By Connie Pearson
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
A tiny town in a picture book setting, Helen, Georgia, boasts a population of under 500 and covers a mere 2.1 square miles yet it welcomes close to 2 million visitors a year. Fifty years ago the forward-thinking town leaders struck tourism gold when they chose a Bavarian theme for Helen. What existed then as an unnoticed village with only 10 buildings now has 120 buildings and is the third most visited city in Georgia.
Fall, Christmas and summer are extremely popular. Here’s why:
1. Natural beauty
The air gets cleaner and fresher with every curve winding into Helen. The thick canopy of trees creates a colorful spectacle each fall and the Chattahoochee River, known locally as “the Hooch,” flows through town, adding beauty and recreational opportunities.
The Blue Ridge Mountains descend into mere foothills in this part of North Georgia but the views are still impressive and photoworthy.
2. Outdoor activities
Numerous hiking trails converge in Helen, several of which lead to breathtaking waterfalls. The half-mile-long trail to Anna Ruby Falls is the shortest and easiest to navigate because it’s paved. Others are more strenuous.
There’s also fly-fishing or tubing on the Chattahoochee, primarily between May and September, and archery, target shooting, paddle boarding, zip lining and mountain biking at Unicoi State Park.
A new attraction for thrill-seekers, the Georgia Mountain Coaster, allows an individual or a couple of buddies to slowly ascend a heavily wooded hill before hurling down a steel rail maze in a cart. It’s similar to a roller coaster but the rider controls the speed, which can reach 25 mph.
3. Culinary delights
German dishes prepared by native German chefs appear prominently in the cuisine of Helen. Hofer’s of Helen is both a bakery and a café with breakfast entrees, sandwiches and a full display case of freshly baked German breads and pastries. For a full German meal served in a true, unhurried European style, Bodensee Restaurant is the hands-down favorite. The sampler platter includes portions of several meats and sides, such as sauerbraten and spaetzle. For a casual lunch, try the Reuben sandwich at Café International.
Trout, baby back ribs and shrimp and grits are menu favorites at Mully’s Nacoochee Grill, but their steaks and pork tenderloin also get rave reviews. A bonus of eating dinner at Mully’s is the live music provided by talented musician Kurt Johnson.
Bernie’s at Nacoochee Valley Guest House is an elegant place for lunch or dinner prepared by a trained chef and Bigg Daddy’s serves an eclectic mix including wings, tacos and burgers. Cimmi’s Café is a popular casual place for breakfast and lunch and its large courtyard puts you in the middle of the action in downtown Helen.
Nora Mill Granary is a highly recommended stop if you want to purchase some of their stone-ground grits or corn meal to take back home.
4. Crafts and shops
Helen’s Main Street is lined with Bavarian-themed shops such as Hansel and Gretel Candy Kitchen, Tim’s Wooden Toys, Lindenhaus Imports and other specialty boutiques.
For an intriguing look at authentic regional pottery be sure to visit the Folk Pottery Museum in nearby Sautee, Georgia. You’ll find the work of area potters for sale and on display plus you’ll learn about the Meaders family, recognized by the Smithsonian and considered by many to be the most influential potters of the South Appalachian folk style.
Combining both pottery and artistry using gourds, The Gourd Place also is in Sautee. Co-owner Priscilla Wilson, a graduate of Auburn University, patented a technique using gourd molds to shape porcelain dishes. They are both unusually beautiful and practical serving pieces.
5. Lodging options
From a primitive treehouse with no electricity or plumbing at Nacoochee Outdoor Adventures to plush guest suites in resort hotels, Helen has a lodging style to suit any budget or preference.
Valhalla Resort Hotel has created a truly luxurious stay for its guests. The property includes a golf course, restaurant and in-house spa, plus the views are awe-inspiring and the suites are elegantly furnished.
6. Festive atmosphere
Oktoberfest in Helen is the longest-running festival of its kind in the United States. The celebration lasts Thursdays to Sundays through most of September and then daily through October. Locals in lederhosen and typical Bavarian costumes greet visitors with accordions, polka music, bratwurst and pretzels inside the Festhalle.
Once Oktoberfest ends the Christmas decorations go up transforming Helen into a holiday wonderland. Even the producers of Hallmark Christmas movies agree.
January through mid-May is quieter in Helen but the food, crafts, shopping, trails and natural beauty, not to mention Helen’s almost-500 proud citizens, are ready to welcome you throughout the year.