Georgia Days: Spring Break Daytrips from Athens

March 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Spring break doesn’t have to be all about going to the beach and getting air-brushed t-shirts.

For students remaining in Athens, there are plenty of options nearby for daytrips.  During the busy school year, with studying and seasons of sports, most don’t have the opportunity to escape on the weekends.  Now is the perfect time to explore Athens’ neighboring towns for a breath of fresh air and a change of scenery.

1.  Madison

Hop on the Loop 10 and take old Highway 441 across to historic Madison.  A living picture postcard of the old South, antebellum homes and moss-draped trees line the borders of one of Georgia’s oldest towns.  There are plenty of antique stores, historic sites and tempting dining options in the downtown area to keep visitors busy for the day.  If you want to plan ahead for a unique experience, check out nearby Hard Labor Creek State Park for outdoor fun, Bruce Weiner’s Micro-Car museum or Southern Cross Guest Ranch for horseback riding in Madison’s scenic rural countryside.

2.  Elberton

The Georgia Guidestones, known as the American Stonehenge of the Southeast, are a fascinating landmark in Elberton, Ga. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Just up Highway 72 is the “granite capital of the world,” but don’t let the rocks fool you.  This sleepy Southern town is full of captivating stories and friendly faces. Elberton is home to two of Georgia’s best state parks, Richard B. Russell and Bobby Brown State Parks.  Lake Russell was the stage for Olympic rowing in 1996 and has remained a place for rowers to practice.  Bobby Brown’s lake also has a history – on a clear day, the remains of one of Georgia’s first sites, St. Petersburg, can be seen at the bottom of the lake.  Either park is a great place to stretch out on the beach by the lake and work on your spring break tan.  And don’t forget to visit the Georgia Guidestones, “America’s Stonehenge” of the South, before you leave town.

3.  Washington

Continuing a theme of history, Washington remains one of Georgia’s spotlight Southern belle towns.  A living piece of history, Washington is home to gingerbread-trimmed restored residences and old plantations, most notably the 3,000-acre Callaway Plantation.  Washington is also known for its gourmet cuisine and Southern comfort restaurants.  For good eats and historic treats, spend a day in Washington exploring what life was like when Jefferson Davis walked the streets.

4.  North Georgia Mountains & State Parks

Walking trails surround the lake at Stone Mountain Park. One will lead you to the historic Carillon, juxtaposed by the marina. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Almost any destination in the North Georgia Mountains is accessible from Highway 441.  Whether you want to tube down the Chattahoochee River in Helen or expand your fitness level by hiking Tallulah Gorge, any town or park in the Northeastern corner of Georgia will provide a cool, refreshing escape from the daily grind.  Likewise, check out a listing of Georgia’s state parks to see if one fits your wilderness fancy.  From pedal boats to mini golf to horseback riding, state parks provide outdoor fun at a small price.

5.  Atlanta & Stone Mountain Park

Ready to move the party to another city?  Get out of Athens and if you haven’t before, explore downtown Atlanta.  The shopping, cuisine and entertainment scene is endless.  Stop by Zoo Atlanta, the Georgia Aquarium or catch a concert or game at Philips Arena.  Looking to sidestep the busy city streets?  Drive out to Stone Mountain Park and climb or ride the Skyride to the top of one of Georgia’s most beloved landmarks.

Ashley Strickland is a senior majoring in magazines from Alpharetta, Ga.  She writes the Georgia Days travel column for Grady Journal.

Georgia Days: Fall in the Foothills

October 4, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Red Top Mountain State Park sits on picturesque Lake Allatoona.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Red Top Mountain State Park sits on picturesque Lake Allatoona. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

With the arrival of that crisp snap in the air, fall is the perfect time to explore Georgia’s hidden northwest country.  While the mountainous northeastern corner has long been a seasonal playground for locals, the foothills of the Appalachian and Cohutta Mountains are pristine and just as rich in history. Embrace the unexpected pleasure of early fall this weekend by exploring the trails of Red Top Mountain State park and its surrounding treasures.

Once a popular site for mining, Red Top Mountain State Park is now a place for families to enjoy simple pleasures.  12.5 miles of hiking and biking trails wend around 12,000-acre Lake Allatoona and the cluster of red iron-ore mountains.  The trails, ranging from comfortably paved to roughly challenging, are dotted with historic structures and landmarks.  The reconstructed 1860s log cabin, located on the paved trail, is a favorite on Saturdays when park rangers open it for tours and demonstrations.

Red Top Mountain State Park offers many events throughout the fall.  This weekend, visitors can step back in time for “The Battle of Allatoona Pass,” a reenactment of the famous Civil War battle that happened in 1864.  Also coming up are the Halloween Hayrides, complete with spooky stories told around campfires.

In addition to the beautifully sculpted foothills of northwest Georgia, your journey will also reveal “Georgia’s land of cowboys, Southern legends” and Native Americans.  Cartersville and its neighboring towns are full of natural wonders and historical sites.

This stairway leads to the top of the 63-feet temple mound, tallest of the Etowah Indian Mounds.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

This stairway leads to the top of the 63-feet temple mound, tallest of the Etowah Indian Mounds. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Downtown Cartersville is home to the Booth Western Art Museum and Tellus: Northwest Georgia Science Museum.  Eye-catching statues depicting legends of the Old West are on display outside the Booth Western Art Museum. Inside is a unique collection of contemporary Western American Art, which includes additional galleries on the Civil War, movie posters, presidents and a visiting exhibit called “Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography.”  If you want to see the Old West and cowboys come to life, this is the museum for you.  Tellus, a recent addition, is similar to Fernbank.  Due to its popularity, the museum is open daily.  It features one and a half football fields of fossils, minerals, technology and hands-on science exhibits.  Tellus also has a planetarium with stargazing events, an excellent ending to any daytrip.  Downtown is filled with other museums, so check out all of the attractions to see what fits your interests best.

This Native American woman is just one of many beautiful bronze Old West legend statues on display outside of the Booth Western Art Museum.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

This Native American woman is just one of many beautiful bronze Old West legend statues on display outside of the Booth Western Art Museum. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Barnsley Gardens Resort is conveniently located just outside of Cartersville.  In the 1860s, Union general James McPherson considered Barnsley Gardens to be “one of the most beautiful spots on earth” and the antebellum mansion was spared from being burned during Sherman’s March to the Sea.  Today, the mansion exists only in ruins, but the shell stands in rustic contrast to the boxwood mazes and flourishing gardens.  The gardens are a backdrop for the now-popular resort, complete with a golf course, day spa, restaurants, quail preserve and horseback riding.  The gardens are ideal for a daytrip or a relaxing vacation a world away from urban life.

