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Ever-growing, golf-rich Atlanta turns its attention to tourism

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

ATLANTA, Ga. - To say Atlanta is big doesn't do justice to the city or to the word. You have to get caught up in Atlanta's gravitational orbit to understand what a phenomenon it has become.

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If you're anywhere in north-central Georgia - a big region running roughly from Tennessee south to Macon and Alabama east to Augusta - you're in Atlanta's sphere of influence. And you never know where the next growth spurt will be, how far the city's next tendril will reach.

Growth is revered in Atlanta - this city's been through so many mottos it's like Scarlett O'Hara trying to decide what to wear. Its latest incarnation is as vacation destination. Atlanta has never really been known as a tourist draw, but now it's courting visitors like it once courted companies.

That's good news for you, the golfer. There are roughly 60 golf courses in and around the city, including some of the state's best plays. The relentless traffic makes them a tad difficult to get to sometimes, but several are well worth a bit of bumper-to-bumper frustration.

Atlanta golf: Must-plays

Not surprisingly, given the scent of money that wafts from the city, the cream of the golf crop is private. Among courses the public can enjoy, Bear's Best Golf Club in Suwanee is the tops.

A compilation of 18 of Jack Nicklaus' favorite holes from his 200-plus designs, this is top-notch golf entertainment, a big, challenging course laid out on rolling terrain through a neighborhood of huge homes (none Jack's, but all impressive).

The elevation gives the course its architectural movement and strategic opportunities (and nice, misty views of the countryside around Atlanta). You can try to be Jack from the back (just over 7,000 yards) or move up to the more manageable blues (6,447).

With forecaddies (for an extra fee), an excellent practice facility and a clubhouse good enough for the swells, you can even get a taste of the private-club experience here. Given all that, the $89-$109 green fees seem appropriate.

Winery/spa/golf resort Chateau Elan in Braselton is a bit of the French countryside in Georgia and a welcome respite from the Atlanta hustle.

There are four tracks (including a par-3 executive course), and only one, the Legends course, is private. The Chateau course, designed by Atlanta architect Denis Griffiths, is an atypically difficult resort course. The Woodlands golf course is a very picturesque track with the sort of elevation you come to expect in greater Atlanta golf courses.

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention some of Atlanta's terrific private clubs, most of which have reciprocal arrangements with other private courses. Play any of these, if you can get on:

Golf Club of Georgia

East Lake Golf Club

Atlanta Athletic Club

Hawks Ridge Golf Club

TPC Sugarloaf

Atlanta Country Club

Ansley Golf Club, Settindown Creek course

Atlanta golf: Solid seconds

You would expect a golf course located at Callaway Gardens to be beautiful, and you would be right.

The long-time tourist attraction about an hour south of Atlanta has two courses, Lake View and Mountain View. They have a lot in common scenically but could not differ more in terms of strategy. Lake View is very short and requires finesse. Mountain View is long and requires meat for breakfast.

Lake View is particularly beautiful, winding through the azaleas that the gardens were originally formed to protect. Designer Joe Lee made up for its lack of length with some tricky little greens. It's one of those old-fashioned courses that can be a blast if you like testing your iron play.

Atlanta attractions

Atlanta's big new attraction is the Georgia Aquarium, the world's largest with 8 million gallons of fresh- and saltwater and more than 100,000 animals, including Japanese spider crabs as big as Buicks. It's impressive indeed, with whale sharks circling over your head as you walk "through" one exhibit.

The city also has a good zoo featuring a large gorilla exhibit. Recently the public imagination has been captivated by the giant pandas: father Yang Yang, mother Lun Lun and baby Mei Lan.

If you want to observe people in their ostensibly natural habitat, you can tour the CNN Center and see Wolf Blitzer in action.

The Cyclorama and Civil War museum was my favorite tourist attraction as a kid, and it still tops my list lo these many years later.

Of course, Atlanta will keep sports fans busy with major-league action year round from the Braves, Hawks, Falcons and Thrashers. If you're a golfer, the PGA Tour Superstore is a must, a warehouse of everything golf.

Atlanta hotels

Atlanta has hundreds of hotels, but a stay at Chateau Elan is a treat. Located right off Interstate 85 but, as they say, a world away, it reminded me of the resort wineries I sampled in South Africa.

Centered on a Renaissance-style chateau surrounded by lush vineyards and more than 3,500 acres of grounds, Chateau Elan has more than 250 rooms, 20 suites, 14 spa suites and golf villas. The 33,000-square-foot spa has 36 treatment rooms, and the conference facilities are impressive.

But the stars of the show here - aside from the golf courses - are the eight restaurants, running the table from casual to serious foodie. Cuisines range from classic French and contemporary international to Southern regional and traditional Irish pub. All meals can be paired with premium wines from the Chateau Elan vines.

Atlanta restaurants

Atlanta is a cosmopolitan city, and its dining reflects those eclectic tastes.

Buckhead Diner promises "upscale atmosphere and retro style" with a menu that includes homemade potato chips with blue cheese, sweet-and-sour calamari and veal meatloaf with wild mushrooms.

Hailed by Zagat's as one of America's best new restaurants, City Grill offers the likes of Georgia white shrimp and tomato and goat cheese croquettes for starters and entrees like crab cakes, chicken pot pie and roasted garlic lobster ravioli with Chanterelle jus.

Woodfire Grill lives up to its name, serving wood-fire pizzas, wood-oven-roasted littleneck clams and wood-grilled artisan duck.

Seasons 52, with two locations, is a "casually sophisticated grill and wine bar" with seafood specialties like grilled boneless ruby red trout, grilled Carolina striped bass and caramelized sea scallops.

Co-founded by Ted Turner, Ted's Montana Grill summons a taste of Big Sky country with bison steaks, bison burgers and "big ol' cookies."

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.


 
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Dates: June 1, 2014 - August 28, 2014
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