Travel

7 Reasons to Drive to Helen, Georgia This Summer

It's time for a change of scenery.

Courtesy of Georgia Mountain Rentals
Courtesy of Georgia Mountain Rentals
Courtesy of Georgia Mountain Rentals

This deep into the summer, you’re undoubtedly eyeing your next escape from Atlanta. Considering that you have probably tried to fight the heat this summer by visiting Savannah and/or one of the many great beach cities in the Southeast, it’s time for a drastically different change in scenery. Luckily for us Atlantans, there are countless travel destinations around Georgia, and most-if not all-are accessible by car. One of those must-visit destinations is Helen, a mountain town in northeast Georgia that attracts families, beer enthusiasts, and lovebirds all-year round. From it basically being a mini-Germany hiding at the top of Georgia to its plethora of fun water attractions, this unique, Bavarian-style town definitely proves that you don’t have to vacay at the beach in order to have a good time during the summer. Yet, if you still need a little bit more convincing, we understand. Here are over 50 compelling reasons you should make that drive to Helen, Georgia.

Courtesy of The Heidelberg German Restaurant, Bar & Music Hall - Helen, GA
Courtesy of The Heidelberg German Restaurant, Bar & Music Hall – Helen, GA
Courtesy of The Heidelberg German Restaurant, Bar & Music Hall – Helen, GA

Taste German cuisine without leaving Georgia

One of the most fascinating aspects about Helen is that it’s a picturesque replica of a Bavarian Alpine village in Germany. Towards the end of the 20th century, Helen was redesigned to bring some classic German flair to North Georgia, and in addition to its quaint visual aesthetic, the European influence is also present in the mountain town’s eateries. In Helen, there are several restaurants where you can go to enjoy an authentic German dining experience, including The Heidelberg German Restaurant, Pub & Music Hall, The Troll Tavern & Restaurant, Bodensee, Hofer’s Bakery and Cafe, Hofbrauhaus Restaurant & Pub, Cafe International, and Village Crepe Haus. Plus, there are still several great spots that serve Southern staples and American classics for the not so adventurous travelers, including Cowboys & Angels, Paul’s Steakhouse, Bigg Daddys Restaurant & Tavern, Nacoochee Village Tavern & Pizzeria, and Betty’s Country Store.

Courtesy of Tallulah Gorge State Park Page
Courtesy of Tallulah Gorge State Park Page
Courtesy of Tallulah Gorge State Park Page

Get some fresh air while visiting nature sites and historical landmarks

In addition to the great food options in Helen, the area is riddled with gorgeous nature trails and historical landmarks for you to explore during your visit. The one-mile trail Helen to Hardman Heritage Trail is an ADA accessible scenic route that connects the Hardman Farm State Historic Site to Alpine Helen, and Smithgall Woods State Park and Raven Cliffs Trailhead are two other peaceful hiking locations that are close to Helen. History buffs can enjoy quick trips to both the Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound and the Stovall Mill Covered Bridge, and for those who don’t mind driving a bit longer for some mind-blowing nature sites, both Brasstown Bald-aka the highest point in Georgia-and Tallulah Gorge State Park are within 30 miles of Helen. However, if all else fails and you find yourself with not enough time to check out all of the wondrous outdoor areas in and around Helen, visiting Anna Ruby Falls is a must. Whether you take the novice-friendly 0.4-mile trail or the challenging 4.6-mile hike to the base of the waterfalls, you’ll be absolutely blown away by the beautiful twin falls.

Courtesy of Bear Creek Lodge and Cabins Helen GA
Courtesy of Bear Creek Lodge and Cabins Helen GA
Courtesy of Bear Creek Lodge and Cabins Helen GA

Unwind in a cabin

During the summer, you probably imagine your dream vacation as a getaway at a beachside resort or lakefront villa, but spending time in the mountains can be just as refreshing, especially with the vast assortment of cabins in Helen. By using cabin rental platforms like Cabin Rentals of Helen, Georgia Mountain Rentals, and Pinnacle Cabin Rentals, visitors can find the perfect cabin for their trip to the Appalachian Mountains, but honestly, you can’t go wrong with booking one with Bear Creek Lodge and Cabins. From cozy treehouse cabins that sleep five people to riverside cabins that are especially designed for those who love to fish, Bear Creek Lodge and Cabins has an excellent variety of cabins available. And similar to other great travel destinations, the Airbnbs in the area are absolutely stunning as well, so whether you’re looking for a romantic cabin about six miles outside of Helen or a Bavarian-style condo that’s walking distance from Downtown Helen, you’ll have even more great lodging options to choose from.

