The Impulsive Traveler: Sassy Atlanta, stuffy no more

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images - Children and parents are dwarfed by a whale shark as it passes by inside a tank at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. The whale shark is the largest living fish species.

My insides seized up. A monstrous whale shark, the planet’s biggest fish, was just feet from my face, and it looked hungry.

I was at the Georgia Aquarium — the world’s largest, with 8 million gallons of water — and had been considering swimming with the whale sharks as part of the Journey With Gentle Giants program. But a flash of teeth changed my mind; I continued on through the aquarium from one eye-popping exhibit to the next — giant grouper! beluga whales! — unable to contain a smile.

It’s good luck to miss a flight connection in Atlanta.

The previous night, I’d been over the Atlantic Ocean on a Delta flight en route to Monrovia, Liberia, when the plane suddenly lurched downward. Moments later the pilot announced that a mechanical problem was taking us back to Hartsfield-Jackson airport. On the ground again in Atlanta, a smiling Delta agent gave us hotel vouchers and assurances that we were booked on the very next flight to Liberia.

Two days later.

I joined my fellow passengers in a collective wail of complaint but then stepped back and considered the situation from another perspective. I’d been hankering for a jaunt to the Big Peach. I’d heard the buzz that a once-stuffy Atlanta is the new sass of the South — Hotlanta, some call it — with excellent art and food scenes, among other attractions. And this delay might be an unexpected gift of 48 hours in which to find out whether all the hype was true.

So the next morning, I caught a MARTA train headed downtown. Out the window, a major metropolis sped by, complete with three distinct skylines: downtown, midtown and Buckhead, the uptown financial and commercial district. Although Gen. William Sherman burned Atlanta in 1864 (his March to the Sea left it in ruins, with practically every business and two-thirds of all homes torched), the city quickly rebuilt itself after the Civil War, and today Atlanta is the South’s largest metropolitan area, with about 6 million people.

After the Georgia Aquarium, I was off to the botanical gardens. But first I had to dodge the World of Coca-Cola. Sure, the company is headquartered in Atlanta, and, yes, some folks here call Coke the table wine of the South. But sampling 60 varieties of soda is hardly a Napa tasting tour. So I left it behind, setting off on a long stroll to the gardens.

Alas, I blundered into Georgia Tech.

I got lost on the campus somewhere between the Marcus Nanotechnology Research Center and the Ford Environmental Science and Technology building, with the company logo etched in cement at the top. (We separate church and state in America, but apparently not academia and advertising.) By the time I’d looped onto Power Plant Drive NW for the second time, I felt fully confounded and remembered an old joke: When you die, on your way to heaven you have to change planes in Atlanta. I was beginning to wonder whether the trip to Hell connected through Georgia Tech when a skinny guy with a pocket protector mercifully pointed me toward the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Now, that’s better. From the 600-foot canopy walk — the only one of its kind in the United States — I savored the scent of Yulan magnolia and the soft sheen of Japanese willow, occasionally catching views over a city with more than 300 parks, gardens and nature preserves. Atlanta’s well-known green space underwent a major expansion in 2010, and it shows.

After lunch at the Flying Biscuit Cafe — try the fried green tomatoes topped with goat cheese and cashew-jalapeno relish — I wandered into the upscale Ansley Park Historic District. Amid an eclectic assortment of Federal, Queen Anne and Tudor homes, I daydreamed about the city as it was a century ago.

Then it was time to switch things up. I hopped the MARTA out to South Atlanta, toward Turner Field, where the Braves play, feeling tempted to visit the remains of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where Hank Aaron knocked his historic 715th home run out of the park. But I was already too geared up to dine at the down-home Spondivits Seafood & Steaks.

That’s where I met Dawn.

She was sitting next to me at the bar. I ordered an Arnold Palmer (half-tea, half-lemonade) and a burger. She smiled and introduced herself as the co-owner of Outside Atlanta, a company that runs whitewater rafting trips. I said that a trip sounded fabulous, but I had only 24 hours left.

No worries, she told me, there’s plenty to do inside Atlanta. She began scribbling advice on a bar napkin.

“L5P?” I asked, attempting to decipher her shorthand.

“Little Five Points,” she replied. “It’s our answer to Haight-Ashbury.” She wrote her cell number at the bottom of the napkin.

And the napkin became the new plan.

The next morning I hit L5P for breakfast. The bohemian neighborhood was radically different from the ones I’d traversed the day before. AtSevananda Natural Foods Market on Moreland Avenue NE, two Occupy Atlanta activists discussed the viability of a future takeover of CNN, which is headquartered in Atlanta, by the 99 percent.

I ducked out of Sevananda to pay homage to Elvis at the Presley vault in the Star Community Bar, the erstwhile epicenter of the Atlanta rockabilly scene. The joint was officially closed, but the staff let me take a peek at the altar where you can kneel before the King.

Later in the day, I gave Dawn a call. She suggested something almost as intimidating to me as that whale shark.

We met at Skate Escape and rented equipment for what would be my virgin rollerblading adventure. Shaking with terror, I tried to keep up with Dawn as she blazed through Piedmont Park, around the lake and past Isamu Noguchi’s Playscape sculpture. Although I love Noguchi, I couldn’t enjoy the artwork while plummeting down a sheer precipice.

Okay, so it was a gentle hill. But my blades had a useless little eraser for a brake.

“Use the brakes!” Dawn called out behind me.

I did. But the speed was too great.

I wobbled, tripped and flew through the air, landing hard. Did I hear a rib crack? It felt like it.

A little later, as I clutched my bruised rib cage in the passenger seat of Dawn’s Chrysler, we raced across the city toward the medicine I needed: cold SweetWater beer at Six Feet Under, a pub and fish house tucked into a side street off Northside Drive NW.

We drank at the lively bar, and the pain lessened. One mug down, and my Atlanta buzz was fully on. Darned if I didn’t have a plane to catch. But my 48-hour layover had taught me one thing for certain: the hype about the Big Peach? So true.

Powers is author of the memoir “Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream.”

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