A red sunset in Georgia's northwest foothills is a beautiful ending to a fall day.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

A red sunset in Georgia's northwest foothills is a beautiful ending to a fall day. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Nearby is one of Georgia’s most famous historic sites, the Etowah Indian Mounds.  Three, flat-topped earthen temple mounds rise stately above the Etowah River to tell the story of a forgotten past.  The mounds were once home to thousands of Native Americans during the Mississippian Period, 1000 to 1500 AD.  Now, stairs lead visitors to the top of these majestic mounds, the tallest being over 63 feet high.  It is a spiritual experience to stand in the same place where the root of our culture began over a thousand years ago.  The view is also breathtaking.  After strolling by the Etowah River, you can visit the archaeological museum that tells the story of how the mounds came to be and the people who built them.

Step outside into the cool fall air and let Georgia give up some of her scintillating secrets this weekend.  It may be just the soulful escape you need during this inspiring time of year.

Ashley Strickland is a senior majoring in magazines at the University of Georgia.  She is happy that Georgia is actually experiencing lovely fall weather.

Georgia Days: Zoo Atlanta

September 15, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Budgies, or parakeets, are Zoo Atlanta's latest attraction.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Budgies, or parakeets, are Zoo Atlanta's latest attraction. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Sandwiched between the busy five-day grind of our daily lives, weekends offer respite and relaxation. Depending on the situation, they mainly allow two days to catch up on an entire week of stress and work. Enter the lost art form of the daytrip back into your life and you just may reclaim your weekends.

So, why Zoo Atlanta? To be honest, it’s just fun. It reawakens the child within to let go of all the stress and enjoy life. But there are also some great things going on at Zoo Atlanta that you may not know about.

As always, beautiful pink flamingos are the first sight welcoming you at Zoo Atlanta. Their graceful poses set the slow pace for your visit. From this point, the path takes a new turn that is worth the time to explore. A unique opportunity waits in the parakeet house, where “real live fun has landed” in the form of budgies.  Budgies, or Budgerigars, are colorful and social parakeets. These Australian birds only grow to about seven inches tall. If you’ve always wanted to feed the animals at the zoo, Boundless Budgies is for you. Seed sticks are available for a dollar, and you can feed the birds in an open-air habitat where hundreds of parakeets zoom around.  The parakeets will usually light on the stick to eat the sesame seeds, giving you an up-close look at their beautiful coloring and expressive faces. Bring the camera, as this makes for a great photo-op.

Visit the Asian Forest to see Zoo Atlanta's famous pandas.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Visit the Asian Forest to see Zoo Atlanta's famous pandas. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Next, venture on to the African Plains, where black rhinos, giraffes and zebras roam. Lions, elephants and playful meerkats also have their own enclosures in this area. Next is the Ford African Rain Forest, and the highlight is the gorilla conservation center. You can satisfy your curiosity about these intelligent mammals from many different vantage points and interactive educational centers around the area. Some watch for hours because gorillas are so entertaining and familial. Baboons and other monkeys live in a nearby habitat and The Living Tree offers a fun treetop walkway through an aviary and lemur habitat.

The Asian Forest is perhaps the most popular exhibit at Zoo Atlanta. Languid orangutans, entertaining otters and shy naked mole rats are all fun to visit, but the pandas are what make this exhibit famous. The conservation center offers a close-up look at these adorable bears from behind the safety of glass, allowing for pictures. Whether shredding bamboo for lunch, reclining on a log or just looking cute, the pandas are worth whatever wait you endure to see them. Also in this area are the World of Reptiles house, the red panda, tigers and a clouded leopard.  You may have to come back if the tiger doesn’t make his regal appearance; seeing him this close up is a rare and wonderful opportunity.

Golden lion tamarins are free to roam Zoo Atlanta because of the GPS collars they wear.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Golden lion tamarins are free to roam Zoo Atlanta because of the GPS collars they wear. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Finally, it’s time to go down under in the KIDzone catch-all exhibit. Kangaroos and wallabies hop around as kookaburras sing. Exotic birds and owls pose on branches right across from the wetlands, where alligators wait, deadly but silent, for their next prey.  There is also an interactive petting zoo where visitors jump right in the corral with hogs, goats and sheep. But the best reason to end your visit here is the golden lion tamarins. These tiny longhair monkeys have free reign of the zoo. They wear GPS collars that allow zoo employees to find them, but they mostly run around in their favorite trees or sit on swinging ropes to stare at passersby. Their faces are humanlike and engaging, making them a favorite. They also have a unique story, which is told through the conservationists trying to help them here and in the wild.

Get ready for an excellent adventure and set out early for a day at the zoo. With the arrival of cooler temperatures, midday at the zoo is not as hot as it was during the summer, but morning is a good time to see the animals interacting with one another. There are also fewer people visiting in the morning. You can choose to eat at one of the many cafes within the zoo or wait until afterwards to grab something at your favorite Atlanta restaurant. Picnics are also a fun idea for Grant Park, where the zoo is located. And if you want an all-inclusive look at the zoo, the train is a fun way to take it all in. Curious about programs, becoming a volunteer or when special exhibits are coming to the zoo? The website offers details on all of these, plus great ticket discounts.

A soldier poses in front of the Cyclorama.  The civil war museum is conveniently located right next-door to Zoo Atlanta and offers a historic diversion.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

A soldier poses in front of the Cyclorama. The civil war museum is conveniently located right next-door to Zoo Atlanta and offers a historic diversion. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

After a day at the zoo, you may not want to immerse yourself in history, but should the urge arise, the Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum is literally next-door. Here, you can “step into the story of the Battle of Atlanta” by viewing the largest painting in the world, view war artifacts and the Texas steam engine, which had a role in the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862. And if you’re lucky, there just may be a soldier standing guard as you pass by.

Reclaim the weekend through exciting daytrips that allow you to create your own adventure. And as always, have fun. You never know what the next weekend will bring.

Georgia Days: Toccoa Falls and Tallulah Gorge

August 31, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Toccoa Falls remains a natural gem on the Toccoa Falls College campus for students and visitors alike.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Toccoa Falls remains a natural gem on the Toccoa Falls College campus for students and visitors alike. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Tucked away in the eastern most corner of the state is magnificent Tallulah Gorge, a two-mile long canyon that drops down 1,000 feet to reveal a succession of six waterfalls. It has been called the “Niagara of the South,” but here we refer to it as an “outdoor treasure.”  We may be entering a season of commitment to school and work, but we should always make time to escape our responsibilities.  After all, that’s what weekends are for.

