web1_web0410TravelAlbany01

One Tank Wandering: Albany, Ga.

Donna Weathers

Contributing columnist

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Ray Charles Plaza in Albany displays a life-size sculpture of the Georgia-born musician at a baby grand piano on the bank of the Flint River in downtown Albany. Park goers can sit on a black piano key and listen while his music is played throughout the park.
http://lagrangenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/web1_web0410TravelAlbany02.jpgRay Charles Plaza in Albany displays a life-size sculpture of the Georgia-born musician at a baby grand piano on the bank of the Flint River in downtown Albany. Park goers can sit on a black piano key and listen while his music is played throughout the park. Donna Weathers | Special to the Daily News
http://lagrangenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/web1_web0410TravelAlbany03.jpgContributed | Courtesy of Morgan Burnette, Chehaw Park
At Radium Springs Park in Albany, recent rains have caused the Blue Hole Spring to overflow its banks. The park sits atop a 1,532-foot underwater cave system, but no swimming or diving is allowed.
http://lagrangenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/web1_web0410TravelAlbany04.jpgAt Radium Springs Park in Albany, recent rains have caused the Blue Hole Spring to overflow its banks. The park sits atop a 1,532-foot underwater cave system, but no swimming or diving is allowed. Donna Weathers | Special to the Daily News
One of four male meerkats stands watch near the interactive play place that features a kid-size meerkat maze at Chehaw Park in Albany. The meerkat house features the area’s first ‘green’ vegetative roof.
http://lagrangenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/web1_web0410TravelAlbany05.jpgOne of four male meerkats stands watch near the interactive play place that features a kid-size meerkat maze at Chehaw Park in Albany. The meerkat house features the area’s first ‘green’ vegetative roof. Donna Weathers | Special to the Daily News
Children view a rhino at Chehaw Park in Albany. Chehaw’s wild animal park features 83 species.
http://lagrangenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/web1_web0410TravelAlbany01.jpgChildren view a rhino at Chehaw Park in Albany. Chehaw’s wild animal park features 83 species. Contributed | Courtesy of Morgan Burnette, Chehaw Park

It is often said that life is a journey, not a destination.

We’ve all done it. We’ve all been so excited to get to our vacation that we often forget that it can start as soon as we set the “out of office” reply on our email and leave the house. The minute you are experiencing something new, seeing something rare or just breaking your routine you are effectively “on vacation.”

As you plan your spring break road trips, why not consider stopping along the way and enjoying the journey?

On a recent trip home from the gulf coast, I did exactly that and stopped in Albany, Georgia, which has quite a bit to offer for a day trip, a budget-friendly overnight or as a stop on the way to somewhere else. So cue up the Ray Charles and Phillip Phillips play list and pack some Paula Deen Southern Fried Chicken in the picnic basket, and let’s explore Albany!

Background

Originally home to Creek Indians who called the area Thronateeska, the city of Albany was founded in 1836 with hopes that river trade would bring prosperity to the area much like its New York namesake.

When low water levels and sandbars foiled those plans the railroad became a key resource for the area and was key to the city’s development during the war years. Despite a history of economic and racial strife and recent natural disasters, Albany has enjoyed a resurgence of diversity and prosperity over the past ten years and lives up to its role as the Urban Center of Southwest Georgia.

Riverfront Park

Spread over six acres in downtown Albany along the banks of the Flint River, Riverfront Park offers a splash fountain, picnic lawn, playground and easy access to the Albany Welcome Center where you can rent bicycles for a ride on the 3-mile greenway along the river. Just a few steps from the welcome center is Ray Charles Plaza, a fun musical memorial to one of Albany’s favorites.

Flint RiverQuarium

Within easy walking distance from the welcome center is an opportunity to descend into a Blue Hole Spring and view over 120 native river creatures without getting wet!

Founded in the aftermath of the 1994 flood, the Flint RiverQuarium Environmental Education Center allows visitors a close up look at river ecosystems and the impact of humans on our natural habitats. The facility is staffed by biology and conservation professionals and has implemented many of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) standards and has goals for full AZA accreditation, according to facility director Richard Brown.

Families with children would probably enjoy a visit lasting an hour or two, maybe a bit longer if there is a tank dive or theater show to enjoy. Limited concessions are available, but the river front offers plenty of space for a quiet picnic.

Visit the website for operating hours and more information www.flintriverquarium.com.

Chehaw Park

Originally a 586-acre state park established in 1937, the current nature park spreads over 800 acres and includes a nationally accredited BMX bike track, a children’s play park and an AZA accredited wild animal park.

The park was founded on and operates under the guiding principles of conservation, education and preservation, which means Chehaw Wild Animal Park is not your typical zoo. Animal habitats are left as natural as possible so it may be difficult to see the wolves and alligators, but among approximately 250 animals are cheetahs, black bears and rhinoceros which are often easier to spot.

Planning your visit for the weekend, when you can watch feedings and enjoy the African Veldt Ride will give you the most value for your admission, but my midday visit on a Tuesday was well rewarded. The park’s infrastructure and facilities do show signs of wear, but according to Morgan Burnette, the park’s director of community engagement, improvements are planned as funding allows.

At present, the nonprofit’s limited resources are directed toward the care of the 83 species. Ticket prices remain low, enticing visitors to embrace and support the park’s mission.

With only 100 acres, the wild animal park will not likely fill an entire day, but would make for a nice outing when combined with a picnic or a ride on the bike trails. Be sure to check the park’s website www.chehaw.org for operating hours and admission prices.

Radium Springs

Descending the stairs amid an eerie quiet and surrounded by moss-covered bald cypress trees takes you into a bygone era where you can easily imagine people swimming and soaking in the constant 68-degree blue hole spring.

The stone wall and steps along the edges of the pool and the gardens that outline the footprint of the courtyard are all that are left of the old health spa. Now a botanical garden and park, Radium Springs is also one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia.

Flooding in the mid-90s brought an end to the swimming and in 2003 the historic buildings, ruined by flood and fire, were torn down. Recent rains have again flooded the natural swampy area, causing the water to take on a muddy appearance, but the walkways and gardens are still passable and quite enjoyable. A great spot for birders or photographers to linger, but those with wandering children may find it risky, as there are several places where the water creeps onto the walkways.

Currently owned and operated by local and state authorities, the park is located on Radium Springs Road approximately 4 miles south of the Albany Welcome Center. Open free to the public Tuesday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

For a video tour of Radium Springs Park and the other Georgia Natural Wonders, search You Tube for (or click here:)Georgia Traveler Episode111: Seven Natural Wonders.”

Even more

Albany is also home to several history and art museums, and the old 1912 train depot is now home to Thronateeska Heritage Center and Wetherbee Planetarium.

If you visit during the week, locals will recommend a lunch stop at The Cookie Shoppe for a classic pimento cheese sandwich or some tasty homemade cookies. Don’t be in a rush though, as service was a bit slow, but the cookie was well worth it!

The Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau has a very informative website at www.visitalbanyga.com and a very helpful staff at 112 N. Front St.

A note about the inclusion of the animal park and aquarium: My personal values and ethics caused me to hesitate recommending these attractions, but after extensive research and discussions with officials at both locations I feel more at ease that both of these places have adequately balanced the welfare of the animals with the education and conservation efforts they promote.

Neither of these are for-profit businesses and both offer educational experiences that will serve to broaden the public’s view of our natural world and the impact humans have on the environment.

Donna Weathers, a native of LaGrange, is retired from the U.S. Navy and enjoys traveling, volunteering and cooking. She is a freelance travel writer and blogs at www.wheretonow.me.