Atlanta, Georgia - Finding an activity that an adolescent boy would deign to do with his mother is a bit of a challenge. I found one: Horseback riding.
Mine is the rare boy who likes horses. But, if I can gender-stereotype further, given that boys tend to like speed more than relationship building with an animal, the next challenge is finding a place that allows you to just get on a horse and canter around.
I found the solution there, too: Southern Cross Guest Ranch in the little town of Madison, Ga. After the short flight from D.C. to Atlanta one Friday morning in April, and an hour's drive to Madison, I arrived with my son at the breeding farm's massive stable just in time for the afternoon ride. Also along was an equally horse-obsessed friend of mine.
We were hurriedly assigned horses (Wendy, Cheyenne, Clue) by the brusque stable manager who issued rote instructions: “Grab a lead rope, go down to the paddock, fetch your horse, tie him up and brush him.” No wonder she was a tad cranky: She was already managing more than 20 riders when three more had just shown up late and unexpected. And it was 85 degrees and humid.
With the help of a bevy of friendly stable hands (long-haired, lithe girls and beefy, tattooed guys), we tacked up and made our way down to a gathering spot alongside paddocks where week-old foals cavorted around their mothers. A nearby pond was dotted with turtles and domestic ducks.
As much as I love riding, I have little enthusiasm for walk-only, nose-to-tail, large group rides. But I was pleasantly surprised: We were broken up into groups of six or so and sent off in different directions. Our group's wrangler led us past the peaceful pond, across the lush field and into the cool woods. Miles of red-soil trails crisscrossed the woods and thankfully, group trots, canters and creek walking were all authorised activities.
The ride's highlight was “Canter Hill,” a quarter-mile stretch where we could - you guessed it - canter: the holy grail of any ride, as far as I'm concerned. As we approached the base of the hill, the horses, obliging their riders but with little cue from them, broke into a canter and carried us, giddy, up the trail. Like all of our horses, Wendy, my brown-and-white pinto, proved to be a perfect mount - fast yet reliable and cooperative, and never unruly. Back at the stable, Wendy and I had more bonding time when I washed and squeegeed her down, and accompanied her back to her paddock.
Thoroughly contented, we moved on to find our quarters. Beyond the stable, a long driveway curved past dozens of grazing horses up to the ranch house set amid the pastures. The house was a somewhat disorienting melange of Southern plantation architecture - colonnaded entrance, circular drive, sunny verandas and ceiling fans - with Western dude-ranch decor - beamed ceilings; leather couches; wall adornments of cowhide rugs, bull skulls and horns; and idealised paintings of rugged cowboys and Indians on horses with flying manes, of course. Rooms were named after Indian tribes from across the country.
My boy lucked out with a room to himself. My friend and I shared the Navajo Room, which featured a tiny balcony overlooking the vast pastures and woods beyond an incongruous cluster of palms and cactuses - flora as oddly melded as the guesthouse features. Between activities, we lazed on our balcony and watched the herd graze and, for reasons beyond our ken, spontaneously gallop around the guesthouse. For evening entertainment, we could even go into the fields and commune more intimately with the equines.
Scheduled rides and meals created a camplike atmosphere. Even before the meal bell rang (promptly at 8am, 1 pm and 6pm), guests lined up at the buffet. With a German chef and owner, the food, like the ranch, reflected multicultural influences: Any given meal included a plethora of delectable choices - including barbecued ribs, schnitzel, ice cream and German chocolate cake - served up by solicitous staff. The offerings delighted both my steak-loving son and pescatarian friend.
Despite the heat, we opted for deck seating rather than the dining room, which, accommodating 40ish multinational guests, some with children, could get a tad loud. Besides, inside the dining room, you could only see the horses, while on the deck you could hear them as well. (To my mind, nothing beats the sound of whinnying and the soft rhythmic thunder of horse hoofs.) Requisite barn animals - an orange tabby and a scruffy mutt - also wandered by, angling for scraps and attention.
The next day, after a “light” breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes and biscuits, we put on our riding gear and biked the short distance over to the stable. (Mountain bikes were provided.) Having established our riding bona fides the day before - presumably by staying on our horses during the ride - we were permitted to take out horses on our own. Really, what could be more liberating and fun than exploring acres of woods on horseback and finding your way back to Canter Hill?
After lunch, we decided it was too hot for another ride and forwent it - and the ranch's pool - and headed into Madison. Ten minutes from this out-of-place bit of the West is the exemplar of the Old South, a town spared from Sherman's rampage because of a pro-Union senator's powers of persuasion. In Madison, architectural eye candy abounds: a Beaux-Arts courthouse, boxwood gardens, and Victorian and neoclassical churches and houses. If the ranch spans geographic boundaries, Madison spans temporal ones. A large Confederate flag flying over the soldiers' cemetery confirms the sense: You really are in the heart of antebellum Dixie.
A weekend at Southern Cross gets you to the South for a taste of the West - and it's a perfect solution to the mother-son travel conundrum. But really, it's the answer to what many travelers seek: nature, beauty, relaxation, good food, cultural immersion and hang time with all sorts of special creatures - from horses to teenage boys.
If you go...
Southern Cross Guest Ranch
1670 Bethany Church Rd., Madison, Ga.
Prices range from $120 to $235 (about R1 600 to R3 000) per person, depending on season and meals; all-inclusive or B&B options are available. In addition to riding, activities include swimming, hiking, mountain biking and pasture visiting.