There is nothing like jumping in your car and just driving up to the mountains.  For this reason, Georgia gets many tourists, especially in the fall, but many Georgians take our beautifully sculpted backyard for granted.  Driving up the old highways that slowly become wending mountain roads exposes a bevy of unique little towns, each with their own quirks and attractions.  If you blink, you may even miss one.  But here is our heritage, our history and the remnants of a culture we tend to forget, so admire the scenery or jump out for a walk around an old town square.

If you’re heading for Tallulah, Clarkesville makes a nice lunchtime stop.  After you enjoy some homemade pizza at Zanzo’s, Tallulah is only a bit further.  But signs dot the side of the road with arrows tempting you in another direction.  And when one of these comes along, I have to agree with Bob Dylan: “What’s life without the occasional detour?”

Toccoa is one of those easily missed small towns, although it trumps the surrounding ones in size and reputation because it is home to the popular Toccoa Falls College.  After driving through the surrounding mountainous country, you may consider transferring to the four-year accredited Christian college.  The beauty of the college is its natural attraction, the falls themselves.  Toccoa Falls drops for 186 feet, making it taller than Niagara Falls, and the base is easily accessible from a gravel footpath just 100 yards from the parking lot.  Not so long ago, visitors began this simple trek at the Gate Cottage, which housed a restaurant and gift shop, where they paid a dollar to see the falls.  Now a sooty shell of the wood and stone structure built in 1939 stands wrapped in caution tape.  A fire destroyed the historic building in January and the cause of the fire remains unknown.  However, the former glory of the Gate Cottage is only one of many solemn reminders of tragedy at this beautiful, haunting spot.

A stone marker bears the names of the 39 victims of the Toccoa Falls flood that took place on November 6, 1977.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

A stone marker bears the names of the 39 victims of the Toccoa Falls flood that took place on November 6, 1977. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

As you walk along the Toccoa River listening to the rush of water, the source is obscured by canopying trees.  Then the falls are unveiled, where many stop to stare at the cascading sheet of water as it feeds into the river.  But just before you reach the falls, there is a wooden sign and a stone marker.  Manifestations of the past, they teach and remind others of what else lingers here besides the falls: 39 people perished here in a flood.

It happened on November 6, 1977.  Pounded by five days of pouring rain, the Kelly Barnes Lake and its 40-year-old earthen dam, located above the falls, began to swell with 176 million gallons of water.  As Toccoa Falls College students, faculty and their families slept below, the dam burst at 1:30 a.m.  A 30-foot wall of water immediately descended upon the campus, taking boulders and trees with it to sweep through residence halls, campus buildings and homes.  The racing, icy waters took 39 adults, students and children in mere seconds.  The water ripped through the town as well, but people from all across the state and the U.S. rushed in to piece it back together.  This true tale of tragedy, faith and recovery still permeates the campus today.  32 years later, the lost are forever remembered through the story that resides on the marker at the base of Toccoa Falls.  It is worth the time to take the detour for Toccoa Falls.  Perhaps it will make you appreciate the day even more.

Tallulah Gorge and the Ladore Falls can be seen from the Hawthorne Overlook.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Tallulah Gorge and the Ladore Falls can be seen from the Hawthorne Overlook. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Visiting Toccoa Falls is the perfect precursor to Tallulah Gorge.  Travel for a bit of highway time, and road signs will point you towards the Tallulah Gorge Overlook. Since 1912, the touristy spot has been offering the only “free” roadside view of the gorge.  But observing the view from their “gorge-front porch” will definitely make you want to buy something for the road, whether it be a classic Ne-Hi Orange Soda, a ‘50s style waist apron, homemade crafts and snacks, charming mountain souvenirs or outdoorsy gear for camping.  You could even pick up a rustic Don Bundrick swing or a pair of concrete cowboy boots for the porch at home.  Here, nostalgia, tradition and mountain culture are king.  They also offer a chalkboard of directions to the best places to view the falls and gorge.  Take note?  Definitely.

The Bridal Veil falls are just one of six waterfalls that can be seen cascading through Tallulah Gorge.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

The Bridal Veil falls are just one of six waterfalls that can be seen cascading through Tallulah Gorge. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Tallulah Gorge State Park offers many great ways to spend the day, from fishing and swimming in the Tallulah River to biking and hiking the gorge walls, but many walk the South and North rim trails for the best vantage points.  Visit the Jane Hurt Yarn Center before you begin the trek to learn about the different trails, the intriguing history of Tallulah and the two brave souls that walked across the gorge, Professor Leon (1886) and Karl Wallenda (1970).  One overlook will take you through the woods to the base of the tower Karl Wallenda used to cross the gorge.  Standing here, it is nearly impossible to imagine Wallenda crossing the gorge without the security of a safety net.

A lizard relaxes on a tree 1,000 feet from the bottom of Tallulah Gorge.  The gorge is home to many fragile species that enjoy the pristine environment.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

A lizard relaxes on a tree 1,000 feet from the bottom of Tallulah Gorge. The gorge is home to many fragile species that enjoy the pristine environment. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

The Hawthorne Overlook offers a view of the six falls: Tempesta, Hurricane, Oceana, Bridal Veil, Lover’s Leap and Ladore (L’eau d’or or “water of gold”).  Once a raging single waterfall and river, Georgia Power harnessed the water for electricity by building a dam in 1913.  Kayakers and rafters especially enjoy the increased flow of scheduled water releases. To get a closer look at the six small falls, you can take the strenuous Hurricane Falls trail.  Comprised of 1099 steps down, it leads to a suspension bridge, which allows you to cross the gorge.  Be warned: the climb back up is definitely strenuous.

Anytime is a good time to visit Toccoa Falls and Tallulah Gorge, but now through fall is an especially scenic time to witness all of the greenery as it shifts to red, gold and orange. Check the calendar, as well as the forecast, to plan your trip.  Tallulah Gorge has regularly scheduled events that allow visitors to hike the gorge floor, canoe the lake or witness the gorge at night through “full moon hikes.”

Reconnect with the past by indulging in the simple pleasure of visiting some of Georgia’s natural wonders.  It is a trip you will never forget, and one you will want to make many more times.

Ashley Strickland is a senior majoring in magazines at the University of Georgia.  She writes her “Georgia Days” column weekly to highlight travel opportunities in her beloved home state.

