Georgia's Lake Lanier Island Resort embodies Christmas in the South

Merry Christmas from Georgia's "Hamptons" with a Southern accent: Lake Lanier Islands.

Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there's no other place quite like Lake Lanier for a special Christmas made in the South. Less than an hour's drive north of Atlanta, the all-season playground - hence the nickname of the Hamptons - is wrapped around the shores of Lake Sidney Lanier that is named for Georgia's great poet, who wrote the "Song of the Chattahoochee" that alludes to aquatic imagery such as the "willful waterweeds," "laving laurel," and the "little reeds (that) sighed Abide, abide."

The lake, with almost 700 miles of shoreline, 38,000 acres of surface area and hundreds of islands, drains from the Chattahoochee River through Buford Dam. Because it was created in the 1950s, it has become Georgia's favorite getaway.

"The water is so clean and pristine because silt from the Chattahoochee is settled by the time it gets here," says Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau. "On a clear sunny day, the water is as blue as sapphires."

But the water isn't why Lake Lanier is special during the holidays. From Nov. 20 through Dec. 30, its skies are aglow with the Magical Nights of Lights, a seven-mile driving tour that meanders past hundreds of illuminated characters like Santa Claus, angels, reindeer, elves, and everything else Christmas. The characters are created from millions of twinkling lights that bedazzle the senses in an extravaganza of color and sound.

Lights, boats, action!

The Magical Nights is one of Georgia's most beloved seasonal institutions. So much labor goes into the project that work begins in September. By Oct. 1 and through Oct. 31, the lights first form a ghoulish display for Halloween called the Haunted Nights of Lights. Then crews work daily until mid-November to transform the haunted landscape to a heavenly scene.

Although most guests drive cars or a pickup truck loaded with family and friends - this is Georgia, after all - you can also rent golf carts or walk the display of lights. Whichever mode of transportation you choose, you end the tour at Holiday Village, where you can warm up with a hot cup of cocoa and holiday treats, visit Santa's workshop, or take a pony ride in the crisp winter air.

"Santa is a really big deal at the resort and across the area," says Dickson, ticking off a number of additional activities at the lake and in nearby Gainesville.

In addition to Magical Nights of Lights, a holiday boat parade hosted by local boat dealer Marine Max illuminates the lake. There are concerts by the Gainesville Symphony Orchestra, a "Pancakes with Santa" event, and a holiday scavenger hunt in Chicopee Woods at the Elachee Nature Science Center. Workshops focusing on ornament making, pottery and other crafts are run-of-the-house at Interactive Neighborhood for Kids (INK), as well as a "Mingle with Kringle" event on the downtown square in Gainesville.

Shopping is plentiful

Loads of Christmas shopping opportunities and quirky thrift, consignment, salvage and resale shops are popping up all around Gainesville and Lake Lanier:

Everything Pretty specializes in resale of high-end decor, furniture, and art from designer show homes.

Bits of Treasure: a two-story antique mall with collectibles and vintage items including clothing.

Park Avenue Thrift: Dig for treasures for designer handbags and shoes. A friend found a couture evening gown for practically pennies on the dollar.

Dave's Goody Barn: Salvage items from "big box" stories like Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal-Mart.

Goodwill, Gateway House and Union Mission all have locations in the Lake Lanier area.

Jaemor Farm Market: Pottery, jams, jellies, baskets, ceramics and fresh seasonal produce are available at this colorful stand in Alto.

Rahab's Rope: On the square in downtown Gainesville, the store showcases jewelry, gifts, and clothing made at a shelter-center in India, with proceeds going toward giving hope, opportunity, shelter, education, and protection to Indian women and girls forced into commercial sex trade.

Take a side trip to nearby Bethlehem, Ga., to get your Christmas cards postmarked in holiday style.

Other attractions

Lake Lanier Islands Resort isn't all holiday lights and revelry. The resort has almost 300 guest rooms, suites and villas and caters to couples, families, friends and groups.

The lake is all about water, and the very cool thing is that you can rent boats of every sort - whether you need a pontoon boat (my husband refers to them as "party barges"), a houseboat for overnights on the lake, or sailboats for summer soirees.

Bring your own fishing boat or rent one in search of bass of every variety and crappie, or simply go birding and watch for ospreys, bald eagles and songbirds such as the brown thrasher, Georgia's state bird.

Championship golf is offered with 12 scenic holes on the water. Greens fees are all-inclusive and encompass complimentary food, nonalcoholic beverages and carts. Other activities are Tranquility the Spa, with wellness and spa treatments including their signature - and very Southern - Sweet Tea Sugar Scrub, an equestrian center, nearby zip-lining for those braver-than-I-am, and Chattahoochee Rapids Beach & Water Park with Georgia's largest wave pool and a warm stretch of sandy white beach.

On a recent getaway with hubby, we ate, drank and were merry at these highly recommended dining spots:

Grapes & Hops, Flowery Branch: Oh, my, oh, my. Give yourself a Christmas gift and have the fried brie and fried green beans. Just keep the statins on hand.

Tropical Breeze Restaurant, Flowery Branch: Cuban fare so authentic that it's like Havana in Georgia.

Napoli Pizza, Flowery Branch: Ditto above on authenticity, but Italian-style.

Bullfrogs, Lake Lanier Resort: Hubby declared the ribs "the best" he's ever had.

Windows Restaurant, Lake Lanier Resort: primarily specializes in Southern-style-yet-gourmet buffets.

Sunset Cove Beach Cafe, Lake Lanier Resort: completely open air and caters to everyone, especially the thousands of boaters who come to the lake every year.