Tag Archives: Atlanta

Southern Road Trip – Atlan’a

It was a long, hot drive from Nashville to Atlanta. This was actually our shortest drive (4hrs) but we were maybe a little hung over and, because we were starting a bit later than planned (so we could get pancakes for breakfast), we had to take the interstate. It wasn’t much fun, but we did enjoy the signage along the way. For quite a few miles before we reached the Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia border there were big signs advertising ‘Fireworks!’ We figured it must be illegal to buy fireworks in Tennessee, but not in Alabama. Anyway, they were excited about it.

The countryside between Nashville and Atlanta is probably quite impressive to see if you get off the interstate. We were driving through the southern part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and every now and then we would see concertina-like hills in the distance. There were also billboards alongside the road advertising waterfalls and gorges, and it looked like there were some pretty spots that you can stay to go hiking and rafting near Chattanooga. We were pretty excited to be going through Chattanooga, and spent most of the trip with the Chattanooga choo-choo song going through our heads. We did see the historic railway as we sped past the town, but then we were on our way again.

Once we arrived in Atlanta we realized that we’d made a rookie mistake in booking a hotel in the downtown area. It was not the best area to stay. But we were only there one night, and we could walk to the Olympic park to see the main Atlanta sights. Remember they had the Olympics? Well the park is very nice. We got a snack and enjoyed not being on the road any more. Then we wandered through the park to the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I want to be clear – this is the attraction we planned to visit while in Atlanta. Sadly though, it closed at 5pm, and so we had to go to the Coca Cola experience instead.

The Coca Cola experience is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. They get you to pay them to go in and watch their commercials (we’re such suckers!). We were greeted by an enthusiastic guide, originally from Belgium, who gushed about the international appeal of coke – no matter what language we speak, we all drink coke, right? Feeling like I was joining a cult, I followed the crowd as we were funneled into a theater to watch a six minute introductory film. By the end I felt pretty sick. It was the usual montage of families and friends experiencing special moments – a couple telling their parents they were going to be grandparents, someone sky-diving, a German kid telling a girl that he liked her – and all in the end celebrating with coca cola. Ugh. After this though we were set free to explore the rest of the exhibits as we wished. There was a small exhibit on the history of coca-cola, and another on the bottling process. Somehow the description of this simple industrial process managed to portray coca-cola as responsible for bringing clean water (and safe beverages) to the world and celebrated their influence in local communities as a major employer. Sick from our overdose of ideology, we decided to get sick on sugar instead, making a bee-line for the tasting room. Now this was fun. Like kids in a sweet shop we dashed from dispenser to dispenser, each bank of them holding coca-cola products from a different part of the world. It was exactly like I’d imagined Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory when I was a child.

Our second cultural experience in Atlanta was courtesy of a friend. In a true display of southern hospitality, she picked us up and treated us to an evening picnic and laser-show at Stone Mountain. A huge chunk of granite that rises abruptly out of the countryside, Stone Mountain is known as the South’s Mount Rushmore because the images of three Confederate figures – Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davies – are carved on its face. It’s become the site of an immensely popular laser show, for which people congregate on the sloping lawn that faces the rock, and over the last few years a smallish theme park has developed around it. We just went to picnic on the lawn and watch the laser show, which was quite an experience.

First, finding space on the lawn was like finding space on a crowded British beach on a sunny bank holiday – everyone from Atlanta seemed to be there and it was a really diverse crowd. Then there was the content of the laser show itself. There were quite a few little animations set to popular country music – a particularly good one with pyrotechnics was an interpretations of ‘the Devil went down to Georgia’ – and lots of animations celebrating the local sports teams, schools and colleges. But the main thing we were looking forward to was the bit where they animate the three Confederate figures and show General Lee breaking his sword following the surrender at Appomattox – all set to ‘Dixie’. Our friend remembered it from when she was young, and she remembered people around her putting their hands to their hearts at that point, but these days I think it would be hard to understand unless you knew the history pretty well already. There’s also an interesting message of redemption at the end of the animation, when the two halves of the States are made whole again – the surrender making this possible. The show ended with lots of patriotic salutes to the flag and the troops – everyone stood for the anthem and then recited the pledge of allegiance – and, of course, lots of fireworks. As we made our way back to find the car quite a number of people commented on the amount of money going up in smoke – in what is I think one of the poorest state in America. It was a great show though, and prompted interesting discussions about the difficulty of celebrating local identity and history when it’s based on something as abhorrent as slavery.

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It was late when we got back, and we had to be on the road early the next day, so that was all we had time for in Atlanta.

This was a shame, as I know there are some seriously interesting things to do here and some great food – Atlanta has a number of pizza places that have been voted the best in America. I believe it’s also a really nice place to live and if I get the chance to get back I really want to check out Midtown, the aquarium and the new walkway that they’re developing from an old railway line. One day really wasn’t enough!

Read on: Southern Road Trip – On the back roads from Atlanta to the Coast

Read about the rest of our Southern Road Trip and our adventures with Southern food:

East Coast Adventures – Southern Road Trip

I’m just back from the road trip that I mentioned R and I were planning when I first started this series of travel posts. I’m not sure how accurate it is to term it an East Coast adventure now, as we didn’t drive to Nashville from DC via Kentucky as we had originally thought we might – it turned out that R had to work the Friday and I had to be back for Tuesday evening. But we did at least drive eastwards from Nashville to the coast and back to DC, so maybe it still fits here.

