Where? Atlanta, GA
When? Four days in December 2011
Why? Zoo Atlanta, Georgia Aquarium, CNN, MLK Historic District
Airfare Caught a bounce on Delta one morning in early October and found r/t from Boston for $149. Never saw it again after that one day. I wouldn’t ordinarily fly Delta otherwise, just personal preference.
Hotel Marriott Marquis in Downtown Area. This was convenient enough to everything I was doing and places I was going. The back entrance to the Peachtree Center Metro was literally diagonally across the street. I selected this hotel for its AAA discount and location. Just about everything I wanted to do was within walking distance itself or the bus or MARTA station were right there (Civic Center in the case of the Zoo). The hotel is massive. My room was on the 43rd floor with a view of the city. The center of the building is hollowed out so that you can see across to other rooms on the floor or look down 40-some stories to the lobby. Glass elevators whisk guests to the top in rapid speed. I never had a problem with having to wait for an elevator, like often happens at large hotels in NYC. But I think 2 weeks before Christmas, Atlanta and the Marquis were sort of empty. The room was large and spacious with a king-sized bed, and roomy, clean bathroom. I never heard hall or traffic noise. Breakfast in the Spear restaurant was included in the room rate (which I think was $115 a night). Large buffet breakfast with traditional continental and southern choices as well as an on-request grill. Breakfast usually got me through the better part of my day. Starbucks and a nice deli/convenience store in the lobby. Only complaint was $12.95 for in-room internet access, but it is free in the lobby. And the downtown area generally was lifeless. There were not many people out and about no matter what time of day I was out. I'm not sure if that is seasonal or just how downtown is.
Getting there and around MARTA from the airport to Peachtree Center took about 20 minutes, both at noontime on my arrival day (Friday) and 5 p.m. on my departure day (Monday). I used the MARTA to get to High Museum once and close to the MLK Historic District once. Other than that I used the bus to get to the Zoo. The rest was on foot. I bought a Breeze Card (which is required to purchase fares for all public transport) and loaded it with $20 to get me through the weekend. That was plenty.
Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint At first I didn’t think I’d like the atmosphere because there was live music (Duh, it is a juke joint) but I ended up enjoying having something to watch while I ate. I had fried green tomatoes for appetizer, shrimp and grits for dinner and apple cinnamon bread pudding for dessert. I also had a Texas marga-tini as a drink. It was extremely good. I could eat buttery grits all day, I think.
Fandangles at the Sheraton Hotel. I will admit that the reason I chose it when researching restaurants on Open Table was for the appetizer. Frickles and Frings was a fried pickle, fried onion string, banana pepper basket that was quite simply to die for. I had a peach martini with them which was just wonderful. My main course was chicken and dumplings in a sage butter sauce. The “dumplings” were actually sweet potato gnocchi and just delicious. Really, the whole meal was very tasty and the server was wonderful! I was too full for dessert (as much as I wanted the peach cobbler) so I had a double chocolate martini (Godiva Chocolate Vodka and Godiva Chocolate Liqueur).
Pitty Pat’s Porch A friend who travels frequently recommended this to me after I mentioned how much I liked the southern style food at Georgia Brown’s in D.C. As this was near my hotel, I decided to give it a try on my last night. Here, I had the fried green tomatoes as an appetizer. With every entrée you have access to the sidebar, which is like a southern-style salad bar. My main course was Savannah crabcakes with a red pepper sauce over grits and really it was the best meal of the trip, I think. Believe it or not I saved room for the Peach Cobbler with cinnamon ice cream, which was just sinful.
Mary Mac’s Tea Room The “other travel guide” for Atlanta said this was an Atlanta institution. Indeed the photos of many recognizable celebs lining the walls testifies to that. However, after the meals I’d already had in Atlanta, this, lunch on my last day, was a bit disappointing. The décor is dated but the service is friendly enough. I had the fried green tomatoes again (I know, I should have quit while I was ahead, these were not impressive) and the meatloaf with sweet potato soufflé. The soufflé was fabulous, the highlight of the meal. The meatloaf was ok. They were out of the peanut butter pie, so I finished my sweet tea and moved on. The best part was the bill, with tip, was under $20. It is a bargain if nothing more.
