5 VERY MERRY DESTINATIONS

  Photo: Courtesy of Callaway Resort & Gardens

Photo: Courtesy of Callaway Resort & Gardens

 Over the rivers and throughout the Southeast,

to Christmastime delights we go.

FROM SIMPLE PLEASURES of the season to time-honored traditions and radiant elegance, we suggest five splendid road trips — in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee — that promise to warm your heart and put some bounce in your holiday step. We start with the spots closest to metro Atlanta and venture farther afoot from there.

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1. Christmas at Callaway Gardens | 75 minutes south of Atlanta

At CALLAWAY RESORT & GARDENS in Pine Mountain, Ga., you’ll find 2,500 pristine acres that deliver a graceful, tranquil escape with natural beauty.

 You needn’t go thirsty at Callaway. Photo: Callaway Resort & Gardens

You needn’t go thirsty at Callaway. Photo: Callaway Resort & Gardens

Callaway decorates with 8 million lights in scenes and color schemes that conjure a five-mile Christmas fairyland. Buzz down for the day or spend the night. Choose from a standard hotel room, a two-bedroom cottage or a villa (up to four bedrooms). If you do go day-tripping, let it spill into the night or you’ll miss the beauty of Fantasy in Lights, now in its 27th year. Enchantment is the aim of the game.

There are various holiday options and packages, but there’s no fee to enter Christmas Village, a heated 22,000-sq. ft. circus-like tent. Shop at dozens of booths (don’t miss Toy Land). Check out the entertainment and a life-size Nativity, try festival funnel cakes and fudge, or face-painting, ornament-making and Santa visits for the kids. The Village is open 4-9 p.m. (sometimes 10 p.m.) daily, including holidays from Nov. 16 through Jan. 5, 2019.

Just outside the tent, grown-ups can find Jacob Marley’s Christmas Spirits, which serves such alcoholic concoctions as Ebenezer’s Eggnog. No “bah, humbug” there.

To experience Fantasy in Lights directly from Christmas Village, you’ll need to pay for Callaway admission. Visitors are encouraged to bundle up and hop aboard the hour-long musical Jolly Trolley tour. You can drive your own car, but the cost per person is the same. Expect to spend $11-$35 each. Admission and Fantasy in Lights packages differ for overnight guests.

2. Christmas in Helen | 2 hours north of Atlanta

With the “lighting of the village,” the most wonderful time of the year begins Nov. 23 in Helen, Ga., on the southern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Live entertainment begins in the town center at 2 p.m. that day and the Bavarian-themed village lights up at 6 p.m.

 Photo: Alpine Helen/White County Georgia CVB

Photo: Alpine Helen/White County Georgia CVB

The year-round population of this decidedly quirky community is about 550, but Helen is billed as the third-most visited place in Georgia, following only Atlanta and Savannah, and attracting 1.5 million travelers each year.

Many thousands venture to this “small town big on excitement” for its holiday ambience. They’re lured by the appeal of strolling on cobblestone alleys and poking into gingerbread-trimmed shops like HANSEL & GRETEL CANDY KITCHEN, prized for its gourmet confections like the top-selling chocolate-caramel-pecan turtles; TIM’S WOODEN TOYS; and ZUZU’S PETALS ROCK SHOP for gems, crystals and jewelry. WILDEWOOD and LAVENDER COTTAGE & GARDEN (in Sautee Nacoochee outside Helen) offer unexpected gift items. Plenty of places also sell pretty doodads and ornaments from around the world.

 Photo: Alpine Helen/White County Georgia CVB

Photo: Alpine Helen/White County Georgia CVB

The annual Christmas parade (2 p.m. Dec. 8) includes live bands, Tennessee walking horses, Bernese mountain dogs and floats like a “sleigh” carrying Santa and Mrs. Claus. A children’s lantern parade steps off later that day. Kids can decorate paper lanterns starting at 4 p.m. and parade through Helen at 5 p.m. to the Festhalle for a bonfire and s’mores.

To see Helen’s lights, book a ride with Pegasus Horse-Drawn Carriages (arrange via text message at 706.499.1159).

Visit a traditional CHRISTKINDLMARKT the weekends of Dec. 1-2 and 8-9. Vendors try to give Southerners the sense of a European holiday market. You’ll find stalls offering handmade gifts, ornaments and edible treats from savory to sweet.

If you’re in the mood to eat, Wiener schnitzel, Bavarian apple strudel and such are plentiful here. Tried-and-true eateries include MULLER’S FAMOUS FRIED CHEESE CAFÉBODENSEE RESTAURANTHOFBRAUHAUS and HOFER’S OF HELEN (also a bakery). Details: 800.858.8027.

3. Christmas at the Biltmore | almost 4 hours north of Atlanta

For a splurge, we suggest the Biltmore in Asheville, N.C. The 250-room French Renaissance mansion was built as a country home for George Vanderbilt III (grandson of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt) in the 1890s.

