!

4) Riverfront Park:
Spend the day enjoying all that the six-acre Riverfront Park offers. The park is spread out along the Flint River and hosts open views of the river, a community built Turtle Grove Play Park with Dino Dig and Tot Lot, a music and light animated play fountain, pavilion areas, arbor garden sitting area with swings, the 3 mile Greenway Trail System, the Horace King Overlook, the Albany Welcome Center, and the Ray Charles Plaza.

The Greenway Trail currently travels north three miles to Cleve Cox Landing on Philema Road. And eventually the trail will connect to Chehaw – “Nature’s Playground” and south to Radium Springs Garden, one of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders. If you don't wish to walk the trail you can rent bikes at the visitor center and in the near future you will even be able to rent a kayak so you can float down the Flint River alongside the trail. The Audubon Chapter has designated this trail system as one of the best local areas to bird watch for fall migrants.

Ray Charles Plaza is a great spot to take a relaxing break. In the center of the plaza is a rotating life-size bronze sculpture of the pioneering soul musician seated at a baby grand piano. Water flows over the slowly rotating pedestal and spills into a reflecting pool at its base. Throughout the day at timed intervals you will hear the beloved melodies play from the "The Genius of Soul."  Take a seat on a piano key bench and enjoy the concert.

5) Thronateeska Heritage Center:
Thronateeska Heritage Center is located in Heritage Plaza one of the oldest Train Depots in the state of Georgia. This depot united the seven railroads that served as many as 55 trains daily. Now it is home to the newly expanded and renovated Thronateeska Heritage Center which includes the Wetherbee Planetarium, Science Discovery Center, Museum of History, Train Exhibit, and Archives and Collections Department.

Thronateeska Heritage Center is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization and was  incorporated in 1974 for the purpose of historic preservation and science education in Albany and Southwest Georgia. The museum are FREE to visit, however planetarium shows require a small fee.

We toured the Wetherbee Planetarium, Science Discovery Center and Train Exhibit. The Museum of History is currently undergoing renovations. The Science Discovery Center was constructed between the Railway Express Agency building and the Fryer-Merritt House in 2008. The new building incorporated architectural features of the original 1926 Central Georgia Roundhouse on the fa├žade of the building. 

The Science Discovery Center offers visitors fun, interactive, hands-on learning. Exhibits include archaeology, paleontology, geology, hydrology, astronomy, physical science and more. Have you ever wanted to be a weather man? Well there is even an interactive weather channel simulator where you can test out your skills. The children loved that they were able to touch the exhibits and I loved seeing their curiosity flourish. Gwyn loved the paleontology and astronomy sections. And Rowyn couldn't keep his hands off the piano strings. Currently on display is a special exhibit called the Flood of Memories which commemorates Albany's flood history. It was really neat seeing how the Albany community came together not once but twice after severe flooding ravaged the city. The museum is one giant circle so it is really easy to navigate and the staff is readily available to answer any questions you may have.

The Wetherbee Planetarium is one of the first of its kind in the world. Visitors can experience a variety of educational films in this hi-def planetarium with a 40 foot dome, digital projection and surround sound. We got a sneak peek at several of the films that are showed at planetarium and the visuals were stunning.

We finished up our visit at the Train Exhibit. On display is a steam locomotive, several rail cars and an HO-scale model railway exhibit inside a railroad baggage car and mail car that once made trips to New Orleans and Jacksonville. Rowyn was in awe of the train engine and rail cars.

Thronateeska Heritage Center offers educational group tours daily, special exhibits and more so be sure to check out their website for further details.

6) Chehaw Animal and Adventure Park:
Chehaw is truly, "natures playground." This 800-acre nature park offers visitors a variety of activities including a 100-acre AZA-accredited zoo, one of the states largest play parks, disc golf, BMX dirt bike course, walking/biking trails, miniature train ride and camping. The park requires a small entrance and if you wish to visit the zoo there is an additional fee. 

During our visit to Chehaw we spent our time at the Chehaw Wild Animal Park, where my animal loving daughter fell in love with zoo and it's inhabitants. This zoo is unlike any other we have ever visited. The native and exotic animals are not caged in and are free to roam in larger areas that are more conducive to their natural habitat. Unobstructed views of the over 219 specimens, representing 84 species of wild animals give you an up-close look at how these animals react in their natural environment. The zoo is laid out in a giant circle and offers plenty of shade for visitors as you stroll through scenic boardwalks and cypress swamps. Each animal has a placard in front of their habitat which provides information about the species and their status in the wild. The amazing Wild Animal Park design was originally done by Jim Fowler, a native of Albany, GA, and host of Wild Kingdom.

