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Georgia's Historic Plantation Country

Thomasville, Georgia, could make even Mayberry look un-American. Turn-of-the-century storefronts light up its main street with shades of blue, pink, and green. The largest oak tree east of the Mississippi is rooted in a hallowed spot in the center of town. And everybody seems to talk a little bit slower than you ever thought possible. But don't let the small-town façade fool you: over the past 100 years, monied magnates have built 71 plantations on 300,000 acres. At the height of the Victorian era, industrial titans from the North descended upon the town and made it the premier American winter retreat. A continuing injection of Yankee greenbacks has kept the place in good stead. Fine restaurants, posh B&B's, and superior shopping make this a sleepy Southern burg with an upscale attitude.

your own tara
Though each B&B in Thomasville is buffed to a uniform country Victorian gleam, the proprietors let their individuality shine in the details.
Melhana, The Grand Plantation 301 Showboat Lane; 888/920-3030 or 912/226-2290, fax 912/226-4585; doubles $250-$450. The great house of a cotton plantation built in 1825, Melhana couples modern conveniences and old indulgences: a stereo system broadcasts music into the Art Deco indoor poolhouse; period armoires conceal remote-controlled 27-inch TV's; vegetables grow hydroponically not far from a traditional sunken English garden.
Susina Plantation Inn 1420 Meridian Rd.; 912/377-9644; doubles $150. Anne-Marie Walker has perfected shabby chic in the eight rooms of her 150-year-old Greek Revival inn; the faded print of Scarlett O'Hara says it all. Lace tablecloths may slowly unravel around mismatched china, but Walker's expertly crafted dinners and syrupy breakfasts (both included) distract from the decay.
1884 Paxton House Inn 445 Remington Ave.; 912/226-5197; doubles $90-$185. Don't let Susie Sherrod's twang throw you. In her former life, she globe-trotted as a colonel in the Army Nurse Corps, and it shows in her spit-and-polish blue-and-white Victorian inn. Meissen and Deruta objets d'art give the place a worldly air, while custom mattresses, down pillows, and fresh quick breads make you feel as if you're at your favorite auntie's.
Serendipity Cottage 339 E. Jefferson St.; 800/383-7377 or 912/226-8111, fax 912/226-2656; doubles $80. From the soufflé-light ham puff at breakfast to a so-rich-it's-black slice of chocolate cake at afternoon tea, Ed and Kathy Middleton, owners of this cottage with three guest rooms, serve up some of the best baked goods to cross your palate.
Evans House 725 S. Hansell St.; 800/344-4717 or 912/226-1343, fax 912/226-0653; doubles $85-$125. The four guest rooms have fresh flowers and coordinated decorations. Thumb through a book in the library, take a stroll through nearby Paradise Park, or sip liqueur in the kitchen.

they shoot skeet, don't they?
I am not a gun person. But when you're around Thomasville, it's difficult to escape the lure of a Smith & Wesson. Since I had no desire to actually kill, I arranged a skeet shoot with Ken Lee, who runs a hunting outfit called Britts & Quail on Myrtlewood Plantation.

Normally, Lee and his Brittany spaniels can be found taking groups of hunters around the plantation's 1,000 acres of pines and wire grass, looking for bobwhite quail. For my skeet session, though, he shucked his hunting gear for khakis and a short-sleeved plaid shirt, 60 rounds of ammo, and his wife Linda's lightweight Beretta 20-gauge automatic shotgun.

When we got to the range, a clearing with a tower and seven wooden boxes, Lee gave me the rundown. "Each box is loaded with clays that come out in a different pattern. I operate the clays from the tower. When you're ready, you yell 'Pull!' and I'll let loose with one. I'm going to work you on numbers six and seven. They're the easiest." He handed me a pair of earplugs and the shotgun. "Put the butt end in the holler of your shoulder," he coached. "Put your cheek on the stock, and use one eye to look through the sight."

He let me take a couple of practice shots. The recoil didn't knock me over, but my shoulder started complaining early on. "Your arm's gonna be cursing me tomorrow!" he howled. He climbed to the tower, and I imagined myself as Annie Oakley.

"Pull!" I yelled.

The clay came in a high, slow arc from the left, and I squeezed the trigger. Pine needles rained down in the distance. After 15 pulls and no luck at all, Lee came down from the tower to give me a pep talk. "Don't aim and don't try to follow the clay with your gun. The second you see the clay, just shoot. Imagine the bullet hitting it dead-on." Suddenly Lee was sounding less like a country hunter and more like a Zen master.

The next 10 didn't do much for my self-esteem. My arms ached, and my patience was thin. I could see the beginnings of a nasty bruise on my shoulder. "Let's do five more," I said bravely. Lee was up in the tower, puffing on a Vantage Ultra Light, and I knew he was probably getting tired of the little slicker who was wasting all of his ammo and clays. By the time I yelled — halfheartedly — for the 30th pull, I was resigned to failure. I don't remember which direction the clay came from. I just pointed and squeezed, and watched in shock as it disintegrated into a million shards. I looked up at Lee, expecting to see him holstering a handgun after mercifully shooting my last clay to make me think I'd hit it.

