Gotta Get Away: Escape the pandemic blues with a road trip

Skiing and snowboarding at Beech Mountain North Carolina
Tucked between Sugar and Beech mountains, the town of Banner Elk makes a base of operations for winter sports. Courtesy of Sam Dean.

Credit: Sam Dean

Credit: Sam Dean

Motor your way to a drive-in for live theater, an 1820s stagecoach stop and the Shrimp Drop

Whether it’s a desire for holiday travel or just an unescapable urge to get out of town, winter wanderers have plenty of options close to home. There’s plenty new to explore within 500 miles of Atlanta: Chefs are launching restaurants, attractions are opening and some favorite seasonal traditions are getting a new twist. And it’s the only time of the year when nature lovers will find flocks of loons landing in South Carolina. Load up the car or camper for a winter adventure.

Delta, Alabama

Few folks will follow in the racing path of Jimmie Johnson, the recently retired NASCAR star and two-time Talladega Superspeedway winner. But he’s blazed another trail that anyone can follow. The new Jimmie Johnson Biking Trail starts at the track in Lincoln, winds through the Talladega National Forest and climbs to Mount Cheaha, the state’s highest point. The trip up and back totals 55 miles. Johnson was known for making the ride with friends and race team members, and it’s now open to all biking enthusiasts. Cheaha State Park is a 2,800-acre mountaintop refuge featuring campgrounds, cottages, a hotel, pavilions and miles of hiking and biking trails. (Jimmie Johnson Biking Trail at Cheaha State Park, free, 19644 AL 281, Delta, Alabama. 800-610-5801, alapark.com/parks/cheaha-state-park)

Deremer Studios Commercial Photograph - Amelia Island
Usher in 2021 with the Goodbye and Good Riddance 2020 Shrimp Drop Extravaganza at San Fernandina Beach. Courtesy of Deremer Studios.

Credit: DEREMER STUDIOS;Deremer Studios

Credit: DEREMER STUDIOS;Deremer Studios

Fernandina Beach, Florida

New Year’s Eve rolls around every year, but this December, the celebration in Fernandina Beach is going to a bit different. It’s not just the usual Shrimp Drop, a street festival highlighted by fireworks and the descent of a lighted shrimp over the downtown waterfront. This year, the party’s been dubbed the Goodbye and Good Riddance 2020 Shrimp Drop Extravaganza, and plans call for fireworks to make up for the cancelled Fourth of July display. Also new to the winter schedule is the Dickens Dining Week from Dec. 4 -13, when dishes influenced by the Victorian era will be featured on restaurants' prix-fixe menus. (New Year’s Eve Shrimp Drop, free, Centre Street, Fernandina Beach, Florida. 904-277-0717, ameliaisland.com)

No need for snow when zipping down a mountainside on this new coaster ride in Helen.
Courtesy of Georgia Mountain Coaster
No need for snow when zipping down a mountainside on this new coaster ride in Helen. Courtesy of Georgia Mountain Coaster

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Helen

If the thrill of a downhill race is attractive, but the idea of doing it on skis or sleds doesn’t appeal, here’s an option. Climb into a cart on the new Georgia Mountain Coaster in Helen. The year-round attraction takes riders on a zippy, 28-mile-per-hour rush down the side of a mountain right in the heart of town. Riders must be at least 3 years old and 38 inches tall. Weight limits also apply. While in the Alpine-themed village, visitors will find more fun with ziplines, waterfall hikes, deck dining and a stroll through the Festival of Trees at Unicoi State Park Nov. 13-Dec. 6. (Georgia Mountain Coaster, $6-$15, 8409 S. Main St., Helen. 706-878-1347, georgiamountaincoaster.com)

A thoroughbred nursery and farm is the setting for the Hermitage Farm and Barn8 Restaurant and Bourbon Bar in Goshen, Kentucky.    
Courtesy of Oldham KY Tourism & Conventions
A thoroughbred nursery and farm is the setting for the Hermitage Farm and Barn8 Restaurant and Bourbon Bar in Goshen, Kentucky. Courtesy of Oldham KY Tourism & Conventions

