Active weekend around Atlanta

Sometimes hidden jewels can be found in your own backyard! Many of us travel thousands of miles to different corners of the world in search of the perfect vacation spot. After living in Atlanta for over 14 years, I discovered one right here in Georgia.

Blairsville is located in north Georgia, less than two hours drive from Atlanta. A quaint little town, nestled by the Blue Ridge Mountains, Blairsville has all the charm of a small mountain village. With lots of outdoor activities, country stores, antique shops and local restaurants, you can choose to be as active or relaxed as you like.

I decided to make an active weekend getaway to Blairsville this summer. After checking into The Lodge at Copperhead, which is only a few miles outside of Blairsville downtown, I met up with Frank of White Wolf Kayaking at the Poteete Creek Campground. We exchanged pleasantries the Southern way before getting into our individual kayaks. Friday evening was the perfect time to kayak on Lake Nottely, when the crowd had thinned out, the air was cool and the sun was ready to set into the horizon. It was very quiet and peaceful to be out there with hardly anyone around. We paddled leisurely covering a distance of about 3 miles in less than 2 hours. Frank guided me through the lake, its surroundings and shared his stories of moving from Massachusetts to Georgia.

The following morning I made my way to Trackbrock Stables, located just outside of the city. This 250 acre paradise has been in the family for decades. The Alexander siblings own the campground and stable, while their cousin owns a store nearby by the same name. Well trained horses and friendly staff members take you on guided tours through the woods five times daily. My group happened to have first time horseback riders (at 6 years of age) as well as some experienced ones. The scenery on the way was beautiful and reminded me of Swiss countryside. While we trotted through the trails, watching the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, creeks and open fields, the guide encouraged us to gallop on our own if we felt confident enough to. An hour or two on the horsebacks was the best way to spend the morning.

Next was a hike to Georgia’s highest point, Brasstown Bald. After a drive up the mountain, I parked my car and then started a steep uphill hike towards the top of the mountain. It was a nice shaded trail with lots of fauna to admire along the way. Even at 1 mile, the hike was no easy feat. My advice is to bring plenty of water and dress in layers. It got cold and windy as I made my way to the very top. At 4784 feet, you could see downtown Atlanta (on a clear day) as well as the Carolinas from the observation deck.

I had my share of exercise for the weekend, but there are a number of other outdoor activities that can be experienced within the surrounding area including zip lines, fly fishing and sporting clays.  If you still have some stamina, hike the numerous hiking trails (including the Appalachian Trail), visit one of the many waterfalls in the area or play a round of golf or two.  For an active vacationer who likes to be out in the nature, there is much to do in Blairsville and its surrounding areas.

24 hours of adventure..and danger!

I never thought one could have so many adventures in less than 24 hours! For starters, our flight from Atlanta was delayed, which left us with a very tight layover in Paris to get our connection to Casablanca. Once we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, things slowed down to a “French” pace. The bus took forever to go from one terminal to the next, under freezing tempratures & passengers packed in like sardines. We ran with all our might while it was way past our boarding time, only for me to be held up by the security for my tiny bottle of Purell hand sanitizer! Surely, it would have been a pity if that made us miss our flight but we made it.

Along the way, we also met a lady quite randomly & started talking, only to find out that she had also done a volunteer abroad trip through CCS in Russia couple of years ago. What a small world! In case you didn’t know, I went to Russia summer of 2009 for this same trip.

Once we made in into Casablanca after 13 hours of travel time, the adrenaline kept us going for the rest of
the day. We checked into our modest hotel just outside of the Medina, freshened up & got out into the city. We had only walked a couple of blocks from our hotel to find police barracades, high speed cars & a sea of people gathered on the streets watching. Leslie tried to find out from one of the spectators about what was going on & his only response perhaps due to his lack of English was “danger.” Should we stay & watch danger or continue to walk to the Hasan II Mosque, we thought to ourselves. Then I found out that the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI was due to pass by any minute, on his way to the same mosque we were headed to. We stood there & watched his motorcade & it wasn’t dangerous by any means!

