It’s easy to get a little stir crazy when it seems like everyone north of the equator has gathered in South Florida for the winter. Or is claustrophobic the word? Instead of accepting the fate of a metaphorical canned sardine, you could get out of Dodge. This choose-your-own-adventure itinerary is a road trip that ends in Athens, Georgia, whether you decide on the scenic route or the straight shot. The scenic route includes four options for potential stops to explore on the way to Athens while the straight shot is, well, a straight shot with a one-night stopover to give your pedal foot a rest.
How’d we choose Athens? By picking it out of a hat, wondering how it got there, putting it back to pick again, and still pulling Athens the second time around. It’s no Monte Carlo, but we went and were pleasantly surprised by the food scene, the craft beer ventures, the sports camaraderie, and the emphasis on music. The best part? You only have to cross one state line.
Get away from the coast, go inland, see some seasonal foliage, and maybe change a flat tire.
It’s time for a road trip.
The Scenic Route
The scenic route involves more highway time than the straight shot (and it’s I-95 rather than the Turnpike), but with more interesting sites on the way. You can choose to stop at one or all four of these detours. Each stop is varied enough that hitting them all wouldn’t be redundant. But, if you’ve only got the time, or the energy, for one, you won’t be disappointed no matter which one you choose. We’re not ones to throw out superlatives for nothing, but these are some of the most interesting and unique destinations on the way to Athens, in our opinion. You’ve probably heard things about each, but sometimes it takes a little digging to really see a place’s potential.
St. Augustine/ Vilano Beach, Fla.
St. Augustine is the closest stop on our list and the oldest — in the country, that is, not just on our list. Of course, the town is often mentioned in conjunction with ghosts, pirates and the Fountain of Youth, but there’s plenty to do outside of kitschy tours. If you see us sporting a newfound youthful glow, however, mind your business. Though, we’d probably get talked into some shopping and sightseeing on St. George Street, the pedestrian-only stretch of unique shops and remnants of the past like the Oldest Wooden School House and the coquina Old City Gates. Visiting the St. Augustine Lighthouse is also a great opportunity to indulge in some history. Interactive exhibits provide fun for kids, and the 219 steps to the top will be helpful in closing your rings. If we know anything about Palm Beach County residents, it’s that they love their lighthouses (we’re looking at you, Jupiter).
Where to Eat & Drink
Kookaburra Coffee has a few locations, but to no surprise we opted for their beachside location off A1A. Good coffee, Aussie pies, enough said.
Vinny’s Pizza is just over the bridge from the Airbnb, and is something quick and easy to bring back to the pad. It was a choice initially based on convenience when we tried it, but the pizza was actually solid.
The Floridian does its name justice with nods to Florida’s flora and fauna in its decor, commitment to fresh and local ingredients, and of course, lots of alligators. Their menu is full of Southern dishes with a fresh twist — more vegetables, less gravy. If you have food sensitivities or prefer a plant-based diet, this is also a good stop.
Georgie’s Diner for a blast-to-the-past experience to the ‘50s for a breakfast bite.
Valley Smoke is a top choice for Southern barbecue on your way out of town. It’s about 40 minutes north of St. Augustine in Ponte Vedra Beach.
Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
It’s easy to feel right at home in Jax Beach. It’s laid back, has consistent waves, plenty of free beach parking and tons to do. If you time it right, you’ll be able to hit a few of our favorite spots to eat and drink while sneaking in a surf sesh or two. Assuming you couldn’t squeeze a board into your luggage, hit up Sunrise Surf Shop or Aqua East for rentals.
Where to Stay
Where to Eat & Drink
Ellen’s Kitchen is a mom and pop breakfast spot only a stone’s throw from the sand. It’s been a local staple forever and even though they’ve relocated a couple of times, the vibe and food stays the same. Our top choice for breakfast is “The Hippie.”
Coop 303 is a nice stop for modern Southern cuisine in their indoor, outside or rooftop dining areas. While you wait for your table, grabbing a beer at Ragtime Tavern next door is a good call (ask for a Redfish). After wrapping up dinner at Coop, you’re a quick walk to our next recommendation for a night cap.
Pete’s Bar has been around since 1933 and while technically in Neptune Beach, it’s an institution that’s worth a visit. It recently got a pretty modern renovation with the addition of a back patio bar, but the interior still has its old charm.
Jekyll Island, Ga.
