HELEN, Ga. —Peering into a glass of dark, foam-rimmed German beer, Kim Smith sighs contentedly. "Every October I come to Helen," he says before then taking a big gulp of the swirling lager. "Obviously my last name of Smith isn't German, but for a day I get to be one. Bring on the beer and lederhosen!"
Smith — and thousands and thousands of others from across the Southeast — visit the alpine village of Helen, Ga., from mid-September through Oct. 31 for Oktoberfest, an event that Debbie Gagliolo of the Alpine Helen-White County Convention & Visitors Bureau calls "the biggest party in the Southeast."
The tiny town of Helen, about 70 miles north of Atlanta in the heart of Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains, is situated on a high rise of land above the Chattahoochee River in the verdant deep woods of the Chattahoochee National Forest. The 2009 population was fewer than 900, while all of White County's is about 25,000. During Oktoberfest, the sleepy village roars to life with revelers from around the world.
If you can't get to Oktoberfest in Bavaria, Helen's festival is kissin' cousin close. The celebration goes on for nearly two months, a very long and very big street party that's all about biergartens, brats, and the Bavarian version of square dancing, the polka. It's all authentic, too, from the sizzling hot-off-the-grill flavor of wienerschnitzel and bratwursts and mounds of freshly mixed potato salad to the parades to the oom-pah-pah of cheerful, loud German brass bands and accordions.
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In the late 1960s, Helen, once a thriving timber and sawmill town, was a mere ghost of itself. Several citizens put their heads together to revitalize the downtown, drawing from the wisdom and inspiration of a Clarkesville artist who had been stationed in Germany. The artist sketched the town to resemble a Bavarian village, and then the work began.
The "skyline" — no building has more a few floors — is sculpted with venerable Old World towers, lots of gingerbread trim, European-style cobblestone alleys, and a market square filled with more than 150 shops including plenty devoted to mountain arts, furniture, pottery, and handcrafts like glass artists and toy makers.
While Oktoberfest, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, is all about the beer — make that lots and lots of beer — all of North Georgia is also known for its wine industry. If you want a change from the brew, try the vino at several wineries and tasting rooms in or near Helen, including Habersham Winery, Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards Tasting Room, and Yonah Mountain Vineyards. Several cafes overlook the clear waters of the Chattahoochee, with freshwater trout a locally-caught specialty item.
Walking among the sea of Bavarian-style felt hats, Smith and his wife, Carol, take in the cacophony of folk music and crowds. "We're originally from south Georgia but now live in Florida," Carol explains. "We like to come for cooler weather, the mountains, and the changing of the seasons to see the leaves. We've been coming to Oktoberfest for 10 or 12 years now, and we love it. Kim especially likes to sample all the beer he can."
Most activities take place at Festhalle, the central point in Helen located at the intersection of Munich Strasse and Edelweiss Strasse. Since Helen is so small, Festhalle is within walking distance of almost every hotel in town. The bands change weekly, but you're pretty much guaranteed a good helping of alphorns, trombones, and tubas. Pack the dancing shoes, as waltzing to the polka is a requirement.
And you can raise a stein of suds and toast Mother Nature, as October is indeed one of North Georgia's most fabulous months for weather. She almost always cooperates by bringing cooler temperatures and brilliant blue skies, and then cloaking the Blue Ridge surrounding Helen with unreal shades of autumn color.
Once you've had your fill of beer and brats, visit Anna Ruby Falls, one of North Georgia's most scenic waterfalls, or bike or hike the verdant trails of Unicoi State Park, once the happy hunting grounds of the Cherokee Indians.
Smith, slightly tipsy from the potent German beer, happily grins as he watches the Chattahoochee gurgle southward toward Atlanta. "One of these days I'll go to Oktoberfest in Munich, just for comparison's sake," he says. "But I don't see how it gets any better than this."
IF YOU GO:
Visit the Alpine Helen-White County Convention & Visitors Bureau at www.HelenGa.org or call toll-free 1-800-858-8027. Within the town and nearby are a host of bed-and-breakfast inns, hotels, campgrounds, and cabins. Oktoberfest began Sept. 9 and runs through Oct. 31. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is about a two-hour drive. Oktoberfest hours are from 6:00-10:30 p.m. Thursdays; 6:00-11:30 p.m. Fridays; 1:00-11:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 1:00-7:00 p.m. Sundays.