Changing planes at the Atlanta Airport did not count, I decided. Nor did the half day drive between Alabama and Chattanooga Tennesee that I wrote about previously. That was a great drive, but not an overnight. If I wanted to check off Georgia as a state I had visited, I needed to see some unique Georgia sites and spend at least one night.
No seashore, islands, plantations, or even the bustling city of Atlanta on this trip, but instead, a scenic byway through the mountains of northern Georgia and a pretend German town, Helen, Georgia. The northeast corner of Georgia in the Blue Ridge Mountains, boasts some beautiful scenery. Particularly approached as we did coming down on byways from North Carolina.
Now I’m keeping track of U.S. theme towns that think they are in some other country. I’ve visited some. I have been to the charming Leavenworth Washington and the delightful Fredericksburg Texas, two towns that are wannabe German. But you could also visit Hermann Missouri , Frankenmuth Michigan, or the Amana Colonies in Iowa. In my home county of Holmes in Ohio, there’s a Berlin (pronunciation BER-lin after World War I), but its theme is Amish rather than just German.
In California, we stopped off in lovely Solvang, that pretends it is Danish. I haven’t been to the other Scandinavian town I’ve read about–New Sweden, Maine. I also have not visited Lindsborg Kansas, that calls itself Little Sweden USA.
In Helen, we stayed at one of the lodgings that had been made to echo Bavaria. (Even the Motel 6 and the Wendy’s look Bavarian instead of mid-century American.) We opted for a corny Heidi Inn, a non-chain place where we could have taken a room in the windmill tower.
Since we didn’t have long enough hair to let down a la Rapunzel, however, we settled for a ground level room.
Now, I realize that these pictures make the town and the motel look rather appealing, but pictures can be deceiving. I did not link to the motel, because I cannot recommend it. Only a few places that we entered looked like they were making an effort to be spruced up and present a truly Bavarian air. Most of the town looked shopworn and beat down by the recession. We were disappointed by everything except the cheerful and helpful server in the restaurant where we had dinner.
Our experience no doubt was colored by a very different impression of Leavenworth Washington, where everything seems to be newly painted and spruced up.
With the exception of motels and some of the restaurants, you have to pay $5.00 flat to park anywhere in town (for two minutes or the whole day). Even if you are just planning to pop into a souvenir shop, it will cost you $5.00. It irritated us so much that we did not spend any time shopping. Their loss. For a tourist town, and one that was pretty empty, that seems like a pretty poor policy. There is free parking on top of a very steep hill at a city park, and the town is fairly small, so if you are staying the night and are hearty, you can leave your car at a motel and walk around.
Fortunately, our breakfast the next morning at Hofer’s Bakery -Konditorei nearly made up for the rest of our experience. (And they had ample free parking) My breakfast of various German-style sausages and other meats took me back to our trip from Munich to Austria through the heart of Bavaria. The decor was authentic. A terrific mural shows the whole process of a loaf of bread from wheat field to bakery shelf. they even had grocery shelves devoted to German items. I just noticed that you can buy their baked goods on line, so if you’re homesick for Germany, take a look.
All in all, my advice is to enjoy the scenic northeastern corner of Georgia, drive through Helen and make a stop at Hofer’s, but do not plan on stopping long.
Clearly, my visit to my 48th state was a mixed experience and there is much more to the state than the tiny corners that we drove through. If you want to see backroads Georgia, as I mentioned in my article on Alabama, the Lookout Mountain Parkway takes you to the fantastic state park, Cloudland. I was so impressed that if I get back to Georgia, I will definitely explore more state parks.
We divided our time in North Carolina between the American castle–Biltmore Estates in Ashville–and the surrounding Appalachian forests of eastern North Carolina. We entered North Carolina from Tennessee by driving over Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountain National Park. The took us to the Cherokee town called, uh, Cherokee. It is the western culmination of the Blue Ridge and packed with motels, activities, and some Cherokee Culture. I had no idea it was so large and would like to go back and explore it more some time.
After leaving Asheville, I realized I should have visited the home of Thomas Wolfe. His book You Can’t Go Home Again had a huge impact on me as a young girl. But we were there to see the mansion, and then headed out on byways to see the forest country. Along the way we found some delightful places, including the town of Cashiers. (pronounced Cash-ers.)
What connection does George Vanderbilt, a free-spending millionaire, have to the beautiful mountain forests we drove through in eastern North Carolina?
It turns out that Vanderbilt was drawn from his home in New York City to North Carolina by the same thing that draws the millions of tourists that drive the Blue Ridge Parkway and other byways today. I was surprised to learn that this grandson of the infamous railroad baron Commodore Vanderbilt (the one who built a fortune from $100 to countless millions), spent his life spending some of his inheritance and creating beauty. That beauty included Appalachian forests. In fact, George Vanderbilt and his employee, Gifford Pinchot, were responsible for the system of national forests that we have today, and we visited the cradle of forestry. But first–the mansion.
