We made it back to Georgia near midnight due to the limited visibility during the storm. State roads without streetlights and buckets of rain made it difficult to see the lines on the road. Watching lightning flash sideways was something I rarely ever see, and it looked even more startling against the ink black sky. Once back in GA, we made plans for our weeklong stay.
The kids really wanted me to see the Georgia Aquarium and I’m so glad they convinced me to return. I’ve been to aquariums all over the US and this one was one of the most impressive. It’s the second largest aquarium in the world, the first being in Singapore. I finally got to see the manta rays and whale sharks that the kids were telling me about, and it did not disappoint. Four adolescent whale sharks share a tank with four manta rays and a multitude of other fish. It can be hard to get a sense of scale even when you know the whale shark is the size of a bus and the manta the size of a car. I sat in in front of the large viewing window (63’ long and 26’ high) and watched these gentle giants as they circled the tank. The whale sharks made continuous circuits around the tank while the manta rays would occasionally swim somersaults, a method of filtering for food. It was hard to pull me away from that tank. I could have watched them for hours. As CT said, I wanted to “Just admire the majesticness of the whale sharks.”
The rest of the aquarium was amazing. It’s all separated into different themed galleries. We saw beluga whales, sea otters, a fascinating jellyfish exhibit, alligators, river otters, penguins, dolphins and more fish, cephalopods, reptiles and birds than you can shake a stick at. We enjoyed the Aquanauts adventure where the kids carried around interactive iPads. We also got to see the spectacular fantasy epic (someone really needs to invent a sarcasm font) that is Dolphin Tales.
Dolphin Tales stars a caped ancient mariner Star Spinner (queue the start of my constant eye rolling in this 30 min long show) who has to defeat a sea monster with the help of his dolphin friends. Oh yeah, and there’s a star map, and songs, and Star Spinner’s lighted cape. If Dennis DeYoung of Styx fame had written a dolphin show, this would be it. The kids loved it, and I did as well, to a certain extent. The dolphin behaviors were amazing, and it was the most production value I’ve seen in a dolphin show since Sea World’s Blue Horizon (which I think is a much better show). Still, it was difficult not to scoff at the cheesy Broadway-style songs and Star Spinner’s dramatic overacting.
Next, we took a day trip to Fernbank Natural History Museum. While smaller than what I’m used to here in Chicago, it was still fun. The building’s architecture was beautiful. We enjoyed the exhibits and the hands-on features they had available the walk through time in Georgia was an interesting way to present the state starting in the Dinosaur era to the present day. The kids spent ages in NatureQuest, although KJ is getting too big for most of the exhibits, and by big as in height. The kids also enjoyed the Seeing Nature exhibit and couldn’t seem to stop trying to make large bubbles. Reflection of Culture was small but informative. My favorite exhibit was Brain: The Inside Story. It was very well designed, both informative and fun. The mug I bought at the gift shop there points out the different parts of the brain.
We decided to check things out locally since we were not staying in the city but 30 miles south in Conyers. This is Vampire Diaries/The Original’s territory, so it’s become a bit of a tourist destination. Conyers’ Olde Town Main Street, established in 1853, was decked out to look like New Orleans for the show The Original, which shoots there. We also checked out the cool store The Black Cat Curio Co. It bills itself as an authentic New Orleans Voodoo shop and, indeed, has everything for your Voodoo, Wiccan, and druid needs. My daughter was excited to meet the cat she had seen in the window earlier. A couple of blocks from The Black Cat we found the Lewis Vaughn Botanical Garden. This small but beautifully maintained park had several interconnected ponds with vibrantly colored koi fish and white water lilies.
We also found on the road running parallel to Main Street, Railroad Road, a depot that doubles as a museum/welcome center. We read about the history of Conyers and how it fit in with Sherman’s March to the sea. General Sherman marched his troops past here in 1864. KJ got very emotional while reading about the history of Sherman’s march to the sea and how it affected the town. The original depot was destroyed as Sherman’s troupe made their devastating route through town. For a kid on the spectrum, KJ is extremely emotional and empathetic. She found it very hard to hide how upset she was with the stories she was reading. It did provide us with an opportunity to talk about the history of the south in that time and choice people had to make during the Civil War. As we left the depot, we noticed down the road a piece was the “Dinky,” a 1905 Rogers steam locomotive engine. Under a projective pavilion, it’s one of three left in the world. It turns out there’s lots of history in this little town.
From there we decided to check out Covington, a 20 min drive down the highway. We didn’t know until we started reading about Covington’s history that we were also continuing on Sherman’s path. Covington is famous in popular culture because of the large number of films and television shows that have been shot there like In The Heat of the Night, Duke’s of Hazard, My Cousin Vinny, Sweet Home Alabama, Selma, and it’s resident star The Vampire Diaries. We parked in the town square and headed to the Visitor’s Center. This brought us past Vampire Stalkers, a storefront that is also the start of the Vampire Diaries tours.
There were many history buildings to look at as we walked by, including the magnificent Newton County Courthouse built in 1884. I would later find out this building featured prominently in the Vampire Diaries. At the Visitor’s Center, we looked at memorabilia from productions that have filmed there and got a map to locations around town. While making a circuit of the town square we found Scoops, an ice parlor/candy shop that we instantly fell in love with. We continued around the square afterward to walk off the ice cream. We walked past the Mystic Falls restaurant on our way back to the car. We knew we definitely needed to come back for more ice cream.
The last Georgia landmark we visited before we left was Stone Mountain. Located just west of Atlanta proper, it’s what’s called a Pluton (a type of igneous extrusion or basically a huge mound created by swelling magma) made mostly of quartz monzonite. There is a gigantic bas-relief carving of famous confederate soldiers (Davis, Lee, and Jackson) along the side. We took the Summit Skyride tram up to the top where we were treated to an amazing view from the top at an elevation of 1,686 feet. There are trails you can take to get to the top too. We did the Duck Tour which took us all around the area at the base of the north side of the mountain. The duck boat then took us out onto the lake where we saw the fascinating Carillion, which contains 732 bells that can be played like an organ and often has guest players. After our tour we hung out at Crossroads, a park where the kids enjoyed climbing the Sky Hike, playing in the water in Geyser Towers, and having fun shooting balls in the Great Barn. We ended the day taking the Railroad that circled the entire mountain.
KJ and CT memories:
KJ– Fernbank was beautiful. It was small, but it was amazing. It had spiral staircases that took you from floor to floor. There were two floors, and all of them were paved with this tile that had fossils embedded in it. They gave you this little thing where you could check off each fossil. They had a brain exhibit going on that was amazing.
CT – I remember Fernbank that was a pretty fun place.
KJ – I remember the shop The Black Cat in Conyers. It had cats in it. It was a little witches shop. I also remember the train museum, the train depot that was a museum.
KJ – Covington was like TV show central. It was mostly for the vampire diaries fans; all the vampire diaries stuff was everywhere. I know there are a lot of them. There was even this one store dedicated to it. Scoops, the ice cream parlor that was also a candy store. They had really good ice cream.
After a week it was time to leave for North Carolina and Virginia Beach. We’ll be back to explore more in GA next year.