Author Archives: Kristy Johnson

Thai Coconut Shrimp Soup

  • 2 tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil
  • 6 baby bok choy, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 5 ounces white button mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons ginger, minced or grated
  • 2 tablespoons red curry paste
  • 4 cups chicken or fish stock
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 1 (14-ounce) can regular coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 pound large shrimp, deveined and peeled
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1/4 cup green onions, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
  • 2 big handfuls bean sprouts

Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add bok choy and red bell pepper; sauté about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms; sauté another 3 minutes. Add garlic and ginger; sauté just until fragrant. Stir in red curry paste. Stir in chicken stock, soy sauce, fish sauce, coconut milk, brown sugar and black pepper; bring to a simmer. Add shrimp and cook just until they turn pink, about 3-4 minutes (do not overcook or they will be rubbery). Remove from heat and stir in lime juice, green onions, basil and bean sprouts. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.

In the Mix


Photography by Jordin Althaus/Peacock

A Columbia County couple showcases their talents on a reality TV baking show competition.

Grovetown resident Sharon Hutko loves being in the kitchen – and she can take the heat. In her spare time (she also works fulltime in human resources at SRP Federal Credit Union), she has a catering business and owns the local Jimmy John’s restaurants with her husband, Mike.

It’s her specialty cakes, however, that really attract attention from near and far.

During Masters Week last year, a casting producer for “Baking It,” a reality TV competition that launched in December and is streaming on Peacock TV, reached out to Sharon after seeing her cakes on her Instagram page, @sharonhutkocakes. The producer invited her to audition for the show, and Sharon was all in.

The six-episode series features eight teams of two bakers that vie to win a $50,000 cash prize and the title of “Best in Dough.” As part of the application process, Sharon and a partner submitted photos and videos. They met individually with the show’s creator and producers on Zoom. They also had to complete and document baking challenges that were sent to them.

At the last minute, however, Sharon’s baking partner had to withdraw because of covid protocols. So she turned to her life partner to join her.

“Mike came on board five days before we left. He had to go through a background check. We didn’t know he would be allowed to go until the night before we flew out,” says Sharon. “It was a whirlwind for him.”

They filmed the show, a spinoff of the crafting competition “Making It,” in Los Angeles for two weeks in August. While Sharon ended up with an unexpected partner, all of the contestants got a surprise when they met the hosts of the show for the first time. In fact, they had no idea who they were going to be until the hosts – Maya Rudolph and Andy Samberg – walked onto the set.

“It was so exciting,” Sharon says. “I have been a fan of both of them since their Saturday Night Live days.”

Southern Pride

In each episode, the baking teams – which consisted of spouses, siblings, twins, best friends and a father and son duo – had to complete various challenges. Some of them were small challenges; others were “big ol’ bakes.”

The shorter challenges took about an hour to 90 minutes to complete. The teams had 2 1/2 to 3 hours to finish the longer challenges.

“Our call time was at 6 a.m., and we would work until midnight. But if a challenge was three hours, it was filmed for three hours,” says Sharon. “I thought there was no way we could make a three-tiered cake in three hours, but we sure did.”

During those long hours, however, they also filmed other portions of each episode such as the reveals and the judging. In addition, the shows are sprinkled with highlights of the delicious bond between Rudolph and Samberg, who are prone to cracking jokes or bursting into song at any moment.

As an added ingredient, four opinionated grandmothers – all accomplished bakers themselves –judged the competition.

“When they say ‘opinionated grannies,’ that was 100 percent the case,” says Sharon. “If they didn’t like something, they would tell us why. But they also were positive and encouraging.”

Sharon and Mike were honored that they were the only team to represent the South, so they made sure to add a dollop of Southern pride goodness to all of their recipes.

“They would give us a category, and they left it open as to what we would submit,” says Sharon. “I wanted the things that we made to represent the South. We really just wanted to make the South proud.”

For instance, in the first episode, the Hutkos made pecan tassies with bourbon and bacon. In another show, the contestants were combined into two super groups – the Naughty team and Nice team – of six bakers, and they prepared a biscuit and a protein.

The Hutkos’ team, the Naughty team, won that competition with its cracked black pepper and cream cheese biscuits, which was Sharon’s recipe, and lamb chop lollipops with sweet peach sauce.

“It was a feel-good, not a cutthroat, competition,” says Sharon. “They told us to think of it as summer camp. The whole atmosphere was so positive and encouraging and such a good experience.”

Icing on the Cake

The Hutkos bake in three episodes, but they have watched all of them. Sometimes, though, the experience still seems like the stuff of make believe. One night when they were about to stream an episode of “Yellowstone” on Peacock, they got a jolt when they saw a clip of themselves for a “Baking It” program.

“It doesn’t seem real,” Sharon says. “Mike has been recognized a couple of times since the show.”

She also says he was the perfect culinary colleague for her. “I could not have asked for a better partner,” she says. “He was great in the challenges. He knew what I needed for the competition and outside of the show.”

However, Sharon says the best part of “Baking It” was building new relationships, particularly with the other contestants.

“The teams got along so well,” she says. “We still communicate with each other every day. We have a big group chat. We have gone from talking about the show to sharing our daily lives with each other.”

Sharon definitely is open to blending another baking show into her life one day.

“It was such a great experience. Everybody who was involved with the show was truly, truly so kind. I don’t know if that’s the norm,” she says. “I loved it so much. I would love to something like this again.”

