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Georgia's Idyllic majesty

Georgia offers a window into old world Europe by way of a quaint town called Helen, writes Meeta Chaitanya.

india Updated: Dec 14, 2005 18:47 IST

For those of us who are continually disappointed by the uniform excellence and monolithic structure of the states, Georgia offers a window into old world Europe by way of a quaint, arabesque alpine town called Helen.

Helen, well-known in the region as the third most popular tourist destination in Georgia after Atlanta and Savannah, is a picturesque getaway nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is only a couple of hours' drive north of Atlanta. For its many alpine virtues Helen is now a primary tourist capital of this southern state. It has been modelled after the Bavarian town of Munich.

At the outset and at its truest Helen remains a mill town. Historically, it has been home to lumberjacks, known locally as wood hicks. These working men worked in the local lumber mills. Over the years the town and its people awoke to infinite possibilities regarding the natural tapestry of the locale.

Gradually the mountain retreat became a major attraction, and the as yet nascent town began feebly to attract travellers and tourists for more than just roadside wanderings. So much so, that picnic gatherings for many members of the Indian Diaspora are now synonymous with the Helen-getaways.

Downtown Helen, located as it is on the tranquil banks of the Chattahoochee River comes alive during fall as it kicks off the annual Oktoberfest. Laced with musical revelry, a zesty hangover of its Bavarian heritage, each year end this peaceful retreat is transformed into a convivial medley of song and dance. Common sightings include dancers in native costume; traditional horse carriages and a city dressed in wreaths of purple pansies and rose-lilies. With passing days this rolls into the alpine lights festival when the town dresses up with colourful luminescence for Christmas.

Nature enthusiasts and mountain biking & hiking fans find this place a haven for their 'wild' fantasies thanks to the vicinity of two Georgia state parks; the Unicoi State Park and the Anna Ruby Falls. The former offers magnificent views of the Unicoi Lake as also camping and day-use picnic spots. Outdoorsy folk enjoy horseback riding, golf, hiking and more in the area. The latter, another major draw is a rare double-falls formation in the Tray Mountain wilderness. More than being an exciting hike uphill it is an ideal setting for fishing, hiking, and spectator luxury as nature photography.

The Chattahoochee River, the aqua connector of Georgia, runs through downtown Helen and being both harnessed and languid in this part, offers immense recreational scope. In keeping with the pictorial legacy of the city, the river is decked up further by enterprising restaurants that have set up shop on its banks.

Local restaurants have become over the years a holistic indulgence for visitors turning to scrumptious Bavarian cuisine after a long days' hiking. As a result some of the popular local restaurants have made decks along the river and offer splendid sight and sound experience to diners. The expansive menu in most eateries offers both German and European dishes apart from the usual all- American fast food fare, thereby complimenting the scenic ambience.

Helen opens up chapters of its past for those keen on understanding the historic significance of the town. The Gold Mines of Helen features a tour of the mine, gold panning, and a nature walk for instance, while the Museum of the Hills recreates Helen's beauteous past for the visiting present.

With its old-world towers, mills, shops, lanes and German odyssey, Helen is the place for specialty shopping. It boasts of nearly 200 outlets that offer everything from glass blowing artifacts to candles to wind chimes and gems & jewellery. The Glassblowing Shop owned by a family of glass artists in particular, is a hugely popular retail specialty shop while the Hansel and Gretel chocolate shop could put the legendary Willy Wonka to shame.

This alpine village has a legacy full of vicissitudes, sad beauty and moving progress which is rarely the fortune of many sites. To the casual tourist, this serenely romantic settlement is vividly reminiscent of the cobbled walks and sprightly lanes of rural Europe. No wonder it attracts almost all tourists visiting Georgia and is their definitive 'natural' choice for holiday destination. For us Indians, who can truly appreciate the vivid montage of rural quirkiness, this is a vision and blueprint of what our Himalayan villages can and should become.