Carrollton, Georgia

I don’t tweet, twitter, nor twerp – lkly nvr wl. I do, however, zip at every opportunity — and I do not refer to the way some of us compress computer files to save space and transmission time. The “zip” of which I speak is an adrenaline-packed, 60 mph ride while suspended in a harness hung from a pulley running along a thin cable stretched over magnificent gorges, rushing rivers, and through dark green forests.
Zip lines have been known since the end of the 19th Century, when author H.G.Wells mentioned one in his book, The Invisible Man, but they didn’t gain popularity until relatively recent times. Today they are found in many nations, and in most of our states. They vary tremendously in such as height above the ground, length, and attainable speed. Sometimes they pass through dense tree growth, and are even combined with what are usually called “rope walks” through a forest canopy. One of the finest of those, considering even the entire world, is conveniently located just an hour’s drive west of Atlanta, near Carrollton, Georgia. It is well worth planning a 3-5-day trip there, at any time of the year, because the region has much more to offer than just a clearly outstanding, world-class zip line.
You will surely find Carrollton on any map or Internet search, but Whitesburg, and Horseshoe Dam Rd. (where Banning mills is located) may be more difficult to locate (they are about 10 miles due east of Carrollton). The owners and operators, Donna and Mike Holder, are an energetic and personable couple that have been working hard to make their Banning Mills an exciting, as well as restful, vacation or business destination.
Back in the 19th Century, Banning Mills was a most important place in Georgia. Because of the power provided by the roaring, Snake Creek, one mill after another soon rose there. Stone mills and flimsy wooden shacks dotted the wooded gorge; thousands depended on them for a livelihood. So abundant was the power source, that it was one of the first places in Georgia to generate electricity, causing snooty Atlantans to drive out there at night, just to see the gorge all lit up.
Today’s Banning Mills offers not only those world-class canopy tours, but horseback riding, tennis, hiking trails, kayaking, clay-bird shooting, a birds of prey show, volleyball, a health spa, restaurant, and more. They offer a wide variety of accommodations, including comfortable cabins, ideal for families. Rugged scenery, gouged out by the Snake River, makes most visitors think that they’re in the mountains; many of the resort’s rustic buildings are perched on steep wooded hillsides.
Although Banning Mills is a stand-alone resort, nearby Carrollton offers a cornucopia of additional reasons to visit this region. They have, in that relatively small city (pop 20,000), an surprising number of varied and outstanding restaurants; some art worth a visit by itself; comfortable and inexpensive places to stay; and some of the best folks you’ll ever meet – anyplace! Let’s take a quick look.
Since most days start with breakfast, let’s begin there. Now I don’t enjoy today’s supersized servings of food, but I do really appreciate well-prepared dishes; and I’m pleased to say that the Sunnyside Café is the place to be for that all-important, first meal of the day. My test for them was to prepare that classic southern meal: southern ham, eggs straight up, grits, and, especially, red-eye gravy. Not only was everything prepared to perfection, but the coffee was the stuff one writes home about: indeed I am drinking a delicious mug of it as I type these words (they sell the roasted beans, at half what I’ve been paying for gourmet coffee that’s not as good).
Gary Duke not only runs the outstanding café, but is also part of the local, Duke Bagget Band, which plays authentic, Georgia, country music (available on CD). His father-in-law (everyone seems related to everyone in these delightful southern towns, which is part of their charm) is Blair Trewhitt, who’s a mover and shaker behind the city’s effort to preserve and restore the abandoned, but historic, train depot. Blair later took me on a tour of the gutted depot, which is well underway to becoming a major attraction for the city. They have grand dreams for the renovated depot, which I suspect those hard-workin’ southerners will turn into realities; I hope to be there for the grand opening.

Our first stop in exploring Carrollton is at the grave of Susan Hayward, who’s arguably the city’s most famous resident (are you old enough to remember the silver screen’s great actresses?). In later life, she came to live in Carrollton, where she was, by choice, known, only, as “Mrs. F.E. Chalkley.” Modest beyond anything imaginable involving celebrities today, Hayward’s view of marriage is reflected in the name on the tombstone, at the Catholic Church Cemetery in Carrollton (Mrs. F.E. Chalkley). Understandably, visitors seeking Hayward’s grave site were puzzled, so a new, small stone was later added, with the expected name “Susan Hayward.”