Sharon also can be found at or

By Sarah James

The Joy-Filled Farmhouse

In The Home

Photography by Oak and Heirloom

With their new home, this family of four has created a happy place that they love to share with others virtually and in real life.

There is no shortage of online inspiration for anyone who is building or decorating a house. However, a visit to @thejoyfilledfarmhouse, the Instagram page of Tara Matthews, will offer plenty of ideas to homeowners.

Tara started the account in October 2019 when she and her husband, Aaron, were building the west Augusta home they share with their children, 5-year-old Peyton and 2-year-old Aly Kate, to document the construction process.

“I like to help other people if they have questions about building,” says Tara, a former teacher and current stay-at-home mom. “I was in that same boat, and I didn’t know who to ask.”

Recently, their farmhouse-style home, where they have lived since October 2020, was featured on when the site’s founder contacted Tara after seeing her Instagram account. The online community features interior design ideas submitted by interior designers, builders, photographers and homeowners.

Before their house was featured on, Tara had about 5,000 followers on Instagram. Now, however, the number has climbed to about 20,000 followers.

“I’m shocked that that many people are interested,” she says.

Yet it’s really no surprise that their house has generated such a following. After all, the name of her Instagram page itself – along with her tips and photos – captures the joy and TLC that Tara has poured into their home.

“Joy is my favorite word. I got it from my mom. That’s her favorite word, and she is exactly that,” says Tara.

Aaron encouraged her to start the Instagram account, and the hobby quickly turned into an outreach to others and a vehicle for followers to “shop her home” through the app.

“We really felt like we were supposed to share our home,” Tara says. “I really want people to come here and feel welcome.”

While the self-described introvert might feel more comfortable sharing virtually than in person, Aaron loves to entertain. She is happy to oblige, she says, because “I love my husband a lot.”

The Heart of the Home

Visitors to the modern farmhouse, which has board and batten siding and Hardie board on the exterior, are greeted by a doormat that says, “Come on in & cozy up.” A black and cream plaid rug beneath the doormat adds a layered look of charm and personality to the front porch, and black gutters accent the white farmhouse.

A trio of hanging ferns lines the porch, and the ubiquitous red and black Georgia flag flies proudly from one of the 8-inch cedar columns. “We always have our Georgia flag out, no matter the season,” says Tara.

The front porch also features a gable roof, a tongue-and-groove pine ceiling, a brick skirt and firwood double doors with a natural stain.

“My husband likes a lot of craftsmanship,” Tara says.

Inside, Tara and Aaron wanted an open concept so they can mix and mingle with their company. To enhance the open feel of the home, all of the ceilings are 10 feet high, except for the living room’s cathedral ceiling that reaches to 17 feet at its highest point. Most of the first story has luxury vinyl plank flooring, which is durable, scratch-resistant and easy to clean.

Tara calls the kitchen the heart of the home, and she wanted a space that could feed and seat a crowd.

“I wanted a white kitchen with lots of storage, and I wanted to make it functional,” says Tara.

Other kitchen must-haves included floor-to-ceiling cabinets for storage, a walk-in pantry, a large farmhouse sink, a large island, quartz countertops, lots of cabinet drawers, a gas stove and double ovens. An appliance garage for the coffeemaker is tucked in a corner.

“I like for everything to have a place,” Tara says. “No clutter.”

The island is painted black to contrast with the white walls and the glossy white picket tile backsplash. A pair of pendant lights hangs above the island, and leather chairs provide seating.

“They’re so easy with kids,” says Tara. “I can just wipe them off.”

A four-pane glass and wood door leads to the walk-in pantry, which includes butcher block countertops, a mini-fridge for overflow and lots of cubbies and drawer space.

“This is where I hide all the snacks,” says Tara.

Situated just off of the kitchen, the dining room features a pine farmhouse table with upholstered chairs on each end and Windsor chairs along the sides. The room is accented with a rectangular pendant light and an area rug. The sideboard is actually a TV stand with cane-front cabinet doors.

Black & White

Tara and Aaron extended the living room by two feet to have plenty of space to entertain, and they continued the black and white theme into the living room.

The white walls have a matte finish, while the trim has a satin finish. Accents include a 10-light matte black chandelier and matte black swing-arm sconces above open cedar shelves.

Other wood accents, which bring warmth to the large open space, include a cedar beam across the ceiling and a cedar mantel above the brick gas fireplace. Furnishings include a white sectional couch with an ottoman and a pair of tan leather recliners.

Double French doors from the living room open onto the screened-in porch – a favorite hangout for their dachshund, Tucker. “We screened in the porch so we can use it all year round,” says Tara.

The space includes a pine tongue-and-groove ceiling; board and batten walls; concrete floor; another brick gas fireplace, which they added to the house plans; space heaters; a TV and windows trimmed in black.

“The black exterior windows pop off of the white,” Tara says.

She loves to sit on the custom-made bed swing with her children, and Aaron strung Edison lights around the ceiling line to make the porch feel cozier. Doors also connect the porch with the master bedroom, and the couple likes to take full advantage of them.

“We can have a date night and watch a movie while the kids are sleeping,” Tara says.

The master bedroom features board and batten walls and a pine tongue-and-groove inset ceiling. Accents include an area rug and an upholstered bench at the foot of the bed.