Because the King needed to pray byhimself, we had to postpone our visit to the mosque till after lunch (which is a seperate blog entry in itself). My first glimpse of the city of Casablanca is polluted! I am quite sensitive to dust & smoke, so this is not the ideal city for me. There are tons of cars everywhere.

Most of them are old & release a lot of exhaust. Men smoke in cafes, restaurants, parks, sitting & standing on the streets. A lot of them don’t seem to working it seems. Once the sun set at 6pm, I saw a distant round ball in the sky (the moon), barely visible due to the extent of smog in this city.

On the bright side, people seem to be very friendly & willing to help you no matter how linguistically challenged they are, or we are. I ended up speaking in Spanish to one of the King’s security guards as he couldn’t speak English & I barely understand a few words in French.

Fes Express

Fes or Fez is the oldest imperial city in Morocco and its old town is now a UNESCO world heritage site. While it was not in our original itinerary of touring Morocco, Leslie, Cheryl and I made an impromptu decision to make a day trip to Fes, which is about 3 hours each way by train and usually done on a weekend. It was a crazy idea, but doable! At least, we wanted to test it if it was attainable or not.

The same evening we went and purchased three first class tickets for the following afternoon. After working in the morning at our respective sites, we reached the train station at 12:30pm and grabbed some food there. I got a BBQ chicken pizza and a Miranda from Pizza Hut to go. It was actually better than I expected. The train left at 1pm and was quite comfortable. Only later we realized we were sitting in the second class cabins having paid for a first class fare.
The views on the way were spectacular! There were tiny villages, open grasslands, factories, mountains and bare desert. The train made a lot of stops. At times we felt jolted by another train passing by, giving the impression that there is an impending collision.

We also had an interesting incident. While Cheryl was waiting for the toilet by the door, a guy started talking to her about what she was doing, where she was going (normal chit chat), etc. He said that he worked for a tour company and could get us a guide in Fes who would pick us up from the train station, take us to the Medina and the major attractions and drop us back in time for our train in the evening. He stated that he was taking some Australian tourists in the same train and that his guide would be wearing an official batch. It sounded the ideal thing to do since we were short on time and people had warned us that it was easy to get lost in the Medina of Fes which boasts 9000 streets! We analyzed his business card and discussed it over. He made me talk to the guide on his cell phone, who spoke good English and asked for 120 Dirhams ($15) for his services. It was reasonable. We decided to go with it.


But then we contemplated with the idea some more. We never saw the Australian tourists and he was insisting on the batch a bit too much. We thought to ourselves “What is the worst that could happen if we go with this guide and he turns out to be a con?” Well, we had been warned of con artists and fake guides by many tourist books and people who have visited Morocco before. My personal experience from watching a lot of movies said that we could be driven to the desert instead of the Medina and asked to surrender our money, and maybe abandoned in the middle of nowhere. So I suggested to the other girls that we hide our money in our shoes, keep a cell phone securely and tie a whistle around my wrist. If something like that were to happen, at least we would have some money to go back home!
During the next two hours of our ride, we decided it wasn’t worth the risk. We would rather get lost, miss our train and spend the night in a hotel if we have to. When we got out of the station 30 minutes late, the guide was there calling “Leslie, Leslie” while she walked right past him nodding her head that she wasn’t Leslie.

We took a taxi from the train station to the north side of the Medina, got off and started walking, absorbing the sights and smells, taking a lot of pictures and following “Sucheta, the unofficial, unpaid guide” reaching all the way to the south end within 45 minutes, without getting lost! We actually had an hour to kill before our departure, so we walked around the neighborhoods. Then we hired a taxi and got an unofficial drive-by tour of the major attractions. The taxi driver did not speak English and we don’t speak Arabic. He was trying to explain to us what we were looking at and I was playing charades, making reasonable sense and translating it back to English. We made it to our 6:50pm train well ahead of time, so we had gelato and crepes for dinner. The ride back was smooth, uneventful and in first class. We got back home around 10:30pm and lived to tell the rest of the group that a visit to Fes can actually be done in half a day!