We some amazing experiences. We heard live country music in Nashville, experienced the Southern Mount Rushmore, and swam in the ocean off South Carolina. The food was excellent too – we ate a lot of chicken (you really can eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you want…) and some seriously authentic South Carolina barbecue.

I’ll cover each of our destinations separately, but I thought it would be helpful to give a bit of an overview of our trip and what we learnt about American road trips – especially short ones. So here are eight things I learnt:

1. America is big.

Only in America, I thought, would the GPS system’s instruction to ‘continue for 134 miles’ sound reasonable, normal, run-of-the-mill even. The main thing I took away from this trip was a greater appreciation for just how huge the US is. Driving from Nashville to Atlanta, Atlanta towards Charleston, and from just south of Myrtle Beach back to DC totaled up to over 1000 miles. This area looked far smaller on the map! I think I was partly misled by the fact that Sherman’s army marched a route a little like ours from Atlanta – I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to cover those distances on foot.

2. Driving takes a long time (and)

3. It’s difficult to have a great time in cities when you only have a short amount of time

Following on from my first realization, I now understand how much time road trips require. It would certainly have been possible to drive from Atlanta to Charleston in a day, but we worked out that, on our schedule, we wouldn’t arrive there until 5pm and, as we had to be back in DC the next day, we would only have the evening to experience what I’m sure is a very interesting city. In the end we prioritized regional experiences over slap-dash attempts to ‘do’ cities in a couple of hours, and I’m thoroughly glad that we did. For a start, if you don’t know a city and have had to choose rather randomly where to stay, you can end up not having a great time and feeling like all the action is taking place somewhere else… This happened to us to a certain extent in the downtown areas of Nashville and Atlanta; luckily though, we had some time to find the fun in Nashville as we were there for two nights and I had done quite a bit of research. More on this soon.

4. Driving is boring

Especially on the interstate, which also requires high levels of concentration and can cause stress. Getting off the interstate is far more interesting, especially if you go through little towns, but even this gets old after 5 hours. Luckily we like country music and there were plenty of stations we could cycle through that were all playing the same songs – eventually we were able to sing along. Only in South Carolina did we have trouble finding country stations amongst all the religious channels… Next time I’m going to take my own CDs or invest in some kind of adapter so I can play MP3s off my phone.

5. The Interstate is anonymous

Bill Bryson bemoans this in Lost Continent – especially mourning the demise of Route 66:

It was only two lanes wide […] hopelessly inadequate for people in motor homes, and every fifty miles or so it would pass through a little town where you might encounter a stop sign or a traffic light […] So they buried it under the desert and built a new superhighway that shoots across the landscape like a four-lane laser and doesn’t stop for anything, even mountains.

Certainly, the interstate will get you from city to city quickly, but I think there’s a distinct possibility that if you traveled the whole of the States on just the interstate, you would get the impression that America was all the same, and that Americans only ate in chain burger and chicken joints. Some stretches are nice, tree-lined and cutting through farmland, but others are four lanes on each side, with those motor homes fighting lorries for the middle lanes, forcing others to undertake, and nothing else to look at except clustered billboards for McDonalds, Fairfield Inns, Taco Bell, etc.

We tried, where possible, to get off the interstate and really enjoyed taking those back roads through little towns. In Georgia we stopped at a traffic light in one of these towns and saw people sitting on rocking chairs outside the local store, and in South Carolina we stopped outside the old courthouse in Saluda to find some lunch. I’m sure that if it hadn’t been Memorial Day we would have found somewhere local to eat, but unfortunately everywhere apart from the gas-station branch of Subway was closed…

6. Navigating using only an iphone is high risk

Googlemaps is great. It has revolutionized travel for me. No matter where I am in the world I can use it to find my way around a city, find restaurant recommendations, and navigate a road trip. Where once I would have needed multiple road atlases, guide books and print outs, I now only need the iphone. However, at certain crucial points in the journey this system almost let me down. For example, in order to save battery I would close the app when we had over a certain number of miles on one road and switch it back on when I guessed we were getting close to a more complicated bit. All fine in theory, but often I’d switch on the phone and realize I had no reception. Even with two phones it was annoyingly often the case that one would have no signal, while the other one might have signal but would be almost out of battery. I think in future I’ll still use the iphone, but possibly bring some kind of hard-copy backup – and I’m definitely going to invest in an iphone charger like this one.

7. Use a good car

As with all things, you need the right tool for the job. If you attempt a road trip in a rental car, pay what you need to to get a car that you know and will be comfortable in. 1100 miles in a Chrysler 200 is not fun for either driver or passenger. Also, the higher price vehicles might be more likely to have USB ports for your phone and MP3 player…

8. Travel with someone you really like

The driver is at times going to get irritable, and the navigator is going to call out turns too late and be annoyed when the driver misses the exit. But if you know and like each other then you can usually find the right thing to say – a shared joke or a well-timed observation – to get you back on track. I really enjoyed even our longest drives together on this trip – even, in some strange way, the hellish drive back into DC, when the lorries were hogging the middle lane and the whole thing came to a standstill, and we had to come up with a contingency plan to return the rental car when six I clock came and went and our branch of Enterprise closed…

Anyway, we survived our first American road trip. We even survived our journey along the back roads of Georgia and South Carolina, where friends anticipated we might have tense exchanges with law enforcement officers starting with something like ‘You folks ain’t from around here…’. And while our road trip didn’t have the most romantic of returns, the fact that we’re willing to try it all again is perhaps proof of the strength of our marriage!

Read onSouthern Road Trip – Nashville

Read about the rest of our Southern Road Trip and our adventures with Southern food: