Travel writer and American holidays expert Dave Balow tells why visitors to the States should always have Georgia on their mind.
IT was around 80 years ago that Margaret Mitchell, huddled next to a radiator for winter warmth in a corner of a cold and damp Atlanta apartment, wrote the final chapter of her one and only novel, Gone With The Wind.
Full of Civil War drama, passion, romance and set in the colourful southern state of Georgia, it was an instant best seller and the subsequent Hollywood film became the biggest blockbuster of all time.
And if unlike Rhett Butler, the hero of the story, you do 'give a damn' when choosing where to go in America for that perfect holiday, you would be well advised to experience the southern comfort of Georgia.
For amid the oaks and pines dripping with Spanish Moss, the antebellum mansions, the beautiful beaches, and the historic cities lies a peach of a state where the hospitality is second to none.
So many British holidaymakers flock to Florida every year for their annual dose of Disney in the famous theme parks, but how many realise that a short drive north takes you into the heart of the Deep South where the options for a super family holiday are endless.
Georgia really has got it all. From the studied sophistication of drop dead gorgeous Savannah to the Olympian edifices of downtown Atlanta, the sunny barrier islands, the majestic antebellum homes that escaped the ravages of General Sherman and the swathes of forests and cotton fields that puncture the landscape . . . this is one American state that really makes a statement.
I had been chilling out at a luxurious beach resort in south west Florida and was loath to leave. But after heading up Interstate 75 and crossing into Georgia I wished I had left far more than just 10 days to drive around and explore.
My first stop was the unassuming town of Thomasville which, like so many places in Georgia, is a hidden gem. Steeped in history and with a grand old quarter, this was a great introduction to life across the border from the Sunshine State and I was soon chatting to friendly locals about everything from sport to politics over fried chicken, green tomatoes and grits.
The next day I set off on a two hour drive east on roads that cut through the fragrant Georgia pines, for a memorable stay on the most famous of the state's barrier islands, which for years has been a southern playground for America's rich and famous.
Jekyll Island has an amazing CV and a fascinating pedigree and along with neighbouring Saint Simons Island and Tybee Island to the north, are good places to stay and relax with excellent sporting facilities, beachfront hotels to suit all pockets and quirky restaurants serving fantastic seafood.
The place I had most wanted to visit in Georgia was Savannah, that Grand Dame of southern cities, and after an hour on the freeway from Jekyll Island I was driving around the 21 beautiful historic squares in the city looking for my B&B accommodation, the quaint Azealea Inn and Gardens in the Victorian District.
Established in 1733, Savannah is the oldest city in Georgia and the location of one of the largest National Historic Landmark districts in the country. It's a really eccentric place and beguiles the visitor with its stunning architecture, Old World glamour and romance, culture, and entertainment.
The best way to get the most out of you time here is to just stroll or take a tram around the squares which are all in a fairly compact area between the Victorian District and the Savannah River.
If you have read the book or seen the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil you will enjoy a visit to the Mercer Williams House on Monterey Square - the scene of a real life murder - and if you want to get into the spirit of the story take a short trip out of town to the eerie Bonaventure Cemetery or nearby Tybee Island.
I spent a couple of days in Savannah, but I would have happily stayed for a couple of months. The place exerts a hold on you like nowhere else in America and there is never a dull moment in this city day or night, whether you are exploring the historic areas, taking a ghost tour by lamplight or enjoying the more brash entertainment along the buzzing riverside.
Each of my days in the city involved a couple of musts . . . one ice cream at world famous Leopolds - you haven't lived until you've licked one - and a complimentary glass or two of sherry on the rustic porch back at the Azealea Inn as the setting sun formed rainbows over the fountains of Forsyth Park.
It's certainly hard to drag yourself away from Savannah, but while there it's worth taking a 'day off' and driving up over the border into neighbouring South Carolina to visit lovely Charleston, where the Painted Ladies (colourful Victorian villas) add to the feeling that you are back in a picturesque part of old England.
As I had decided not to take advantage of any midnight trains in Georgia my next drive was a bit longer. But with a world famous golf course, stunning mansions and fascinating towns full of Civil War memories there was nothing remotely routine about the route to Atlanta.
Augusta National Golf Club, home each year to the famous Masters tournament, is much like Fort Knox when it comes to welcoming visitors at any time other than for four or five days in April. My "I'm a famous English journalist and sports writer" e-mail, sent before leaving Blighty, didn't get me anywhere near the locked gates, let alone through them, but I did stop for a quick nostalgic look down Magnolia Drive so I can at least say I've been there!
Next stop, the lovely historic town of Madison, was far more welcoming. Standing right at the heart of Georgia's antebellum trail here you will find beautiful Gone With the Wind style homes that the locals are proud and willing to show off.
It was the same story at nearby Milledgeville, where, incidently, comedian Oliver Hardy grew up and went to school. More grand houses, more superb museums and local attractions and a great sense of pride in belonging to a friendly southern community.
Yankee General Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground before his famous March to the Sea during the Civil War. But when the world of Scarlett O'Hara went up in flames it paved the way for the building of a brand new city and one that is the ultimate in modern American design.
Yes, there are lots of parks and open spaces in the city and the monolithic Stone Mountain is on the outskirts. But with the giant CNN headquarters, the World of Coca Cola, the Olympic park built for the1996 Games, the skyscrapers, shiny monster office blocks and the world's busiest airport, you could be forgiven for not fully appreciating the 'green' side of Atlanta.
I liked it however, and found so many things to do. A tour of the CNN building is a mind-blowing must, the World of Coca Cola is a fun diversion, a Gone With the Wind experience at the Margaret Mitchell house is eye opening, the Underground is great for shopping and the views over the city from the top of amazing Stone Mountain, which you can access by cable car or on foot, are quite something.
Georgia, sweet Georgia, you'll always be on my mind!
To enjoy a holiday in Georgia book a flight with DialAflight either direct to Atlanta, to Charlotte, North Carolina or to Miami, Tampa, Orlando or Fort Lauderdale in Florida and hire a car.
See Dave's follow up article looking closely at Jekyll Island, one of Georgia's gems.