My wife and I weren't wearing lederhosen and boots when we drove into the mountain town of Helen, Ga., but maybe we should have been.
After all, Helen looks more like it belongs in Germany's alpine region than in northeast Georgia.
Just about every building here resembles an alpine chalet, with steep red terra cotta roofs, walls decorated with painted alpine scenes and flowered window boxes. The shops have names like House of Tyrol and sell such things as cuckoo clocks and beer steins. Restaurants offer sauerbraten, schinken (ham) and strudel.
And since Sept. 9, Helen has been the site of one of America's largest Oktoberfest celebrations, a festival of oompah music, beer drinking and general merrymaking that runs through Oct. 23.
If this isn't Bavaria, it's a darn good imitation.
Which, of course, is exactly what Helen is -- imitation Bavaria.
For that reason, it is both liked and disliked.
When I first told friends I planned to visit Helen, some of them recoiled.
"It's gimmicky," one complained. "It's too touristy!" groused another.
No argument. Helen is gimmicky and touristy and contrived. But then, so is Disney World, and 23 million visitors a year don't seem to mind.
?3 Maybe it's the novelty of the place that charms
visitors to Helen, or perhaps the fact that it wears alpine well. Helen is a mountain town, after all, with a pretty, rock-strewn river coursing through it, much like the picturesque towns of the German Alps and Austrian Tyrol.
But 25 years ago, Helen was just a tired little one-time lumber mill town going nowhere. That's when three local businessmen decided to do something -- they didn't know just what -- to attract tourists driving through on their way to nearby lakes and national forest recreation areas. They consulted John Kollock, an artist living in nearby Clarkesville. Mr. Kollock, who had been stationed in Bavaria during his Army service, told them the mountain landscape of Helen reminded him of Germany's alpine region.
He photographed the business section of Helen -- a few nondescript buildings lining the highway that ran through the middle of town -- and a week later produced a set of watercolors that showed what Helen would look like redone in Bavarian style.
A week after that, carpenters began adding gables, towers and other trim details to the plain concrete structures that lined Main Street in 1968.
Presto! Alpine Helen was born.
The transformation was an immediate and continuing success. In 1968, Helen had only nine businesses. Today it has more than 230 retail businesses and the annual tourist count is estimated at 750,000.
Harold Link, a native of Germany, has watched the town grow. "I came here 18 years ago and built a blacksmith shop," Mr. Link said. "We didn't do well, so we turned it into a restaurant." Mr. Link's restaurant, Alt Heidelberg, is one of the most popular in Helen today, and Mr. Link himself occasionally digs out his accordion and plays it for his guests. He offers a variety of German dishes, and the wursts (sausages) and other meats are all made by a Czech butcher he has employed for 17 years.
When Helen's visitors aren't dining, they're probably shopping. The town has more than 100 specialty, import and craft shops, as well as a 30-unit outlet mall. Despite its success, Helen still has growing pains. Finding a parking space is not always easy, and traffic through town slows to a crawl in summer. As in most resort areas, there is a substantial turnover of shop owners. Then too, many of the newer buildings have given only lip service to Helen's code requiring alpine design, thus cheapening the overall ambience of the town.
Of course, there's more to Helen and this part of Georgia than shopping and dining Bavarian style. This is mountain country, with all the attractions that kind of countryside offers.
In Helen itself, tubing down the Chattahoochee River (the "Hooch") is a popular pastime. Nearby Unicoi State Park has hiking trails, lakes, a craft shop with a large selection of handmade quilts, a lodge and cottages. A paved trail leads to Anna Ruby Falls, twin cataracts that splash down 153 and 50 feet respectively.
From the summit of Brasstown Bald, Georgia's highest mountain at 4,784 feet, visitors can get a panoramic view of four states. Just 30 miles away, at Tallulah Gorge, they can gaze down 1,100 feet into one of the deepest gorges in the United States. Gold diggers can pan for the metal in several old mines, including a couple in nearby Dahlonega, where the discovery of nuggets in 1839 set off a gold rush that preceded California's by 10 years.
Just seven miles away in Cleveland, several thousand children and adults a week visit Babyland General Hospital to watch Cabbage Patch dolls being "born." Many people remember Cabbage Patch dolls as the
"hot" Christmas items of 1983 and 1984, but more than twice as many dolls -- 7 million a year -- are sold today than were sold a decade ago.
It was in Cleveland that Xavier Roberts created the popular dolls, and the handmade ones, which begin at $175, still are made there. (The mass-produced dolls are made in the Orient under license to Hasbro.) Babyland Hospital, a free attraction, carries its theme throughout -- nurses with stethoscopes supervise the "birth" of a Cabbage Patch baby, candy-stripers give diapering demonstrations, there are incubators for Cabbage Patch kids and waiting rooms for prospective "adoptive parents." The attraction, established 15 years ago, is planning an all-day Birthday Bash Oct. 16 to celebrate the anniversary. Plans include musical entertainment, food treats, games, door prizes and a party favor for all who bring their own Cabbage Patch Kid to meet Xavier Roberts, who will be the host of the event.
A couple of blocks away is one of North Georgia's best down-home dining spots, the hilltop Mauney Restaurant. Miamian Henry Roerig, a former Eastern Airlines engineer who has a summer cabin on Lake Rabun, took it over last year and added such unusual (for country dining) dishes as shrimp flambeed at table-side, chicken tropicale, individual bread loaves and an outstanding seafood bisque. Mr. Roerig makes his own bread, salad dressings and potato chips. The portions are huge, and the price is reasonable.
Hiawassee, a pleasant community just north of Helen, is the home of the Georgia Mountain Fair, an annual August highlight. Now in its 43rd year, the fair is unique in that it has no commercial exhibits. More than 100,000 visitors come to the fair to tour a replicated mountain village of yesteryear, watch 60 craftsmen daily perform their specialties, dine on mountain food and listen to mountain music.
The fair also stages a Fall Celebration Oct. 8-16, with a midway, music, name performers, a gospel show and a fiddlers' convention.
IF YOU GO . . .
Oktoberfest: Helen's top event, Sept. 9 through Oct. 23. Oompah music, dancing, German food, entertainment are held in Helen's Festhalle Thursdays through Saturdays in September and daily except Sundays in October. Festhalle admission is $5.50 weekdays, $6.50 Saturdays. Information: (706) 878-2181.
Fall Celebration: Oct. 8-16 at Georgia Mountain Fair, Hiawassee. Midway, music, name performers, gospel show, fiddlers' convention. Information: (706) 896-4191.
Sorghum Festival: Blairsville, Ga., Oct. 8-10, Oct. 15-17, Oct. 22-24. Arts, crafts, parade, sorghum cooking, pole climbing, spitting contests. Information: (706) 745-4745.
Waterfalls: Major falls in the region include Amicolola, at 729 feet the highest east of the Mississippi; Anna Ruby, double falls; DeSoto, five falls within three-mile stretch; Dukes Creek, also has a slippery rock slide; Toccoa, 186 feet.
Information: Helen Welcome Center, P.O. Box 730, Helen, Ga. 30545, (706) 878-2181.