© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002
HOST BUCS: Oct. 6 at Georgia Dome.
THE DRIVE: Atlanta is about 440 miles from the intersection of interstates 275 and 75 north of Tampa. Continue on 75 North for 354 miles to Exit 156, which is Interstate 475. Stay on 475 for 15 miles until it rejoins I-75. Stay on 75 for about 67 miles, to Exit 245, signposted Georgia Ave/Capitol Ave/Stadium. The Georgia Dome is in the Five Points neighborhood of downtown Atlanta.
THE FLIGHT: All passengers know you can't get to heaven without stopping in Atlanta. Delta flies from Tampa International to its hub city, nonstop, several times a day.
EATING THERE: The Varsity drive-in is a landmark just off Interstate 75, near the Georgia Tech campus. You cannot truly say you've had the Atlanta experience until you have had a chili dog, greasy onion rings and a Frosted Orange to drink. 61 North Ave. NE at Spring Street; (404) 881-1706.
At the other end of the spectrum is Bacchanalia. More than once, it has been voted the city's best restaurant by Zagat Survey diners. New American entrees such as venison loin and mini rack of lamb with truffled mashed potatoes are praised as "superlative" and "memorable." The menu is fixed price; figure on about $60 per person. 1198 Howell Mill Road, near 14th Street, in the Westside Marketplace; (404) 365-0410.
The 75-year-old Colonnade is another Atlanta institution, where old folks and fun folks mingle for classics such as fried chicken, frog legs or grilled trout, and strong mixed drinks. But really, everyone goes for the addictive homemade hot yeast rolls. 1879 Cheshire Bridge Road NE, at Piedmont Road; (404) 874-5642.
The celebrity-studded crowd at the high-end Buckhead Diner chooses from velvety beef short ribs over mushroom rice, braised lamb shank with yellow-tomato baked beans, homemade potato chips with warm bleu cheese. 3073 Piedmont Road NE; (404) 262-3336.
STAYING THERE: As the largest of the three division cities, Atlanta boasts the most hotel chain properties.
The Omni Hotel at CNN Center is one of the closest hotels to the Georgia Dome. It is across from Centennial Olympic Park and is 15 minutes from Hartsfield International Airport. Some of the 467 rooms are outfitted with a treadmill and healthy snacks in the minibar. 100 CNN Center, corner of International Boulevard and Marietta Street; toll-free 1-800-843-6664.
Close by and cheaper is the Embassy Suites-Downtown Centennial Park. It, too, overlooks the park. There's a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse on the lobby level. 267 Marietta St.; (404) 223-2300.
Also in the neighborhood is the Hyatt Regency Atlanta. Built in 1967, this was the first big-deal "modern" hotel downtown. After a 1999 renovation, the 1,264-room hotel is a reliable bet. It is close to shopping, the Dome and the CNN building. 265 Peachtree St. NE; (404) 577-1234.
FOR INFORMATION: The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau site (www.atlanta.net) is full of information and also has a hotel directory with online booking. Also consult www.atlanta.worldweb.com/.
For information on the Georgia Dome, call (404) 223-9200.
HOST BUCS: Oct. 27 at Ericsson Stadium.
THE DRIVE: From the intersection of interstates 275 and 4 in Tampa, it is about 605 miles to Charlotte, N.C. Head east on I-4 to I-95 North, then stay on this road for about 320 miles, into South Carolina. Take Exit 86B onto Interstate 26, heading west toward Columbia. Drive about 52 miles to Exit 116, and follow the signs for Interstate 77. Take this east for about 100 miles, into Charlotte, then go east on the city loop, Interstate 277. Ericsson Stadium is adjacent to 277.
THE FLIGHT: US Airways flies nonstop from Tampa International Airport to Charlotte; Delta Airlines flies there with a single connection.
EATING THERE: For the best soul food, head to the Coffee Cup Grill, near Ericsson Stadium. Biscuits, sweet tea, country-style steak, fried chicken, collards and black-eyed peas. Go early to get a seat. 914 S Clarkson St.; call (704) 375-8855 for daily specials.
Coyote Joe's. This airport-area lounge features country music, including some Nashville names onstage and a busy dance floor. 4621 Wilkinson Blvd.; (704) 399-4946; www.coyote-joes.com.
Ri-Ra. Traditional Irish beer and live Irish music on weekends. Restaurant on one side, bar on the other. Cover charge Friday and Saturday, never more than $5. Gets loud when it's crowded. 208 N Tryon St.; (704) 333-5554.
Rock Bottom Brewery and Restaurant, in Transamerica Square. Upscale restaurant and microbrewery where you'll feel just right in slacks. Outdoor patio in good weather for people-watching while you sip a brew. No cover. 401 N Tryon St; (704) 334-2739.