A barn door leads from the master bedroom to the adjoining bath, which has quartz countertops, a knee-space makeup vanity, double sinks, wall-mounted gold faucets, ceramic matte tile flooring with a marble look and lots of cabinet space for storage. The walk-in shower features textured ceramic subway tile and basketweave tile flooring.

Shiplap wainscoting surrounds the pedestal soaking tub. A bamboo tub caddy reaches across the tub, and a chandelier hangs above it.

“This is where I relax and unwind,” says Tara.

Form & Function

While the master bath is a sanctuary for R&R, the bath that the children share is designed for function. Their bath features shiplap walls, large subway tiles in the shower, rectangular mirrors with rounded edges and a linen closet with a pocket door. However, one of Tara’s favorite features in the space is the built-in, pullout step stools beneath the sinks.

“They can pull the steps out themselves,” says Tara. “I saw them on Pinterest, but I didn’t know anyone who had them.”

The powder room features a wall-mounted faucet in black matte and a chunky wood vanity. The half-bath also includes brick flooring in a herringbone pattern, which stretches into the mudroom and laundry room.

A pocket door leads to the laundry room, which includes a shiplap backsplash, a soaking sink and a counter to fold clothes. Two large seagrass tote baskets are tucked beneath the counter, and the cabinets are painted soothing Sea Salt by Sherwin Williams.

“I wanted a nice, calming color in the laundry room,” says Tara. “I wanted to do something different instead of black and white, like the rest of the house.”

Another pocket door leads from the laundry room to the master closet, which is accented with built-ins and a transom window.

Because they rent out their home for the Masters Tournament, Tara and Aaron included other features to accommodate their guests as well. They have a heated pool on their one-acre property, and they added another bedroom and bath on the second story.

Relatability & Inspiration

It’s not just the big-ticket items that garner attention on Tara’s Instagram page, however. Her décor stands out as well. Tara collaborates on Instagram with a handful of small businesses such as Southern Willow Market, a local gift shop in Martinez; Little White Shed & Co., a candle company in New Jersey that is run by a mother and her two daughters; and Sand Cloud, a California-based towel company started by three friends who were trying to create the perfect beach towel.

“I only do so many collaborations at a time,” Tara says. “I try to stick to two or three at a time.”

However, @thejoyfilledfarmhouse is a source of strength and comfort for Tara as well.

After she lost a baby due to a rare condition when she was nine weeks pregnant in November 2020, she stopped posting on Instagram for about three months. Her husband encouraged her to get back into it because he knew how much she had enjoyed it, and it helped her begin the healing process to regain the joy in her life.

She met other women online who had gone through similar circumstances, and she received lots of support from her followers when she posted her story on the baby’s due date.

Tara knows life is full of unexpected twists and turns (“Coffee and Jesus help,” she says.), but she tries to post something on Instagram every day – even when the house doesn’t look perfect.

“There are so many accounts that have inspired me,” she says. “I want to relate to people.”

By Betsy Gilliland

Art Exhibit


Sacred Heart Cultural Center will have an exhibition of the works of Ann Marie Dalis and Tom Swift in the Art Hall January 6 – February 25. An Art Reception is scheduled for 4 – 6 p.m. Thursday, January 6 in the Great Hall, and the exhibit can be seen in the Art Hall 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday – Friday.

Dalis, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Georgia, previously worked at Southern Living as crafts editor and taught drawing, painting, pottery and fiber arts at Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School.

Swift, a practicing neurologist in Augusta, has had art shows for more than 20 years. His favorite subjects are the structure of plants and animals as well as architectural studies. ■C

Growing Grant

Garden Scene

Augusta Locally Grown has been awarded a $200,000 planning grant by the United States Department of Agriculture Marketing Service as part of the 2021 Local Foods Promotion Program.

The organization, dedicated to growing the sustainable local food community, will use the funds for a feasibility study to determine best practices to increase farmer product support and community access with the availability of a new 35,000-square-foot facility called The HUB.

The implementation plan from the feasibility study will allow ALG to increase point of sale opportunities for producers, business access to healthy food options for vulnerable consumers and food education for consumers.

The study will conclude mid-2022, and implementation will take place later in the year.

A Georgia Premiere Plus a Gala


Augusta Symphony will showcase the works of renowned composers along with Ol’ Blue Eyes this month.

The second half of Augusta Symphony’s season will open with events that draw on music with raw power as well as the soothing sound of an iconic American crooner.

In its Persevere concert, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 8 at Miller Theater, the symphony will perform Tchaikovsky’s Voyevoda, Op. 78; Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 4, which is making its Georgia premiere; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Tickets are $23 – $71.

On Saturday, January 22, 2022, maestro Dirk Meyer and the symphony will perform the music of the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, at the symphony’s annual gala.

The black tie event kicks off at 6:30 p.m. at the Miller, where attendees can enjoy specialty boxed appetizers and an open bar. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. when guest artist Michael Andrew joins the orchestra to bring the sounds of Sinatra to life.

After the performance, the celebration will continue with an evening of heavy hors d’oeuvres, desserts, a full bar, dancing and raffle prizes that include a Belize beach trip, a Recteq wood pellet grill and a “Dinner’s on Us” bundle of gift certificates to popular Augusta restaurants.

The gala is the symphony’s sole fundraiser of the year. Tickets are $125 – $250.

For more information, visit

Picking Up the Pace


Paceline has announced that it raised more than $300,000 at its PaceDay 2021 ride to raise money for cancer research at Georgia Cancer Center.

