The logging town of Helen in the north Georgia mountains saw its industry die after World War II and folks began moving away. A few enterprising businessmen came up with an idea to entice visitors traveling the highways to and from Florida to pause and enjoy their town. They turned their ordinary-looking village into an Alpine haven.
Today, a trip to Helen is akin to visiting Bavaria. Helen offers more than German architecture and food, although their Octoberfest is the longest in the world, running September through the end of October. There’s also spectacular hiking, tubing and fly fishing on the Chattahoochee, historic buildings and Appalachian traditions and, this time of year, a Bavarian Christmas.
“We’re quickly becoming one of the top Christmas destinations in the United States,” said Jerry Brown, executive director of Alpine Helen/White County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
Even better, the lights stay up until February to include Fasching, what Brown calls a “German Mardi Gras.”
Unicoi State Park offers a wide variety of cabins nestled in peaceful woods as well as a lodge with a breathtaking view of the mountains and Chattahoochee National Forest. Horseback riding, a zip line, archery and more are regular activities of Unicoi. Nearby Smithgall Woods State Park’s cottages are even more remote, located along the picturesque Duke’s Creek. They’re popular so be sure to reserve way in advance. For a more upscale experience, Valhalla Resort & Spa on a mountaintop allows visitors views of the Blue Ridge Mountains while sipping craft cocktails.
Start the day with breakfast at Hofer’s Bakery & Café where owner Ralph Hofer serves up German family recipes and delectable bakery items. The menu at Café International overlooking the Chattahoochee River is a favorite among natives; don’t miss their outstanding Reuben sandwich. Bodensee Restaurant offers a wide menu of authentic German Cuisine as well, and Betty’s Country Store is the place to stock up for a cabin getaway.
Helen goes all out for the holidays, dressing the town with thousands of lights, erecting a 20-foot tree and hosting numerous activities. There’s musical performances, a visit from Santa and the annual Christkindlmarkt at the Marktplatz Dec. 3-4, a traditional German event of food and gift vendors. The Hardman Farm State Historic Site celebrates the inhabitants of its mansion and surrounding farm with a Victorian Christmas from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Dec. 2-17. Enjoy music, wagon rides, caroling s’mores and special sorghum cookies baked on an 19th century store.
Faschingsverein Helen follows Christmas, celebrating a German Carnival tradition with walking parade and a tube ride down the Chattahochee. “There’s horns and drums,” Brown said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
It’s a short hike to Anna Ruby Falls, a dramatic site that actually involve two falls side by side. Rangers offer guided hikes to the falls, as well as special events throughout the year. Kids might prefer the Georgia Mountain Coaster, a self-propelled alpine roller coaster down the mountainside in the heart of downtown Helen. Don’t worry, they don’t go that fast, although it sure feels like it. If you’d rather a visit in summertime, Helen is a hotspot for tubing.