Hilary Larson's travel tales and tips.

Dawgs And Dogwoods, And A Lot Of Culture

02/11/2013 - 19:00
Travel Writer

Bulldogs are everywhere.

They’re snarling on car-window stickers, growling from bar menus, staring out from red hoodies and popping up in plush. The red-shirted mascot of the University of Georgia is a ubiquitous sight in Athens — a classic Southern city that’s also a vibrant, quirky college town.

And on a “game” Saturday? The town’s a sea of red and black, the Bulldogs’ colors. Fans of all ages storm the bars, line up for tailgate and cheer “Go Dawgs!” at Sanford Stadium. You can pretty much have the rest of Athens to yourself.

Football aside, there’s a lot to cheer about here. Just over an hour from sprawling, congested Atlanta, Athens has a relaxed, white-pillared charm that makes it an ideal weekend getaway. It’s also a town with a lot of history: in addition to the classical name, Athens is a stop on Georgia’s Antebellum Trail, with 15 neighborhoods on the National Register, Greek Revival house museums to tour, and a Civil War-era canon in front of City Hall.

The dogwoods are just budding as a Southern spring unfolds. This month, the Classic Center — Athens’ downtown convention and event space — holds its grand re-opening after a major renovation that includes an 8,000-square foot atrium with art installations; a Feb. 27 gala fete will feature the Boston Pops.

Next month, the Athens Jewish Film Festival celebrates its fifth anniversary, magnolias burst into bloom at the State Botanical Garden, and seasonal house tours invite the public into classical mansions.

Still, it’s the more than 30,000 students at the University of Georgia who give Athens its youthful energy — as they have since 1785, when UGA (as it’s known) became the first state university chartered in America.

That energy is palpable in the historic districts just north of campus. It’s easy to feel old while strolling amid teenaged co-eds on Clayton Street, where the boutiques feature youthful styles and the coffee shops are full of laptops in mid-morning.

As warm afternoons give way to shady dusk, beer-sipping crowds flock to live music at the clubs on Washington and Broad streets. It won’t be long before you hear a reference to the two most successful acts to come out of Athens, R.E.M. and the B-52s, whose worldwide success launched the city’s reputation as a rock-and-roll incubator.

I’m more of a classical fan, so I was excited to see a lineup at the UGA Performing Arts Center that includes Brooklyn’s own Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra later this month.

Also right on campus is the state’s signature art institution, the Georgia Museum of Art. Two years ago, the museum re-opened after a renovation that tripled its exhibition space and added a sculpture garden to its holdings of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, Italian Renaissance works and Asian decorative arts.

The Museum is also where the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival will celebrate its fifth anniversary at the opening gala on March 16. Unlike its month-long cousin, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (going on right now, through late February), the Athens event is held during a single week — but it’s no less ambitious as a cultural beacon.

Opening night for “Jewish films, Universal themes” features a screening of “Hava Nagila,” last year’s celebrity-dotted documentary about the evolution of our bat-mitzvah anthem. Filmgoers enjoy a daily “nosh” of snacks donated by local eateries; a selection of movies from Europe, Israel, and the Americas reflects a community with diverse roots.

Immigrant Jewish families from Europe were an early part of the Athens mix, with Jewish retailers playing a large role in the local economy, and Jewish patrons and intellectuals in the development of UGA.

Congregation Children of Israel was founded shortly after the Civil War. Today, the Reform temple takes its role as the nexus for Jewish life in Northeast Georgia seriously. Its on-campus counterparts are the UGA Hillel, which serves up kosher Shabbat dinners and holiday events for 2,000 Jewish “Dawgs,” and a recently opened Chabad House.

While the five-day film festival is a major event on the Jewish calendar, the festival organizers have established a year-round presence, drawing on both a growing Jewish population and a cosmopolitan spirit. The Festival now holds screenings year-round at theaters around town, as well as a contest for emerging Jewish filmmakers.

So don’t let those white columns, or the statue of Athena, fool you. Athens may be historic — but it’s most definitely not a place where time stands still. 