Because the cost to stage the event is covered by the MCG Foundation and corporate sponsors, 100% of the proceeds go to the cancer center for distribution to researchers who present grant applications.

The casual, fun bike ride offered 25-mile, 50-mile or 100-mile options to accommodate cyclists of all skill levels. The participants included 733 individuals and 63 teams.

Eat Up!


Columbia County Restaurant Week returns with two additional days this year.

Any time is a good time to dine out, but Columbia County will make it even more enticing with its second annual Restaurant Week, sponsored by the Columbia County Chamber and the Columbia County Convention & Visitors Bureau, January 24-30.

The week-long event will highlight the diverse selection of local restaurants in Appling, Evans, Grovetown, Harlem and Martinez.

“We have some awesome locally owned Columbia County restaurants, so it’s a great way for people to try something new,” says Olivia Reich, the Chamber communications manager.

Last year 15 – 20 restaurants participated in the inaugural event including Cork & Flame, Cadwallader’s Fine Dining, Namaste Indian Street Food, Ironwood Tavern, Katerwerks, WifeSaver, Baby Jo’s and Laziza Mediterranean Grill. Organizers are hoping for even greater participation this year.

Participating restaurants must be locally or regionally owned and have at least one location in Columbia County.

In addition, the restaurants must offer a special – such as a prix fixe menu, a 20% discount, a BOGO offer or a free appetizer or dessert – that is available only during Restaurant Week.

The inaugural event ran Monday – Friday, but this year Restaurant Week will be extended from Monday – Sunday.

While many of the restaurants largely depended on takeout or delivery service because of covid last year, organizers hope that more people will dine in this year. Participating restaurants will have a poster in the window to indicate that they are part of the event.

Diners are encouraged to post Restaurant Week photos on social media with #ColumbiaCountyEats.

For more information, visit the Columbia County Restaurant Week Facebook page.

Jurors Beware


Watch out for scammers who prey on consumers’ unfamiliarity with courts and the jury duty process.

According to the Better Business Bureau, jury duty scams appear to be on the rise.

The scam works like this: a consumer receives a phone call or voicemail from someone claiming to be with the local police or sheriff’s department, district attorney’s office or county courts. The caller states that the consumer has missed a jury duty summons and could be arrested if they don’t pay a fine. The caller may even claim that a warrant already has been issued for the consumer’s arrest.

A consumer who responds to the caller is instructed to send money to pay a fine to avoid arrest. The consumer is asked to provide a bank account number, wire money, use a cash app, or put cash on a prepaid debit card or a gift card and send it to the scammer. In some cases, the scam may be used to trick a consumer into providing sensitive personal information such as a Social Security number, date of birth, or credit or debit card number.

The call may appear legitimate with Caller ID showing a local number with police department information and an official-sounding voice on the phone. However, these red flags help consumers spot the scams:

• Courts almost exclusively contact consumers about jury duty or missed jury duty by postal mail, not by phone or email

• Court officials or police departments never ask for payment or personal information over the phone

• Calls never should come in the evening. Real court-related calls should come only during normal business hours

• If the caller claims to be part of a “warranty amnesty program,” it’s likely a scam. Such programs typically require consumers with outstanding warrants (such as for failure to appear for a court date) to reach out to the courts on their own

• Requests to pay by wire transfer or prepaid debit card (such as MoneyPak, Venmo, iTunes, or similar cards) are almost always a sure sign of fraud

Scammers also might send threatening emails or texts, purportedly from the local court, to get a consumer to send money, provide sensitive personal information (which can lead to identity theft) or install malware.

Consumers who are concerned th

Be Prepared


Living up to its motto, the local Boy Scouts council is ready to share its new home with the community.

The Boy Scouts of America Georgia-Carolina Council closed on the former site of the Augusta Jewish Community Center in Evans in November, and the council wasted no time making itself at home.

More importantly, the facility, which is operating as the Georgia Carolina Nature and Adventure Center, will continue as a home for community activities.

In December, the Boy Scouts partnered with Bechtel Corporation to hold an event where Scouts could earn one of three STEM-based merit badges – electricity, engineering or space exploration.

Participants included more than 45 Scouts from 14 BSA troops in Columbia, Richmond and Aiken counties, and five engineers from Bechtel led the sessions.

Dan Rogers, scout executive, says the facility on the 26-acre property will offer five primary activities – Scout programs, eight weeks of day camp, school-based curriculum programming, community programs and conference room rental for local groups.

In addition to the 230-seat banquet hall/conference room, the facility includes a pool, a commercial kitchen, a pond, wooded land and more. The council offices and store are housed at the location as well.

“We see this as a great opportunity to be a much more engaged partner in the community,” says Rogers. “We can offer resources and facilities that we’ve never had before.”

As part of its community outreach, the council is holding a 16-hour Wilderness First Aid Training course that is open to medical and non-medical individuals January 29-30. The course will be taught by Dr. David Fitzpatrick, an emergency department and family physician who has led multiple treks in the Himalayas, Rockies and Appalachians. He also was a physician at the base camp at Mount Everest during the 2015 avalanche.

The course will cover practical skills such as awareness of hazards to prevent accidents and medical problems; performing a basic physical exam; treating fractures and injuries; preventing and treating environmental problems such as heat, cold, lightning and near drowning; obtaining a medical history through vital signs and improvising without the option of hospital care or other aid. CPR is a prerequisite for the session.