Tip: if you’re interested in the biggest of Atlanta’s sights, consider the City Pass. For $69, I got access to five sights that would have cost me $96 individually. Zoo Atlanta, Georgia Aquarium, High Museum of Art, CNN Studio Tour and World of Coca-Cola were my selections. They offer you other alternatives rather than the High Museum and World of Coke, I think.
Zoo Atlanta Admittedly this was my primary driver for visiting Atlanta. I am a panda aficionado, and after my panda volunteer tour to China in September, I am making it a point to see the pandas we have in the US. Atlanta has four pandas, the youngest just 13 months old and absolutely adorable. I’d been following his progress on panda cam since birth, so finally seeing him in person was fun. Zoo Atlanta is really nicely laid out and maintained. The upside to visiting in mid-December is that on weekdays there are no crowds. In fact, I was alone most of the time at the zoo no matter where I was. But to have the big-draws of the pandas and the tiger cubs (5 months old) to myself was just fabulous. I was able to get some great photos and just admire at my leisure. I visited twice, first for a little while on arrival on Friday afternoon and most of Monday before I left Atlanta. The volunteers I spoke with at the panda exhibit on both days were wonderful, very knowledgeable and friendly. Other than the pandas and tigers which kept me occupied for most of both visits there, the gorilla and orangutan exhibits are huge and interesting. I didn’t spend much time in the Africa area and I didn’t manage to find monkeys although I am pretty sure the map indicated there were some. I think the cooler (40-ish) weather may have kept some animals indoors.
The Zoo is fairly easy to get to by bus. Both times I picked up the #32 from Civic Center. It takes 20-30 minutes depending on traffic. I learned to call for the stop once we took the right in front of Grant Park. The stop is right across from the zoo entrance. Buses come by every 20 or so minutes throughout the day back to downtown. The main gift shop by the gate has the schedule.
Georgia Aquarium This was a wonderfully surprising experience for me. I really didn’t believe all the hype about “best aquarium in the world” but damn, I think it’s true. I was blown away. The aquarium opened in 2007 (I think) and is really well laid out and executed. There are 5 areas you can visit: Ocean Explorer, River Scout, Cold Water Quest, Georgia Explorer and Tropical Diver. There is also a dolphin gallery where visitors can walk up to the side of a large tank to see a pair of dolphins swimming at eye level. Since I bought the City Pass, I got a free Quick Dip tour and access to the 4-D movie (which I skipped) and I paid extra for the Dolphin Tales show.
I started in River Scout, which was interesting with its albino alligators, piranha and otters but also because there was a running river overhead for most of the exhibit with river-dwelling fish, which was cool. I then went to the next gallery which was the Cold Water Quest and there I saw four beluga whales. I love to be able to walk up to the side of the tanks and the animals are just swimming right by me. Or in this case the belugas were hanging out (literally) right in front of me. The volunteer guide there was really nice and we talked about the beluga. He said one female was pregnant for the first time, due in the spring. I found them just so zen to watch, the way they move so slowly, deliberately, like one large muscle contracting its way with the flow of the water. I came back to the beluga at least three times, I was that fascinated by them. In the same cold water exhibit were penguins and sea otters. The penguins were pretty cute, as they are.
The Quick Dip tour was worth it if only to get to the top of the Ocean Explorer tank and see how it works, how it’s filtered and how the giant whale sharks are fed. It was just fascinating. It also took us atop of River Scout, so we saw how the overhead river was designed and maintained.
Walking through the Ocean Explorer is really cool. The whale sharks are up to 24 feet long and just massive. They are so big that they cannot be taken out of the water because they rely on the buoyancy of the water to keep their body weight from crushing itself. Sort of freaky. I timed it to be there for the feeding of the whale sharks, during which the feeders get into rubber rafts with colored buckets on the end of poles. The whale sharks know “their” boat and the color of their bucket so they start flocking to them, as do hundreds of little fish. Believe it or not, an animal as big as the whale shark has a throat only the width of a quarter, so the feeders pour crill (really fine plankton, shrimp and chopped sardines) into its mouth, where the whale shark filters the water out and swallows the crill material. It is sort of a non-sequitur that an animal that big can’t eat anything bigger. I was really impressed.
