Georgia on Her Mind

I love the mountains. Maybe it’s because I crave change, and so I feast on the way the clouds continually transform the mountainsides with their playful dance of shadow and light.

Maybe it’s simply because I have lived most of my days in the rolling hills of Belmont County. I wonder, would I stand in awe and admiration of pancake-flat prairies and cornfields if I had grown up in Kansas? Perhaps.

But it’s the mountains that call me and where I make my escapes, as often as motherhood and career will allow. My most recent getaway took me to the Blue Ridge Mountains in north Georgia, where the ancient Appalachian range begins, or ends, depending on your perspective.

The region has exploded in the past 10 years or so, with housing popping up on hillsides at every turn. Floridians and Atlantans looking for a retreat from the heat find refreshment, relaxation and recreation in North Georgia’s small towns that brim with antique shops, gold mine and pottery museums, historical sites, Cherokee Indian mounds, art galleries and outdoor pursuits such as hiking, birdwatching, whitewater kayaking and tubing lazily down the Chattahoochee River.

For those who want a home with an unspoiled view, it’s getting harder and harder to come by. But state parks and national forests abound, protecting much of the area from development.

There are no fewer than 12 state parks in the region, offering such natural wonders as the 1,000-foot-deep Tallulah Gorge on the far northeastern border and the 729-foot Amicalola Falls near Dahlonega, which is the tallest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River.

Dahlonega, in Lumpkin County, is the perfect home base for exploring the region. It is centrally located and has plenty to offer visitors, including a thriving arts scene, unique shops, great food, stunning scenery and several wineries.

Visitors can take walking tours in the historical district, learn about the first major U.S. gold rush at the Gold Museum in the center of the town square (formerly the county court house) and then pause for lunch at Wiley’s Back Porch Oyster Bar or the Crimson Moon Cafe, followed by a gelato at Twinkles Retro Cafe.

Then one might spend the afternoon browsing the art galleries and shops — don’t miss out on the 5-cent cup of coffee at the General Store — before feasting again on Southern home cooking, served family style, at the famous Smith House, which serves the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted. The Smith House is also the site of a 30-foot-deep abandoned gold mine shaft discovered by construction workers in 2006 while replacing a concrete floor.

Most weekends, visitors looking for evening entertainment are spoiled for choice. Several local venues, including Crimson Moon, offer live music, and the Holly Theatre stages live performances throughout the year. We had the good fortune on the Friday night of our visit to hear the Celtic fusion band Emerald Rose playing an intimate show at Crimson Moon. The four-man band hails from North Georgia but has played far and wide, most notably appearing on the soundtracks of “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings.” The kilted lads also had the pleasure of performing at two “Lord of the Rings” Oscar parties.

After exploring the historic square, visitors can head off to the surrounding region for outdoor pursuits, among them, horseback riding at nearby Gold City Corral located on the grounds of Forrest Hills Resort. Trail rides last an hour, two hours or half a day and are led by owners Les and Tia Strader or their stable hands. Les Strader is one of those leather-skinned, wizened, tough-guy characters who entertains visitors with stories about his days playing guitar for big-time acts such as The Judds and Jimmy Buffett and his experiences handling horses on movie sets for stars like Harry Connick Jr.

We stayed at a delightful three-bedroom Victorian cottage at Forrest Hills, a family owned and operated resort with a sprawling wooded campus of cabins, cottages and lodges located in the middle of nowhere about 15 minutes west of Dahlonega. Destination weddings are Forrest Hills’ bread and butter — they do hundreds a year — but the spot is also popular for family reunions, conferences, corporate retreats and romantic getaways. All cabins have either wood-burning or gas fireplaces and hot tubs. Many of them have been completely redecorated in the past year.

Three generations of the Kraft family have put blood, sweat and tears into the resort, which brother and sister David and Denise started building in 1978 with only hand saws, a chain saw, a hammer and nails, and no electricity or running water for the first 10 months. They were 17 and 19 years old, respectively, at the time. Forrest Hills was the first in the area to offer hot tub getaways, and they are on the cutting edge again as they prepare to open a wellness center this spring that will include life coaching, raw foods, massage, colonics, body wraps and more.