Athens’ vibrant nightlife scene. Marcus Williams

On South Island, Fjords, Kosher Wine And The Arts

02/04/2013 - 19:00
Travel Writer

The biggest surprise about New Zealand’s South Island is that there’s so much to do there.

Milford Sound, the best known of the many sounds on New Zealand’s South Island. Julian Apse

At The Border

01/28/2013 - 19:00
Travel Writer

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about borders.

The U.S.-Canadian border at Saulte-Ste. Marie. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Unspoiled Corner Of The Balkans

01/21/2013 - 19:00
Travel Writer

In the tiny corner of the Balkans where Greece, Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia meet, ethnic identity is as fascinatingly diverse as the climate.

The historical region and population of Macedonia today sprawls across three countries — Greek claims on the name notwithstanding. It is not unusual to find ex-Yugoslavs with cousins across the mountains in Bulgaria, Bulgarians who speak a local Macedonian dialect, Muslim Slavs whose ancestors converted during Ottoman days, and Sephardic Jewish teens from Thessaloniki crossing the border for ski weekends.

Old Town in Blagoevgrad, top. Above, Bansko in summer. Hilary Larson

A Nostalgia For Jewish Culture

01/14/2013 - 19:00
Travel Writer

Two and a half hours east of Warsaw, Lublin lies in Poland’s far east, near the Ukrainian border. Step off the train in Lublin’s central station and you emerge into a palette of dark gray — from the leaden skies of Europe’s far north to the shadowy cobble-stoned streets of Old Town, with its soot-stained prewar buildings.

Lublin, whose architecture exudes Old World charm, is a bustling city that is a candidate for European Culture Capital 2016.

A Newly Trendy Paradise

01/07/2013 - 19:00
Travel Writer

Ah, the South Seas! When you hear the name Tahiti, do you think of Gauguin? Or “South Pacific”?

January getaway: An aerial view of Bora Bora, which neighbors Tahiti. Courtesy of

This City Rocks

01/01/2013 - 19:00
Travel Writer

Maybe it’s because I’m a born-and-bred East Coaster from a long line of born-and-bred East Coasters who rarely, if ever, ventured west of New Jersey.

I guess that’s why for me, the West Coast feels like the far edge of the world — a rugged frontier where the sun sets over the unimaginable vastness of the Pacific, where people wind down at night while most of the world is firmly into the next day.

Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project rock-and-roll museum with the Space Needle in the background.  Tim Thompson/Courtesy SCVB

Five Must-See Spots In ’13

12/25/2012 - 19:00
Travel Writer

More than once, taking in all the chaos of 2012, I thought about making a year-end list of destinations to avoid rather than places to go.

But optimism got the better of me. And so the theme for 2013 is renewal — seeing the familiar with fresh eyes, uncovering novelty in well-trodden regions. Here are my top picks for travel in what I hope will be a wonderful year for all:

Milford Sound in New Zealand.

Paradise With Plenty To Do

12/17/2012 - 19:00
Travel Writer

St. Thomas, the cosmopolitan hub of the Caribbean, is for New Yorkers who want to get away — but not from it all. In a region of sleepy cays and solitary beaches, St. Thomas bustles with commerce, nightlife and the Caribbean’s liveliest dining scene.

The peaceful bays and pristine beaches are there, too, for those who want them. But in this duty-free outpost of the U.S. Virgin Islands, where people drive on the left, there’s plenty to do even on a rainy day — including visits to a spectacular aquarium and one of the oldest synagogues in the Americas.

An aerial view of Charlotte Amalie, the island’s only real city. USVI Department of Tourism

A Whale Of A Trip

12/10/2012 - 19:00
Travel Writer

While my relatives were improvising with leftover turkey, I spent the recent holiday obsessed by a remote outpost of the Russian Federation: Chukotka.

Chukotka is the easternmost peninsula in Asia, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska (this is the part of Russia Sarah Palin might have seen from her window). The vast, frigid territory is larger than Texas but has only about 50,000 residents. And amazingly, those locals are trying to persuade outsiders to come visit — despite a lack of transportation, a brutal climate, and a location not too far from the North Pole.

Sledding across Chukotka, top. Above, whale bones on the tundra.
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