The Dolphin Tale show was really cheesy (with singing and over-acting characters) but it was neat to see what they could make the 11 dolphins do as tricks.
I finally left the aquarium at 12:30, over 3 hours after I arrived. I really had to restrain myself from a $250 “swim with belugas” experience. Being so mesmerized by them, it would have been cool, but I thought it rather impulsive. I would return one more time for about an hour and a half before I left on Monday. Watching the belugas and the whale sharks is just an incredible experience.
CNN Studio Tour This tour was about an hour and took the group through the newsroom and showed us how some of the technical things work, like teleprompter, green screen and how the director cues up shots and segments for live tv. A lot of the CNN personalities I’m aware of don’t actually broadcast out of Atlanta, so no Anderson Cooper sightings, but Nancy Grace and Sanjay Gupta do work there, but not on Saturdays. It was interesting enough to see the behind the scenes things, but I wouldn’t race back to do the tour again.
World of Coca Cola This is every bit as cheesy as you think it’s going to be. Lots and lots of Coke memorabilia from around the world, the history of the product and the bottling process, movies of television ads through the years (how quickly they all come back to you!) But the piece de resistance is the tasting room at the end of the self-guide tour, which had 64 Coke products from around the world to sample. They range from vile to sicky sweet to jealously delicious. I really liked the pineapple Fanta from Greece and the candy pine nut “Bibo” from South Africa. However, trying dozens of carbonated, full-sugared flavors in a relatively short period of time left me gassy and stuck in a sugar induced orbit. Yikes.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District I took the MARTA to Five Points and switched to the Blue Line to take me to the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site, which is on Auburn Avenue where he was born, preached and was buried from (and is still buried today). I went to the National Park Service’s information center, which had some interesting exhibits on his life and sermons. There was a LOT of video and photos I’d never seen before, as well as a theater that ran movies on his life. On the corner is the new Ebenezer Baptist Church which is across the street from the (now non-functioning) original. Next to that is the King Center where King’s and his wife Coretta’s tombs are outside. Up the street about a block is his birth home. This is the second time recently I’ve visited sites with the National Park Service (Philly was the other) and I’m impressed by how friendly and informative the rangers are. This was all a great learning experience on its own. But something told me to go to church.
So just before 11 I headed into Ebenezer Baptist Church, where I was welcomed by a member. She handed me the program for today and asked me to complete a visitor’s card. I was led inside and I had my pick of seats among the congregants. Everyone made eye contact and smiled and welcomed me. The service started with lots of music and people standing to sing, and sway to the music. The music was amazing, really very uplifting. Very early in the service, a member of the congregation stood at the mic and read out the names and hometowns of visitors. Oh good lord, there was a reason for filling out that card? When visitors heard their names, they were asked to stand and remain standing. Once all visitors were standing, the music started up again and the church’s members all walked and greeted each visitor with a handshake and “God bless” or “Hallelujah” or “Happy Holidays”. I was blown away. Here I was, miles from home in a church not my own and I was made to feel welcome right away.
The pastor was energetic and inspiring. His sermon was based on a reading from Matthew where Joseph was told to take Jesus and Mary and flee from Bethlehem. If he had stayed in one place, Jesus may not have lived. The pastor wove that story into the moral that we must step outside of our comfort zone, that in order to fulfill our destiny we have to move on, but bearing in mind that however small it feels where we are now, from something small, something big can grow. Like Jesus growing from the animals’ trough in the manger to the cross. Those who know me know that I don’t consider myself terribly religious but for some reason these words rang true. After a few more songs and a benediction, the service ended, a very quick 2 hours later. I was glad I followed my whim, that was a memory made for certain.
High Museum of Art I had read a bit on the High and I was hoping it would have some of my favorite Impressionists on display. I was also planning to pop into the Picasso to Warhol (from MOMA in NYC) exhibition. Alas, I only found one Monet and it was a canal view from Zaandam in Holland. I really should have remembered how much I cannot seem to appreciate modern art, because while I’m sure the exhibition was good – 14 artists selected by MOMA to be shown together in the south – I felt like I was drowning in art I just couldn’t “get”. I was also reminded how blessed we are in Boston to have the MFA with such a stellar collection.
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