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Hacktreks in the USA

Southern comforts
Barry Dunstall finds that Atlanta’s big corporations are determined to mix business with pleasure.

Forget Florida. Never mind about New York. The largest state east of the Mississippi River is Georgia, and Georgia’s capital and financial heart is Atlanta, the city that pays the rent. Are there any more famous brand names in the world than Coca-Cola and CNN? Both companies are headquartered in Atlanta. So are Delta Air Lines and UPS, to name but a few of the city’s more prosperous residents.

Once just a settlement called ‘Thrasherville’, every downtown skyscraper tells you that modern Atlanta’s business is business, home to one of the nation’s hottest job markets. But rather than allow these expanding companies to dominate the city centre and drive out tourism, Atlanta encourages its thriving international corporations to mix business with pleasure. CNN, for example, offers tours of the company’s global headquarters, taking people behind the scenes at the studios and newsrooms. In fact, the building, with a spectacular glass interior, is the most popular attraction in Atlanta, welcoming 20 million visitors a year. You even have the chance to join in a live televised debate or present a weather report. And if you can’t fit everything the CNN Center has to offer into one day – there are also plenty of shops and restaurants – you can always stay overnight at the building’s very own Omni Hotel.

In Munich you drink beer, in Tokyo sake, and in Atlanta…well, what else? Coca-Cola, never a company to miss a commercial opportunity, is also in on the tourism act. ‘The World of Coca-Cola’ showcases the past, present and future of arguably the most famous product on the planet with over 1,000 items of memorabilia (none of which, of course, reveal the 15 secret ingredients), including illustrations by Norman Rockwell. The bottling line, a kind of robotic sculpture whirling and swooping as it fills hundreds of bottles, is an extraordinary work of art. In truth, the exhibition is more a celebration of the power of marketing than the drink itself, but no less interesting for that. After all, did you know that Coke, not content with conquering planet Earth, fitted a drinks dispenser on the space shuttle Discovery? And at the end of the self-guided tour is the neon-soaked tasting bar, where you can drink as many samples as you want from the company’s global range of beverages, sold in nearly 200 countries.

Major League Baseball lovers in Atlanta head for Turner Field (named after CNN media mogul Ted Turner, of course), home of the Braves. Before the game, don’t miss the Braves Museum and Hall of Fame, with over 500 exhibits including the 1995 World Series Trophy. All-year-round tours take you everywhere including a luxury suite, the press box, clubhouse and into the dugout. Alternatively, sports fans can watch the Atlanta Thrashers play NHL ice hockey (badly) or the Atlanta Hawks play basketball at the hi-tech Philips Arena, right next door to the CNN Center. And don’t forget, every April the world’s greatest golfers compete to finish second behind Tiger Woods in the US Masters at nearby Augusta.

For people who prefer tourism to be a little less sporting, you can at least take a walk through the Centennial Olympic Park, a reminder of the Games of 1996. Right in front of the CNN Center, the fountains of the 21-acre park are buzzing by day and romantic by night.
Indeed, much of Atlanta underwent a facelift for the Olympics, but now, seven years on, that gloss has worn off slightly and the city has a far more honest, lived-in look.

A word of warning for gourmets – downtown Atlanta empties when the business community locks up and goes home for the weekend. The only place open for Sunday lunch is McDonald’s. During the week, though, visitors on the convention circuit keep the restaurateurs busy. Every other person I meet is wearing some sort of delegate badge.
With its progressive ‘big city’ attitude, Atlanta has little time to look back into history. One exception is ‘Underground Atlanta’, a subterranean shopping, dining and entertainment complex built on a six-block stretch of land once used by the railways. The mall’s 100-plus shops and 12 restaurants are surrounded by reminders of the city’s railroad history, ideal for the steam engine enthusiast who likes a good lunch with his nostalgia.
Overall though, downtown Atlanta has forsaken old for new. And I don’t hear anyone complaining.
© Barry Dunstall December 2003
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