Travel affords opportunities to spread your wings, trying new things, whether a new beer, a new restaurant or a new festival. A long weekend in the North Georgia Mountains recently provided me with such opportunities.
For those with German roots longing for a place reminiscent of their homeland, there's no better place than Helen, Georgia. When the former logging and gold-mining town began a decline in the 1960s, city leaders adopted a zoning ordinance requiring all buildings to conform to Bavarian Alpine appearance. The result? A charming Alpine village nestled on the banks of the Chattahoochee River replete with German bakeries, restaurants and, most important, a biergärten.
King Ludwig's Biergärten on Helen's main thoroughfare has an impressive list of German beers - including the watering hole's namesake Konig Ludwig - and several craft brews by the pint, stein or pitcher. Plastic steins can be purchased and refilled at a discounted rate in most Helen restaurants serving beer. In warmer months, patrons share picnic tables and drink while noshing authentic outsized Bavarian pretzels; beer cheese on the side.
About an hour east of Helen on U.S. 76 in Georgia's wine country is Clayton, a rustic town full of shops geared toward tourists and wine drinkers. An enterprising couple, Jabe and Barbara Hilson, have opened a tasting room for their wines, with a second bar that has beer tastings. When we were there, the taps at Noble Wine Cellar's tasting room were taken over by a Charlotte brewery, The Unknown Brewing Company. The tasting featured four beers - session ale, ginger wheat, IPA and stout - all worth trying and several worth seeking out again.
Just a block down the street from Noble Wine Cellar, at the corner of Main and Hiawassee streets, is a converted service station now home to Universal Joint, a spot with traditional pub fare and excellent beers. The beer list included a number of outstanding brews that paired nicely with the burgers and such served there. The visit was even more memorable because the amiable bartender easily handled our boisterous party with the right amount of humor and sass.
Back in Helen that night, we went to one of village's many festivals, the Fasching Festival (think German Mardi Gras) at the Festhalle. As we approached, costumed revelers entered the building full of guests sitting at long tables, and festive tunes by a German band carried across the night air. It seemed to us that everyone knew each other, but we never felt like outsiders. Indeed, as I stood in line in my lederhosen - yes, I own an authentic pair - grasping my refillable beer mug, many struck up conversations. I was even approached by the Chamber of Commerce president, who invited us to return for Oktoberfest in the fall.
Throughout our weekend adventures, beer was a common stream. It was the impetus that propelled our exploration of the area and the subject of many conversations that led to recommendations for future visits. Because of that and my German ancestry, I will definitely be back.
Trip to Helen highlights:
• King Ludwig's Biergärten, 8660 N. Main St., Helen
• Noble Wine Cellar, 58 N. Main St., Clayton
• Universal Joint Clayton, 109 N. Main St., Clayton