Georgia Days: Hiawassee’s Mountain Fair

July 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

An old water wheel still powers a machine that grinds corn into grits and cornmeal as fair-goers pass by.  (Photo/Linda Strickland)An old water wheel still powers a machine that grinds corn into grits and cornmeal as fair-goers pass by. (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Any way you go is sculpted and scenic throughout the North Georgia Mountains.  Wending along the curvy roads up to Hiawassee will either take your through Helen, which is bustling with tubing enthusiasts, or Blairsville and Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia.  The roads are mere ribbons, gracefully looping the shoulder blades and undulating spine of North Georgia’s mountainous country.  They will eventually deliver you to Hiawassee and the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds, cozily situated on glistening Lake Chatuge.  Welcome to “the show place of the mountains.”

Hiawassee is a sleepy little town with a breathtaking view of the surrounding lake and mountains.  The cool air feels as though the town borders the East Coast, making it an excellent escape during our sweltering summer months.  But the town comes alive and brings people from all across the country together for the Georgia Mountain Fair.  A Georgia institution since 1950, it has been attracting huge crowds year after year.  This year’s fair began last Wednesday, July 15, and runs through July 25, this Saturday.

The colorful Ferris Wheel is just one of the many fun rides at the Georgia Mountain Fair carnival.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

The colorful Ferris Wheel is just one of the many fun rides at the Georgia Mountain Fair carnival. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Rustic craft booths line the paved pathways where visitors can admire and purchase crafts from artists, ranging from pottery and leather goods to wind chimes made from wine bottles and homemade peach ice cream.  Haunting melodies from a Native American flutist meld with a cheerful “magic piano” to follow you along the trail.  This segues into the historic Pioneer Village, which gives visitors an opportunity to step back in time to see what life in Hiawassee was once like “back in the day.”  The structures are the real deal – preserved cabins, shops and even an old schoolhouse are full of original tools.  Blacksmithing demonstrations as well as cider-making and log-sawing appear at every bend in the path.  Restored tractors are just across the way from an old, creaking water wheel that grinds corn into cornmeal, grits and flour.  The sweet smell of Southern fair specialties, from fried apple pies to freshly made kettle corn to sizzling pancakes from the local Logan Turnpike Mill stand are suspended in the air, just taunting you to try something special.

The Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds have something for everyone.  In addition to the fair, many attractions surround the fairgrounds.  Carnival rides and games are juxtaposed colorfully against the rustic appeal of the fair.  The Anderson Music Hall hosts concerts during the fair (and all year round) from big name acts, mostly of a country nature.  The Exhibit Hall showcases 56 years of Georgia Mountain Fair memorabilia, as well as collections of antique machinery, the current year’s top prize-winning homemade goods and jams and a unique museum of personal collections (the camera collection is a favorite).  There is also the Outdoor Amphitheater, namely for dancers and cloggers, as well as the Garden Club’s flower show and the Hamilton Rhododendron Gardens, which line the shores of Lake Chatuge with over 3,000 blossoming bushes.

The top of Brasstown Bald offers a breathtaking view of the shoulder blades and undulating spine of North Georgia's mountainous country.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

The top of Brasstown Bald offers a breathtaking view of the shoulder blades and undulating spine of North Georgia's mountainous country. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Before you go, be sure to check out the calendar to see who will be performing concerts.  Hiawassee also hosts other fairs and events throughout the year, including the classic car show Moonshine Cruize-In and the fall festival, which are not to be missed.  And while up in the mountains, why not take the different scenic routes to surround yourself in the inviting splendor?  Brasstown Bald offers cool temperatures with crisp fresh air (60 degrees in July!) and an awe-inspiring view of Georgia’s rolling, serpentine mountains. Vogel State Park, one of the oldest in the state, is nestled at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest.  It makes for a serene stop to enjoy a picnic or stretch your legs along its beautiful lake and beach.

Take advantage of this unseasonably cool week in July to visit Hiawassee and the Georgia Mountain Fair.  One trip will be all you need to start considering some cozy cabin property in the simple beauty of the North Georgia Mountains.

Georgia Days: Home on the Ranch

June 19, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

The goats are just one of many entertaining sights to see at the Ranch.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland) The goats are just one of many entertaining sights to see at the Ranch. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Summer has finally come to Georgia and its arrival seems to bring out the kid in everyone. It is a time for nostalgia, reclaiming that unique “fun in the sun” feeling that just doesn’t exist during the rest of the year. Whether you’re still working through these hot and humid months or out for the summer, this is the season to make time for fun and feel like a kid again. A great way to turn back the clock is by visiting your favorite childhood haunts from summers before. You may discover that they still hold the same mysticism that they did years ago.

Just 2 ½ miles from Stone Mountain Park is the Yellow River Game Ranch, one of Georgia’s undiscovered gems and a favorite for those still young at heart. Their slogan is “like a zoo, only better,” and it rings true. The game ranch consists of a mile long trail wending through 24 acres of Georgia’s woods where guests can encounter over 600 birds and animals indigenous to the state. The Yellow River can be heard rushing alongside the wooded path.

Roosters and chickens strut their stuff all across the Game Ranch.  (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Roosters and chickens strut their stuff all across the Game Ranch. (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Like a zoo, some of the animals reside in cages while others are free to move about in their pens. However, what makes the ranch unique is how sociable they allow the animals to be. Whitetail Deer will walk up to eat right out of your hand, easily slipping around the rope fences that are meant as more of a boundary for humans than animals. Peacocks, chickens, roosters and ducks all roam freely as well and may follow you around if they please. They also have a petting zoo area for the barnyard animals: kid goats, donkeys, cows, turkeys, sheep, pigs, hogs and geese. Bunnies get their own burrow enclosure where visitors can come inside to pet and hold them. The animals in cages are the ones you wouldn’t want roaming freely, like the black bears, cougars, bobcats, buffalo, foxes and raccoons. And don’t forget to visit the ranch’s claim to fame, General Beauregard Lee, the South’s favorite groundhog, who happens to have his own Twitter account.

While these animals may not be so exotic to you if you’ve encountered them in your backyard, they have a lot of heart. Most of the ranch animals have been rescued and would not have survived on their own in the wild. They have their imperfections, scars from another life where they encountered harm, but are just as lovable. Others are old favorites from the original Stone Mountain Park Wildlife Preserve now living in a new home. Mischievous squirrels and chipmunks even make their presence known and aren’t shy about walking up with their paws out, looking for a nut. They will even take it out of your hand if you get close enough.