The little nearby Catholic church (Our Lady of Perpetual Help), where Hayward’s memorial service was held, surprised us with some of the more attractive, as well as most unusual, stained-glass windows of which I know (including any and all of my many world travels). Rather than composed of flat, thin pieces of colored glass, as is usual, these gorgeous windows are made using very thick, irregular chunks of tinted glass. As viewed from inside, they glow and sparkle with a unique and extraordinary beauty: on the exterior, they are a colorless wall of seemingly meaningless masonry.

As we were soon to learn, the arts are a very significant part of little Carrollton. Their impressive, new, 40,000 square foot, Cultural Arts Center stands as eloquent testimony to the city’s support of, and interest in, every aspect of the arts. Therein are a 262-seat theater; 1,365 square foot art gallery; rehearsal halls; an art galleria; and an educational wing with several classrooms and support facilities. Because of the city’s support of the arts, it is an increasingly popular place for artists to settle and work. Tom Nielsen is one of those talented, and happy, artists in residence.

I am not an art critic, nor do I write specifically about art, so I hope Tom will forgive me when I say that his work seems like landscapes that Norman Rockwell might have painted: his realistic portraits are as good as I’ve seen, but his soul seems to be wrapped up in landscapes – especially sea coasts. As a significant testament to his genius, Tom’s seascapes of Georgia’s Marshes of Glynn were presented to the G8 leaders, when they convened at Georgia’s Sea Island. Tom, and his beautiful and talented wife, Jan, have made their home and workplaces in an old building just off the city’s main square. Jan’s a talented interior decorator, so their 2-floor home looks like what you may have seen in those slick, architectural magazines.

The city’s traditional Main Square (officially, “Adamson Square”) is a most enjoyable place to spend time. Sadly, in order to facilitate safe control of traffic, the classic statue of a Confederate Soldier had to be slightly relocated, but he’s still appropriately honored nearby. The square is blessed with excellent restaurants (either right on it or very close by), chatty sidewalk cafes, some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and interesting shops. Among the latter is Horton’s Books and Gifts, which, having opened in 1892, is reported to be the oldest bookstore in Georgia, if not in the entire Southeast. Their adjacent coffee shop offers comfortable seating, as well as a half-dozen major newspapers; pretty big time for a city of just 20,000.

If you come to this region because of the world-class zip line and canopy tours at Banning Mills — and you should — you can stay overnight at Banning and fully enjoy all that they have to offer, or you might choose to stay in Carrollton part or all of the nights, so that you can also experience the southern hospitality and great people that make the city the jewel that it is. However you come and stay, you’ll be glad that you did.

When you go:

Getting there: (Fastest route from Florida is direct to Atlanta, then via the Beltway (I-285) to access I-20 west for about 40 miles to US-27 south; then 10 miles to Carrollton. If you’re starting from western Florida, and would prefer a more scenic and relaxing trip, try following US 27 all the way north to Carrollton.

Best time to be there: (Winter is not ideal for the many outdoor activities at Banning Mills, but Carrollton is a great place to be at any time of the year.

Where to stay: (Banning Mills, 205 Horseshoe Dam Rd., Whitesburg, GA 30185, Tel 770/834-9149,;

Jameson Inn, (700 So. Park St., Carrollton, GA 30117; (reservations) 800/526-3766;;

Not to be missed: (Little Hawaiian restaurant, on the Square. Their Escolar (pan-seared Butterfish, served over braised endives sautéed in truffle butter with jasmine rice) is to die for. If you like sashimi, you can enjoy it there. Excellent bar! Great service.

Miller’s restaurant (on the Square); no finer dining-not even in Atlanta (Jan Nielsen did the interior). The Sunnyside Café has lots more than just perfect breakfasts.

The new, Samba Loca restaurant served us one of the finest steaks I’ve ever had (called, “Picanha”). The beef is from Brazil, and their chef knows just how to cook it to perfection: it melts in your mouth. Say “Hi!” for me to the personable and perky waitress, “Raven.”

Tom Nielsen’s studio and gallery is just off the Square, at 108 Rome St.

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