LAKE LANIER ISLANDS, Ga. - Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas from Georgia's "Hamptons" with a Southern accent: Lake Lanier Islands.
There's no other place quite like Lake Lanier, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, for a special Christmas made in the South. Less than an hour's drive northeast of Atlanta, the all-season playground - hence the nickname of the Hamptons - is wrapped around the shores of Lake Sidney Lanier. The lake is named for Georgia's great poet, who wrote the Song of the Chattahoochee, with aquatic imagery such as the "willful waterweeds," "laving laurel," and the "little reeds [that] sighed Abide, abide."
The lake, with almost 700 miles of shoreline, 38,000 acres of surface area, and hundreds of islands, drains from the Chattahoochee River through Buford Dam. Since it was created in the 1950s it has become Georgia's favorite getaway.
"The water is so clean and pristine because silt from the Chattahoochee is settled by the time it gets here," says Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau. "On a clear sunny day, the water is as blue as sapphires."
But the water isn't why Lake Lanier is special during the holidays. From Nov. 20 through Dec. 30, skies are aglow with the Magical Nights of Lights, a seven-mile driving tour past hundreds of illuminated characters - Santa Claus, angels, reindeer, elves, and everything else Christmas, an extravaganza of color and sound.
The Magical Nights is one of Georgia's most beloved seasonal institutions. So much labor goes into the project that work begins in September. In October, the lights form a ghoulish display for Halloween called the Haunted Nights of Lights. Then crews work daily until mid-November to transform the haunted landscape to a heavenly scene.
While most guests drive cars or pickup trucks loaded with family and friends, you can also rent golf carts or walk the display of lights. Whichever mode of transportation you choose, you end the tour at Holiday Village, where you can warm up with a hot cup of cocoa and holiday treats, visit Santa's workshop, and ride a pony in the crisp winter air.
"Santa is a really big deal at the resort and across the area," says Dickson, ticking off a number of additional activities at the lake and in nearby Gainesville.
In addition to Magical Nights of Lights, a holiday boat parade hosted by local boat dealer Marine Max illuminates the lake. There are concerts by the Gainesville Symphony Orchestra, a "Pancakes with Santa" event, and a holiday scavenger hunt in Chicopee Woods at the Elachee Nature Science Center. There are workshops for ornament making, pottery, and other crafts at Interactive Neighborhood for Kids and at a "Mingle with Kringle" event on the downtown square in Gainesville.
There also are loads of seasonal shopping opportunities and quirky thrift, consignment, salvage, and resale shops around Gainesville and Lake Lanier:
Everything Pretty. Specializes in resale of high-end decor, furniture, and art from designer show homes.
Bits of Treasure. A two-story antiques mall with collectibles and vintage items including clothing.
Park Avenue Thrift. Dig for designer treasures - a friend found a couture evening gown for practically pennies on the dollar
Dave's Goody Barn. Salvage items from "big box" stores such as Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal-Mart.
Goodwill, Gateway House and Union Mission have locations in the Lake Lanier area.
Jaemor Farm Market. Pottery, jams, jellies, baskets, ceramics, and fresh seasonal produce are available at this colorful stand in Alto.
Rahab's Rope. On the square in downtown Gainesville, the store showcases jewelry, gifts, and clothing made at a shelter-center in India, with proceeds going toward shelter and education for Indian women and girls forced into the commercial sex trade.
Take a side trip to nearby Bethlehem to get your Christmas cards postmarked in holiday style.
Lake Lanier Islands Resort isn't all holiday lights and revelry. The resort has almost 300 guest rooms, suites, and villas and caters to couples, families, friends, and groups.
You can rent all kinds of boats, from pontoon boats (also called "party barges") and houseboats for overnights on the lake to sailboats.
Bring your own fishing boat or rent one in search of bass and crappie, or go birding to spot ospreys, bald eagles, and songbirds such as the brown thrasher, Georgia's state bird.
Championship golf is offered, with 12 scenic holes on the water. Greens fees include food, nonalcoholic beverages, and carts. Other activities are Tranquility the Spa, with wellness and spa treatments including the signature - and very Southern - Sweet Tea Sugar Scrub; an equestrian center; zip-lining; and Chattahoochee Rapids Beach & Water Park, with Georgia's largest wave pool and a warm stretch of sandy white beach.
On a recent getaway with my husband, we ate, drank, and were merry at these highly recommended dining spots:
Grapes & Hops, Flowery Branch. Give yourself a Christmas gift and have the fried brie and fried green beans.
Tropical Breeze Restaurant, Flowery Branch. Cuban fare so authentic that it's like Havana in Georgia.
Napoli Pizza, Flowery Branch. Ditto above on authenticity, except Italian–style.
Bullfrogs, Lake Lanier Resort. My husband declared the ribs the best he's ever had.
Windows Restaurant, Lake Lanier Resort. Specializes in Southern-style-yet-gourmet buffets
Sunset Cove Beach Cafe, Lake Lanier Resort. Open-air and caters to everyone, especially the thousands of boaters who come to the lake every year.
Lake Lanier Islands Resort's Magical Nights of Lights package starts at $179 a night per room. There's also a New Year's party, and spa and golf packages.
Windows Restaurant offers a special holiday buffet through Dec. 24.
Other nearby lodging options include the Hampton Inn & Suites in Flowery Branch.
Lake Lanier Islands Resort
Lake Lanier Convention
& Visitors Bureau