If you’re just learning that Georgia has barrier islands — there’s more than 100 — you’re not alone. Jekyll Island is located a little over an hour north of Jacksonville as part of what’s called the Golden Isles. This relaxing island destination has been well-loved through history, namely by families like the Rockefellers and Pulitzers. It was originally a private island owned by the Jekyll Island Club members and was a respite for the wealthiest of Americans. You can even still see the cottages that used to belong to the island’s influential residents. We recommend renting bikes and traveling the Historic District bike route for a peek into this affluent past. Jekyll Island is also home to the picturesque Driftwood Beach, which features some dynamic natural elements very different from our beaches at home.
Where to Stay
The Jekyll Island Club Resort is a top choice, but you can’t go wrong with the Courtyard by Marriott on the ocean. Because even in Georgia, we can’t stay away from the beach.
Where to Eat & Drink
The Wharf Restaurant is especially great if you can make it here during the winter months for a sunset dinner overlooking the water. We tested out this spot, bundled up on the patio like a couple South Florida natives would, and really enjoyed it. Start things off with a Tropicália from Creature Comforts (to get warmed up for Athens) and their fried green tomatoes topped with pimento cheese, obviously.
Doc’s Snack Shop is conveniently located on the Historic District bike path for a quick bite mid ride. “Snack” is a loose term here because the menu is diverse enough that this could be lunch if needed.
In Savannah you’ll find Spanish moss, cobblestone, a charming disposition and a convenient open container policy. Getting asked, “Would you like that to go?” at a bar isn’t something you hear every day after all. This sweet, Southern town is home to a bustling art scene, a rich history and fried chicken fever. It’s also known for its iconic squares. Originally 24, now 22, the squares are the epicenter of Savannah culture. You can wander aimlessly through them or plan your sight-seeing down to the brick. There’s something to see in almost every square. Some notable sights are the bus stop bench from “Forrest Gump’’ in Chippewa Square, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist kitty corner to Lafayette Square, and the Olde Pink House in Reynolds Square. Savannah is also known for their piano bars. They’re more high energy than you think with crowd participation and most likely a bachelorette party or two in attendance. Savannah takes the “Hostess City” moniker pretty seriously.
Where to Eat & Drink
Java Burrito is a newer addition to our list. And, though this concept might not make much sense, it combines two of our favorite things. On one side you have a cafe and bar for coffee and some solid happy hour margaritas. On the other you have a fast casual Mexican place that’s open all day. Breakfast tacos anyone?
Vic’s on the River, on the other hand, is always on the list for us. Grab a table next to a waterfront window — call to reserve — and enjoy a posh dining experience. Parking can be tricky, but as the road slopes downward, there are a couple spots on your right if you’re lucky. If you don’t see a spot, don’t turn down this section unless you want to take a long detour back to where you started.
The Olde Pink House, as mentioned previously. For iconic Savannah dishes, The Olde Pink House is a must visit. The restaurant was originally a mansion that housed one of Savannah’s notable families. They excel in classic Southern favorites with an elevated flair — think shrimp and grits rolled in coconut crusted Nori.
Abe’s on Lincoln is just a bar, sure. But it’s a bar completely covered in surprisingly good sketches of Abraham Lincoln drawn on bar napkins. We’re thinking Savannah being home to SCAD is one reason for the artistic accuracy.
For more of a cut-n-dry road trip, the fastest way to Athens is up Central Florida via the Turnpike. A good halfway stopping point is Valdosta, Ga. We recommend a homey and earthy Airbnb to spend the night. Valdosta is a small town, so there’s not too much to do but go to the local Publix, grab some Creature Comforts cans, and maybe some grub to cook at the house. But, we’re not complaining about those being the only plans. After all, this stop is less about exploring a tourist destination and more about recharging at the approximate halfway point of your journey.
Athens is the kind of town that has a little something for everybody. Whether you’re looking for a place to embrace the charming aesthetic or to discover a new music genre to make your personality, Athens will soon become a favorite road trip jaunt. It’s a family friendly environment, but also has plenty of young people circu- lating thanks to the University of Georgia calling it home. It is a college town, so if you don’t want crazy inflated hotel prices, check to make sure there’s no home game or event like Parents Weekend before planning your trip. You also get Southern hospitality, paired with the dramatic Blue Ridge Mountain Range an hour north. We recommend picking up a copy of the local rag, Flagpole, as an additional resource, but for our own humble recs, continue reading.