Vanderbilt visited the pure air of North Carolina’s Appalachian region in 1888 when his mother was there for health treatments, and immediately invested in some worthless, barren land–125,000 acres of it. He put together a team of three men who were the most prominent architect, landscape architect and the father of forestry to build his 250 room “chateau”, surrounded by newly planted forests. Today that forest is dense and natural looking and it is sad to realize that Vanderbilt died before the forest reached its present glory.
You might not recognize the architect, who was the premiere architect of his day, but you certainly have heard of Frederick Law Olmstead–or at least of his most famous accomplishment–Central Park. It was Olmstead’s idea to plant the estate with a forest. This formidable team of four men created a masterpiece. Four, because George Vanderbilt was a hands-on builder.
All the men were more than just employees. They were used to the rarified social setting Vanderbilt traveled in and he considered them friends–even hanging their portraits in the mansion along with his family and ancestors.
The architect traveled with Vanderbilt to Europe to help pick out 17th century tapestries and other treasures. Then he designed around the precious pieces. I was incredibly impressed by the 25,000 book collection and the fact that after Vanderbilt obtained an Italian 17th century painted ceiling, the architect designed the library to fit the ceiling. Every detail was carefully chosen, from the marble bathtubs in the 47 bathrooms to the colors of the rooms–each decorated slightly differently to reflect their use.
Vanderbilt constructed this mansion before he even had a bride, and after he married he and his wife had only one child–a daughter. But all those rooms (and bathrooms) were filled with friends and their servants. (The dressing rooms in the basement indoor pool area are huge because ladies had to have their lady’s maids along to help them dress, dontcha know.)
Besides the house servants, there was an army of farmers and foresters and gardeners taking care of the vistas from every window and every balcony–each vista carefully thought out by Olmstead. The gardens go on and on and culminate in a conservatory where you can spot exotic orchids or visit a cactus room.
We spent six hours on site, determined to make the most of our $55 (each) admission cost (Plus $10 for one audio guide). If you go, be warned that to fully explore the mansion and gardens you will have to climb a lot of steps. There are some alternatives, but none that can explore the historic site completely. There are places to have picnics, and we would have taken advantage of that had we been aware that you can catch shuttles at several locations, so you could get back to your car to get your food and then drive to the pond or river for a picnic. (The website and map do not do a thorough job of explaining the availability of these shuttles, so be sure to ask when you are there.) However, there are also several quite good restaurants, including lighter offerings like an outdoor cafe adjoining the house.
Our six hours was not confined to the house and gardens. We also visit the village with shops, winery, restaurants, and historical displays.
Finally, be prepared for a constant bombardment of places where you can spend more money–special activities, high end gift shops, even two luxury hotels on the property. The Biltmore Estate, hugely popular, is run by descendents of George Vanderbilt’s daughter and her husband and they are determined to maintain it as the treasure it is.
On to the Forests
After taking a short stretch of freeway in Asheville from our Red Roof Inn (good location, good bargain, good eats within walking distance) in order to get to the Blue Ridge Parkway, we were on “blue highways” for the rest of the day. After searching on the Internet, I focused on three byways. First, it seemed appropriate to do at least a small stretch on the Blue Ridge, America’s most popular road. I had been on the Blue Ridge in Virginia, but not here at the western end.
The Blue Ridge took us to Pink Beds, a place with a concentration of Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurel and a lovely picnic grounds where we paused for a break. I had to consult with friends on Facebook to learn that this is Mountain Laurel .
Right up the road from Pink Beds (or take a five-mile loop hiking trail that connects the two) is the official Birthplace of U.S. Forestry. We had been traveling through woodlands that once belonged to George Vanderbilt (The Vanderbilt Forest). Upon his death, his wife sold thousands of acres to the United States Government for $40 an acre, and they hired Gifford Pinchot to manage the first National Forest. The site includes a small interpretive center and has special programs to introduce people to forestry. We were also traveling through the Pisgah Forest, both part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Up and down we went, through numerous mountain passes gaps and gorges, and soaring up over mountain peaks. On one of the down trips, we came upon the lovely little town of Cashiers, where we ducked into Buck’s Coffee Shop for a refreshment. As we started to leave town, we saw their Village Green town park, and decided it was time for a lunch picnic. This park gets the prize for best town park we’ve come upon. It had everything. Luscious landscaping, a creative children’s playground, art installations, a boardwalk into a wetland for bird watching and spotlessly clean picnic tables and restrooms. Cashiers, we love you.
More up and down mountain driving and across a mountain ridge until we wound down into Georgia and our next stop–in my 48th state.
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