The deer at the Yellow River Game Ranch will walk up to eat right out of your hand.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

The deer at the Yellow River Game Ranch will walk up to eat right out of your hand. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

The main charm of the Yellow River Game Ranch is its rustic appeal. However, as someone who has been visiting the ranch since early childhood, let me offer some advice. Rustic means rustic; the game ranch allows you to get close to nature for a certain price. Much of the path is unpaved and the dirt trail presents tree roots or other surprises, so wear shoes that are easy to walk in that you don’t mind getting dirty. It’s dirty, dusty, hot and smelly, but it’s a great fun summer adventure. Also, bring some stale bread, nuts, crackers, carrots or apples with you if you can. The animals are always happy to have a snack. If you forget, the gift shop sells animal-friendly food. And if you are really ready to step back into childhood, you can buy a plush version of your favorite animal at the end of the trip. If you enjoy capturing memories or exciting images with your camera, the ranch is one big opportunity for up close and personal shots of your children or friends interacting with Georgia’s beautiful animals.

The calls of colorful peacocks can be heard throughout your stroll of the game ranch.  (Photo/Linda Strickland)

The calls of colorful peacocks can be heard throughout your stroll of the game ranch. (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Right now is a great time to visit the ranch; newborn fawns will be making their shy appearances throughout June and July. The babies are absolutely adorable with their spotted coats, but they are something to view from afar. Just make sure and give the babies their space, as they are still terrified of people and sticking close to their mothers, hence the ranch’s “don’t touch” policy concerning fawns. But the older deer, goats, sheep, bunnies and donkeys seem to enjoy the love and attention. Check Freddie’s Calendar on the website before going, as the ranch has events with the animals scheduled year round.  And while you’re so close to Stone Mountain, why not combine the two and make a day of it?  The Lasershow Spectacular is a great way to unwind after a long, hot day at the Game Ranch.

Shrug off one of those lazy days of summer to get out and embrace adventure at the Yellow River Game Ranch. You may find yourself younger at heart on the trail.

Georgia Days: Marietta’s Memorial

May 22, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Cresting a hill on Roswell Road, they come into view: Little white stone markers sticking up above the crumbling stone walls of the cemetery and fanning out over 23 acres. 

The Marietta National Cemetery is the poignant gateway to historic downtown.  (Photo/Linda Strickland)

The Marietta National Cemetery is the poignant gateway to historic downtown. (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Of the endless rows marking where Civil War Union officers and soldiers are buried, many of the white stones simply say, “Unknown.” The states of Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin beneath the names reveal just how far they marched from home, only to die in an unfamiliar place. Marietta National Cemetery, dedicated to the defenders of the Union, gave these men a final resting place and continues to maintain their space with loving care. Today, the Union soldiers rest amongst Marietta’s veterans from WWI to Vietnam. And on Memorial Day, each grave will proudly bear an American flag, so that the men and women who forged our future are never forgotten. Marietta takes care of her heroes that way.

Although most use the infamous “Big Chicken” to point you towards Marietta, the cemetery stands as a monument to the past and is the gateway to the historic downtown square. As you enter the historic district, Marietta Square is cozily inviting and stands as the heartbeat of the city. Stepping in any direction from this point will lead you to many of the attractive qualities this 175-year-old Southern Belle possesses. Bordered by historic museums, independent restaurants, quirky shops and two fabulous theaters, downtown Marietta has something for every visitor.

To experience all Marietta has to offer, start with the locals. Just along the train tracks, you’ll find the old Western & Atlantic Railroad passenger depot, now home to the Welcome Center. The cheerful ladies at the Welcome Center & Visitors Bureau are only too happy to tell you everything you need to know when visiting their favorite town. Brochures, souvenirs and cordial advice are all available and from this part of the city. The options are endless. If you’re looking to soak up Marietta’s fascinating history, they will tell you to go right next door to the Marietta Museum of History inside of the historic Kennesaw House, an enduring landmark of the Civil War. With multiple galleries detailing the varied facets of Marietta’s lifespan and ever-changing exhibits, the museum is an excellent place to start your exploration.

Marietta Square is at the heart of downtown and hosts events all year long.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Marietta Square is at the heart of downtown and hosts events all year long. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

The museum also neighbors one of Marietta’s claims to fame, the lovely Scarlett on the Square. Housed in what was once a cotton warehouse and carriage stable, the Marietta Gone With the Wind Museum contains the privately owned memorabilia collection of Dr. Christopher Sullivan, an avid fan of Margaret Mitchell’s novel as well as the film. The rough exposed beams of the warehouse highlight Mitchell’s life, rare foreign editions of the novel, film props, costumes and even the Bengaline honeymoon gown worn by Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind.” The gift shop has a great collection of books and GWTW memorabilia for fans, including beautiful artwork. Whether a longtime fan or newcomer to this Southern phenomenon, visiting Scarlett on the Square will definitely make you want to watch the breathtaking film depicting Mitchell’s genius.

While Marietta doesn’t have a claim to Tara, the legendary mansion from “Gone With the Wind,” she still maintains her beautiful homes. Stepping inside the Root House Museum shifts the atmosphere back to another time. The Greek Revival home is one of the oldest homes in Marietta, formerly belonging to any early settler and merchant family of the town. The simple frame home is quaint and charming, reminding of Marietta’s earliest days. The Antebellum Brumby Hall and Gardens, also a former home and museum, rests just up the hill across from Marietta’s City and Confederate Cemetery.

With more museums and 150 historic structures to see, there is a walking and driving tour map available at the Welcome Center that allows visitors to design their own exploration of the area’s five historic districts. The Historic Marietta Trolley is another way to view Marietta’s sprawling landscape while learning about the history and the hour-long ride even extends to nearby Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. And if you’re in the mood to explore Marietta on a more mysterious level, try the new Ghosts of Marietta lantern-led tour that tells tales of the spirits who still remain amongst the living.

Scarlett on the Square is full of "Gone With the Wind" memorabilia and Margaret Mitchell's history.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Scarlett on the Square is full of "Gone With the Wind" memorabilia and Margaret Mitchell's history. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

While saturated with history, Marietta also has an appreciation for the arts. From the Marietta-Cobb Museum of Art to the newly restored Strand Theater or Theater in the Square to summer concerts in Glover Park, there is enough creativity for everyone to enjoy. Award-winning quilts are on display at Red Hen Fabrics while eccentric artwork created by locals hangs on the wall of the best pizza place in town, the Marietta Pizza Company. A seasonal farmers market opens on the Square Saturday mornings throughout the summer, selling everything from fresh produce to fudge pies to local honey and herbal soaps. Concerts are also a big event for the Square, also known as Glover Park, all summer long. Take in a Brown Bag concert during lunch on Thursdays or catch a Friday night serenade under the stars; either showcases the local talent. The Square always has something going on, so check the calendar before you go. The Strand Theater will also be hosting concerts while Theater on the Square has an excellent season of plays lined up. Looking for a bite to eat in between your adventures? Any of the restaurants within the city limits are excellent, but pick up a restaurant guide at the Welcome Center to help narrow down the choices.

Walking through the National Cemetery, you may notice that Marietta is situated within the shadow of Kennesaw Mountain. Only a short drive from downtown, Kennesaw Mountain IS the backbone of Marietta’s history. The location of a heavy battle during the Civil War, there are still signs that the mountain was the final place of action for young soldiers. A monument marks the base of the paved walking or driving trail that leads to the summit. Old canons still rest at the very top and signs depict how 100 men pushed and pulled each one up the mountain. It is difficult to imagine such a feat, glancing at the panoramic view surrounding the peak. Taking the brisk hike is very rewarding once you reach the top, affording a direct view of the Atlanta skyline and Stone Mountain in the distance. At the base of the mountain is a visitor’s center and museum featuring the entire history of Kennesaw Mountain. Pick up a map while you’re here so you can visit all of the landmark locations around Battlefield Park.

Kennesaw Mountain can be seen from Marietta National Cemetery and is only a short distance from downtown Marietta.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Kennesaw Mountain can be seen from Marietta National Cemetery and is only a short distance from downtown Marietta. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Not far from Kennesaw Mountain is one of the largest museums in the South and it is definitely worth the trip. The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, in association with the Smithsonian Institute, showcases how the area’s history revolves around the development of the railways. The expansive collection of artifacts, added to continuously by locals as well as the Smithsonian, allows visitors to step into the shoes of a Civil War soldier, learn how to build a locomotive and especially experience the adventurous Great Locomotive Chase of the Civil War, another local claim to fame concerning an espionage plot and a stolen locomotive. The “General” locomotive now rests, safe and sound, within the museum and is a highlight amongst the other, intricate exhibits. Here, you can truly appreciate how deeply history has touched Marietta.

An oasis for everyone, stop by the Square and pay a visit to Marietta this summer. Relive the days that are “Gone With the Wind” and step through the deep-rooted streets of Marietta. Perhaps you’ll walk into a new pair of shoes with an old story to tell. And if you happen to pass by that cemetery on the way in, don’t forget to salute Marietta’s honorable dead.

Georgia Days: Meet Me in Madison

May 1, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Canopied trees, sprawling lawns and gracefully aging antebellum homes present a pastoral picture of the past. A simple step on the old stone sidewalks casts the illumination that the “Old South” is alive and well. The pristine quality of life remains in the atmosphere, like ageless stained glass. Madison, perhaps one of the friendliest small towns in existence, welcomes you from the first moment.

Madison's most photographed home, the stately Hunter House, circa 1883.  (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Madison's most photographed home, the stately Hunter House, circa 1883. (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Celebrating its 200th year as a bucolic small town, historic Madison remains a hidden gem on the timeline of Georgia’s past. During the 1800’s, Madison was called “the most cultured and aristocratic town on the stagecoach route from Charleston to New Orleans,” and it still lives up to its charming reputation in the historic heartland. And while Savannah was Sherman’s Christmas gift to President Lincoln, Madison was also saved during the March to the Sea because it was considered too beautiful to burn. Madison is located on Georgia’s scenic and historical 100-mile Antebellum Trail, which includes Watkinsville, Eatonton, Milledgeville, Gray/Old Clinton, Macon and even Athens.

Begin your visit by stopping by the Madison-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce building. The friendly staff at the Welcome Center provides a wealth of information with a smile and is ready to point you in the right direction. They will most likely give you a walking tour guide brochure, which is extremely helpful given the 45 historic structures located within a one-mile radius of the downtown area, and can let you know which homes are open for tours. Beautifully landscaped antebellum and Victorian homes, elegant cottages, old churches, intriguing museums and tranquil parks make up the personal tour you can take of the city. Driving provides an excellent panorama, but walking allows for total immersion in the atmosphere. Seasonal carriage tours are also available if you want a more historical aspect for sightseeing.

The Morgan County Courthouse is one of Madison's famous landmarks.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

The Morgan County Courthouse is one of Madison's famous landmarks. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

The unique design of the courthouse is sure to catch your eye from the start, but all of the buildings are noteworthy. Heritage Hall, Rogers House and Rose Cottage, the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center and the Morgan County African American Museum are all considered public buildings and are open for tours year round with a small admission fee. However, the 2009 Madison in May Bicentennial Tour of Homes provides visitors with a look at some of the privately-owned historic homes that rarely open their doors to tourists. The three-day event will take place from May 1-3, including receptions and an artists’ silent auction and awards ceremony. This is the perfect time to take advantage of all Madison has to offer, especially how stunning the lush city appears in full bloom during this peak of spring.

Other events sprinkle the downtown calendar and are worth looking into before you go, especially during this bicentennial year. And don’t forget, pets and photography are graciously encouraged and welcomed.

Madison is also filled with a wealth of shops and dining opportunities. The downtown area is a dream come true for those who love antiquing, as well as shops featuring creative home décor, jewelry, books, gifts, unique finds and even art galleries.  The shopkeepers are always ready to learn about the out-of-town visitors and many enjoy sharing their favorite stories, so get to know the people as you get to know the town.   Dining is also a joy in Madison. Be sure to check out the chic new Southern California cuisine of Town 220 or the casual coffeehouse that exceeds expectations at Perk Avenue. The Antique Sweets Confectioner provides homemade candies and fudge and Scoops serves up fun flavors of ice cream to satisfy sugary cravings. But in Madison, any restaurant is a great choice.  