SLEEPING THERE: The national hotel and motel chains have facilities in and around Charlotte.
Get center-city convenience with the Charlotte Marriott City Center, 100 W Trade St. Call (704) 333-9000. There is a heated indoor pool and health club.
For quiet elegance in the arts district uptown, try the Historic Dunhill Hotel. It has 60 rooms, with period furnishings, original art, health club privileges, a casual pub and more formal dining. 237 N Tryon St.; (704) 332-4141, go to www.dunhillhotel.com.
Or there is the Morehead Inn, in historic Dilworth, minutes from uptown. It has terry-cloth robes, scented soaps, complimentary snacks and a full breakfast. Built in 1917 and renovated in 1995, the inn has a great room, dining room and solarium on the first floor and seven guest suites with private baths on the second floor. 1122 E Morehead St.; (704) 376-3357.
FOR INFORMATION: Contact the Charlotte Convention & Visitors Bureau, First Floor, 330 S Tryon St., Charlotte, NC 28202; toll-free 1-800-231-4636; www.charlottecvb.org. Phone Ericsson Stadium for ticket information: (704) 522-6500.
HOST BUCS: Dec. 1 at Louisiana Superdome.
THE DRIVE: It is about 640 miles to New Orleans from the intersection of interstates 275 and 75, north of Tampa. Take 75 north for about 161 miles, then head west on Interstate 10. It's a straight shot for about 477 miles to Exit 235B, the exit for the Superdome.
THE FLIGHT: Southwest Airlines flies nonstop from Tampa International Airport to New Orleans; Delta Airlines flies there with a single connection.
EATING THERE: New Orleans is famous for three things: often-rowdy nightlife in the French Quarter, great music, and superb restaurants.
The new Zagat Survey of the city rates the venerable Commander's Palace as diners' favorite. Celeb chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse both worked the kitchen at this Garden District landmark. Specialties include turtle soup, bread pudding and one of the city's best Sunday jazz brunches. 1403 Washington Ave. at Coliseum Street; (505) 899-8221.
For something less dressy but still chic, try Mr. B's Bistro. Celebrated are the garlic chicken with wild rice, coconut- and beer-battered shrimp and pasta jambalaya. 201 Royal St. at Iberville; (504) 523-2078.
Don't mind sitting at the counter for filling food? Ride the St. Charles streetcar to the end of the line and the 55-year-old Camellia Grill, where you may find a long line of folks waiting for one of the 29 stools. Specialities are the pecan waffle, potato and onion omelet topped with chili and cheese, and other diner fare. The wait staff is marvelous. 626 S Carrollton Ave. at St. Charles Avenue, at the Riverbend; (504) 866-9573.
Finally, the city is noted for two kinds of immense, sloppy sandwiches: muffalettas and poboys. The muffaletta is served on large round loaves and typically contains layers of Genoa salami, ham, some cheeses and olive salad (marinated vegetables, capers and olives). Generally rated the No. 1 place for muffalettas is the 96-year-old Central Grocery, (923 Decatur St., near Dumaine; (504) 523-1620.
Poboys (contraction of poor boy) would be recognized elsewhere as subs and hoagies. They are served on slightly hollowed-out French rolls. The filling can be anything from fried shrimp to meatballs, gravy-soaked french fries to oysters. Found most everywhere sandwiches are made.
SLEEPING THERE: Just across Canal Street from the French Quarter is the Windsor Court, twice named No. 1 hotel in America by readers of Conde Nast Traveler. Luxurious and expensive. 300 Gravier St. at Tchoupitoulas; (toll-free 1-800-262-2662; www.windsorcourthotel.com).
For something different, consider the Soniat House. Combining two early 19th-century Creole mansions to provide 33 rooms, the Soniat is a charming, tasteful lodging in the French Quarter. It has an inner garden and the Quarter's trademark cast-iron balconies. 1133 Chartres (pronounced charters) St.; (toll-free 1-800-544-8808).
Want to stay on Bourbon Street? Try the 500-room Royal Sonesta Hotel. An elegant lobby, standard rooms but relatively free of the noise on Bourbon. 300 Bourbon St.; (504-586-0300; www.sonesta.com/neworleans_royal/).
Nearly a dozen national hotel chains also are represented in and near the city: for instance, the 296-room Holiday Inn New Orleans-Downtown is a quarter-mile from the Superdome and a quarter-mile from the French Quarter. 330 Loyola Ave.; (toll-free: 800-535-7830; http://www.sixcontinentshotels.com/holiday-inn).
FOR INFORMATION: The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site (www.neworleanscvb.com) offers lists of hotels, restaurants and even cooking schools.
Useful maps and published articles about the city are at Best of New Orleans, www.bestofneworleans.com.
-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.