For more information, visit

Gentle Giants


Photos courtesy of Florida State Parks, Blue Springs State Park and

Three upcoming festivals offer opportunities to see and celebrate Florida’s docile, lovable manatees.

If it’s winter in Florida, then the snowbird population is flocking to the Sunshine State. And some of the “snowbirds” have been arriving by flippers rather than wings – as in swimming their way there.

These water-residing “snowbirds” are better known as manatees, which may travel as far north as Virginia or Rhode Island and as far west as Texas during the summer. When they return to the warm waters of Florida in the winter, however, three communities hold fun-filled festivals to welcome them back to the state’s natural warm-water springs or power plant discharge canals.

In Crystal River, the Florida Manatee Festival is scheduled for January 15-16. The Blue Spring Manatee Festival in Orange City is set for January 22-23. On February 5, West Palm Beach will hold ManateeFest 2022.

Typically, manatees concentrate primarily in Florida from November to March, preferring waters that are 3 to 7 feet deep.

The Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, is found throughout the state’s waterways such as rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals and coastal areas, particularly where sea grass beds and other aquatic plants grow.

Even though they are related closely to elephants, these herbivores sometimes are called sea cows because, like landlubber cows, they consume a plant-eating diet. They seek safe, protected areas, and the entire state of Florida has been designated as a manatee sanctuary.

Florida Manatee Festival, Crystal River

Crystal River, about 90 minutes north of Tampa, is one of the few places in the world where people still can swim with manatees. Crystal River wraps around Kings Bay, where more than 70 springs attract hundreds of manatees during cool weather.

This year the 35th annual Florida Manatee Festival will be held 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday, January 15 and 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Sunday, January 16 in downtown Crystal River. Admission is $5 for adults and free for children ages 12 and under. Free parking and shuttle service to the festival will be available at Crystal River Mall, 1801 U.S. 19.

More than 20,000 people visit the festival each year to honor the community’s most famous winter residents with food, entertainment, music and fun.

The festival will offer two food courts, two beer and wine gardens, live music on four stages, a fine art walk, craft vendors and a children’s zone. Visitors also can check out the downtown shops and eateries within and around the festivities.

Back by popular demand, Heritage House Hippie Village is returning with Bohemian crafts, vendors, food and music reminiscent of the ’60s and ’70s.

Of course, the manatees are the star attraction, and festival-goers can take a manatee boat tour or a guided kayak tour.

Tickets for the boat tours are available for purchase at the dock area in Kings Bay Park at the end of NW Third Street. The cost is $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6-12 and free for ages 5 and under.

The first tour on Saturday is at 9:30 a.m., and the last tour starts at 4:30 p.m. On Sunday, the first tour goes out at 9:30 a.m., and the final tour launches at 3:30 p.m. Each tour lasts 25-30 minutes, and the captain determines the route based on other boat traffic.

Guided kayak tours are the newest addition to the festival. These tours, which offer an interactive experience of Kings Bay, can be booked in advance.

Blue Spring Manatee Festival, Orange City

The 35th annual Blue Spring Manatee Festival in Orange City, about 40 minutes northeast of Orlando, will take place 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday, January 22 and Sunday, January 23.

Festival activities will be held at Valentine Park, on West French Avenue off of Highway 17-92, and free shuttles buses to Blue Spring State Park for manatee viewing will be available. Overlooks and boardwalks in the park provide great spots for observing the manatees.

Admission is $8 for adults, $2 for ages 4-10 and free for children age 3 and under. Admission for dogs (apparently, the most prized members of the family) is $10.

Proceeds from the event will benefit the Friends of Blue State Park, scholarships and other Orange City organizations.

The festival is more than manatees, however. Activities also will include food vendors, 100-plus arts and crafts booths, face painting, music, dancing, rides, shows, walk-on-water balls, sand sculpting, environmental conservation displays and children’s fingerprinting.

Adventurous or competitive types can test their skills at festival games such as rock wall climbing, bungee jumping and the balloon man shooting gallery.

On Saturday, the entertainment will feature the world-famous Disconnected K9’s Frisbee Show at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Solo artist Karegan Wodz will perform from noon until 1 p.m., and the live band, Caerbanog, will take the stage from 1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

The Disconnected K9’s Frisbee Show will return for more tricks and treats on Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Other entertainment will include the Jeff Howell Band from “Monsters in the Morning” 104.1 Real Radio, performing from 12:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

You also can watch manatees at Blue Spring in real time via above-water and underwater webcams at

ManateeFest 2022, West Palm Beach

Farther south on Florida’s east coast, ManateeFest 2022 in West Palm Beach will celebrate Manatee Lagoon’s sixth anniversary 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday, February 5. Manatee Lagoon is a free Palm Beach County educational attraction with a dedicated area for viewing manatees up close.

The waterfront center features hands-on exhibits for visitors to learn all about manatees and the natural wonders of the surrounding Lake Worth Lagoon. On cold winter days, the facility’s observation deck is the ideal spot to view manatees basking in the warm-water outflows from Florida Power & Light Company’s adjacent Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center.

The free annual event celebrates all things manatee with hands-on educational activities including local and state environmental exhibitors, photo opportunities with Lagoon mascot Mia the Manatee, an interactive selfie station, marine life face painting, arts and crafts vendors, a children’s fun zone, live music and food vendors.

