“Okay, Dave, so you saw some waterfalls while you were in Georgia, that’s cool. But what else?”
Well, I managed not to get into a fiddle contest with the Devil, but I did go to Helen.
Sorry. That was an amazingly bad joke. It should be on a t-shirt though.
For those who may not be familiar, the town of Helen is a tourist destination in Appalachian Georgia. It was just another small town in the mountains, a former logging town fading into obscurity. In 1969, three local businessmen decided that the town’s main street could use a bit of sprucing up, and maybe they could grab the attention of tourists on their way to the mountains. A local artist, John Kollock, was recruited to see what ideas he may have for the sleepy town.
Inspired by his days in the military, Kollok drew up some sketches of a few buildings done over in a Bavarian style, like the towns he had visited in the Alps years prior. The sketches were well received and the entire town quickly came on board. As a result a law was passed that required all businesses in town to use the same style. This law still stands today-even the Wendy’s looks like a traditional German restaurant. This rebranding has worked wonders for the small town as it is now the third most visited city in Georgia.
While the Alpine village motif is not unique to Helen, that does little to diminish the charm of the town. Many would dismiss it as a “tourist trap” and while that’s not entirely inaccurate, it’s also a bit harsh. There are only a few national chains among the many businesses that line the streets, almost every shop is privately owned, and many have been there for years. You can find lots of different stores as you stroll along from your standard t-shirt shops, real honest to goodness Bavarian imports and blown glass, to a hand made wooden toy shop, quilts and other crafts, at least two Christmas themed shops, candy kitchens and more. So yeah, it’s easy to be negative and dismiss the town, but if you go in with the right attitude, and have an appreciation for high quality knick-knackery, towns like this are lots of fun.
There is also a river that runs through the town and two tubing companies that will let you float on innertubes right through the center of town while people like me sit at the Troll Tavern and enjoy a plate of brats and knockwurst while watching every third person get stuck on the same rock cluster. Food and a show-can’t beat it.
Speaking of food, that’s always one of my favorite parts of vacation-trying out new restaurants and perhaps discovering some new favorites. The bonus of traveling to another part of the country is that sometimes there are fast food chains that aren’t available back home so you get to try those out too. Here’s a quick rundown of the restaurants we visited in no particular order, and my thoughts on each.
Zaxby’s- basically the same thing as Cane’s Chicken Fingers with a few more sandwich items and way more sauces to choose from. Slightly better than Cane’s, but not so much that I wish we lived near one.
BoJangle’s- best fast food fried chicken I’ve ever tasted. Really good recipe, with just a hint of heat at the back of the throat. The sides and tea are excellent as well. I really wish I lived near one.
Jack’s-fast food joint exclusive to the South. They do burgers, chicken, and desserts too. The burger was average but the fries were delicious and the buns were fantastic. Tried some of the kid’s chicken and it was pretty good too. Decent fast food, but not a priority to revisit.
The Troll Tavern-(Helen, GA) mentioned above. Total German beer hall vibe, with lots of traditional Bavarian foods, bar food, and grilled items. Everything was delicious, would definitely go back if we ever return.
El Jinete (Clarkesville, GA)-Mexican restaurant that we discovered when some other plans fell through. High quality food that everyone liked quite a bit. My fish tacos were served with a cheese sauce. Normally I don’t like cheese and fish together but this was delightful. I also ate waaaay too much chips and salsa.
Creekside Deli (Cleveland, GA)-A most pleasant surprise. More than just a deli, this little restaurant serves hot and cold sandwiches, soups, burgers and fries, nachos, quesadillas, and more. Most of the sandwiches are named after well known communities and natural attractions in the area, which is cute. It does sit by an actual creek which you can dine by if you desire.
The Copper Pot (Clarkesville, GA)- not a dispensary, but an Italian restaurant with stone baked pizza and a bunch of other stuff but I can’t comment on that because I had the pizza and it was great. It’s a pretty busy place that also hosts trivia nights and open mics. But. you know, mainly pizza. Delish.
We did eat some meals at the condo too, in order to save on cash and gas.
Oh yeah, gas. That reminds me. A few notes about making this journey for those who may choose to visit:
Keep the tank filled up-there’s a lot of open highway and you don’t want your car dinging at you while you’re going up a mountain. Trust me on this one.
Also, schedule in about three extra hours for traffic around Chattanooga and Atlanta. Now Atlanta is kind of famous for bad traffic, and it’s a pretty major city so that’s not so much a surprise as an annoyance. Still good to keep in mind though.
But Chattanooga? Wow. Both times we went through the traffic was ridiculous. I have no desire to ever visit the city again, just due to the problems we faced. Even taking the side routes wound up being a complete pain.
Driving in the mountains can be a little tricky. Not difficult per se, but a bit of a challenge here and there. So be sure to have your GPS on-and bring a map as it’s easy to lose signal on those twisty-turny roads. Also bear in mind that the speed limit is anywhere from 55 to non existent, and not all roads are clearly marked for us outsiders. Just keep your wits about you and you’ll be all right.
Well, that pretty much sums it up. Despite a few small bumps here and there, a little sunburn and a few bug bites, we had a pleasant time in the Blue Ridge mountains. I would consider going back another time, especially now that I know what to expect. There are a lot more opportunities to explore nature than we had time to experience-Unicoi Lake at Unicoi State Park being chief among them. There are more waterfalls too, and certainly more small towns to find and explore.
So if you are looking for a getaway far from the crowds and a little off the beaten path, Northern Georgia and the Blue Ridge mountains is an area worth putting on your list.
See you next week for another MonDave.