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Goshen, Kentucky

Think Kentucky and horses or bourbon are sure to come to mind. The recently renovated Hermitage Farm and Barn8 Restaurant and Bourbon Bar in Goshen brings both things together in one place. The property is a thoroughbred nursery offering tours, carriage rides and a display of the carriage used in “Gone With the Wind.” Stroll through the gardens along Little Sinking Creek where a 1,500-foot boardwalk is lined with artwork and holiday lights. Unwind at the bourbon bar that boasts every brand of the beverage from Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, along with select popular and vintage pours. The restaurant serves a farm-to-table dinner Wednesday through Sunday. (Hermitage Farm and Barn8 Restaurant and Bourbon Bar, artwalk $10-$18, 10500 W. U.S. 42, Goshen, Kentucky. 502-398-9289, hermitagefarm.com)

The Tammany Trace trailhead in Covington is marked by an old-style train station that hosts a farmers' market and live music performances. 
Courtesy of Bobby Gilboy
The Tammany Trace trailhead in Covington is marked by an old-style train station that hosts a farmers' market and live music performances. Courtesy of Bobby Gilboy

Credit: Bobby Gilboy

Credit: Bobby Gilboy

Covington, Louisiana

A drive over the 24-mile Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is an adventure in itself, and it’s even more so when it ends in Covington. This quaint town on the convergence of the Bogue Falaya, Abita and Tchefuncte rivers is known as an artist’s haven, filled with galleries, shops and antiques stores, many of which are housed in historic cottages. One of the best ways to discover the area is by biking along the 31-mile Tammany Trace that begins at Covington’s trailhead, marked by an old-style train station that hosts a farmers market and live music performances. The route to Slidell is now a wildlife conservation area with exceptional views of bayous and rivers from the 31 bridges built atop original railroad trestles. Another fun way to explore Covington is on one of Royal Carriages mule-drawn carriage rides along some of the city’s most historic and charming districts. (Tammany Trace, 419 N. New Hampshire St., Covington, Louisiana. 985-892-1873, tammanytrace.org)

The Bohemia Café and Bakery is Vicksburg's newest destination for home-made sweets, coffees, breakfast and lunch.   
Courtesy of Bohemia Café and Bakery
The Bohemia Café and Bakery is Vicksburg's newest destination for home-made sweets, coffees, breakfast and lunch. Courtesy of Bohemia Café and Bakery

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Vicksburg restaurateurs John and Nadia Miller built a loyal following before closing their Caffe Paradiso a few years ago, and on the strength of that experience, they didn’t let a pandemic stand in the way of opening a new venture. The Bohemia Café and Bakery is their latest foray into the local food scene where they dish up omelets, crepes and classic biscuit combinations for breakfast and burgers, sandwiches and grilled chicken for lunch. While you’re there, go see the Vicksburg National Military Park, the site of a major turning point in the Civil War. (Bohemia Café and Bakery, $5-$10, 1119 Washington St., Vicksburg, Mississippi. 601-738-5414. Vicksburg National Military Park, $20 per vehicle, $10 per pedestrian, 3201 Clay St., Vicksburg, Mississippi. 601-636-0583, www.nps.gov/vick)

Winter sports from skiing to snowshoeing, and everything in between, draw visitors to Banner Elk each year.
Courtesy of Sam Dean.
Winter sports from skiing to snowshoeing, and everything in between, draw visitors to Banner Elk each year. Courtesy of Sam Dean.

Credit: Sam Dean

Credit: Sam Dean

Banner Elk, North Carolina

For more than a decade, the owners of the Louisiana Purchase restaurant in the ski resort town of Banner Elk have won awards for their wines that pair with hearty fare of short ribs, hangar steaks, quail stuffed with dirty rice and shrimp po' boys. They recently opened a new location overlooking Main Street where hungry hordes can refuel after a day of skiing at Sugar Mountain or Beech Mountain. Between the two there are 38 slopes, 17 lifts, 16 tubing lanes, two ice skating rinks and two ski schools to help novices master the basics. (Louisiana Purchase on Main, $6-$28, 171 Main St., Banner Elk, North Carolina. 828-898-5656, louisianapurchasefoodandspirits.com)

