Sunday, August 29, 2010
HELEN, GEORGIA TRAVELOGUE
The drive began to be a series of hairpin curves, winding through the Chattahoochee National Forest as we climbed close enough to view the peak of the Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia (4784 ft). I’m told that you can see North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Alabama from Brasstown Bald. We didn’t follow the trail to this height but had read about a Visitors Center that features a museum and presentations about forestry in north Georgia. The climb to this peak brings hikers from throughout the South during late October to see the trees turning red, purple and gold.
After the steep, winding drive, I was relieved to reach Helen, a pseudo Bavarian village near the Chattahoochee River. The buildings in the town, even the motels, are patterned after Bavarian or Alpine structures, and German sausages and baked goods abound in restaurants throughout the village. Helen and nearby Unicoi State Park provide a vacation Mecca for Atlantans, and the town was almost “carnival” during our stay. Loud music could be heard along the river, and the streets were crowded with a surprising number of teenagers and young adults, many in pick-up trucks “vrooming” loudly.
We walked the streets, looking through shop windows but avoiding the fudge shops and bakeries. However, at lunch I tried a fried, stuffed pretzel that tasted somewhat like a French Market beignet without the powdered sugar. Mostly, I refrained from eating the strasses and platzes, although my German blood pined for the fat food. Beginning September 9, Helen hosts the longest-running Oktoberfest in the U.S. which ends October 31. It’s a festival that features German bands, steins of German beer, brats, and polkas. I saw several tall steins in the restaurant at lunchtime that were advertised to hold a liter of beer, and the sight triggered memories of a visit we made to Hofbrauhaus in Munich, Germany back in the 70’s. I marveled at the weight of beer steins being hefted during the evening as a small brass band played in the huge hall. I was also amazed that most of the tipsy dancers on the floor were in their 60’s and 70’s!
Helen was once a sawmill town that boasted the largest band sawmill in Georgia. When the sawmill business floundered, Helen prospered from the building of a railway through town, and even underwent a small gold rush (that produced a scant supply of gold), then became an Alpine Village during the late 60’s when it came into its own as a tourist attraction. The story is told that John Kollock, a veteran of WWII, served in the Army in the Bavarian area of Germany and following the war, became a week-end resident in Helen. He envisioned this small town in north Georgia as a future Alpine village. Helen bought into his vision, and shops and residences in the small town were converted to buildings with an Alpine motif. According to author Matt Gedney, a builder named Roy Sims developed many of the Alpine structures sketched by John Kollock. When he first saw Kollock’s sketches for the town, he said, “I don’t know the difference between a Swiss chalet and a geisha house, but we’ll do it.” Business and motel owners were required to live on the premises of their establishments so that proprietors had a vested interest in the success of the town. Gedney says that in the words of businessmen in a locally-run investment corporation, Helen “would not become a tacky tourist trap like Gatlinburg.”
Helen is situated at 1600 feet and ridges on either side extend for ten miles to the peak of the Blue Ridge at heights of nearly 4000 feet. The town sits at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River, and tubing businesses thrive in the summer and early Fall. During our stay there, the brightly-colored blue and yellow tubes moving down the river looked tempting, as the weather was humid during the day, especially around lunch time when we went out to the Nacoochee Grill close to the Habersham Winery.
The Nacoochee Grill has the distinction of being one of the few restaurants with a chef that cooks on a true live fire grill fueled by North Georgia hardwoods (usually red or white oak) and is started every day with pure Tennessee charcoal. Owners of the grill claim they avoid using man-made pellets, propane, natural gas, or inferior woods. The restaurant is actually a rural north Georgia farmhouse that was built in the Leaf community during the early 1900’s and was moved to the Nacoochee Village and restored for restaurant use. I was tempted to taste the Cajun Grill Benedict made of a biscuit topped with poached egg and andouille sausage, garnished with hollandaise sauce, but ordered a more frugal omelet with spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes. It was difficult for me to pass up andouille sausage, an ingredient of Cajun red beans and rice. Another “imported” Cajun dish was Shrimp and Grits, but we Cajuns couldn’t lay claim to the Duck Quesadilla! And whoever heard of serving an oyster po-boy on a hoagie roll? Cher, they don’t know about the hot French bread from Lejeune’s Bakery in Jeanerette, Louisiana, no!
Helen is a small adventure destination for peripatetics, but it was a bit crowded for me, and I’m glad we missed the Oktoberfest, which draws over 100,000 people every year. We missed this event by one week-end!