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Quick trips provide well-deserved respites

Did the school year creep up on you too fast? You may have missed the window for week-long vacations, but that doesn't mean you have to ditch the quick getaways. Try a mini-break to locations throughout the Southeast - there are choices to fit everyone's time frame and budget.

By now, we've heard more than enough about rising gas prices and how travel has taken an economic hit. Do not fear. Quick escapes are just around the corner at affordable destinations, such as Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain. This natural wonder to the south of us is a 13,000-acre getaway that provides an escape from the rat race.

If you stay overnight at Callaway Gardens, be sure to lodge at the luxurious Mountain Creek Inn. Guests can take advantage of the hotel's close location to the gardens, Robin Lake Beach, a state-of-the-art fitness center and scrumptious buffets.

Plan a visit in early September to catch Callaway's eighth annual Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival. Running from Sept. 1-3, the festival features family activities including tethered balloons, line dancing, a car show and helicopter rides, according to the Pine Mountain Tourism Association. Visitors love the Balloon Glow, scheduled for the first night of the festival, when balloonists turn on the burners under their inflated balloons and light up the sky with a bright display of jewel colors.

Florida offers beach getaways

The Sunshine State offers a number of weekend trip options for those of us who miss basking in the sunshine.

One of my favorite hot spots to visit is the Fort Lauderdale area. Now that Spirit Airlines has added more flights to the area, getting to south Florida is easier than ever. Top that flight off with a stay at the oceanfront Hollywood Beach Marriott and you have the perfect weekend mini-vacation.

This luxurious 229-room tower is located on one of the state's most pristine beaches. While it's well-known that Marriott hotels provide superior service, this location goes beyond spoiling its guests. With a fitness center, whirlpool spa, beachfront pool with tiki bar, efficient room service and beach water sports options, all you have to do is show up and the helpful staff pampers you.

The Hollywood Beach Marriott is the perfect place for a quick couples' retreat. The hotel offers a honeymoon package consisting of a room for two, breakfast for two and a $200 spa credit. The package also features the Marriott's Revive bed, which comes with a thick mattress, 300-thread-count sheets and a down comforter.

The harbor of hospitality

If you have more time on your hands, extend the weekend by a day or two and escape to the northeastern section of North Carolina. There, you'll find the quaint town of Elizabeth City. Elizabeth City, nicknamed the "Harbor of Hospitality," rests on the Pasquotank River.

Once a major seaport where sailing ships carried goods along the eastern seaboard, the city now offers free 48-hour dockage to travelers, who are greeted with a rose, wine and cheese by ambassadors at Mariner's Wharf. After enjoying the harbor, swing by the numerous antique shops, art galleries and specialty shops in the heart of Elizabeth City.

Good food and lodging, close to home

If a weekend trip to the coast or even north Georgia seems too daunting, try a stay at downtown Atlanta's Ritz-Carlton. The hotel is centrally located near the city's most popular attractions.

"Many of our weekend guests are Atlanta residents. We all need a little luxury from time to time, and an evening at the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta is a real delight," said Sandra Ryder, a public relations representative for the hotel.

The hotel's Reconnect Package is perfect for a weekend stay. It includes deluxe accommodations for one evening, breakfast for two and a $25 credit that can be used at the hotel's restaurant, lounge, room service, gift shops or valet parking.

Fresh oysters, fine steaks, rack of lamb and Atlantic salmon are just some of the mouth-watering offerings at the hotel's Atlanta Grill, helmed by executive chef Yves Samake. If the weather is mild, take advantage of Atlanta Grill's outdoor balcony overlooking Peachtree Street.

"Atlanta Grill is a hidden gem downtown. It has a wonderful ambiance, exceptional wines available by the glass and a great menu of grilled specialties, popular sides and lush desserts," Ryder said.

More info

•Callaway Gardens

www.callawaygardens.com

1-800-CALLAWAY

•Hollywood Beach Marriott

www.hollywoodbeachmarriott.com

1-866-306-5453

•Elizabeth City Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

www.discoverec.org

Did you know?

•Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., is 60 minutes southwest of Atlanta. It is owned by the nonprofit Ida Cason Callaway Foundation.

•The oceanfront Hollywood Beach Marriott recently received a $30 million makeover, part of a revitalization effort in Hollywood Beach that's receiving high marks from visitors and travel professionals.

•Atlanta Grill executive chef Yves Samake has also worked at Ritz-Carlton resorts in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. His most recent position was at the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

•Elizabeth City, N.C., has been named one of the "100 Best Small Towns in America" three times by author Norm Crampton.

Sources: Callaway Gardens, Elizabeth City Chamber of Commerce, Hollywood Beach Marriott,

Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta