This Georgia town allows visitors to get up close and personal with the great outdoors.
I knew things would be wild and wonderful the minute I checked into The Lodge on Cypress Lake, an Airbnb right on the water outside Statesboro, Ga. We're talking right on. Our balcony overlooked the lake accented by Spanish moss-enhanced bald cypress and we watched a thunderstorm roll in creating lovely circular patterns on the water's surface. The cute accommodations naturally had a fishing theme going for décor and offered a good-sized kitchen, living area, bedroom and bath downstairs and a large room upstairs that sleeps three to four.
But I was here to explore Statesboro, one of the oldest towns in Georgia, chartered in 1803. It's only a hop, skip and a jump from Savannah and the Georgia coast and about four hours southeast of Atlanta.
In addition to eating well, we were scheduled to visit the Georgia Southern Wildlife Center for Education and Lamar Q. Ball, Jr. Raptor Center, Georgia Southern Museum with its collection of ancient fossils and dinosaur bones and experience a kayak trip through Blackwater Preserve.
After a hearty lunch at the Beaver House, where we heard some wild ghost tales (read about them here), we headed out for a tour of the Wildlife Center with Executive Director Steve Hein. Not only does Hein bring in school groups and little ones to immerse them in nature and introduce them to creatures such as owls, snakes and Madagascar roaches (the latter I passed on touching), but he's in charge of Freedom, the mascot bald eagle of Georgia Southern University. At Georgia Southern football games, Hein releases Freedom to fly around the stadium in dramatic fashion, much to the delight of fans.
It all started in 1992, when a bird flew over the stadium and people assumed because it was oversized that it was a bald eagle, Hein told us.
"We would have thought people could identify a bald eagle," he said. "It was a turkey vulture."
Hein hunts with falcons so training a real bald eagle was a natural for the naturalist. Born in Florida, Freedom had fallen from a nest. The young bald eagle had injured his beak and picked up an infection so was rushed to the Florida Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. He made a complete recovery, but his compromised beak meant he couldn't survive in the wild. Georgia Southern acquired Freedom in 2004, with permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and has been a flying mascot ever since.
"We wanted to right that wrong," Hein said of having a real bald eagle circling the stadium and not a turkey vulture.
More than a raptor trainer, Hein's goal in life is to inform and educate, he told us, but also to help visitors develop a strong relationship with nature.
"We're here to instigate or awaken something at the cellular level," he said.
And yes, Hein gave Freedom his freedom from his cage for a few snapshots with us travel journalists. He held the bird on his arm while we stood in front. For fun, he gave Freedom a jolt so he flapped his wings while my photo was being taken. As the photo attests, yes, I was surprised.
Over at the university's museum, Dr. Brent W. Tharp is equally passionate. He guides visitors through the museum that's one part dinosaurs, one part local cultural history and one part exhibit space. The items on display detail the uniqueness of Georgia's Coastal Plain, where Statesboro resides and where once a mighty ocean had its shore.
The museum also offers special events, such as the upcoming Shark Week. Every day, from July 9-15, 2023 (except for July 10 since the museum's closed on Mondays) there will be shark-related activities.
It's apropos since the museum's filled with lots of sharp teeth. There are quite a few ocean monsters to enjoy at the museum, from dinosaurs to ancient sharks, although thankfully they are long extinct and only their bones remain.
A short drive from town brought us deep into nature. Blackwater Preserve exists on an old grist mill site and pond and remnants of the mill may be viewed from the parking lot. The mill dates to possibly the early 1800s and was used as a rice huller, corn grinder and as a gin for Sea Island and Upland cotton (another unique product of the state's Coastal Plein).
Today, the pond and surrounding wetlands are still privately owned but folks may visit to kayak, fish or bird watch. Miles of water trails weave through tupelo and bald cypress trees, allowing paddlers to slip through placid waters thick with green algae floating on top. As we made our way along the "trail" marked by metal signs promoting Coke and showcasing Elvis, our paddles swirled the algae with each ply. Silence reigns here, although an occasional blue parula, woodpecker or warbler would pipe up.
And no, we saw no gators, although they likely were around. Being from South Louisiana, I'm not scared of alligators. In my experience, they're more frightened of me. But for those of you who worry about such things, we honestly saw none.
Blackwater Preserve will be in my top 10 Southern paddling experiences. Maybe it's because I agree with Hein that to truly understand nature, you must immerse yourself in the wild and take it all in. I savored the peacefulness of my journey through the algae-lined waterways, a quiet so lost in these modern times. To hear nothing but your paddle on water is a gift indeed.
All these wild adventures will make you hungry.
For some wild dining experiences, here are a few restaurants to try:
The Beaver House, 121 S. Main St., serves up some of the best fried chicken we've ever tasted. Everything is served family style — we're talking summer squash, black-eyed peas and rice, mashed potatoes and gravy, ripe tomatoes and so much more. Chase the meal down with one of their outstanding desserts — I chose the peach cobbler since, after all, it's Georgia.
Uncle Shug's Bar-B-Q Place, 434 St. Main St., is famous for its barbecue, naturally, but their fried shrimp and flounder fresh from the Atlantic only one hour away are to die for. Their sides are pretty tasty too. I recommend the tangy, perfectly cooked collard greens.
Dolan's Bar B Q, 239 S. Main St., is another spot known for its smoked meats and sauces. It's owned by sisters Lazar Brown Oglesby and Mary Beth Brown, the latter one of the few female pit masters in the biz. Specials change daily, all equally delicious. Save room for Oglesby's cheesecake or you'll be sorry.
For something more upscale, start with a fine wine selection and a charcuterie board at Vino 1910, 22 W. Main St., then walk next door to Bull & Barrel Steakhouse, 30 W. Main St., for outstanding steak selections, in addition to craft cocktails, innovative appetizers and desserts.
And if a kayak trip makes you thirsty, head over to Eagle Creek Brewing Company at 106 Savannah Ave. for craft beer and tasty bites.
For more information on Statesboro, check out the Visit Statesboro website.
Weird, Wacky & Wild South is written by Southern travel journalist Cheré Dastugue Coen, who will always say yes to a kayaking trip.