The city spread out in the cold, blue night below was a fairyland, an exotic Babylon of light and soaring skyscrapers – an area home to just under 6 million people, the ninth biggest city in the U.S. Near the hotel was an ice-skating rink, a giant bottle of Coca-Cola atop "The New World of Coca-Cola," and the world's largest aquarium: the Georgia Aquarium, with 8.1 million gallons of water home to 500 species, totaling 100,000 fish and aquatic animals.
The city is a gourmet diner's delight, with thousands of restaurants, many noted around the world for fine cuisine. Nearby is Stone Mountain Park. The Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Falcons, fine museums and great shopping also attract many visitors, a substantial number from the Carolinas because of proximity.
When Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman unleashed his army on the city in 1865, the greater Atlanta area population was just under 10,000 people – many of whom fled Sherman's troops. Sherman then ordered the city, with the exception of churches and hospitals, burned to the ground. In a strange way, it may have helped account for the city's subsequent meteoric growth – just as radical pruning of a flowering shrub causes an explosion of growth.
The city, a major train hub that was once was named "Terminus" because of its status as an octopus-like railhead with lines radiating everywhere, grew like topsy after the Civil War.
The name became "Atlanta" long before the Civil War and soon it became a center for thriving business and Southern culture. Between 2000 and 2006, the metropolitan area grew 20.5 percent, making the fastest growing urban area in the nation.
As I looked down at the bright yellow headlights of cars snaking along the city's labyrinthine streets, I could not help but think of Manhattan. But Atlantans don't like the comparison. They say that someday people will say New York City is "the Atlanta of the North" instead of the other way around, as now. They may be right, because Atlanta has much more room to expand than New York.
In two days, I enjoyed trips to the seasonal outdoor ice-skating rink, the Georgia Aquarium, "The New World of Coca-Cola" and the Evergreen Resort at Stone Mountain. I also found – having driven over from the Carolinas – that it is best for a visitor not to drive in Atlanta during rush hours. Traffic is a sluggish nightmare because workers from the surrounding suburbs pour in and out of the city in Los Angeles-style numbers, fed by Interstate 20, Interstate 75, the "Perimeter" beltway, Interstate 285 and Interstate 85, among other routes.
"The New World of Coca-Cola" was a delightful experience. It is like a Coca-Cola museum, tracing the development of the drink from the late 1800s to the present. The formula was developed in 1885 by Joseph S. Pemberton. It was first sold as a patent medicine for 5 cents a glass. By 1935, it was a national icon and was sold all over the nation. It is now an international favorite. Yet, in its first year, Pemberton sold only nine glasses a day for the first eight months. He sold the formula – a secret blend of coca leaves, kola nuts, caffeine, orange, vanilla, sugar and a few unknown additives – and the company to Asa G. Candler for $2,500, one of the best deals in history as it turned out.
The museum is full of Coca-Cola paraphernalia, mementos, an old Coke delivery van, a movie theater and a room where all of Coca-Cola's products can be sampled. Upon leaving, each visitor gets a free small bottle of Coca-Cola. There is a Coca-Cola store at the exit, but the products aren't cheap. I was about to buy a Coca-Cola T-shirt until I saw the price tag: $28.
The aquarium was incredibly fascinating, and a person could spend hours in it. Just watching the snow-white beluga whales cavort and swoop around is mesmerizing. Then there are several whale sharks that are huge yet are not really whales, but a variety of shark that live on plankton. An aquarium guide told me that the aquarium staff makes the plankton by grinding up fish and krill. The aquarium also includes a fresh-water "river" with many North American species of fish. It flows dramatically behind glass over your head.
The water must be kept at 76 degrees by heaters and coolers. At one point, out of sight of visitors, is a series of 10 troughs that dump water at intervals to aerate the main saltwater pool, which is almost as long as a football field. And sometimes, larger species eat smaller fish despite being well fed. Aquarium staff call them "snackers."
Other fascinating species I enjoyed watching included hammerhead sharks, giant "potato" groupers – so named because splotches on their bodies look like potatoes – a tropical dragon fish that lives in kelp and appears to be a large and gangling version of a seahorse, spider crabs from the Japanese area that can grow as big as a car and numerous brilliantly colored tropical fish. The place is so fascinating that hours go by like minutes as you stroll about staring through the 2-inch glass and plastic laminate. They also have sea otters in residence.
I finished my Atlanta area visit at Stone Mountain Park and the adjacent Evergreen Conference Resort, a facility very popular as a place where corporations hold retreats. It includes a pair of 18-hole golf courses, a spa, heated pool and fine dining facilities that include and elaborate and delicious breakfast buffet.
Stone Mountain, just east of Atlanta, is the biggest extrusion of granite east of Yosemite and sculptures of Confederate heroes are carved into its face. There is a cable car to the mountain top, a replica of an 1800s village, a musical theater where I saw a good short holiday musical production and several antebellum mansions brought from other parts of Georgia and reassembled and restored in the park. The mountain is more than 1,600-feet high – high enough, the park staff said, to see South Carolina.
Other area attractions, if you have the time, include the Jimmy Carter Library, the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Atlantic Station, the city's newest major shopping area, the historic Fox Theater, dozens of golf courses, Zoo Atlanta, Six Flags Over Georgia, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, numerous art museums and several walking tours.