Five & Ten is a homage to Southern, specifically Georgian, dining with influences from French and Italian culture curated by chef and owner Hugh Acheson. Chef Acheson has been awarded accolades such as Food & Wine’s Best New Chef (2002), the Atlanta Journal Constitution Restaurant of the Year (2007), and a James Beard award for Best Chef Southeast in 2012. Five & Ten is his flagship restaurant and is sure to leave you satisfied and impressed, as is typical of Southern hospitality.
Tamez Barbecue, with Alejandro Tamez as pit master, is a must-try. Alejandro grew up in and now calls Athens home, but uses his original Houston, Texas and Latin roots to create a multi-influenced menu that features classic and make-you-double-take dishes.
Last Resort Grill — contrary to the name — is one of our top spots to grab lunch or dinner in Athens. Compared to South Florida, we couldn’t believe how reasonable the prices were considering the quality. Now surely that may have changed by now, but it’s worth a look. The dessert menu is priceless, either way.
Maepole is a more casual option. After a brief discussion on how to actually pronounce this place’s name, you’ll arrive at a healthy and fast “build your own bowl” concept. It’s a great option if you want something light before hitting the road or even something quick to bring back to the Airbnb after a long day of travel.
Mama’s Boy whips up classic breakfast and lunch diner food with a few craft twists. Be sure to order biscuits and jam à la carte for a real treat. Try them before you add any extra butter, trust us.
The Royal Peasant is another staple restaurant and bar. Maybe you guessed by the name, but it’s a British-themed establishment. They serve traditional English grub and have a wide selection of imported English beer fit to wet your whistle.
Condor Chocolates is worth a trip to satisfy your sweet tooth. They have a cafe in historic Five Points and their factory/cafe in Downtown Athens.
Jittery Joe’s Coffee is an Athens franchise that is dotted all over. You’ll probably run into at least two within minutes of crossing town lines. Head in for a cup of joe (hopefully sans the jitters) or pick up a canister of one of their many coffee varieties to enjoy at home.
1000 Faces Coffee will have you experience a cup of coffee as rich as the ethos of the shop. They work a precarious balance of relationships between growers, consumers and ecological wellness to roast, brew and pour coffee with a difference you can really taste. But, don’t just take our word for it, trust the multiple Golden Bean and Good Food Awards that 1000 Faces has received over the years.
Creature Comforts Brewing Co. is our favorite brewery, period. Outside of PBC, of course. It’s located inside of an old tire factory and consistently makes some amazing beer. Their IPAs and pale ales are always a favorite, but they also have something for the “I don’t really like beer” peeps. For those blasphemers, try the Athena Berliner Weisse with the option of adding one of their flavors to it.
Terrapin Beer Co. was started by two guys and a 25-barrel brewhouse and now they’re down 20 years of business with plenty of great brews to show for it. Check out their Wake-N-Bake brew (a collaboration with the previously mentioned Jittery Joe’s) if you’re into coffee beer.
The Georgia Theatre holds more history than meets the eye. Athens is known for stoking the kindling of a few big music acts over the years, namely R.E.M., Widespread Panic and The B-52s. Fittingly, they also have venues fit to host local and national musicians. The site of the Georgia Theatre, for example, has gone through demolitions, name changes and even a fire in 2009, but it’s also seen countless bands’ and solo artist’s performances early in their careers and has even been the setting of a couple music videos — but we won’t name drop John Mayer.
40 Watt Club is a venue that’s a little more underground — in terms of vibe, not in terms of the acts they draw.
AthFest is Athens’ annual music festival. It’s a free (take notes, SunFest), three-day celebration of Athens’ music and culture with local and big name artists. And the best part, after the concerts on all three of the festival stages wind down, a bar crawl through Athens, with more live music acts, commences.
As with most Southern college towns, football is the pièce de resistance of Athens. If you’re in town during football season, it’s almost a given that you spend a Saturday, donned in red, cheering on the bulldogs at Sanford Stadium. But, don’t get caught limiting yourself to football alone. University of Georgia is home to athletes that excel in all arenas — pun intended.
Hotel Indigo in Downtown Athens has a curated and trendy vibe. It’s an IHG hotel, so it’s definitely a safe option that feels a little less cookie cutter than other chain hotels.
The Rushmore B&B in Five Points is locally owned and also has rooms that look like they should be in a magazine. Good thing we’re mentioning them in ours. The Rushmore has a homey feeling, but with high-end hotel luxuries. Our favorite is the complimentary wine and Creature Comforts served in the Club Room in the evenings.
The Georgia Center for Continuing Education has a hotel that is the only option actually located on the UGA campus. If your trip centers around the school, this is a great option. They even offer a shuttle for guests to catch a ride to the close-by Down- town.