LAKE LANIER ISLANDS, Ga.
Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas from Georgia's "Hamptons" with a Southern accent: Lake Lanier Islands.
Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there's no other place quite like Lake Lanier for a special Christmas made in the South. Less than an hour drive north of Atlanta, the all-season playground — hence the nickname of the Hamptons — is wrapped around the shores of Lake Sidney Lanier, named for Georgia's great poet who wrote the Song of the Chattahoochee, which alludes to aquatic imagery such as the "willful waterweeds," "laving laurel" and the "little reeds (that) sighed 'Abide, abide.' "
The lake, with almost 700 miles of shoreline, 38,000 acres of surface area and hundreds of islands, drains from the Chattahoochee River through Buford Dam. Since it was created in the 1950s it has become Georgia's favorite getaway.
"The water is so clean and pristine because silt from the Chattahoochee is settled by the time it gets here," says Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau. "On a clear sunny day, the water is as blue as sapphires."
But the water isn't why Lake Lanier is special during the holidays. From this weekend through Dec. 30, its skies are aglow with the Magical Nights of Lights, a 7-mile driving tour that meanders past hundreds of illuminated characters like Santa Claus, angels, reindeer, elves and everything else Christmas. The characters are created from millions of twinkling lights that bedazzle the senses in an extravaganza of color and sound.
The Magical Nights are one of Georgia's most beloved seasonal institutions. So much labor goes into the project that work begins in September. In October, the lights first form a ghoulish display for Halloween called the Haunted Nights of Lights. Then crews work daily until mid November to transform the haunted landscape to a heavenly scene.
While most guests drive cars or a pickup truck loaded with family and friends — this is Georgia, after all, where pickups rule the roads — you can also rent golf carts or walk the display of lights. Whichever mode of transportation you choose, you end the tour at Holiday Village, where you can warm up with a cup of hot cocoa and holiday treats, visit Santa's workshop, or even take a pony ride in the crisp winter air.
"Santa is a really big deal at the resort and across the area," says Dickson, ticking off a number of additional activities at the lake and in nearby Gainesville.
In addition to Magical Nights of Lights, a holiday boat parade hosted by local boat dealer Marine Max illuminates the lake. There are concerts by the Gainesville Symphony Orchestra, a Pancakes With Santa event, and a holiday scavenger hunt in Chicopee Woods at the Elachee Nature Science Center. Workshops focusing on ornament making, pottery and other crafts are run-of-the-house at Interactive Neighborhood for Kids, or INK, as well as a Mingle With Kringle event on the downtown square in Gainesville.
Loads of Christmas shopping opportunities and quirky thrift, consignment, salvage and resale shops are popping up all around Gainesville and Lake Lanier.
At Park Avenue Thrift, for example, you can dig for finds such as designer handbags and shoes; a friend found a couture evening gown for practically pennies on the dollar.
A visit to the colorful Jaemor Farm Market in Alto can yield a treasure of pottery, jams, jellies, baskets, ceramics and fresh seasonal produce.
Or take a side trip to nearby Bethlehem, Ga., to get your Christmas cards postmarked in holiday style.
Despite all the seasonal attractions, Lake Lanier Islands Resort isn't only holiday lights and revelry. The resort has almost 300 guest rooms, suites and villas, and caters to couples, families, friends and groups.
The lake is all about water, and the very cool thing is that you can rent boats of every sort, whether you need a pontoon boat, a houseboat for overnights on the lake or sailboats for summer soirees.
Bring your own fishing boat or rent one in search of bass or crappie, or simply go birding and watch for ospreys, bald eagles and songbirds like the brown thrasher, Georgia's state bird.
Championship golf is offered with 12 scenic holes on the water. Greens fees are all-inclusive and cover food, nonalcoholic beverages and carts. Other activities are Tranquility the Spa, with treatments including their signature — and very Southern — Sweet Tea Sugar Scrub, an equestrian center, nearby zip-lining for those braver than I am, and Chattahoochee Rapids Beach & Water Park with Georgia's largest wave pool and a warm stretch of sandy white beach.
On a recent getaway, we ate, drank and were merry at these highly recommended spots:
• Grapes & Hops, Flowery Branch: Oh my oh my. Give yourself a Christmas gift and have the fried Brie and fried green beans.
• Tropical Breeze Restaurant, Flowery Branch: Cuban fare so authentic it's like being in Havana.
• Napoli Pizza, Flowery Branch: Ditto above on authenticity, except Italian style.
• Bullfrogs, Lake Lanier Resort: Hubby declared the ribs "the best" he has ever had.
• Windows Restaurant, Lake Lanier Resort: primarily specializes in Southern-style-yet-gourmet buffets.
• Sunset Cove Beach Cafe, Lake Lanier Resort: completely open air and caters to everyone, especially boaters.