The azaleas and dogwoods are beginning to blossom in Georgia, their captivating color and sweeter-than-sweet fragrance signaling the Masters aren’t far behind. There’s just something about the flowers and tall, gracious pines on the world’s most iconic golf tournament that casts a magical spell on Augusta National and transforms it into more garden than golf course.
The Masters may indeed be the main event in Augusta, but long after the last prayers are uttered at Amen Corner, long after the roars of the crowd grow faint, and long after the glorious spring flowers fade, the historic city is abuzz with festivals, events and excellent restaurants.• Augusta just loves a party, so on the first Friday of every month, the town kicks up its heels for First Friday. Held on Artists Row in downtown, the free event is a gathering of artists and craft vendors coming together to sell their creations in a festive atmosphere with live music, food, and performances. Lots of boutiques and restaurants stay open late to accommodate the crowds.
• April is for more than the Masters. Augusta’s beautiful homes, many of the antebellum, mean beautiful gardens – it’s why it’s nicknamed the Garden City. The Sacred Heart Garden Festival pays homage to these large, private gardens. Tours of the gardens, horticultural lectures and exhibits, and a popular plant market draw gardeners from across the South.
• May brings Thunder Over Augusta, a festival celebrating Armed Forces Day with skydivers, extreme stunt performers, and fireworks. And also in May is A Day in the Country, which hosts big-name country music stars and draws thousands of music lovers to Augusta Riverfront Marina. Papa Joe’s Banjo-B-Que is in May, too, and features bluegrass music and a Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned cook-off.
• In June, Pride Augusta hosts a two -day festival of performances, speakers, vendors and the annual Pride Parade celebrating Augusta’s LGBT community.
• When summer temperatures rise in August, get cool and wet on the serene and historic Savannah River with Paddlefest, a fun-filled race with canoeing, kayaking, and paddle-boarding. Or better yet, get in on the action with a homemade raft of your own. After crossing the finish line, head to the Augusta Riverfront Marina for food and games.
• September brings Arts in the Heart of Augusta, a festival that celebrates Augusta’s diverse cultural heritage with ethnic foods, original art, pottery, and jewelry from more than 30 countries.
• The Westobou Festival in October takes place over five days in locations around Augusta and North Augusta, just over the state line in South Carolina. The festival, only a few years old, has grown to one of the South’s premier cultural celebrations of film, music, words, dance and visual arts.
• The Oliver Hardy Festival, also in October, honors Georgia native Oliver Hardy and his comedy partner Stan Laurel. Held in tiny Harlem, just on the outskirts of Augusta, its highlight is a don’t miss Look-A-Like contest. The Greek Festival, held at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, is in October, too, and so is the Hispanic Festival at Augusta Common, an events park in downtown. And Boshears SkyFest rounds out the month with one of Georgia’s biggest air shows.
• To end the year in December, the Christmas Light-Up Spectacular, also at Augusta Common, scores with a parade, holiday market, fireworks, and the lighting of the Christmas tree.
Eat your heart out
Like food? Just as hotdogs and pretzels are to baseball, pimento cheese and egg salad sandwiches are to the Masters. As fresh and delicious as they are, no one can live on bread alone. The fare at Augusta’s restaurants runs the gamut from simple Southern favorites like grandmother-inspired fried chicken and collard greens to special-occasion gourmet fare.
“I love the Masters,” says Emma Newsome, who, between bites of catfish-filled taco at the Rooster’s Beak, one of Augusta’s trendy downtown restaurants, says she makes the trek to the tournament every year from her home in Tennessee. “I’m from a small town, so when I come here, I’m always a little overwhelmed by the wide range of restaurants here. Who knew that Augusta had such great food?“
The Rooster’s Beak specializes in tacos filled with Southern-inspired ingredients like catfish, chicken, and pulled pork – sort of where Mexico meets the South – and is more on the casual side. For more upscale dining, think five- and seven-course dinners, an Augusta favorite is La Maison on Telfair, located in an elegant 1853 mansion in the historic district.
The Bee’s Knees takes Augusta around the world with Thai, Spanish, Cajun, Mediterranean, Japanese, and French cuisine, while Frog Hollow Tavern incorporates uniquely Georgia ingredients like Sapelo Island Clams, Georgia Wild Shrimp, and Vidalia Onions into their dishes.
The menu choices and desserts at the Boll Weevil Cafe and Sweetery are as Southern as the cafe’s name: Fried Green Tomatoes, Bubba Nachos and 7th Heaven Cake. Manuel’s Bread Cafe in North Augusta mixes up traditional French dishes with rich European-style desserts.
Sconyers Bar-B-Que is a Georgia institution since 1956 and was featured in People magazine as one of the top 10 barbecue joints in the United States. The favorite is ribs, which are often shipped to official Georgia event and once even the White House, but everything else is good, too. And try the P.I. Bar and Grill, located inside the Old South-style Partridge Inn, where the verandah overlooks the leafy Summerville historic district.