Albany, Georgia is Naturally F-F-FunRay Charles welcomes visitors to his hometown of Albany Georgia. Eleanor Hendricks McDaniel photos
When a city’s trademark is a turtle, it’s a sure sign that the natural world matters. I became aware of Albany’s love of nature when I noticed the cement in center city giving way to parkland. The city gives the Albanians (residents of Albany, not Albania) RiverFront Park, located on the shores of the scenic Flint River: six acres of manicured outdoor recreational space with pavilions and picnic groves, and one and one-half miles of natural trails.
I strolled along the paved Riverwalk that runs three miles – it’s a wonderfully safe and easy way to see the river. Kids find fun at the park in a play fountain and Turtle Grove Play Park that features recreational areas for children ages one to 14. Activities range from a Tot Lot to a Rock Climbing Wall.
You can climb to the Horace King Overlook near the historic bridge built in 1858 by the former slave and master bridge builder, Horace King. I had learned about King when I started my day at the Albany Welcome Center. It’s housed in the 19th century Bridge House, and sits at the end of the famous bridge. At the entrance to the ancient span are detailed markers that tell the history of the bridge.
For even more exterior space, go to Chehaw Park. Within its nearly 800 acres, you’ll find places to hike, bike race, camp or conquer an 18-hole disc golf course. But the biggest attraction is the 100-acre Chehaw Wild Animal Park that was designed by eminent naturalist and Albany native, Jim Fowler, star of TV’s “Wild Kingdom.”
Meerkats are a popular attraction at Chehaw Park in Albany.The zoo is accredited by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), and houses indigenous and exotic animals. Children enjoy the petting zoo, the miniature train and one of the largest play parks in Georgia. But the area is dedicated to conservation, preservation and education.
Now that I had seen the landlubbers, I wanted to see aquatic creatures. Over at Flint RiverQuarium, more than 100 species of fish, alligators, turtles (of course) and other underwater animals are on display.
The aquarium was established to explore the ecosystems of the Flint River. Wander the darkened corridors, illuminated only by the lights from the tanks. With a little imagination, you’ll feel submerged yourself. The venue features the Blue Hole, a unique open-air 175,000-gallon tank that’s one of the few in the world.
Be there when a diver interacts with the fish. The Cypress Point Aviary at the RiverQuarium showcases the more than 30 species of birds that frequent the Flint River Watershed. Aquatic exhibitions and programs present an exciting educational experience for visitors of all ages.
The gardens and waters at Radium Springs present a more cultivated landscape, and it’s one of the state’s Seven Natural Wonders. The water glows blue because of the traces of radium found there. The spot was once popular for swimming and fishing. Then the beautiful clear waters became part of an upscale resort with a hotel, cottages, a casino and a renowned golf course that opened in 1927.
Radium Spring Gardens in Albany.
It suffered a serious setback during the Great Depression, but eventually recovered. Nevertheless, it closed and reopened several times more, but in the 1990s, it was felled by damaging storms and floods. The remains of the casino can be toured today.
It’s a lovely and tranquil place to unwind with its botanical gardens, gazebos, restored sidewalks and terraces.
Sit al fresco on a piano key bench and listen to the soul sounds of Ray Charles, who adopted Albany as his hometown. In the plaza named after him, Ray’s hits come piped in while a life-sized statue of him playing on a Baby Grand piano rotates over a cascading fountain.
If you’re lucky to be in town on the second Saturday of the month, get over to the landmark Mt. Zion Church where Rutha Harris and the Freedom Singers perform. The other artists vary, but Harris always sings.
On the day I attended the performance, it was a quartet. The singers are famous for their participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Afterwards, tour the Civil Rights Institute adjacent to the church. During his time in Albany, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at this church. Drive through at Pearlys.
Start your day at Pearly’s, a vintage family-run diner, located on Slappey Boulevard, and has “Slap-yo’-momma” good country cooking. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen where cars drive up for take-out breakfast and order a “not fast-food” breakfast. I ate inside and had scrambled eggs, country ham, grits and biscuits. How Southern can you get?
Crabcakes from the Catch Restaurant in Albany.But the food in Albany is quite diverse. You can go from cozy Southern to fine dining within blocks. My first night there, Jenny Collins, a native Albanian and gourmand, took me to the best seafood house in town: The Catch.
Though not by the sea, (but close enough) Albany has fresh fish shipped in daily from the Gulf. I ordered Creole Red Grouper covered with shrimp and andouille sausage over cheese grits. Unfortunately, I couldn’t eat the entire generous portion.
The next night, Jenny and I met friends at Henry Campbell’s, a handsome steakhouse that serves prime cut beef. Even though it’s “fine dining,” the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly with exposed brick walls and wood shutters. We each had different cuts of steak, but all were thick, tender and tasty.
My last evening in Albany, Jenny and I went really casual at The Moon. It was loud and crowded with friends and families having a good time. Outside, a band played on. They serve pizza, sandwiches, salads and wraps.
If you like small cities, and I do, Albany is the place for a long weekend getaway.
Eleanor Hendricks McDaniel is a freelance travel journalist who lives in Philadelphia, PA and Ormond Beach, FL. She’s also lived and studied in Paris, France and Florence, Italy. Eleanor has a background in art, which influences many of her destination choices. Her articles appear regularly in Heart and Soul, River Region Living, Pathfinders Travel, Recreation News, AmericanRoads.net, Blue Ridge Country and more. Read her blog at flybynighttraveler.blogspot.com.
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