The Rogers House is open for tours all year long.  (Photo/Linda Strickland)

The Rogers House is open for tours all year long. (Photo/Linda Strickland)

If looking to stay in Madison a while longer, there are places close to the heart of downtown or out in the open, rolling geography of Morgan County’s cattle country. For a different kind of vacation, try the Southern Cross Guest Ranch. Only a few miles from downtown, the Ranch feels a thousand miles away from the worries of everyday life. Over 150 colorful paint and quarter horses dot the expansive landscape of the ranch while ducks and geese splash in a pond by the stables. The green hills of the pasture lead to a red brick antebellum mansion featuring 16 themed guest rooms just bursting with Southern hospitality. Horseback riding is a big attraction for the ranch and they offer beginners lessons if you’re less than comfortable taking the reins. The ranch’s trails and meadows are open to riders, or the ranch hands will take you to nearby Hard Labor Creek State Park for a 9-mile trail ride. People just visiting for the day can also make reservations to ride. But the ranch features other enjoyments for those without a passion for riding.

150 painter and quarter horses are available to ride at Southern Cross Ranch.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

150 painter and quarter horses are available to ride at Southern Cross Ranch. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Southern Cross Guest Ranch is brimming with amenities and the opportunity to design your own vacation. The roomy mansion provides a guest kitchen, cozy living room, relaxing sunroom and gaming and entertainment rooms. The dining room is separate from the house and features gourmet meals prepared daily by the ranch’s private chef, as well as snacks available all day. Outside is the swimming pool and hot tub, porches overlooking the horse pasture and areas to throw horseshoes, play croquet or even ride mountain bikes. The family that owns and runs the farm and ranch is very open and always ready to welcome guests for daytrips, special occasions or relaxing vacations. And remember, downtown Madison is just minutes away.

Madison is the perfect Southern hostess ready to uplift your spirits during the hot Georgia summer. So, take a trip back in time to commune with the old souls of Georgia and immerse yourself in this charismatic corner of small town America.

Georgia Days: Callaway’s Collage

April 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Amidst the coarse, red clay of Middle Georgia’s makeup is a rich, green oasis dappled generously with colorful, native flora, thousands of butterflies and the silvery strands of lakes.  While a jewel to be sure, these gardens nestled in Pine Mountain country once started as a diamond in the rough.

Bursting azaleas line the quiet pathways through Callaway Gardens.  (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Bursting azaleas line the quiet pathways through Callaway Gardens. (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Callaway Gardens was created to be a place of inspiring beauty, serenity and wholesome enjoyment for families.  Beginning with a unique vision, textile mogul Cason J. Callaway and his wife, Virginia, took a dream and turned eroding cotton fields into lush gardens quite simply “for the benefit of mankind.”  There is little evidence of the dying cotton industry now amidst the bold azaleas and many natural attractions that Callaway has to offer.  It is a resort for the senses that continues to improve with age in its 57 years of operation.  This is how the original Callaway’s meant for their non-profit foundation to live on and it continues to serve its main purposes by fulfilling charity, education and recreation.  So, while the atmospheric and whimsical Southern charm of the gardens suffuses its visitors with relaxation, there is also the chance to pick up some horticultural and environmental education and learn about the generosity of others.

Callaway Gardens is a trip that can last for a very long daytrip or be savored over a weeklong vacation.  Either way, be sure to enjoy all of the natural offerings, both within the gardens and nearby if you have the chance.  This is a place where you can explore at your own pace and create ideal adventures.  While the Gardens invite visitors to begin the day at the Virginia Hand Callaway Discovery Center, you can start wherever you like.  It is the main resource for discovering other attractions, tours and possible events going on during your visit.  Here, you can also enjoy seasonal exhibits, a lunch by the lake or even visit the Birds of Prey show and watch with wonder as eagles and other raptors fly overhead.  So, if you are new to Callaway, this might be the first stop for you.  However, it is also refreshing to enjoy the hearty breakfast buffet at the Mountain Creek Inn before you start your exploration of the Gardens. 

A butterfly rests on a tropical plant at the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center.  (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

A butterfly rests on a tropical plant at the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

The spring sees many visitors to Callaway Gardens, especially during sunny weekends. The Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center, a glass conservatory with winding paths that lead through a tropical butterfly garden, is one of the most popular attractions.  Rare butterflies and tropical parrots flutter through the conservatory, lighting on plants from their native countries for ideal photo opportunities.  While an enchanting place, the Butterfly Center can also fill up fast on a Saturday with the temperatures reaching peak humidity as crowds gather; going during the morning hours is a good idea.  Close to the Butterfly Center is the John A. Sibley Horticultural Center, a creative indoor/outdoor expanse of garden that features flowers and plants from across the world.  Seasonal topiaries also dot the landscape and you can soak up some sun relaxing in a swing or go inside to sit by the waterfall.  The gift shop here is one of the best and oftentimes offers locally bred flowers and plants to take home for your own garden. 

Currently, the Callaway Brothers Azalea Bowl is in full, explosive bloom, providing a rainbow of color with over 700 varieties of the flowering bush.  The Overlook Garden also provides another view of Callaway’s famous azaleas.  These can be seen by driving through the gardens, renting a bike and taking the Discovery Bike Trail or by simply walking along the numerous miles of nature trails.  Anywhere within the gardens is considered the “scenic route.”  

Beautiful stained glass depicts the Southern seasons in the Memorial Chapel. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Beautiful stained glass depicts the Southern seasons in the Memorial Chapel. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

Stroll through Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden, where the PBS show “The Victory Garden” is filmed and pick up some gardening tips from the experts and volunteers on hand.  Visit the 1830s Pioneer Log Cabin that features historical demonstrations and learn how a family of 15 once occupied the small space.  Sit in a pew of the peaceful Ida Cason Callaway Memorial Chapel wonder at the inspiring stained glass work depicting the South’s seasons. Lounge on the warm sand of Robin Lake Beach where the possibilities for fun are endless, from swimming and playing mini golf, table tennis or shuffleboard to renting a paddleboat or enjoying the floating playground.  Or enjoy one of Callaway’s claims to fame by golfing on the scenic green.

The Gardens feature several different dining options – ranging from the healthy and organic to the comforting and fattening – and gift shops specifically unique to their attraction, including fresh produce at the Vegetable Garden location. Lodging ranges from cozy cottages and villas to the comfortable inn and a new luxurious lodge and spa, which features a state-of-the-art fitness center, massage salons and sauna.  You determine your level of comfort and luxury when at Callaway. 

Depending on when you go, different packages are available.  It is also possible to arrange for a more fitness-oriented vacation that includes a ropes course, tennis, fishing, boating or learning how to wakeboard or water-ski.  Check the calendar for one of their many popular events.  Certain weekends feature plant fairs and sales from the creative nurseries on site, photography or art lessons, horticultural education and volunteer experience or annual holiday celebrations.  The eagerly anticipated Masters Waterski & Wakeboard Tournament kicks off summer at Callaway during Memorial Day weekend and is not to be missed, much like the Surf and Sand Spectacular that follows for the Fourth of July.