When we entered the zoo we were greeted by an animal ambassador in front of the reptile house. A very large red-tailed boa which captivated my children. Next we headed over to feed "Bogart" the camel. The children loved Bogart and feeding him gave them an up-close look at the rare Bactrian Camel species. Have you ever seen a camel run? It has got to be the funniest thing I have ever seen. Next we headed over to the animal that my daughter was anticipating the most, the cheetahs. We have never seen a cheetah at a zoo and now we can say we have seen three. These three sisters were so beautiful and loved entertaining visitors. Next it was time for our African Veldt Ride. This ride takes you on a mini safari into the "wild." There is no set route for this ride and the driver will get you as close as they safely can to the wild African animals. You will experience wildebeest, zebras, eland, kudu and more. We learned so much about these magnificent African animals during our ride. Before heading off to look at the other creatures at the zoo we headed over to the alligators to feed them a snack too. Wow was this fun!!! I mean it's not everyday you get to feed an alligator! Some of the other exhibits include the African black rhinoceros, American bald eagle, lemurs, meerkats, zebras, bobcats and more. All of the activities listed above as well as the cheetah lure run, rhinoceros feeding and educational animal programs are offered every Saturday and Sunday an included with general admission.

Chehaw is devoted to conservation, preservation and education and this is definitely evident when you talk with any of the dedicated staff members and see the condition of the animals. Chehaw has a few new additions in the works including a flamingo and several cat exhibit. Also onsite are clean restrooms, a cafe gift shop and barnyard petting zoo.

Visit the Chehaw website for more information about the nature park.

7) Radium Springs Blue Hole and Garden:
Radium Springs is one of Georgia's Seven Natural Wonders and actually what sparked this trip to Albany. This natural spring pumps 70,000 gallons of clear, 68 degree water per minute from an underground limestone cave. In 1927 the Radium Springs Casino and Resort opened and visitors from all over flocked to this special Blue Hole. However the depression, fire and a couple floods resulted in the casino and hotel closing it doors. Up until the mid-late 90's the spring was a popular swimming place for Albany residents but due to the flood damage the state and local governments eventually took over the property in 2003. Thankfully in 2010 Radium Springs Gardens opened it's gates again so that visitors could enjoy this magical place. Though swimming is no longer allowed there is still much to see and do at this beautiful place which is FREE to visit. Part of the casino ruins still stand and have been converted into a butterfly garden area with ample seating and even public restrooms. There are walkways, interpretive panels, spectacular viewing areas, and gazebos around the spring. Enjoy a few hours or entire day soaking in the foliage-draped hillocks, crystal clear waters, and exotic flora and fauna.

We enjoyed a nice walk through the gardens and around the spring and loved the educational, interpretive panels. We even found a virtual geocache while we were there. We spent a good 15 minutes just watching the fish swim around in the crystal blue water. Since the algae was really bad the blue waters didn't expand out as much as they normally do, but we still got a breathtaking view. We stayed for about an hour soaking it all in and even found some lizards to keep us company.

8) Marks Melon Patch:
Located just outside Sasser, Georgia is the famous roadside fruit stand know as Mark's Melon Patch. For the past 30 years, families from across the state and country have visited this Highway 82 roadside stand for their delicious fruits and vegetables. Mark's also sells delicious jellies, jams, preserves, syrups, pickled vegetables, pecans, peanuts, BBQ sauces, candies and much more. Customers can also now purchase over 150 items online.

During the Fall Mark's offers kid-friendly activities including hay-rides, face-painting, Pumpkin Jump Castle and more. In September and October you can find pumpkins everywhere in the Patch. It is the perfect destination for Fall family photos. Many professional photographers utilize the location for the gorgeous sunflower garden as well as the bright oranges, red and greens throughout the property.

Our car was so packed to the brim that sadly we could not go shopping at Marks. But we did make a quick stop to check it out.

9) Art Museum of Albany:
The Albany Museum of Art has six galleries and hosts numerous exhibitions throughout the year. These exhibitions showcase works from the AMA’s Permanent Collection as well as temporary exhibitions of nationally and internationally recognized artists. Visit the Albany Museum of Art and view one of the finest collections of sub-Saharan African art in the Southeast. The AMA also features AMAzing Space, an interactive education gallery for children. This museum is FREE to visit! (we were unable to fit this museum in during our trip)

10) Civil Rights Institute
In 1961, crowds gathered at Mount Zion Baptist Church to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders inspire listeners to challenge the systematic oppression of African Americans. Old Mount Zion, built in 1906, is the most important artifact in the new Albany Civil Rights Institute’s collections. Since ACRI’s opening in 2008, visitors have learned about the Long Southwest Georgia Movement that stretches back to slavery and reaches right up to today. Come hear the power of music in the movement and see what happened to ordinary people in extraordinary times. On the second Saturday of the month, you’ll hear the authentic songs of the Civil Rights era performed by the SNCC Freedom Singers, a group formed in 1962 to share the freedom songs – and leave their mark, and tracks, in Albany. (we were unable to fit this museum in during our trip)

Other area of interests include FREE Legacy Park (18-hole disc golf, fish pond with pole available, soccer, baseball and softball fields, 8 tennis courts, sand volleyball, a mile and a half walking track, recreational facilities and more. The All American Fun Park which features arcade, go-carts, bumper boats, miniature golf and cosmic bowling. And the WWII Memorial.