The 175-sq. ft. chateau has 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and took 100 workers six years to complete, a feat accomplished just in time for Christmas 1895. The holiday hoopla here in the Blue Ridge Mountains has become so popular that CHRISTMAS AT BILTMORE begins in Nov. 3 and continues through Jan. 6.

 Photo: The Biltmore Co.

Photo: The Biltmore Co.

This year’s theme is “The Art of Christmas,” so you can bet the estate’s design team has gone all out. At BILTMORE ESTATE WINERY, some 7,000 globe-shaped ornaments drip from the ceiling. The goal is to make visitors feel like they’re inside an enormous bottle of bubbly.

The gothic “house,” showcasing the Vanderbilt family’s original art and furnishings, features more than 100 Christmas trees, including a 35-foot-tall Fraser fir. The front lawn shimmers with a 55-foot Norway spruce and 35 glistening evergreens.

The estate, a National Historic Landmark, includes gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. The INN ON BILTMORE ESTATE offers four-star lodging. The more casual VILLAGE HOTEL in Antler Hill Village is steps from shops, restaurants, the winery (free tastings), a creamery and more. The village glows 5:30 p.m.-midnight daily.

Live entertainment (choral groups, instrumental duos, etc.), perform throughout the house during day and night tours. The biggest draw is the CANDLELIGHT CHRISTMAS EVENINGS ($85-$90; $42-$45 for kids; age 9 and younger free). Reservations for specific time slots are a must.

ANTLER HILL VILLAGE hosts more entertainment on weekends as well as occasional bonfires. Sleigh bells ring on horse-drawn carriage rides ($65 per person for an hour; group rates available). Call 800.225.6398. Tours of 30 minutes in an eight-passenger “wagonette” are $35 per person. Call 800.411.3812.

Weekday holiday rates at the Biltmore start at $299, weekend nights at $449. Village Hotel stays starting at $249 and $379. Get general Biltmore information at 800.411.3812.

 4. Victorian Christmas in Thomasville | 4 hours south of Atlanta

Again and again, Thomasville residents and shopkeepers hear visitors cry, “Why haven’t I known about this place?”

Thomasville, about 30 minutes north of Tallahassee, Fla., has embraced the yuletide season like no other town its size (population: 19,000) in the state. Southern Living magazine did a 12-page spread on all things holiday in Thomasville last year.

 Photo: Thomasville Visitors Center

Photo: Thomasville Visitors Center

Know that you can bask in the holiday spirit here throughout December even though Thomasville’s 34th annual Victorian Christmas is just 6-9 p.m. Dec. 13-14.

Victorian Christmas is a throwback to Thomasville’s heyday, “when warm cheer was spread to all, and evening strolls to hear carols sung made the holiday complete,” says Bonnie Hays of the Thomasville Visitors Center. “I can’t tell you how many out-of-towners keep coming back because our Christmas town warms their hearts and souls.”

A living Nativity is staged by the First Baptist Church. Horse-drawn carriage rides pass by the town’s storied 337-year-old oak, which glows with luminaries. Musicians, storytellers, stilt walkers and Victorian fire performers travel brick-paved streets. Choral groups perform, chestnuts are roasted and marshmallows toasted. This year, festivalgoers can get a keepsake photo of themselves posing with a Victorian-era hot-air balloon.

Shopping and dining possibilities include the FUZZY GOAT, a yarn and knitting boutique; SOUTHLIFE SUPPLY CO., known nationally for its leather goods, including belts and purses; THE BOOKSHELF for books, toys and cool gifts; LIAM’S for upscale New American food; and the fun, laid-back SWEET GRASS DAIRY RESTAURANT & CHEESE SHOP for first-rate artisan cheeses, platters and craft beer. Details on all at 229.228.7977.

5. Dickens of a Christmas | 4 hours northwest of Atlanta

If you’d like to dust off great-grandpa’s top hat, you’ve got a dandy chance to show it off at the 34th annual Dickens of a Christmas in the postcard-pretty town of Franklin, Tenn., just this side of Nashville. This year’s event runs 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Dec. 8 and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Dec. 9).

 Street performers in Franklin, Tenn. Photo: Heritage Foundation of Williamson County

Street performers in Franklin, Tenn. Photo: Heritage Foundation of Williamson County

The city’s Victorian architecture is an ideal backdrop for the days when local shops were where you found holiday gifts. Wander the Main Street area, and you might bump into Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and other costumed Dickensian players. They’ll interact with you, delight the kids with treats and won’t break character.

Dozens of specialty shops step up their game for what some call the largest outdoor Christmas festival in middle Tennessee. Enticements include live music and dance performances plus pockets of entertainment here and there, artisan demonstrations, 100 vendors selling their wares and plenty of food trucks. Kids can take pony and train rides and play Victorian-era games. At day’s end, everyone is invited to the town square to sing carols.

Festgoers are encouraged to wear Victorian clothes or just accessorize in some way. Along with that top hat, you may want to pull out your ugliest Christmas sweater. There’s a contest at the First Citizens National Bank’s booth.

The Dickens fest is free, but a few attractions ask a small fee. Details at 615.591.8500.

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