Explore art, nature and animals in this Georgia gem.
Up for a summer road trip that’s fun, family-friendly and absolutely free? Put on your walking shoes and head east to Athens for a day or two of sightseeing play at three unique places: a scenic showcase of flower power at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, a woodsy respite for injured animals at Bear Hollow Zoo and a treasured gallery of magnificent masterpieces at the Georgia Museum of Art. About a 70-mile drive from Buckhead, the attractions are located within a 3-mile radius of each other on the stomping grounds of the University of Georgia, with plenty of painted concrete bulldogs marking the territory.
Spend the morning roaming the 313-acre State Botanical Garden. Part of UGA, Athen’s top-ranked tourist spot is a kaleidoscope of seasonal blooms, themed gardens and natural areas that promote conservation and agricultural history. From the wisteria-covered arbor and fragrant tea olive hedges to the babbling stream and chirping birds, it’s a full sensory experience that beckons guests to literally stop and smell the flowers.
Diverse horticultural offerings in the lush landscape include formal plantings of antique roses and fringy meadows of wildflowers, a hillside orchard of fruit trees and pretty perennial borders for pollinators. Tropical beauties from equatorial climates flourish inside the three-story conservatory at the Visitor Center, an exotic oasis of bamboo, palm, pineapple and papaya. Placards explain the vital importance of these species, nutritional to medicinal, as the world’s tropical forest habitats continue to diminish.
Unleash the kids in the children’s garden, an imaginative nod to Mother Nature with such amusements as a tree house, fossil wall, edible plants and musical mushrooms. Or venture out along 5 miles of color-coded trails to discover heath bluffs on the Middle Oconee River, amphibolite geology and, perhaps, a winged wonder on Hummingbird Trail.
From there, skip over to Bear Hollow Zoo, a small wildlife sanctuary in Memorial Park, for a peek at some native animals that are non-releasable due to physical or behavioral challenges. While three black bears are the resident stars, visitors can also watch the splashy antics of a pair of river otters, spy white-tailed deer camouflaged in a shady grove and marvel at the primordial stealth of a sun-basking gator. The easily navigable venue features a dozen natural habitats and a Reptile House. Among the feathered friends: bald eagles, turkey vultures, wild turkeys and owls.
Afterward, enjoy a picnic lunch beneath the treetop canopy at the 72- acre park. Clock in extra steps on the 1.25-mile Birchmore Trail that winds through a hardwood ravine with uphill climbs and small creek crossings.
Next, cool off on the second floor of the Georgia Museum of Art, located on UGA’s east campus in the Performing and Visual Arts Complex, with an eclectic unveiling of works from Southern decorative arts to Italian Renaissance treasures, as well as 19th- and 20thcentury American paintings. Both an academic museum and the official art museum of the state, the building houses nearly 17,000 objects in its permanent collection. That’s quite an expansion from the original 100 paintings donated by founder Alfred Heber Holbrook back in 1948 when the museum opened in the basement of the old library on UGA’s north campus.
Art appreciation ranks high in this vibrant college town, where the cultural scene is packed with so much more to explore, you might want to spend the night.
Consider a stay at The Colonels B&B and Inn. Erected as a “two over two” farm house in the 1860s, the white columned manor is steeped in country elegance, boasting seven renovated guest rooms furnished with European antiques and modern amenities in the pastoral surrounds of a 30-acre horse estate.
Bear Hollow Zoo
293 Gran Ellen Drive
Georgia Museum of Art
90 Carlton St.
State Botanical Garden of Georgia
2450 S. Milledge Ave.
3890 Barnett Shoals Road
Contributing Writer, Simply Buckhead; journalist and graphic designer