Where to go when “Hotlanta” isn’t hot.
Baby, it’s cold outside. Well—colder than Miami, anyway. Thanks to Atlanta’s generally mild winters, taking a quick vacation this time of year is painless (no snow to shovel or icy roads to navigate) and perfect (crisp enough to need a jacket, but not so crisp you want to stay indoors). Here are five winter escapes within easy driving distance of the city.
Lake Oconee, Greensboro, Georgia
When Carrie Underwood was on the hunt for a place to hold her 2010 wedding, she visited The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee on the shores of Lake Oconee in Greensboro, 85 miles east of Atlanta. So charmed was she by the AAA Five Diamond property, complete with five world-class golf courses and a sanctuary-like spa, she booked all 251 rooms for the occasion. Thankfully, you’re likely to find at least a few vacancies here this winter, when it’s too chilly to swim but the perfect temperature for hiking the winding nature trails. Be sure to make a reservation for the resort’s “chiminea dinner,” which lets you relax in an Adirondack chair by the lake and enjoy a quiet meal in front of your personal chiminea bonfire.
Chattahoochee National Forrest, Dawsonville, Georgia
If you’re ready to ditch your fast-paced life for a while—including your fast-paced car—head to Len Foote Hike Inn, a 20-room backcountry lodge tucked deep within the Chattahoochee National Forrest. To reach it, you’ll need to park at Amicalola Falls in Dawsonville (an hour and a half north of Atlanta) and hike five miles—cars can’t get any closer. The path is hilly and scenic, with sassafras trees, mountain streams, and soaring hawks overhead. When you arrive at the inn, you’ll take an orientation tour showcasing the property’s solar energy panels, rainwater collection barrels and famous composting worms. (The Hike Inn was the first eco-lodge in the state to receive the coveted LEED Gold Certification.)
There’s a “no cell phone” rule here, but don’t fret: Books, board games, and musical instruments are available for use, and Adirondack chairs are scattered throughout the property for stargazers. Meals are served family-style; don’t miss the “Amicalolicious” cookies (packed with chocolate chips, peanut butter, oatmeal, and M&Ms). If you didn’t get enough hiking in during your trek to the property (or if you ate too many cookies), there’s another four-and-a-half-mile trail from the inn to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Highlands, North Carolina
Often referred to as the Aspen of the East, this mountaintop village 130 miles northeast of Atlanta has evolved from a summer retreat for wealthy retirees to a year-round destination for vacationers in search of small-town charm. As you stroll postcard-perfect Main Street, check out upscale boutiques like C. Orrico (selling Palm Beach–inspired apparel) and Mountaintop Wine Shoppe (complete with a cozy tasting room). Don’t miss The Bascom, an impressive visual arts center featuring the works of both regional and international artists.
Stay at Old Edwards Inn, a AAA Four Diamond hotel situated on the eastern end of Main Street, and be sure to have dinner at Madison’s, the hotel’s flagship restaurant featuring Carolina-influenced fare (think almond-crusted local trout). For something more casual, stroll a block from the hotel to Mountain Fresh Grocery and Wine Market—a pizza parlor, American grill, wine shop, provisions store, and community hangout in one.
Located an hour northeast of Atlanta, Athens seems a bit like a large city trapped in a small town’s body. Its downtown is only five streets wide, but it teems with University of Georgia students discussing politics over coffee, award-winning restaurants serving nouveau-Southern fare, and on-the-rise musicians playing in intimate venues. In the winter, the crowds are manageable, the toddies are strong, the vibe lively. While you’re here, pay homage to Athens’ storied music scene, which gave birth to bands like R.E.M., The B-52’s, and Widespread Panic.
Take a self-guided walking tour of its landmark concert halls and music stores, from the site of R.E.M.’s first-ever gig (held April 5, 1980, at a former Episcopal church) to Wuxtry Records, a dinosaur of a music shop that has sold obscure music and publications since 1975. After your tour, refuel at Five & Ten, which boasts the considerable talents of chef and owner Hugh Acheson of Top Chef fame. Stay at Graduate Athens, a groovy new hotel walking distance from downtown.
In Adairsville, the private gardens of wealthy 19th century businessman Godfrey Barnsley have transformed into Barnsley Resort, a serene escape 70 miles northwest of Atlanta. When you arrive here, one of the first things you’ll notice is that it’s laid out like a village: Instead of hotel rooms, there are dozens of cottages, and instead of asphalt roads, you’ll find tree-lined walkways. Many rooms have wood-burning fireplaces, ball-and-claw cast-iron soaking tubs, and rocking chair porches.
Wander the sprawling grounds, taking time to explore the ruins of Barnsley’s mansion and the adjacent history museum. (Say hello to Clent Coker, the resort’s gregarious historian who grew up in these mountains and swears he’s on a first-name basis with the property’s ghosts.) You can also take a horseback ride, shoot sporting clays, or play a round of golf on the 18-hole Jim Fazio-designed course. There are several dining options at Barnsley Resort, from the elegant (Rice House) to the relaxed (The Woodlands Grill) to the downright casual (the Beer Garden). The resort’s chefs can also pack a picnic for you to enjoy on the grounds.
Allison Entrekin is an executive editor with Southbound Magazine and the Georgia Travel Guide. She covers the Southeastern United States beat for Travel + Leisure. Follow her at @aweissentrekin.