The Sibley Center is always in full bloom. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

The Sibley Center is always in full bloom. (Photo/Ashley Strickland)

If planning to stay longer in the Pine Mountain area, make sure to check out all of your options.  Pine Mountain is a cheerful small town filled with antique shops and restaurants.  Columbus, Thomaston and LaGrange are all close by, as is the Wild Animal Safari, Warm Springs, Hills & Dales Estate, Roosevelt’s Little White House, Butt’s Mill Farm and Georgia’s largest state park, F.D.R. state park, complete with Roosevelt Stables for horseback riding. 

As spring fades through the door into summer, Callaway Gardens is vibrant, full of life and just waiting for you to come visit.  Take off for a refreshing and rejuvenating “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and you will learn just how beautiful Georgia really is.

Georgia Days: Alpine Escape

April 16, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

 An old Chevy Impala slowly makes its way up the thin, country road.  It stops at each house and then crawls back onto Highway 115.  A closer look reveals why traffic has accumulated on this sparse road; the driver is the mailman. 

You’re not in Atlanta anymore, are you?

Charming Alpine Helen, GA.  (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Charming Alpine Helen, GA. (Photo/Linda Strickland)

The roads of Northeastern Georgia invite city travelers back to a simpler time.  The mountains are your breathtaking backdrops and the only advertising you’ll see along the way are homemade posters for local produce stands.  The Tomato House has enticing signs that tug on your sense of Southern comfort: Homemade fried pies, boiled peanuts, fudge, and homegrown vegetables.  It’s worth pulling over for a moment to savor old memories and support the local economy. When you’re here, it feels as though you have nothing but time. 

Any route  taken for the journey to this part of state is sure to be scenic.  Charming small towns dot the way: Cleveland, Cornelia and Dahlonega are all possible encounters.  Right in the middle of this beautiful country is Helen, a mountain town with a “touch of Bavaria.”

You’ll know when you’ve almost reached Alpine Helen, for there is a unique landmark that has been there for centuries.  Traveling North on Highway 75, look to the right.  Sitting in the middle of a wide, green field and within the shadow of Yonah Mountain is a lone Indian mound.  A tiny white gazebo perches on top, its red roof a crown for the mound. Unforgettably beautiful, the Nacoochee Indian mound is the gateway to Alpine Helen.  

Coasting down a hill, Alpine Helen appears on the banks of the racing Chattahoochee River in all of its cobblestone and gingerbread trim glory. It is a small town, but completely transformed to fit the styles of another country.  Even fast food restaurants are cloaked beneath the charm, flowing with the rest to create a genuine Alpine experience.  It is a tourist destination, but too fun to ignore. 

The Nacoochee Indian mound is one of Georgia's historical wonders.  (Photo/Linda Strickland)

The Nacoochee Indian mound is one of Georgia's historical wonders. (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Bavarian music spills out of “natural” speakers throughout downtown.  Horse-drawn carriages line the cobblestone streets, the drivers sitting with their canine companions as they wait with a smile to convey travelers through the town.  Alpine and local scenes are painted on the sides of buildings.  Shops like the Scandinavian & European Import Company cater to international delights, from Swedish Dala horses to Russian Nesting dolls to German cuckoo clocks.  If you have something specific in mind, The Music Box is filled with whimsical multitudes of its namesake.  The Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen is so popular that is has two locations within the tiny town and will satisfy any sweet tooth.  Their chocolate turtles are world famous and free samples are available daily. 

If craving traditional German fare, visit Hofer’s Bakery and Café for samples of the country’s cakes and breads or the highly recommended Hofbrauhaus Inn, which does sling schnitzel (sausage) and spaetzle (pork goulash) well, complete with an ambient outdoor beer garden.  Want a restaurant with a view?  Check out the riverside eats.  Café International sits on a ribbon of the Chattahoochee that runs through Helen and offers food from all over the world with a unique atmosphere. 

While the town is pleasant enough to explore on foot, there are also some quirky and entertaining things to do.  

The International Cafe sits enticingly on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.  (Photo/Linda Strickland)

The International Cafe sits enticingly on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Although Alpine miniature golf is a classic choice, there is also a bear park, reptile house and tarantula farm.  Tubing on the Chattahoochee River is popular during the summer and during the hot spots of July and August, the river is filled.  Mine for gold at the creek mines, take a thrilling helicopter ride, visit the Antique Auto and Buggy Museum or see an Elvis impersonator at the Remember When Theater. 

Helen is always hosting events and is known for their hot air balloon races in June and the nation’s longest Oktoberfest, spanning from September to November.  Check the calendar to see if there is a Contra dance, garden party, folk festival or the Saturday evening music concert series that runs all summer.  No matter when you visit Helen, the people are always friendly and welcoming.  Some are even willing to tell you their life story.  Bob Schwartzman, owner of the Scandinavian & European Import shop, always spares time to speak with his customers, often relating his favorite aspects of Helen and eager to learn the heritage of the visitors who come to his town.  Ever the charmer, Schwartzman also enjoys telling his famous jokes.  Be sure to stop by, whether it be for a carved clock or Schwartzman, who is sure to make you smile.

Even the miniature golf course receives the Alpine treatment in Helen.  (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Even the miniature golf course receives the Alpine treatment in Helen. (Photo/Linda Strickland)

Two miles from Helen up Highway 356 is beautiful Unicoi State Park.  Mountains rise up before a glistening lake with a relaxing beach for a simple getaway.  Within the park, you can hike, mountain bike, fish from the docks, rent canoe or pedal boats or stay in one of the cozy cottages.  Unicoi’s Lodge hosts many events all year, from the natural and cultural to the historical and recreational.  The lodge also has a gift shop that sells hand-made quilts and local pottery, which makes for a great souvenir while supporting local artisans.  Surrounding Unicoi and Helen are numerous waterfalls with roads and hiking trails that lead to their varied splendor.  The most unique is Anna Ruby Falls, juxtaposed with Unicoi.  Open all year, the twin falls are a natural wonder to behold and can be accessed easily by a paved footpath.  Also close to Unicoi and the falls is the Sautee Covered Bridge, known as “Georgia’s smallest covered bridge.”  All of these natural sites are filled with captivating history that is just waiting to be shared.

As summer approaches, consider Helen and its natural surroundings for a relaxing daytrip.  Here, you can return to a simpler time and a slower pace while enjoying an Alpine town in your own backyard.    

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