Off-beat America

Your dollars are going further - and so can you. We show you how to leave the big city behind and discover the US heartland

Atlanta, Georgia - famous for... well, let's see. It was the home of Margaret Mitchell - and the backdrop for her book, Gone with the Wind - and of Martin Luther King Jr. It is the home, too, of Coca-Cola and, erm, oh yes, CNN. It's also the most popular destination for business conferences in America. Depending on what you look for in a holiday, that list, I realise, may not make Atlanta sound too thrilling. But it is an interesting place, so I'll try again. Atlanta is the capital of Georgia and like the rest of the state, indeed America, it is characterised by a mixture of extreme poverty and crushing depravation living cheek by jowl with tremendous wealth and beauty.

Atlanta, Georgia - famous for... well, let's see. It was the home of Margaret Mitchell - and the backdrop for her book, Gone with the Wind - and of Martin Luther King Jr. It is the home, too, of Coca-Cola and, erm, oh yes, CNN. It's also the most popular destination for business conferences in America. Depending on what you look for in a holiday, that list, I realise, may not make Atlanta sound too thrilling. But it is an interesting place, so I'll try again. Atlanta is the capital of Georgia and like the rest of the state, indeed America, it is characterised by a mixture of extreme poverty and crushing depravation living cheek by jowl with tremendous wealth and beauty.

I was staying in the oldest hotel in Atlanta - The Georgian Terrace Hotel, a collection of inter-connected towers rather cleverly and discreetly built on to the original 1930s hotel. In its heyday, this was the place to stay, not least because the stars and makers of the epic movie Gone with the Wind stayed here. The Fox cinema in which the film premiered is bang across the street. It is now a theatre, but remains impeccably intact - a mammoth, Art Deco, Egyptian-style auditorium complete with twinkling stars embedded in the ceiling. It's a camp delight. The hotel and the former cinema are on the adorably named Peachtree Street. It's now one of Atlanta's main streets - evidently named when it was lined with the trees and frequented, no doubt, by ladies twirling parasols and gents doffing their hats. Today, it bears scant resemblance to that style of boulevard, but that might be a bit much to expect after a civil war and a hundred years of economic change and industrialisation.

I wasn't shown to a room so much as a football pitch. My accommodation was a vast suite made up of an over-sized living room, kitchen, bedroom, two halls and a bathroom. Inside the bathroom's cavernous cupboards I discovered an ironing board (lifesize too, not one of those awful dolly's things you find in motels here), an iron and a washer-dryer big enough to wash the entire population of Atlanta's clothes in one cycle. Apparently people stay in these places for a long time and like to feel "right at home". Since I've lived in flats smaller than the inside of the washing machine, getting cosy was a bit of an effort but once I'd settled I certainly wasn't complaining about the space on offer.

My first tourist destination was the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Centre. But getting there involved the first of many slightly uncomfortable experiences. Apparently "nice" people don't use public transport in Atlanta except during working hours. I was informed of this when I stopped to ask a woman the way to the tube station. She was a perfectly ordinary person - bearing in mind that she was actually walking down the street. She'd been the first human being I'd seen in the several minutes since leaving the hotel. And this was a Saturday. She told me not to use the subway. I explained that I was a big girl and wasn't going very far but still she advised me against it. Being a stroppy leftie, naturally I wasn't having any of that. However, I can't say it didn't unnerve me a little. That was nothing compared to what happened when I arrived at the station at the other end. The female guard told me, point blank, not to walk to the Memorial Centre. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I wasn't kitted out head to foot in Gucci, swinging a Prada handbag and flashing my bling all over the shop. I told her I'd be fine and, of course, I was. It was a five-block, incident-free stroll but I was mighty nervous. I'd like to think their concern was based on my being a woman alone, but I know it wasn't.

I spent a reflective, informative few hours in The Memorial Centre. It's a beautiful, peaceful and moving place that has been brilliantly and thoughtfully designed. Dr King's personal objects are on display, films depict the struggle of African Americans, news footage shows Dr King's speeches and civil rights marches and there is much more - the museum offers a fascinating, comprehensive and enriching insight into a burning mission which has clearly not yet been completed. It was worth visiting Atlanta for that alone.

But that wasn't the only Georgian experience I had. Being a bit of a Gone with the Wind fan, I had to see some of the surrounding country where the plantation owners once enjoyed such an exclusive existence. And when you clap eyes on the endless miles of rich red soil, the plump, brilliant-green grass and the sensational Antebellum houses, oh boy can you understand why, wrong though they were, the Southerners fought so long and so hard to keep it all for themselves.

I visited Madison, the "typical" small Southern town. It is a ludicrously idyllic, chocolate-box pretty, one-horse town an hour and a half's drive from Atlanta. It couldn't give off the whiff of idealised Southern America more perfectly if it tried, and I suspect it might be doing just that. It was so old-fashioned and quiet that I even allowed myself to indulge in a few minutes "what if I moved here?" fantasy.

One can visit several old plantation houses and as soon as you enter one of the wide front doors (more than likely manned by a local woman wearing a period costume) it feels just like stepping right into Gone with the Wind. Why, you just yearn to sashay in, wafting your fan and swooning from the afternoon's heat.

According to local folklore, Madison was spared General Sherman's torch during the Civil War as he'd made a gentleman's agreement with a Confederate officer not to raze it to the ground if he captured it. The town has many, affordable places to stay in, from lavish rooms in genuine old plantation houses to homey bed and breakfasts. I stayed in The Brady Inn - a series of individual rooms with bathrooms all reached from a wrap-around veranda. Everything was comfortable, quaint and quiet.

I would definitely recommend a visit to Atlanta but would urge the visitor to hire a car. It's a sprawling city and having your own transport would make a huge difference to the variety of forays you'd be likely to make. Also, a car would allow a more detailed exploration than I could make into the surrounding areas. I should add that people in Atlanta, and not just waiters and hotel staff but strangers in the street, were unbelievably friendly and smiley - a peculiar if ultimately pleasant experience for a Londoner.

Georgia, and Atlanta in particular, is a fascinating mix of old Southern values (mostly good but not all), architecture and state-of-the-art modernity. You'll find that unlike other, more cosmopolitan, parts of America, a visit there is a wholly and exclusively American experience.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

British Airways (0870-850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Delta (0800-414 767) offer returns from Gatwick to Atlanta for around £350 in March. The Georgian Terrace, 659 Peachtree Street, Atlanta (001 404 897 1991; www.thegeorgianterrace.com) offers double rooms from around $200 (£125) per night excluding breakfast.

Brady Inn, 250 North Second Street, Madison (001 706 324 4400; www.bradyinn.com) offers doubles from around $100 (£70) excluding breakfast.

Where to find out more

Georgia Department of Tourism (01293 560 848; www.georgiaonmymind.org).

Arabella Weir, best-selling author of 'Does My Bum Look Big In This?', is working on a screenplay of her novel 'Stupid Cupid'

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