-- If it weren't for actress Kim Basinger, Gwinnett County might be the best-kept secret in the Southeast. Then again, to a growing number of second-home owners, it still is.
Basinger, from nearby Athens, Ga., made headlines when she purchased the town of Braselton in 1989 as part of a partnership that planned to develop it with a tourism and entertainment theme. The project took a wrong turn, and after various lawsuits, Basinger sold her interest.
The plans were abandoned, but that did not change the fact that Braselton — parts of which sit in four different counties, 46 miles northeast of Atlanta — was a charming place with a historic downtown district. It recently won awards as an "American Dream Town," "All American City" and "Municipal Trend Setter" from various civic organizations.
Most of Braselton's most important residential developments are in Gwinnett County, strategically located along the I-85 corridor midway between Atlanta and Athens, home to the University of Georgia.
The county has benefited from a commercial boom in surrounding areas, attracting numerous residents, increased infrastructure and, in turn, second-home owners.
Draws include a moderate climate, excellent hospitals, one of the highest profile wineries in the Southeast (Chateau Elan), a major international race track (Road Atlanta), and easy access to both downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, one of the world's busiest.
"We get everyone from weekenders from Atlanta to people from all over the country," says Tony Funari of Funari Realty in Braselton. "Even our full-time residents are second-home owners. A very high percentage of primary residents have homes elsewhere."
With its vineyards, equestrian estates and faux French chateaus, a drive through Gwinnett County can resemble a scene out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but with one important difference: The Champagne homes are available on a beer budget compared with other prime second-home destinations.
A look at three Gwinnett County neighborhoods:
•Chateau Elan. The crown jewel of Braselton, this gated community (chateauelan.com) includes three highly rated golf courses, equestrian facility, seven restaurants, large winery and luxury resort hotel with spa and cooking school. The approximately 800 homes are all single-family with 2,200 slated in the master plan, which includes three "village" enclaves with smaller homes priced from the low $400,000s. Larger homes, most resembling mansions, along the golf courses and in the Legends, a gated community within the gated community, command $500,000 to $4 million.
•Hamilton Mill. Because it is about 10 miles closer to downtown Atlanta, this large development (hamiltonmill.com) has more commuters. Amenities include a golf course, two large swim centers and two tennis centers. Homes are priced from the low $300,000s to about $1 million.
•Reunion. The most affordable of the new and self-contained communities, Reunion (reuniongolfclub.com) has a golf course, restaurants and common facilities such as swimming pools. Large, well-equipped homes are available from the mid-$200,000s to $700,000. A representative offering: five-bedroom house with oversized garage for under $350,000.