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Helen: A Georgia Town With A European Flavor

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If you’re longing for a European vacation, but it’s not in the immediate future, why not get that taste of Europe by visiting the northeast mountains of Georgia where the tiny hamlet of Alpine Helen will quell your appetite for international travel—at least for the time being?

The village of Helen, nestled in the famed Blue Ridge Mountains on the Chattahoochee River, is celebrating its 55th year as a mountain retreat. It features a Bavarian accent, cobblestone alleys, Old World towers, and half-timbered structures reminiscent of its German heritage.

While it’s a great destination for a weekend getaway, you may want to stay longer by expanding your activities from simply sightseeing and shopping to hiking, fishing, ziplining, horseback riding, mountain biking, golfing, or zooming down the mountainside on Georgia’s only alpine coaster. The experiences are virtually endless—so varied that Helen earned the title of “Georgia’s Adventure Destination.”

There are many accommodation options to choose from as you explore this mountainous retreat. More than 1,100 rooms are available within the town’s limits, while outside of town, visitors can stay in cabins or chalets complete with cozy fireplaces amid forest settings.

The Smithgall Mountain Cottage is perfect for a family vacation. Photo by Dene Fagundes.

One place that definitely deserves consideration is Smithgall Cottage, a massive Montana lodge pole home with a cedar shake roof. It has a wraparound porch with rocking chairs, and it sits on a plot of land inside Smithgall Woods State Park where two roaring trout streams converge.

The word “cottage” doesn’t aptly describe this incredible haven. It’s elegantly appointed, filled with countless amenities and ideal for romantic getaways, small weddings, or family gatherings. It’s also an angler’s paradise, with trophy trout and bass located within minutes of the lodge at places like Duke’s Creek on the Chattahoochee River and the lakes formed by the same river. Five miles of pristine wooded trails surrounded by hemlocks and 18 miles of hilly roads let hikers and bikers get in on the action.

The fireplace is a focal point of the Smithgall Cottage Great Room. Photo by Dene Fagundes.

After a fun-filled full day in and around Helen, which could leave you exhausted, the lodge offers the opportunity to stay in, relax, and enjoy a catered seven-course dinner prepared by renowned Chef Monda Dodge, a legend in the Helen environs. The gourmet meal in the comfort of the cottage also includes a selection of fine wines, champagne, and delectable desserts. It’s an impeccable way to conclude a day of sightseeing and adventure.

This German dish of pork chops is a treat for the taste buds. Photo by Dene Fagundes.

The exclusive dinner offering is just one way to enjoy the dining pleasures available throughout Alpine Helen’s variety of eateries. Before setting out the next morning, breakfast beckons at Hofer’s of Helen Bakery and Café on the main thoroughfare of the village. Owner Ralph Hofer serves traditional family-style baked goods and a wide-ranging breakfast and lunch in a cozy setting decorated with hand painted murals.

The selections at Hofer’s Bakery are impossible to pass up. Photo by Dene Fagundes.

Other highly reviewed restaurants in the area include Bodensee Bavarian Restaurant, where master Chef Auril Prodan brings a taste of Old Germany to diners with the help of his wife Doina and his daughter Christine. The trio circulates among the guests, offering tips on cooking, history, and just plain charm that make eating there a distinct pleasure.

The fish at Bodensee Bavarian Restaurant is artfully prepared. Photo by Dene Fagundes.

Another delightful bistro is Cowboys & Angels located along the riverwalk in downtown. It’s one of several restaurants that border the river, giving it an added allure. Cowboys & Angels Restaurant’s fresh aged certified Angus beef or bison is carefully crafted and can be accompanied by tempting sides along with a large selection of domestic beers and extensive wine list. It features indoor and outdoor dining and live music Thursday through Sunday.

It’s a good idea to grab a copy of the local guidebook published by the Alpine Helen-White County CVB. The book contains a comprehensive list of all the dining options in the area along with tips on accommodations, attractions, tours, shopping, sports and other services.

The adventures that beg to be discovered and experienced include the variety of activities happening at Nacoochee Adventures, where you’ll find one of the longest dual ziplines in the U.S. You’ll also find a giant swing, bicycles, a challenge course, camping that features cabins and tree houses, and a canopy tour that’s ideal for birders and lovers of flora and fauna.

Outdoor enthusiasts usually flock to the Unicoi State Park for a chance to hike to the beautiful double waterfall at Anna Ruby Falls in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. (See the Photo of the Falls at the top of this article.) The trail winds up the mountainside along the rambling river. While I found it daunting at times, there are places to rest along the way before reaching the summit. Once there, the beautiful view of these tumbling falls is the ultimate reward.

For a more subdued adventure, visit the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia where you can see the handicraft skills of one of the South’s premier art forms and learn about the changing role of folk pottery in Southern life.

Pottery jugs with faces are treasured by collectors. Photo by Dene Fagundes.

The museum has a number of famous pieces designed by Lanier Meaders, who was best known for face jugs. The Meaders pottery tradition dates back to Lanier’s grandfather, John Milton Meaders, who began the pottery business in the community of Mossy Creek, Georgia.

More historical objects can be found at the Old Sautee Store, in operation since 1872 and now a museum. It provided the local residents with general goods and was even a post office for the valley up until the 1940s. Reminiscent of an old country store, it was the center of a thriving arts community back in the day.

Old Sautee Market has been in operation since the 1800s. Photo by Dene Fagundes.

The Old Sautee Market next door has fresh bread, sandwiches, and old-time drinks for sale. it’s a good place to grab a snack while you continue your journeys.

Nearby is the Nora Mill Granary Grist Mill and Country Store, an operational gristmill since 1876. Utilizing the power of the Chattahoochee River, the Mill uses its original 1,500 French Burr stones to grind and produce various corn and wheat-based products.

Another hallmark of White County is the plethora of vineyards in the region. There are eight wineries, and some offer tours and wine tastings. One notable vineyard that includes inspiring views along with its celebrated wines is Yonah Mountain Vineyard nestled at the southeastern base of iconic Yonah Mountain.

The Yonah Winery is a perfect venue for weddings or a wine tasting. Photo by Dene Fagundes.

The rolling hills and sandy soil are perfect for cultivation of grapes for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

If you’re lucky during your visit, you may get to hear family patriarch Bob Miller perform at the piano while you enjoy your sampling of wine. Bob and his wife, Jane, purchased nearly 200 acres in 2005 and began their dream of winemaking in the rich Georgia soil.

The Yonah Winery exudes elegance. Photo by Dene Fagundes.

On the second Sunday of every month, the winery offers visitors the opportunity to sample its wines against some of the most renowned wines from around the world. The 90-minute program is held in the elegant Vineyard Ballroom and includes a gourmet charcuterie pairing curated by Bob. On occasion, there are live music performances at the estate.

I had this thought during my time in Helen: Helen of Troy was regarded as one of the most beautiful people in the world. Helen, Georgia, surely ranks as one of the most beautiful places in the world.

The author of this article received some complimentary food and accommodations, but as always, we are dedicated to providing honest assessments of our experiences without bias. Our allegiance is to our readers.

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Helen: A Georgia Town With A European Flavor


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