By Lazelle Jones
There are 28 cities in the United States named Albany, but after immersing yourself in the confines of Albany, Georgia, you’ll likely be willing to testify that it cannot be topped. This Southern town can be enjoyed not just for one day but for a time that equals several revolutions of the Earth. It features a rich history and culture that beg to be discovered, excellent Southern fare, and hospitable home folks. It’s a bit off the beaten path “” approximately 40 miles west of Interstate 75 on U.S. 82 “” but the trip is worth it.
More often than not, local campgrounds are listed as a sidebar at the end of a destination story, but in this case, you must know first about a huge park setting that is a destination unto itself.
The Parks at Chehaw is a 100-acre bucolic wonderland laced with pine and cypress trees. It has hiking trails; lakes for fishing and some just for paddling; a wild animal park featuring exotic animals such as rhinos and cheetahs; pavilions for parties and family reunions; a BMX bicycle racetrack; and full RV hookups. The campsites are located among tall timber and are spaced at a distance from one another, so that it’s almost like primitive camping, except with full hookups. Once you arrive, you may not want to venture away from this pristine setting, and you won’t need to. Even better, the camping fees at Chehaw are very reasonable (less than $20 per night, as of January 2009), although campers do have to pay a small extra fee to visit the Wild Animal Park. And the Parks at Chehaw is but a skip and a jump from the town of Albany.
Albany is laced with historical importance. It is the birthplace of musician Ray Charles, and the city goes all out to celebrate the majesty of this man’s talents and the impact he continues to have on the world of music. An excellent place to experience this is at RiverFront Park, which contains an impressive tribute to the artist. A larger-than-life sculpture of Ray Charles seated at a grand piano revolves slowly while a selection of his music plays. Meanwhile, a fountain flows across the top of the grand piano before running down into a giant pool that surrounds the sculpture. And paving stones that resemble a large piano keyboard make up a walking/bicycle path at the edge of the Flint River, where families bring their children to play and relax.
A garden of huge multicolored turtle sculptures (called Turtle Grove Play Park) sits adjacent to the RiverWalk pathway and directly across from a plaza where excellent eateries and shops beg to be explored. Here also is the Flint RiverQuarium, a bonanza for children ages 1 to 101. Replete with a blue-hole spring and more than 100 species, the Flint RiverQuarium is a combination children’s museum, botanical garden, science museum, and natural history museum. The facility is open daily; visit www.flintriveraquarium.com or call (877) 463-5468 for details.
Albany has an exceptionally rich history in the 1960s civil rights movement. It was here that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personally came in 1961 to help organize, coordinate, and lead peaceful demonstrations. Today you can visit the Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum, located in Old Mount Zion Baptist Church where it all began, and literally trace the footsteps Dr. King and the freedom marchers took. Their footprints have been etched into the sidewalk, following the route they marched to demand equal rights for all. Inside the church, photos depict these turbulent times and the tremendous challenges black Americans faced.
Two Saturdays each month, the Albany Civil Rights Museum Freedom Singers perform music heard during these times, songs that gave those involved in the civil rights movement unity and strength to persevere. Included in the group are members of the original Freedom Singers. Their voices ring out and resonate with the kind of spiritual commitment that underpinned the success of this movement during a decade that was tumultuous and unsettling for Americans. This is a must stop for all generations; it brings into focus for many of us recollections that have been clouded by time, and for subsequent generations who do not remember the civil rights movement. For more information, visit www.albanycivilrightsinstitute.org, or call (229) 432-1698.
No visit to Albany would be complete without venturing into the old downtown section and Heritage Plaza, with its historic buildings and brick-paved street. A new feature there is old: the Union Station depot (circa 1912), which once serviced five different railroads, today houses a model train exhibit. But that is just for starters. It’s part of the Thronateeska Heritage Center at Union Station (www.heritagecenter.org) and also includes the Museum of History, the hands-on Science Discovery Center, and the Wetherbee Planetarium.
If you like to eat …
Albany and the surrounding areas are laced with unusual epicurean opportunities. Your day can begin with an experience at Chehaw called Breakfast with the Cheetahs. After your meal, the animal handlers bring out cheetahs, and you watch as the animals chase a red flag mounted on a guideline. The cats are rewarded with a morsel of food after each chase, so they speed around in hot pursuit. The magnificent animals go from zero to 70 mph in a nanosecond. It presents a real challenge for the photo enthusiast.
You also can end the day at Chehaw by having Dinner with the Rhinos. These hay-munching behemoths do not chase anything, but they are curious and don’t have very good eyesight. So, they come right up to the fence and get in your face to see who you are.
In between breakfast and dinner you’ll encounter eateries that can satisfy any dining desire. One is the Riverfront Bar-B-Q, located across the street from the Ray Charles Plaza. For the last 150 years, the spot has been occupied by a diner. In fact, a hand-painted (scribbled) 100-year-old message still dresses one wall of the restaurant, stating in no uncertain terms that all patrons must have money if they want to eat.
Although she has no restaurants in town, Paula Deen is famous around Albany because she was born and raised here. Her rags-to-riches story resonates with so many Americans. Today Paula is the star of several cooking shows on the Food Network and lives in Savannah, where she owns two restaurants. She has written cookbooks and a bestselling autobiography, yet her roots are firmly planted in Albany. Stop by the Albany Welcome Center, where you can learn where to find the house where she was born and grew up; the house where she raised her boys; and the bank where she was working as a teller the day it was robbed.
If you’re a lover of history, wildlife, food, and comfortable camping, you’ll find that Albany, Georgia, can’t be beat.
The Parks at Chehaw
105 Chehaw Park Road
Albany, GA 31701
Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau
112 N. Front St.
Albany, GA 31701