Courtesy of Screaming Eagle Aerial Adventures At Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge
Courtesy of Screaming Eagle Aerial Adventures At Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge
Courtesy of Screaming Eagle Aerial Adventures At Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge

Cool off with high-altitude attractions

So far, we’ve covered all of the relaxing and peaceful aspects about Helen that make it such a great nearby town to visit this summer, but there are plenty of exciting and blood-rushing activities to take part in as well. Thrill-seekers who often spend their summers at Six Flags will be surprised that Helen has a rollercoaster of its own-the tiny, yet electrifying, self-controlled Georgia Mountain Coaster. You can also beat the heat by getting wet at the Helen Tubing & Waterpark or by shooting down the Chattahoochee with Cool River Tubing, and if you’re a really great swimmer who doesn’t mind driving an hour or so for an exceptionally thrilling experience, Wildwater Rafting offers various white water rafting trips down the Chattooga River. For those who are looking to have a blast without getting wet, you can go ziplining at Nacoochee Adventures or the Unicoi Zipline & Aerial Adventure Park, and the Alpine Fun Factory has everything else you could possibly think of, from indoor go-karts and laser tag to an arcade and a skating rink.

Experience Downtown Helen’s Bavarian charm for yourself

As previously mentioned, part of what makes Helen one of Georgia’s most popular tourist locations is its captivating Alpine aesthetic, so when you’re not zipping through the sky or tubing down the Chattahoochee River, make it a point to explore the downtown Helen area. Museum attractions and activities like Alpine Mini Golf, Outpost Gold & Gem Mining Co., Charlemagne’s Kingdom, Helen Arts & Heritage Center offer fun for visitors of all ages, and there are a lot of shops to check out ass well, including The Glassblowing Shop, the Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen, and the Nacoochee Village Antique Mall.

Courtesy of Explore Georgia
Courtesy of Explore Georgia
Courtesy of Explore Georgia

Explore nearby North Georgia towns

One of the benefits of visiting Helen is that you’ll be closer than ever to numerous natural landmarks and must-visit towns in northeast Georgia. Thus, if you’ll be staying in Helen for a while and don’t mind hitting the road for 30- to 45-minute stretches, there is plenty to explore in the nearby area. About 21 miles north, there’s Hiawassee-which boasts the waterfall-riddled High Shoals Falls, the Hiawassee Antique Mall, and the Hightower Creek Vineyards. You can also head closer to the Georgia-South Carolina border to see the Toccoa Falls-the highest single-drop waterfall east of the Mississippi-in person. Helen is also within 30 miles of both Dahlonega and Blairsville, so you can either head southwest for your fill of wineries or head northwest for some peaceful outdoor recreation.

Courtesy of Yonah Mountain Vineyards
Courtesy of Yonah Mountain Vineyards
Courtesy of Yonah Mountain Vineyards

Hit up a bunch of breweries and wineries

If you’re looking to have an even more spirited trip to Helen, you have to take advantage of the bevy of wineries, breweries, vineyards, and bars. For starters, whether you stay there or not, having a drink atop the Valhalla Resort Hotel Sky Bar is damn-near an essential Helen experience. Then there’s the wineries. Sweet Acre Farms Winery Tasting Room is a great family-owned winery in Helen, and for an even more extensive wine-tasting experience, take a trip on the Unicoi Wine Trail. The trail is essentially a Northeast Georgia wine crawl that features six locally owned vineyards and wineries, including Yonah Mountain Vineyards, Habersham Winery, Serenity Cellars, The Cottage Vineyard, Sylvan Valley Lodge & Winery, and CeNita Vineyards & Winery. And of course, if you’re simply looking for some good local brews, Alpine Brew Deck and Tantrum Brewing Company are two must-visit destinations for beer enthusiasts.

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Joshua Robinson is an Atlanta-based entertainment critic and lifestyle writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram at @roshrisky.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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