Visitors also can test their recycling skills in the Recycling Relay Race. In addition, the ManateeFest mobile event app will provide access to all of the festivities as well as a scavenger hunt with Mia the Manatee and Sunny the Solar Tree.

If you can’t make it to West Palm Beach for ManateeFest, you can join the activities virtually. A virtual storefront will feature the same environmental and marine-themed vendors and exhibitors as the in-person event and can be accessed from 8 a.m. Saturday, February 5 through midnight Sunday, February 6.

A virtual photo booth, where people can snap a free photo and customize it with backgrounds and stickers, also will be available. Anyone who shares their photo on social media should tag it @ManateeLagoon. Virtual manatee trivia games will be featured during festival hours as well, and the first people to receive the highest scores will win a prize.

If You Go:

Florida Manatee Festival
January 15-16
Crystal River, Florida

Blue Spring Manatee Festival
January 22-23
Orange City, Florida

ManateeFest 2022
February 5
West Palm Beach, Florida

By Morgan Davis

Best in Nation


Columbia County Convention & Visitors Bureau recently was awarded first place from the U.S. Travel Association for the best integrated marketing and messaging campaign in the nation among destination marketing organizations for its Serene18 Paddle Trail campaign. More than 400 nominations were received.

The CVB worked with Kruhu and Cineloco to develop the humorous promotional videos starring Redford and Benny as two scouts that showcase the fun that kayakers and canoers can have on area waterways.

The videos have been viewed nearly a quarter of a million times, reaching more than 4 million people. As a result, hundreds of people have visited Columbia County to paddle the trails.

Merry and Bright


A new lights attraction is coming to suburban Atlanta for the holidays.
If a holiday road trip is on your wish list, then Holiday Road will deliver.

This event – a dazzling display of lights at The Horse Mansion @ Bouckaert Farm in Fairburn, Georgia – is new to the Atlanta area this year.

Located just 20 minutes southwest of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the 8,000-acre Bouckaert Farm is a full-time equestrian event facility that features 10 miles of frontage along the Chattahoochee River.

While it typically is a popular film, music festival and wedding site, the farm will transform into a must-see destination with thousands of bright Christmas lights for the holiday season. Santa and Mrs. Claus, their trusty elves, reindeer, countless candy canes, Christmas villages and “snow”-covered trees can be spotted at The Horse Mansion as well.

Holiday Road got its start in Los Angeles last year. This season, however, Atlanta and Northern Virginia are joining Tinseltown as venues for the show.

“Atlanta is an ideal market for Holiday Road, and we are happy to be able to bring the experience to the community,” says spokeswoman Dianne Murphy. “We are looking forward to making Holiday Road an annual holiday tradition for the greater Atlanta area.”

Light Up the Night
The lights display is set up along a 1/2-mile, self-guided walking trail at the venue (yes, restrooms are available along the trail and throughout the grounds).

Generally, it takes one to one-and-a-half hours in total to complete the trail and to participate in activities in the pre-show area. However, visitors can follow the trail at their own pace.

Guests can enjoy much more than the bright and colorful bulbs that light up the night sky, however. In the pre-show area, they can join the fun with interactive experiences or enjoy the food and drink that will be available for purchase by a rotation of vendors.

Hot drinks for cold winter nights and other seasonal beverages will be on the menu. Visitors ages 21 and older can indulge in holiday cheer with adult beverages at the Holiday Bar. Think creative cocktails, wine to unwind and craft beer to get in the holiday spirit. They also can take their drinks along with them on the trail.

Of course, those who consider having an adult drink on an empty stomach might land on the naughty list, so they can make nice by sampling the fare offered at various food trucks onsite.

The souvenir shop offers keepsakes for visitors to take home lasting memories, and visitors are encouraged to take lots of photos and post them on Instagram and Facebook (@holidayroad). Be sure to tag them with @holidayroad or #holidayroad.

Timing is Everything
The new attraction will be open daily 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. November 26 – January 2. Advanced ticket purchase is required online, and trail tickets are available on the half-hour at designated time slots from 6 p.m. until 9:30 p.m.

Visitors must be present at check-in during their arrival window, which begins 30 minutes prior to their ticket time. Anyone who is not present during the arrival time will be turned away, and no refund will be provided.

Parking also must be purchased online in advance with admission tickets, and a pass will offer access to the parking lot.

Strollers are allowed on the walking trail, but no pets are permitted on the grounds. However, service animals with proper documentation can accompany visitors.

“We’d like for the community to come out and celebrate their holiday season while creating festive memories together at Holiday Road,” Murphy says.

All tickets are non-refundable. The show will operate rain or shine.

If You Go:

What: Holiday Road USA Atlanta

When: 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. November 26 – January 2

Where: The Horse Mansion @ Bouckaert Farm, 10045 Cedar Grove Road, Fairburn, Ga.

How Much: $24.99 – $29.99 per person; free for children age 2 and under; parking pass $4.99 per vehicle; online advanced ticket purchase is required

More Info:

There She Is


Photos courtesy of Karson Pennington, Marszalik Photography and Matt Boyd Photography

When the Miss America Organization marks its 100th anniversary this year, Columbia County will have cause to celebrate as well.

Talk about a crowning achievement. Representing the state as Miss Georgia, Martinez native Karson Pennington, 23, will be one of the candidates vying for the job of Miss America in Uncasville, Connecticut this month.

