5 Reasons to Ride the Santa Train in Blue Ridge


Santa Claus gives his undivided attention to each child on the Express Train round trip out of Blue Ridge.

Santa or his helpers show up a lot of places every December, but I had never met one with a big entourage until riding the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.

Train buffs might delight in the century-old depot or in knowing the tracks were first laid in this northwest Georgia town in 1886.

The rest of us can immerse in the magic of Christmas because this railroad crew believes too.


Look-alike Elf on the Shelf elves stroll the train cars, readily posing for photos.

“We wait all year for the Santa Train,” says cheerful conductor Ray Leader. “The other trains all year are delightful, but it’s the Santa Express and Night Train we love best.”

Mrs. Claus told me the same thing; Santa himself was too busy eyeball-to-eyeball with the little kids to entertain a question.

This Santa’s totally focused

Santa gave his undivided attention to each child on my train car, one at a time. He didn’t lump brothers and sisters together as a group to move on quickly. He also gives each one a jingle bell on a ribbon, keepsakes perhaps to hang on your own tree.

Babies in arms? Santa seemed skilled at cooing and comforting while brand-new parents barely focused photos because they were grinning so broadly.

Teamwork from this North Pole entourage

Elves dressed like Christmas trees or gingerbread men strolled about, chatting with children and the adults they brought with them.

Then they positioned themselves in that alluring open-air space where train cars are coupled, building readiness for the arrival of another character.

Skillful timing: just enough downtime to look out the windows at Toccoa River scenery, winding through the Blue Ridge Mountains.


Children giggle with Rudolph on the Santa Train, but save their belief for Santa.

Rudolph doesn’t fool the kids—easy to see he’s a man with a costume but I got the feeling seeing him as pretend reinforced their faith in Santa.

Stories, songs and colors

“Twas the Night Before Christmas” became reason enough for children to gather in the center of the car with for a reading of the fabled poem.

A gift of individual crayons and coloring books, including traditional Christmas songs, lured many children to artwork, only to look up when the next visitors arrived—boy and girl elves that look like the Elf on the Shelf in many households.

That caused a ripple of recognition in the children around me, and requests for photos.

Keeping up with Santa

The young-boy elf sticking close to Santa’s elbow presented a candy cane to each child and Mrs. Santa guided little ones toward photo-friendly positions and comfortably chatted with adults awaiting their child’s turn.

Faith and hope like the Christmas message resonate with her, she said, after a 33-year career in juvenile justice.


Learning about train travel peering through the back window of car #549.

Experiencing the train

If you can possibly veer from the magic of Christmas, ride intentionally to show the kids what train travel was like for other generations, and how people get around on other continents.

Don’t just sit in your double-facing wide seats—look out the big windows at the passing countryside and cross into another train car. Some are climate-controlled, all enclosed, and some are open-air.

More about the train



1:00 pm and 3:00 pm rides through Christmas Eve

Train schedules every month except January and February.

Other special themes include Easter Eggspress, Firecracker Special, Pumpkin Pickin’ and New Year’s Eve.

Photo Credit: Jodi Broadaway Dunn

Christine 12. 2007 4Christine Tibbetts claimed Georgia as her home state in 1972.  She covers Georgia destinations, and the world, always offering prompts for exceptional experiences and opportunities to muse. Tibbetts earned a Bachelor of Journalism from the prestigious School of Journalism at the University of Missouri and is the recipient of numerous gold, silver and merit awards from North American Travel Journalists Association writing competitions. Follow her at www.TibbettsTravel.com.

9 Holiday Traditions Outside Atlanta

From train rides to light displays, Georgia is full of holiday traditions!

Photo Credit: SAM Shortline

Photo Credit: SAM Shortline

December 19th & 20th: Climb on board the SAM Shortline for a holiday train ride through southwest Georgia! SAM Shortline offers three holiday-themed excursions – The North Pole Express, Breakfast with Santa Train and Supper with Santa Train.

Through December 23rd: Celebrate a true antebellum Christmas at the Old Governor’s Mansion in Milledgeville! Witness the mansion transform into a scene from the 1800s on a guided tour, offered Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is $10.

December 27th & 28th: Get rid of your old tree at North Georgia Zoo and Farm’s Tree Toss! All those who donate a tree will receive $1 off their admission and the opportunity to see how animals react to recycled trees. 

Photo Credit: Chehaw

Photo Credit: Chehaw

Through December 28th: Drive or take a magical ride on the Wiregrass Express through the Festival of Lights at Chehaw in Albany. Admission is $15 per vehicle

Through December 28th: Light up the night & help feed the hungry at TMT Farms’ spectacular holiday light display. Admission is free but donations of non-perishable food items are encouraged. The food will be distributed to needy families throughout the region.

Through December 30th: Snuggle up on a memorable train ride through the Okefenokee Swamp Park Annual Light Show. The trains travel along a 1.25-mile rail, where thousands of lights and numerous outdoor displays can be viewed. There is even a miniature train just for little ones!

Photo Credit: Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

Photo Credit: Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

Through December 31st: Take a train ride with Santa on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway!  The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway offers two holiday train rides including the Santa Express and a Night Train ride to Santa’s Pavillion.

Photo Credit: Cornelia Main Street

Photo Credit: Cornelia Main Street

Through January 1, 2015: Ice skate, go on a hayride, roast marshmallows, meet Santa Claus and explore the Elf Workshop at the famous Cornelia Christmas Light Spectacular.

Through January 25, 2015: Hit the ice at The Ritz-Carlton, Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro! The 6,000-square-foot Ice Rink is open to the public for $20 for children and $30 for adults.

1470250_10201404779337586_897188189_nLauren Cleland is the voice of Explore Georgia on social media. She loves ice cold sweet tea, anything peach flavored, channeling Scarlett O’Hara in her daily life and sharing the wonders of her beloved Georgia with all of you!

Eat, Shop & Play in Buckhead

King & Duke

King & Duke

Less than 10 miles north of downtown sits Atlanta’s chic Buckhead neighborhood – the “Beverly Hills of the South.” Buckhead offers several high-end retail shopping destinations, all within a two-mile radius. Extravagance doesn’t end in Buckhead’s shops, but continues onto the table as the neighborhood is home to many award-winning restaurants. Use the one-day guide below to navigate and explore Atlanta’s ultra-lux locale.

Eat: Start the day at Corner Café and Buckhead Bread Company, named Best Brunch Restaurant in America by OpenTable. Slide into a corner booth framed by floor-to-ceiling windows and soak up the buzz of Buckhead’s morning crowd. Try the signature white chocolate French toast or the sliced smoked salmon platter. For lunch feast on a classic Southern lunch staple, the heirloom tomato sandwich, at Seven Lamps. For a lighter option, try the stone fruit salad made with figs, salsa verde, goat cheese, avocado and curried hazelnuts. Cap off your day with supper at King + Duke, named after Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Enter under a built-in bookcase filled with literary classics. Order the cornmeal dusted Georgia trout, served with gribiche, caper relish and sungold tomatoes and watch it cook before your eyes on a 24-foot open hearth. Save room for a slice of stout spice cake served with local apples, butter and ginger.

Lenox Mall. Photo Credit: Ben Rose Photography

Lenox Mall. Photo Credit: Ben Rose Photography

Shop: Head over to where the locals shop, Lenox Square, and browse more than 250 stores. Shop designer household items at Neiman Marcus or stock up on vacation garb at Club Monaco. Just across Peachtree Street, enter Phipps Plaza, home to more than 100 high-luxury retailers. Treat yourself to sparkly trinkets at Tiffany & Co. or new arm candy with a Versace handbag. Drive south on Peachtree Street to the newly-opened Buckhead Atlanta shopping district for even more high-end retail options such as Christian Louboutin and Hermes.

Play: If you shopped til’ you dropped, opt to travel back in time at the Atlanta History Center. Wander through the center’s award-winning exhibitions and visit how the affluent Inman family lived with a tour of the Swan House (which also doubled as President Snow’s house in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). Laugh with the locals at Atlanta Improv Comedy Club, voted Best Comedy Club in Atlanta by Jezebel Magazine. After, ascend to the rooftop of the W Atlanta-Buckhead and soak in the sights and lights of the city with a nightcap at swanky Whiskey Blue.

For additional ideas on things to do in Buckhead, visit Atlanta.net or ExploreGeorgia.org.

april-14Katie Collins is a recent graduate of Kennesaw State University with a degree in Communication. She has interned at the Atlanta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and has a love for all things Southern. Find her on Twitter at @kbettycollins.

Top 10 Georgia Conservancy Trips for 2015


Since 1967, the Georgia Conservancy has been guiding trips across the state that showcase Georgia’s imperiled natural resources and provide the public with the opportunity to advocate for their protection. We use our network of partners and peers to provide access to barrier islands, river systems and nature preserves normally inaccessible or off-limits to the public.

From Cloudland Canyon to Cumberland Island – we hike, paddle and conserve this state!

What started out as a half-dozen trips per year for a handful of Conservancy members has grown into a program that can serve hundreds of people each weekend, many from communities of color that have historically not been included in outdoor recreation opportunities.

Our expanded 2015 offering of service weekends, adventure trips and Heartland Rivers of Georgia paddles, will touch every corner of the state and provide outdoor enthusiasts, from novice to seasoned, a unique introduction to Georgia’s incredible natural resources.

Our hand-selected Top 10 Trips of 2015 are open for registration! The rest of our Stewardship Trips will roll out in seasonal releases across 2015. Fear of missing out on a great time? Become a Georgia Conservancy supporter to receive notification of trip releases and Conservancy updates!