We met David and Denise when they stopped by our table at breakfast on Saturday — between busing tables and refilling the scrambled eggs on the breakfast buffet. Their rock-solid work ethic and enthusiasm for what they do were evident. I look forward to returning to Forrest Hills some day. The accommodations and beautiful surroundings are exactly what I look for in a getaway destination.

Other outdoor pursuits in the area include hiking at the state parks, such as Amicalola Falls, Unicoi near Helen or Vogel near Blairsville; cycling the area’s scenic roads; and rafting or canoeing on the Etowah, Chestatee or Chattahoochee rivers. Golfers and anglers also will find plenty of venues to practice their sports.

Wine is a relatively new venture in North Georgia, and Dahlonega is home to no fewer than five wineries, including Blackstock, Frogtown Cellars, Three Sisters, Wolf Mountain and Montalvina. Tours and tastings are available at all the vineyards, and Wolf Mountain offers a Sunday jazz brunch. Those who don’t want to visit the individual vineyards can stop in at the Dahlonega Tasting Room on the square to try all of the wines.

There is plenty to do for families, too. Children might get a kick out of panning for gold and gemstones at one of several local mines. The area is also home to the Kangaroo Conservation Center, with its 300 kangaroos — the largest collection outside Australia; and the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve, with more than 125 species of exotic and domestic animals including big cats, camels and reptiles.

Gen-Xers might want to make a stop in Cleveland, where Xavier Roberts made the first Cabbage Patch Kids 30 years ago. The “so-ugly-they’re-cute” dolls are “born” at Babyland General Hospital in downtown Cleveland. A child can order a custom doll through the “planned parenthood” program, picking the doll’s hair color, eye color and name; then she can watch as Mama Cabbage delivers the baby, with the help of Dr. John, who makes it a big production, complete with a slap on the rear and the counting of fingers and toes.

The custom dolls, which have the original soft faces, cost more than $200 to adopt; but the hospital and gift shop are filled with “kids” of all shapes, sizes and prices, christened with names like Presley Maia, Kristen Willow and Johnny Rafael. (I’m told the factory workers name each Cabbage Patch Kid after checking a master list to ensure the name is unique.)

Traveling 20 minutes north of Cleveland on Georgia Highway 75, one seems to be spirited thousands of miles away to a picturesque German Alpine village. Helen, in White County, is a must-see for visitors to North Georgia. The old logging and gold mining town was dying out, so the town fathers 39 years ago decided to capitalize on its mountain scenery and “alpinize” the village in order to make it a tourist destination. From cobbled sidewalks to old-world minarets, to colorful gingerbread, the Bavarian architecture is ubiquitous. The town offers more than 200 specialty and import shops, restaurants — including several offering authentic German fare — and the experience of “tubing the ‘Hooch” as two outfits rent inner tubes for floating down the Chattahoochee River, which flows right through town.

As one might imagine, Helen celebrates Oktoberfest in grand style — this year’s festival runs from Sept. 11 through Nov. 2 and includes a grand parade and entertainment in the enormous town Festhalle. Lederhosen-clad musicians pump out polka music, and visitors can sample a variety of German beers.

Charlemagne’s Kingdom offers a model-train lover’s Alpine paradise year-round, and other Helen attractions include the Alpine Antique Auto & Buggy Museum, the challenging Innsbruck Gold Course, horse and buggy rides, Anna Ruby Falls State Park, the Sautee Covered Bridge and General Store, Nacoochee Village (shops and restaurants), haunted Helen tours, dinner theaters and mini golf.

We stayed in a modern townhome decorated in a Tuscan theme in downtown Helen, owned by Lou Ann and Art Connor, proprietors of Black Forest Bed and Breakfast just up the street. We enjoyed a breakfast of fresh fruit and spicy apple pancakes with homemade cider sauce, cooked by the B&B’s live-in manager Paul Richard.

Afterward, Lou Ann Connor gave us a tour of the inn next door that offers three suites and the mountainside cabins up above the main house.

All the rooms feature whirlpool tubs, many of them heart-shaped, and each has a different decor, such as Victorian, Bavarian or rustic, accented by stunningly realistic stenciled artwork created by an Atlanta artist. The stencils are made to look, for instance, like a vase sitting on top of a bureau or a shelf of plates above sliding glass doors or a grandfather clock standing in the corner. The Connors also offer riverside townhome and condo rentals and a local limo service.

I’ve only just returned and I’m ready to go back.