Karson has been involved in the Miss America Organization for more than a decade, winning multiple competitions. She followed in the footsteps of her mother, who competed in Miss Georgia in the 1980s, and her older sister, Kendyl, who has won numerous titles of her own.

In 2008 Karson won her first title, Miss Georgia Princess, at age 10. Competing as Miss University of Georgia for the statewide crown, she won the title in Columbus in June.

“I was in a complete state of shock to hear my name called as Miss Georgia 2021,” she says. “I thought of 10-year-old Karson watching Miss Georgia for the first time. I was sitting in the audience, and I wanted to be just like her and all of the other incredibly accomplished women on the stage. After 13 years, my dream had finally been realized. It was the best feeling in the world.”

She is proud to represent her home state as one of “51 incredible candidates who are talented, highly educated and give back to their communities.”


Hear Her ROAR
With her resume, she should feel perfectly at home with the other Miss America candidates. Currently, Karson is a second-year doctoral student in political science and international affairs at UGA.

The diehard Bulldog graduated magna cum laude with high honors from the university in May, earning three degrees – a Bachelor of Arts in political science, a Bachelor of Arts in history and a Master of Arts in political science and international affairs – in four years.

As a doctoral student, she teaches classes and conducts independent and departmental research focused on federal judicial politics. In the future Karson hopes to become a collegiate professor.

Her Miss Georgia duties include the promotion of education and literacy through her social impact initiative, ROAR: Reach Out and Read, which she has pursued since she was 12 years old.

Diagnosed with onset fluency disorder at age 3, Karson stuttered as a child. Her pediatrician suggested that her parents start teaching her to read so she could practice pronouncing words as she read aloud.

“I started reading then, and I haven’t put down books since,” she says.

With her mascot, Lucky Lion, she visits classrooms, donates books, and educates students and parents on the importance of literacy skills. Karson also wrote “Lucky Learns to ROAR,” which is available as an e-book on her website,

She schedules appearances and advocates with the state legislature for educational funding as well.

“Miss Georgia is an 8-to-5 full-time job. It’s not just wearing a sash and crown,” Karson says. “I love to get dressed up in an evening gown and represent Georgia, but I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk on my laptop and communicating with people.”

Getting Ready
She also carves out time to prepare for the talent, interview and evening gown portions of the upcoming Miss America competition. Karson, who was a four-year member of UGA’s Georgettes Dance Team, will tap dance in the talent segment.

Four or five days a week she goes to the dance studio to rehearse her routine for two hours at a time, and she closely follows current events to prepare for the private and onstage interviews.

In September Karson attended a 10-day Miss America orientation, when she met the other candidates for the first time.

“It’s crazy to say that I have a friend in every single state now,” she says. “It’s a sisterhood, even though we’re all competing for the same thing. We develop an incredible bond by going through this shared experience.”

Karson has won more than $23,000 in scholarships through the MAO competitions, enabling her to pursue her Ph.D. She also gains poise and confidence by appearing on stage and through MAO mentorship programs.

The final round of the five-day competition will be held Thursday, December 16, and her parents, Kathy and John Pennington, and her sister will be in the audience to support her.

Despite the similarities to other competitions, Karson expects Miss America to be different from her previous experiences.

“I think there’s a little bit more pressure, but the pressure is almost lower, too, because I’ve made it to this level,” she says. “I competed at Miss Georgia more than one time. I will get only one chance to compete at Miss America, and I’m honored to stand on that stage.”

The fact that this year’s event is the centennial anniversary is special to Karson as well.

“There will only be one 100th anniversary class, and I’m in it,” she says.

By Sarah James

Winter Wonderland

In The Home

There’s always a white Christmas – with flakes of pink and gold – at this Canterbury Farms home.

Grovetown resident Katherine Lamb has loved decorating for Christmas ever since she was a young girl, and she always has known exactly what she liked. She and her mother had definite – and decidedly different – tastes, however. While her mother loves color, Katherine goes for gold and white.

So, when she was in high school, Katherine got a Christmas tree for her bedroom, and her mother let her decorate her room the way she wanted it.

During the holidays, that same tree now occupies the living room of the Canterbury Farms home where Katherine lives with her husband, Tyler. And the tree has plenty of company all winter long.

“Every inch of our house is decorated,” Katherine says. “When we take it down, it feels so bare.”

The decorations stay up a healthy portion of the year, however. Katherine starts decorating for Christmas November 1, and she keeps the decorations up through February. It takes her about a week to decorate, and she and Tyler each have their own roles in the process.

“I do all the decorating,” she says. “Tyler brings everything out and says, ‘Go to town.’”

Glitter & Gold
Katherine gets new decorations every season to keep variety in the décor. She moves things from place to place from one year to the next, but she never strays too far from her favorite elements.

“Our theme is ‘White Christmas.’ We have a lot of trees and reindeer,” says Katherine. “I like the clean look of white and gold, with a hint of pink to add color.”

The main tree in the living room is tucked in a corner against a shiplap wall, and it stretches to the coffered ceiling. Flocked in gold and white, the tree features wide white ribbon, glittery gold balls, white balls, gold reindeer and white poinsettias.

“I don’t hang all of the ornaments on the tree because it can make it look droopy,” says Katherine. “I just sit some of the ornaments on the branches to make it look fuller and not so weighted down.”

Gold floral picks that protrude from the tree create a 3-D effect, and all shapes and sizes of white boxes trimmed in gold are piled beneath the Christmas tree.