Thank you to REI for their leadership and support of the Georgia Conservancy’s Stewardship Trips Program!


2015 Georgia Conservancy Stewardship Trips

Date Top 10 Trips of 2015 and CI Service – Open For Registration Trip Type
Jan. 16 – 18 Cumberland Island Service Weekend Service Trip
Jan. 30 – Feb. 1 Cabretta Beach / Blackbeard Island Adventure GA Bucket List Trip
Feb. 21 Satilla River Day Paddle Heartland Rivers Paddle
Mar. 20 – 22 Altamaha River to Sea Paddle Heartland Rivers Paddle
May 15 – 17 Augusta Canal Paddle Heartland Rivers Paddle
Jun. 5 – 7 Conasauga Snorkel and Mulberry Gap Adventure GA Bucket List Trip
Jun. 26 – 28 Flint River Paddle at Rocky Bend Reserve Heartland Rivers Paddle
Jul. 10 – 12 Len Foote Hike Inn Service Weekend Service Trip
Aug. 8 The Grand Columbus Whitewater Paddle GA Bucket List Trip
Sept. 12 – 13 Flint River Family Adventure Heartland Rivers Paddle
Nov. 6 – 8 Ocmulgee Water Trails Paddle Heartland Rivers Paddle
Date Winter Release – January 21 Trip Type
Mar. 14 – 15 Flint River Deluxe Paddle at Montezuma Bluff Heartland Rivers Paddle
Apr. 10 Ochlockonee River Paddle at Sweet Grass Dairy Heartland Rivers Paddle
Apr. 24 – 26 Three Rivers Paddle and Broxton Rocks Tour Heartland Rivers Paddle
May 8-10 Ogeechee River Paddle and Ossabaw Island Tour Heartland Rivers Paddle
Date Summer Release – May 20 Trip Type
Jul. 25 Chattahoochee River Paddle at Riverview Landing Heartland Rivers Paddle
Aug. 14-16 Cloudland Canyon Adventure Weekend GA Bucket List Trip
Sept. 18-20 Ossabaw Island Service Weekend Service Weekend
Oct. 3 Yellow River Day Paddle Heartland Rivers Paddle
Date Fall Release  - July 22 Trip Type
Oct. 9 – 11 Sapelo Island Service Weekend Service Weekend
Oct. 24 Chattahoochee Hills Paddle Heartland Rivers Paddle
Nov. 13 – 15 Okefenokee Adventure GA Bucket List Trip
Dec. 4 – 6 Sea Camp Cumberland Island Adventure GA Bucket List Trip



5 Holiday Date Nights in Georgia

Heat things up in the cold winter months with these romantic holiday dates.

Photo Credit: Richard Puscas

Photo Credit: Richard Puscas

Roast s’mores over an open fire, walk through dazzling holiday light displays, take in a holiday show and ride your favorite roller coasters, including Goliath and Dare Devil Dive, during Holiday in the Park at Six Flags Over Georgia – going on now through January 4th! Pro Tip: Knock out the coasters while the sun is shining and spend the rest of the evening strolling through the light displays while sipping hot chocolate.

Photo Credit: Atlanta Ballet

Photo Credit: Atlanta Ballet

The Nutcracker at The Fox Theatre is the perfect excuse for you and your significant other to dress in your holiday finery for an unforgettable night of theater! Performed live with the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra, Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker will transport you to a world of sugarplum fairies, dancing rats and and sparkling snowflakes. Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker runs through December 28th at The Fox Theatre. Pro Tip: Reserve your seat in the Orchestra section for a snowy surprise.

Photo Credit: Ritz Carlton

Photo Credit: Ritz Carlton

Spend the night (or the weekend) at The Ritz-Carlton, Reynolds Plantation. From a 6,000-square-foot Ice Rink to holiday-inspired spa treatments, your time at The Ritz-Carlton, Reynolds Plantation will be filled with memorable moments. Pro Tip: Always check for overnight package deals.

Photo Credit: Rock City

Photo Credit: Rock City

Stroll hand-in-hand through more than 30 holiday scenes at Rock City’s Enchanted Garden of Lights. Pro Tip: The last ticket is sold at 9 p.m. each night so be sure to arrive near 6 p.m. for maximum enjoyment.


Photo Credit: Lake Lanier Islands

Photo Credit: Lake Lanier Islands

Rush down one of 5 thrilling speed slides, race your date down 13 snow tubing lanes and carve your names in the snow at Lake Lanier Island’s SnowWorld! Pro Tip: Warm up at Sunset Cove which is now enclosed and features a delicious new assortment of dishes.

1470250_10201404779337586_897188189_nLauren Cleland is the voice of Explore Georgia on social media. She loves ice cold sweet tea, anything peach flavored, channeling Scarlett O’Hara in her daily life and sharing the wonders of her beloved Georgia with all of you!