"Did you do that?" I asked.

"No, ma'am," he replied, smiling. "You did it all by yourself."

"Thank God!" I said. "Let's go grab a beer."

Britts & Quail 912/346-3664. Skeet shooting $10 for 25 shots; half- and full-day hunts are also available ($275-$385).

hunting in style
It's no wonder the smart set loved hunting so much. Their huge buckets of cash allowed them to indulge in a version of the pastime far removed from the slog-through-the-brush-on-foot that regular blood sportsmen had to endure. And, for a price, you too can engage in a true Old South plantation hunt. Here's what you get: two mules to draw a luxe carriage that's outfitted with leather seats and old-fashioned coolers to keep your iced tea chilled; six dogs that take turns in pairs alongside the carriage to flush out game; and a hunt master who guides the carriage and the dogs. Once the dogs spot the game, they stop and point. This is your cue to descend from the rig, take up your arms, give the hunt master the go-ahead to give the command to flush out the game, and shoot. You then get back in the carriage, and if you've actually hit something, the dogs will bring it to the hunt master. Just as in the old days, if you so choose, the bagged quarry will be passed off to a kitchen maid, who will give it to the cook, who will skin or pluck it, butcher it, cook it, and bring it to your table nestled in a rich beurre blanc. Plantation hunts can be arranged for guests at Melhana Plantation (888/920-3030 or 912/226-2290; rates range from $1,200 to $4,000, depending on how long you want to hunt and what extras you pile on).

did somebody say buffet?
Sure, you can do fine dining. Pan-roasted bison tenderloin and Pacific blue prawns are only two of the entrées on the dinner menu at Melhana, the Grand Plantation (301 Showboat Lane; 912/226-2290; dinner for two $100). Richard's Grill (415 Smith Ave.; 912/226-3376; dinner for two $50) serves up steak and seafood in a riotous atmosphere of brightly colored chairs and cacophonous surf music. Ex-NYPD homicide detective Jim Mileo cooks creative American at Harrison's Restaurant (119 N. Broad St.; 912/226-0074; dinner for two $35).

But face it, down-home Southern is what you're hankering for. Wear pants with an elastic waistband when you visit Della's Café (1102 E. Jackson St., building 1; 912/228-9010; lunch for two $15), a 10-seat yellow box that's always jammed. Every day Della dishes up a different special — ribs, spaghetti and meat sauce, country-fried turkey steak — and every special shares a plate crowded with mashed potatoes, rice and gravy, collards, mustards, tossed salad, or potato salad. Eat up, but remember to save room for a slice of her six-layer Red Velvet Cake.

A giant red roadhouse, JB's Bar-B-Que & Grill (2247 U.S. Hwy. 319 S.; 912/377-9344; lunch for two $15) has a legendary reputation. State officials copter in from Atlanta for the deep-fried mullet plate or a mountainous platter of ribs. And $6 for half of a barbecued chicken means that even bureaucrats stay within their budgets. Hot tip: At 10 cents, the dollop of whipped cream on the sweet-potato pie is a steal.

The sign on the wall of Dunbar's Bar-B-Que (1984 E. Smith Ave.; 912/225-1085; dinner for two $15) says bone-suc-n-good, and you can't really argue. The stainless-steel trough of a buffet seduces with greasy ribs, chipped pork, fried chicken, collards, and baked beans, despite your arteries' vehement protestations. Next thing you know, you'll be craving grits.

In a log cabin that doesn't even merit a street number, the Homecoming (Albany Rd.; 912/226-1143; dinner for two $18) and its simple fare stir the passions of the locals. "They have the best fried catfish," declares one native. "It makes your mouth water just thinkin' about it." Rock off supper in a chair on the front porch.

Locals brag that the Billiard Academy (121 S. Broad St.; 912/226-9981; lunch for two $5) serves the finest chili dogs in the world. But it's the ambiance that grabs tourists: the ball-cap-wearing, cigarette-smoking men; the four always-occupied pool tables. Tradition dictates that "ladies" never set foot inside. They order from a window, and take their pups to go.

road trippin'
If Thomasville's perfectly ordered rows of fruit trees and vegetable bushes make you long for nature untamed, you don't have to go far to find it. Nearby preserves and state parks flaunt indigenous flora and fauna. This quiet region does have a wild side.

Betty the Birder
Mavericks in the world of nature preservation, Betty Komarek and her husband, Ed, bought the 565-acre Birdsong plantation in 1938. Using controlled burning, the couple cleared the land. Today, in the midst of all the new growth, Birdsong Nature Center (2106 Meridian Rd.; 912/377-4408; admission $5) is brimming with chirping purple martins, Carolina wrens, red-bellied woodpeckers, and hundreds of species of reptiles, insects, and mammals. At Birdsong — it's just 15 minutes from town — you can walk the nature trails, picnic in the pastures, and get a dose of 84-year-old Betty's never-waning vitality. She'll show you countless habitats, including a 60-acre swamp and a fantastic butterfly garden where silky wings brush your cheeks, leaving behind black butterfly dust.

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