“This is my favorite tree,” Katherine says. “We keep the gift boxes under it before we put anything in them. When we start wrapping, we take the empty boxes and fill them up. I wrap them in white and gold wrapping paper. When I wrap gifts, I do it in layers.”

The color scheme continues to the fireplace, where pink balls, white lights and gold reindeer are nestled in the flocked garland on the mantel.

“I try to make the garland look fluffy and busy,” says Katherine. “I add gold elements and reindeer.”

Cascading off each edge of the mantel, the garland and pink balls dangle down to frame three white knitted stockings. A cream-colored pillar candlestick and candle, along with a small white bare-branched tree with white balls and white lights, stand guard on each end. A cluster of cone-shaped trees occupies each side of the flat hearth.

The tree that Katherine had in her childhood bedroom sits on a table, draped with a white cloth, in another corner of the living room. “It’s our sentimental tree,” she says.

This flocked tree is decorated with meaningful ornaments such as those that commemorate their engagement and their first Christmas together. Other decorations include rolls of artificial snow and more glittery gold and white balls.

The Lambs have two gold bar carts – one with white shelves and one with glass shelves. After all, if you can’t decide which one you like better when you’re shopping, there’s only one thing to do – get them both, of course.

“All the little things that don’t really have a place go on the bar carts,” says Katherine.

Pink & Girly
In the hallway, a canvas of a shimmery, 3-D textured train engine in the snow is the perfect complement to the winter décor. “We shiplapped the wall because it was big and boring and put the canvas on it,” says Katherine.

Two bare-branched white trees (larger versions of the pre-decorated trees on the mantel) sit on the floor next to a white chest with mirrored doors. A white lamp, a pink-and-white-clad Santa and gold trees, along with two snowmen beneath a pair of bell jar domes, rest atop the chest.

Flocked garland, accented with lights and pink ribbon that Katherine added in pieces, wraps around the staircase handrails and landing railing.

A duo of pink-outfitted gnomes – aka “dog toys” for the Lambs’ two huskies, Zaya and Zeus – sits on the stairs in the hallway.

The dining room walls above the high chair rail are painted a pale shade of teal. They’re the only walls that aren’t painted white, so Katherine takes advantage of the hue with the Christmas décor. “I added a little bit more color in the dining room,” she says.

Think pink. “This room is a little bit more fun and girly,” says Katherine.

The all-white tree in the corner is decorated with pink ornaments, frosty pink poinsettias and gold picks, while boxes of pink, gold and white are stacked beneath the tree.

“We used to have the tree in our bedroom, but nobody saw it there,” Katherine says.

A bed of artificial snow cushions a lighted Parisienne village, trees, two ceramic dogs and a glittery pink Eiffel Tower on a side table.

The dining room table centerpiece is made up of white, gold and pink trees; gold pillar candles atop white candlesticks; white tapers in gold candlesticks and strands of white leaves on a white table runner.

The place settings feature white dinner plates sandwiched between frosty gold-rimmed chargers and salad plates, and white napkins wrapped with gold napkin rings rest on the plates.

Christmas lights are one of the Lambs’ favorite things about the season as well, and they like to turn on only the holiday lights in the house.

“We have so many things that are lit up,” says Katherine. “We have smart plugs in every outlet, and Alexa turns the lights on and off. That’s a Tyler thing, but it’s also safe, easier and saves on power. I’m into decorating, and he’s into technology and smart stuff.”

‘Make It My Own’
Katherine flocked the garland in the kitchen herself, lined it along the top of the cabinets and filled it in with pink and white balls.

“When I buy something, I try to make it my own,” she says. “If I can’t find something and I have a vision in my head, I just make it.”

While a pink gnome and a gold Noel sign sit on one counter, another counter holds a group of pink trees. A glittery gold wreath hangs above the microwave.

The Lambs love to invite friends to their home during the holidays, and last year Katherine had a gingerbread house-decorating party for her friends. Naturally, she trimmed her gingerbread house with pink and white icing.

Regardless of the season, Katherine keeps fresh flowers in the kitchen as well. “I always try to have a fresh floral arrangement in the house because it smells good and makes it feel lively,” she says.

The kitchen also features white quartz countertops, white appliances, white subway tile on the backsplash, white cabinetry with gold hardware and gold lantern pendant lights above the island.

“Gold has always been my favorite color, but it has to be a certain kind of gold,” says Katherine. “I love antique bronze, and I love textured gold.”

A wreath that she spray painted white hangs on the round mirror, which is surrounded by wedding pictures, in the breakfast nook.

A gold tray filled with a pink tree, gold candlesticks with pink candles, a silver tree and decorative pink presents tied with gold ribbon serve as the table centerpiece, and a white beaded chandelier hangs above the table. An ornament-free, flocked skinny tree with lights stands in the breakfast nook corner.

“We try not to make this corner super busy,” says Katherine. “We spend a lot of our time eating and working in here.”

She has skinny trees at the top of her wish list this year, and she knows just what she wants to do with them. “I want more skinny trees to put in the corners. There are so many ways you can use them. They’re so cute,” Katherine says.

Coloring Outside the Lines
She also likes to color outside the lines with her holiday décor, gravitating toward the more traditional Christmas red and green for the exterior of the home.

Although she never gets tired of Christmas, Katherine does have her limits.

“We don’t keep our outside decorations up until spring,” she says.

By Betsy Gilliland