ATL beyond the airport: Get to know the ‘Beverly Hills of the South’

The rooftop pool at the Whitley Hotel offers stunning views of the Buckhead area.
The rooftop pool at the Whitley Hotel offers stunning views of the Buckhead area. The Whitley

Anyone who lives in our neck of the woods has more than a passing acquaintance with the Atlanta airport. It is our preferred gateway to everywhere from Athens, Georgia to Athens, Greece. But just how well do we know the city beyond the airport?

I’m sorry to say that even with several family members living here, I have often considered Atlanta just a stopover on the way to somewhere else. In the last couple of years, I have worked to rectify that sorry situation, making an effort to actually get to know the city.

Or maybe I should say the cities, because if I have learned anything on my recent visits, it’s that Atlanta – like Los Angeles and Dallas/Fort Worth – is actually several small cities rolled into one megalopolis. All of which can make for a great trip ... or two ... or more.

You could spend all your time concentrating on the downtown area which boasts such mega-attractions as the Centennial Olympic Park, Georgia Aquarium, CNN Center, World of Coca-Cola, the College Football Hall of Fame and the Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Then there’s Midtown, known as the city’s Arts District, with offerings ranging from the historic Fox Theater and the High Museum of Art to Piedmont Park and Peachtree Street.

Or maybe you would prefer spending your time in Westside, home to the Georgia Tech campus, repurposed industrial buildings and a growing culinary scene, or its counterpart Eastside where the Atlanta Beltline, a multi-use trail and greenspace runs for three miles showcasing both nature and art.

On my most recent trip, I chose to focus on Buckhead, an ultra-chic neighborhood just north of Midtown, often referred to as the “Beverly Hills of the South.”

If you doubt this, head to Lenox Square Mall where names such as Prada, Louis Vuitton and Gucci will put a serious dent in your credit card, or its neighbor, Phipps Plaza just across the street, which counters with Tiffany, Christian Dior and Fendi.

Right in the middle of all this luxury stands another bastion of posh splendor – the Whitley Hotel. Formerly the Ritz-Carlton, it has been re-branded as a Marriott Luxury Collection Hotel. While retaining the RC’s high standards and the rooftop saltwater pool with its panoramic view, nearly everything else about the hotel has changed.

The lobby, designed to resemble a traditional Southern front porch, and 507 spacious rooms (including 56 suites) have been renovated, boasting a more pared-down, sophisticated design element. The restaurant, Trade Route, offers its own take on traditional southern cuisine, and the spa provides a refreshing way to while away an hour or two. When I say refreshing, I mean it, with treatments such as the Mango Breeze Refresher Facial, Watermelon Cucumber Cooler Body Polish, and the intriguingly named Watermelon Basil Vodkatini Mani & Pedi.

About the latter, the spa receptionist joked, “a lot of guests aren’t sure whether they should eat it, drink it or just sit back and enjoy it.”

However, the Whitley’s secret weapon is the effervescent Robin, who is deserving of the title, America’s Best Concierge. Unfailingly friendly and helpful, she will do whatever it takes to ensure your visit lives up to expectations, from scheduling the courtesy car chauffeuring you to nearby destinations to recommending unique Buckhead experiences.

During my weekend stay, I took advantage of two of those experiences. First up was an obligatory visit to the Atlanta History Center, anchored by one of the largest history museums in the Southeast. Here, you can tour six permanent exhibits and several changing exhibitions.

Among the permanent exhibitions well worth a look are Shaping Traditions: Folk Art in a Changing South and Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta. The first contains 500 objects – from pottery to musical instruments – which have served to illustrate how southern culture has evolved over the centuries.

The second weaves together artifacts, photographs and films to create a narrative of Atlanta that is both challenging and compelling.

The museum’s major draw, however, is the Cyclorama, relocated here several years ago from its former home in Grant Park. Standing 49 feet tall, weighing five tons and longer than a football field, the 132-year-old painting vividly depicts the 1864 Battle of Atlanta – even more vividly since its recent complete restoration.

The Cyclorama, depicting the Battle of Atlanta, is one of the city’s most visited attractions and is located within the Atlanta History Center. ACVB Marketing/Melissa McAlpine

From a 15-foot tall stationary viewing platform, visitors can get a 360 degree perspective of the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War. Painted by a team of European immigrant artists, one of the South’s most iconic works of art actually was a Yankee creation, premiering in Minneapolis in 1886.

The original depicted a Union victory, which history tells us it was. However, by the time it was relocated to Atlanta in 1892, it was modified to appeal to an audience that was decidedly southern in its sympathies.

Today, the six distinct panels tell a more accurate story of the battle, although some creative license has been taken with more recent additions.

If you look closely at some of the painted figures, you will see some familiar faces – the most familiar being Clark Gable who portrayed Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind”. While in Atlanta for the movie’s 1939 premiere, Gable visited the Cyclorama and was known to have said that he loved everything about it except that he wasn’t in it.

Shortly after, the anonymous face of one of the fallen Rebel soldiers was recast to resemble Gable.

While not technically in Buckhead, the Atlanta Botanical Garden is close enough to warrant a visit. Oct. 1 - Nov. 3 the gardens will be overgrown with scarecrows by local artist.

Then it’s back to Buckhead for some good eating. If you’re looking for a great brunch spot, look no further than South City Kitchen.

South City Kitchen is a popular brunch spot in the Buckhead neighborhood. Gene Phillips ACVB &

The restaurant’s inventive take on southern favorites has resulted in dishes such as fried green tomatoes with goat cheese and red pepper coulis; shrimp and grits with tasso ham and smoked tomato poblano gravy, and fried chicken and malted buttermilk waffle with maple syrup and toasted pecans. If you’re brave (or hungry) enough, go for the King biscuit, an oversized creation with fried eggs, melted local gouda and ham topped with a scallion sausage gravy.

If you ever get around to eating again, book a table in front of the fireplace at Agency Socialtheque in Phipps Plaza. This is the place to go for craft cocktails and eclectic eats. Try the baked fresh chevre with tomato sauce and a grilled baguette or the cheese platter and pair it with a trendy libation such as Bramble On (vodka or bourbon, elderflower liqueur, crème de cassis, blueberries and lemon).

Finish off the evening with their 24-karat coffee (vodka, hazelnut and blackberry cordials, bourbon cream, espresso and a cherry dusted with 24k gold flakes) – the perfect way to toast your Buckhead experience.