Weekend getaway to Augusta

There’s more to the Garden City than golf. For nature lovers, there are many reasons to go.
Staffed by students from Helms College's hospitality and culinary programs, Edgar's Above Broad has a fun rooftop space in downtown Augusta.
Courtesy of Edgar's Above Broad and Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Staffed by students from Helms College's hospitality and culinary programs, Edgar's Above Broad has a fun rooftop space in downtown Augusta. Courtesy of Edgar's Above Broad and Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau

Arriving too early to check-in at downtown Augusta’s newest major hotel – Hyatt House Augusta/Downtown – I walked across the street to check out the Sacred Heart Cultural Center.

Formerly a Catholic church built in 1897, the cathedral-like Victorian-style building with soaring twin spires, ornate stonework and 94 stained glass windows had a sign on the side entrance asking visitors to please knock. I was greeted by a woman who welcomed me inside the downstairs gift shop and art gallery. She said a professional choral group was practicing in the sanctuary upstairs, but I could go up and have a look around as long as I was quiet.

Being alone in such a grand and hallowed space with only a choral group singing was a bit surreal. The voices reverberated around me as I tiptoed around, admiring the beauty of the architecture. Sacred Heart hosts many cultural events throughout the year, from choral concerts, to film screenings, art exhibitions, theatrical productions, and the Garden City Festival each spring. It’s also open for tours.

Sacred Heart Cultural Center in Augusta.
Courtesy of Blake Guthrie

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After checking in at the hotel, Savannah Rapids Park was my next destination. Located on the Savannah River at the headgates of the Augusta Canal, 7.5 miles north of downtown, the 33-acre park is a nexus point for outdoor recreation in the region. Multiple outfitters operate from within the park offering biking and paddling tours and rentals. You can bike and hike along the old towpaths in the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area and take paddling excursions on the river and the canal.

I booked a Stallings Island excursion with Cole Watkins Tours. Cole Watkins is a native and lifelong resident of Augusta who knows the river and its tributaries well. He has a team of expert guides and a small fleet of kayaks for taking adventurers out on the water around Augusta.

Meeting the donkeys on Stallings Island in the middle of the Savannah River is a highlight of paddling tours to the island offered by Cole Watkins Tours from Savannah Rapids Park near downtown Augusta.
Courtesy of Cole Watkins Tours

Credit: handout

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Credit: handout

Stallings Island is an important archeological and National Landmark site in the middle of the Savannah River. Some of the oldest pottery remnants ever found in North America were discovered on Stallings Island. It also contains ancient shell middens and burial sites from the indigenous cultures that once thrived here. The island is now under the control of the Archaeological Conservancy, and its interior is off-limits to the general public, but you can visit the shore and interact with the donkeys and goats that live there as long as you don’t get out of your watercraft.

“If they find you on the island and you’re digging, you’ll go to jail,” Watkins told me. He knows the island’s donkeys by name. A family of them came down to the reedy riverbank to greet us after he gave them a call. We paddled up close enough to nuzzle them as they sniffed for treats. We also spotted osprey, egrets, herons, turtles and river otters.

“The only thing we haven’t seen are snakes,” said Watkins. That was fine by me.

He offered to take me to the opposite bank to see the “hissing trees,” so-named because of the number of snakes that congregate around the cypress trees there. I took a pass and we continued paddling around the island. Watkins said autumn is his favorite time of year to be on the river because of the fall colors, the wildlife spotting opportunities and the milder temperatures.

If you’re not into paddling, the best way to experience the water and the wildlife is to take a boat tour from the Augusta Canal Discovery Center at Enterprise Mill aboard a replica Petersburg cargo boat. These motorized open-air boats can fit large groups for a roundtrip ride on the canal led by knowledgeable guides. Along with the natural experience, you’ll learn a lot about Augusta’s fascinating history and how the canal helped to shape it. The popular Moonlight Music Cruise on Friday and Saturday evenings during fall and spring features live entertainment onboard.

The Augusta Canal Discovery Center offers cruises of the historic canal aboard replica Petersburg cargo boats, including music cruises with live entertainment on certain evenings.
Courtesy of Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

After getting off the river, I headed back downtown to Edgar’s Above Broad. Staffed by students from the School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts at Helms College, the rooftop restaurant has a varied tapas menu that changes with the seasons. The outdoor setting is reminiscent of Atlanta’s rooftop experiences at the Clermont Hotel and Ponce City Market (on a smaller scale), with games and amusements such as a putting green and bocce ball court. Also on Broad Street, Whiskey Bar Kitchen serves Japanese cuisine and craft burgers and has more than 200 whiskeys on its drink menu.

I had a nightcap at the Hyatt’s rooftop bar with a twinkling skyline view that included downtown’s other major hotel, the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center on the Augusta Riverwalk a few blocks away.

In the morning, I visited the 1,100-acre Phinizy Swamp Nature Park south of downtown for a hike through the reclaimed wetlands that for decades served as illegal dumping grounds. Today, wildlife has returned to the swamp due to the reclamation efforts of the Phinizy Center for Water Sciences.

The 1,100-acre Phinizy Swamp Nature Park contains miles of boardwalk and earthen trails for exploring a unique wetlands area south of downtown Augusta.
Courtesy of Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

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Credit: Blake Guthrie

Striding the miles of boardwalk and earthen trails, it felt like I had the park all to myself despite the number of cars in the parking lot. The park is big enough to get lost in, so make sure you have a trail map before heading out. I wish I’d had more time to explore Phinizy. The same could be said for Augusta in general because my quick getaway only scratched the surface of the natural and cultural offerings in the Garden City.

If you go

Augusta is 146 miles east of Atlanta via I-20 east.


Sacred Heart Cultural Center. Free, $5 audio tour. 1301 Greene St. 706-826-4700, sacredheartaugusta.org

Savannah Rapids Park. 3300 Evans to Locks Road. Martinez. 706-868-3349, www.columbiacountyga.gov

Cole Watkins Tours. Guided tours $50, kayak rentals $30 and up. Stallings Island and Augusta Canal trips launch from Savannah Rapids Park. 706-840-0433, www.colewatkinstours.com

Augusta Canal Discovery Center. Boat tours $14 and up. 1450 Greene St., Suite 400. 706-823-0440, augustacanal.com

Phinizy Swamp Nature Park. Free. 1858 Lock and Dam Road. 706-828-2109, phinizycenter.org


Hyatt House Augusta/Downtown. $129 and up. 1268 Broad St. 706-922-3150, www.hyatt.com

Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center. $125 and up. 2 10th St. 706-722-8900, www.marriott.com


Edgar’s Above Broad. $6 and up tapas plates. 699 Broad St. 762.320.4320, edgarsabovebroad.com

Whiskey Bar Kitchen. $9.95 and up. 1048 Broad St. 706-814-6159, www.whiskeybarkitchen.com

Visitor info

Destination Augusta. 1010 Broad St. 706-724-4067, www.visitaugusta.com