Where To Eat:
The South is known for its cuisine and Albany is no different. Albany offers something for every palate from southern food to upscale locally-owned restaurants. During our visit we ate at 5 very different and unique restaurants.

1) Harvest Moon
This restaurant is one of three restaurants in Stewbo's group. Harvest Moon offers lunch and nightlife for locals and visitors. Menu options include artesian crafted pizzas, calzones, wraps and over 50 choices of beer. The restaurant offers inside and outdoor dining with a laid back atmosphere. Several times a week you can catch a local band performance too. The rojos here are to die for!

2) Pearly's Famous Country Cooking:
This is a  family owned restaurant that has been serving up breakfast and lunch for over 50 years. It is not unusual to see the owners and staff in the parking lot during rush times taking orders from cars lining up for an Albany-only experience! Their menu is a complete Southern-style country cooking experience. The omelettes are outstanding!

3) Our Daily Bread:
This relaxing family owned restaurant serves up delicious dishes made with local vegetables, gourmet burgers and sandwiches, baked deserts and coffee. But they are much more than a restaurant. They are a marketplace to buy organic, locally grown produce. A Farm to Fork experience! A community hangout for friends and family alike. They offer a one of a kind menu with dishes not found anywhere else in town. Work from local artists hangs on the walls and on Friday nights some of the best local musicians and bands perform for diners. Its healthy food for your physical body and spiritual food for your soul. If you are a peanut butter lover than you must experience a tasty Jimmy Carter Bison Burger!

4) Austins Firegrill and Oyster Bar:
What a menu! Austin's Firegrill and Oyster Bar offers a southern menu that pairs tender steak, juicy pork, and salty, fresh seafood! This restaurant offers a family atmosphere where you are bound to run into your friends, Austin’s Firegrill and Oyster Bar is a place to relax and enjoy and considered by some to be one of the best restaurants in Albany, GA. Look out for some live, local entertainment on the weekends. Everything we ordered was amazing here! But the steak, WOW!

5) The Cookie Shoppe:
Downtown Albany's best kept secret where everything is homemade! Cookies baked fresh in the morning along with yeast sub rolls for the sub sandwiches, if you want a sub sandwich you better get there early. Choose from pimento cheese, chicken, tuna, egg or ham salad, vegetable soup, chili, Baklava, and don't forget the best sweet tea and lemonade made in the south!

Where To Stay:
Albany has more than two dozen hotels – and many include complimentary breakfast and have the all-important swimming pool, among other amenities. But if you are looking for amazing amenities, impeccable service, spotless accommodations, and beautifully landscaped grounds then Merry Acres Inn is where you want to stay! This 110-room, historic boutique style hotel has been serving guests since 1952. They combine Southern charm and hospitably with modern conveniences to make you feel right at home.

Amenities include:
-Secluded salt water swimming pool and shade gazebo
-State-of-the-art PT Gym (5 fee)
-Complimentary hot breakfast buffet
-24 hour business center with two personal computers, high-speed internet, fax, copier, and printer 
-Complimentary manager’s reception Monday-Thursday
-In-room coffee, microwave, refrigerator, iron, ironing board, hairdryer, desk, ergonomic desk chair
-32-inch flat screen HDTV and premium cable in all rooms
-Merry Acres Restaurant and Manor House Pub onsite
-Room service from our on-site eateries and our three offsite restaurant

-Pet friendly
-Chauffeured 1939 Studebaker, 12-passenger Mercedes Sprinter, 15-passenger van rental
-5,900 square foot Event & Conference Center
-Swing set and slide
-And more...

From the moment we drove up to the hotel I just knew our stay would be fabulous. I'm a total sucker for historic hotels that have a story to tell. The check in process was really simple and the staff was very courteous. The rooms are laid out like a quaint little village and the grounds around the rooms are beautifully landscaped with bright flowers and large shade trees. The beautiful wrought iron railings outside the buildings and shutters on the windows make you feel like you are stepping back in time. Pull up parking is available in front of each room making unloading for your stay a breeze. Rooms are positioned off of the main road so there is no need to worry about noisy cars waking you up from restful sleep. The rooms are large and tastefully decorated with dark woods and earthy greens. The bathroom and closet space are very spacious too. All the necessities you require in a hotel such as comfortable beds, seating areas, cold air conditioning, flat-screen high-definition televisions and wireless internet service are available in every room. If you need something in your room to make your stay more comfortable you can rest assured that you will have very responsive concierge service. To start your morning off right the Merry Acres Restaurant provides visitors with a FREE complimentary breakfast in their large dining room. The breakfast includes a smorgasbord of foods including waffles, sausage, eggs, biscuits, bagels, cereal, yogurt and more. Read more on the history of Merry Acres Inn here

Albany has adventure that is out of this world. Experience the great outdoors, walk through history, and spoil yourself with true southern hospitality! Perhaps after a visit to Albany you will fall in love too and want to move there!

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