Loons flock to Lake Jocassee in South Carolina each winter. This year, they're the subject of a volunteer study on migration patterns.
Courtesy of Nina Schoch
Loons flock to Lake Jocassee in South Carolina each winter. This year, they're the subject of a volunteer study on migration patterns. Courtesy of Nina Schoch

Credit: Nina Schoch

Credit: Nina Schoch

Salem, South Carolina

Lake Jocassee, the 7,565-acre man-made body of water at the heart of Devils Fork State Park, is a popular attraction during warm-weather months. But from November through mid-April, it’s a favorite destination of birdwatchers who come to observe the 150 or so loons that winter on the water. The nonprofit Jocassee Wild Outdoor Education group hosts volunteers each week who work with biologists to study the creatures, often called “America’s other iconic bird.” This year, they’re researching loon behavior on fresh water and tracking migration patterns. Beyond birdwatching, visitors can park their RVs and hike, boat or take one of the new Jocassee Fishing Adventures to fish wild, secluded trout streams or tour the park’s several waterfalls. (Lake Jocassee, $4-$8, 161 Holcombe Circle, Salem, South Carolina. 864-944-2639, southcarolinaparks.com/devils-fork)

The Carmichael Inn is a new restaurant housed in an 1820s log structure that once served as a stagecoach stop.
Courtesy of Visit Loudon County, Tennessee
The Carmichael Inn is a new restaurant housed in an 1820s log structure that once served as a stagecoach stop. Courtesy of Visit Loudon County, Tennessee

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Loudon, Tennessee

Named after colonial era Fort Loudoun, this small town near Knoxville is steeped in history. And a big part of that history is the Carmichael Inn, a two-story log structure dating back to the 1820s that was a stagecoach and railway stop where owner John Carmichael fed and housed travelers. Recently reopened, it once again welcomes guests to dine on comfort dishes of meatloaf, shrimp and grits and fried catfish while seated beside the original, oversized fireplace or on the two-story porch that spans the length of the building. Less than a half mile away, the new Stimpson Seashell Museum boasts one of the world’s biggest shell collections amassed by Dr. Peter Stimpson, a noted collector who has 11 shells named for him. (Carmichael Inn, $5-$23, 600 Hackberry St., Loudon, Tennessee. 865-888-6101. Stimpson Seashell Museum, $10, 406 Wharf St., Loudon, Tennessee. 865-657-6609, www.stimpsonseashellmuseum.com

The historic Barter Theatre in Abingdon has moved its winter productions outdoors to the renovated Moonlite Drive-In. 
Courtesy of Courtesy of Barter Theatre
The historic Barter Theatre in Abingdon has moved its winter productions outdoors to the renovated Moonlite Drive-In. Courtesy of Courtesy of Barter Theatre

Credit: Garrett Houston

Credit: Garrett Houston

Abingdon, Virginia

The historic Barter Theatre on the Main Street of Abingdon has been a showcase for the arts since 1933. Though the pandemic brought down the houselights this spring, the shows still go on. The cast and crew are now working their magic at the Moonlite Drive-In, a nearby historic venue that has long been a showcase for outdoor screenings. The Barter has programmed a full winter line-up of outdoor shows, starting with holiday favorites “A Christmas Carol” and a musical version of “Frosty.” Before or after performances, patrons can explore the culinary scene of this quaint Virginia village that boasts awards for having the best small-town food scene. One of the newest spots to warm up a wintry day is the Spring House, home to the Tumbling Creek Cider Company Taproom, Wolf Hills Coffee and Appalachian Teas and Botanicals. (Barter Theatre at the Moonlite Drive-In, $20-$30, 17555 Lee Highway, Abingdon, Virginia. 276-628-3991, bartertheatre.com)

COVID-19 safety tips

  • Keep those credit cards handy. Many attractions are limiting or eliminating cash transactions.
  • Know the state guidelines. Each state has its own regulations around travel that can vary from quarantine requirements to group size. Be aware of what’s happening at your destination.
  • Verify that attractions and destinations are open. The same goes for festivals and events.

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