Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Things To Do in Helen

By Phantom Troublemaker

WARNING: This is a travel column with a humorous slant. There is information here, but it is swaddled in semi-off-color humor. If you just want regular old information about Helen, you should go to their website.

Although they aren’t going to warn you about the lousy music.

This past weekend I took the family to scenic Helen, Georgia for what I expected to be a couple of days of Bavarian/German/Swedish/Whatever fun and now you get to read all about it!

I have always had fond memories of Helen from a trip that my family went on when I was a kid. The specifics escape me because I don’t have that weird thing where you can actually remember your childhood, but I’ve always treasured what I do recall of panning for gold, browsing candy stores, and wandering through all different kinds of places filled with exotic arts and crafts reminiscent of the old country.

Not my old country, but someone’s. I mean, Germany has been around for a long time. And even before it was known for industrial music, overpriced automobiles, and poop videos it was where they trained mercenaries. We learned all about them in elementary school. It seems that America couldn’t have a war without boatloads of Hessians showing up wanting to stick their swords into people for money.

Fortunately America can provide her own mercenaries now, but we can still visit a small town nestled in the North Georgia mountains to experience the best in Old World Hessian charm.

And terrible, terrible music.

I know that this post could use more pictures, but as I mention a few times, I did not realize I would be doing a write-up.

The Heidi Motel

We stayed in the adorable Heidi motel, which is within a mile of pretty much everything. It has a windmill on top of it, so you can pretend you’re in Beauty and the Beast, minus the plague. Probably minus the plague.

The exterior shares the charming timber-frame design that dominates Helen. If you want to stay in a cutesy place that you’ll want pictures of, this is it. Our room was clean. This is very important, as much of Helen was not clean. Some of the furniture was a style that I’d call “Sort of Medieval or Something” and some of it was “Sort of Big Lots”. An HDTV was awkwardly bolted into the wall, but rather than being centered and dominating the room with its technological convenience, it was way off to the right of a huge unnecessary mirror. The room had a sizeable mini-fridge and a microwave, which was nice.

The fixtures in the bathroom were aged and the toilet seat was the kind where if you don’t pay attention to how you sit on it there’s a good chance it’s going to slide right off of the toilet and take you with it. The shower head had a crack in it where water shot out of the top and directly into the ceiling, but I just pretended it was our own little celebratory fountain. Hooray for Helen!

Seriously, though – I can’t emphasize enough how clean the room was. The carpet felt clean. I was okay walking around with my socks off.

The lady at the desk was very nice, but possibly not a native. I say this because she didn’t seem to actually know anything about Helen. My idea had been to check in and ask the almost certainly knowledgeable Motel staff where to eat, but all she could tell us was that she thought people liked the place down the street that she couldn’t remember the name of.
The bottom line is that we liked the Heidi motel. It was overpriced for what it was, but a fine place to stay for an evening.

Old Heidelberg

Because I have food issues, the thing I was most looking forward to was a huge German meal with a huge German beer. Sure – I sort of vaguely outlined other stuff we might do like panning for gold or looking at some nature, but the one concrete plan in my head was gorging on sausage and potato-based cuisine.

Since the hotel staff had been less than helpful with recommendations, we struck out on our own towards town to find the most German-looking place we could. While most of Helen is very German, Old Heidelberg was the Germanist. It also had the advantage of being one of the first places we found. This was important because there had been some miscommunication amongst the family as to when, exactly, we would be eating and my wife has a very specific schedule.

If we do  not adhere to the schedule, her response goes something like this:

Stage 1 - Physical signs of hunger – fidgeting, frowning, complaining about DC movies (approximately ten minutes to stage 2)

Stage 2 – Verbal notification of hunger (approximately three minutes to stage three)

Stage 3 – Psychological torture – starts to list household chores that need to be done, reminders of past infractions, threats of violence (approximately eight minutes to stage 4)

Stage 4 – Genocide

We were seven minutes and fifty-four seconds into Stage 3. I do not ever want to get to Stage 4. We would have eaten at Old Heidelberg if it had been Arby’s.

Fortunately Old Heidelberg was not Arby’s. The staff was pleasant and attentive, with the waiter going so far as to recommend a different kind of sausage from what I initially ordered (he was right). They were also quite knowledgeable about the menu, something that I unfortunately don’t see enough of these days.

Old Heidelberg is, well, old. There are places where it shows more than others and if you can’t deal with a little character in your restaurants, it might not be for you. But I loved it.
The food was phenomenal. I had this:

The Baurnwurstplatte with mashed potatoes and German (of course) potato salad. The mashed potatoes were the highlight. The baurnwurst was great on its own, but I am a big fan of mustard and there was some kind of super thick mustard on the table. The sort of mustard that is hard to spread and that has big, brown specks in it. Mustard so hearty it’s almost a meal unto itself. I’d say I had a 50/50 mustard to baurnwurst ratio going on and it was incredible.

This sausage was the kind that was so good that if someone ran up to you while you were eating it and said, “THAT SAUSAGE IS PEOPLE”, you’d just finish it anyway.

The German potato salad was also good, but I always forget that German potato salad is just seasoned potato slices.

I also had the first beer on their beer list. I can’t remember the name because it was something like “Geborsthalleschlasse”, but the description started with “Some find the initial taste reminiscent of bananas” and also included references to mangos and other fruits. If you know me, you know that I mostly don’t like beer, so this was right up my alley. It was delightful and was the kind of beer that I would gladly drink on a daily basis.

Mrs. Troublemaker had a distinctly non-German burger that she said was great, accompanied by an Oktoberfest beer that she also liked. I’m sure it tasted like an old shoe, because that’s the kind of beer she likes.

My son had chicken fingers because he is nine and most nine-year-olds do not appreciate the magic of baurnwurst and mustard so thick you could pave the strasse with it.


We wandered around the downtown area a bit after dinner.

Visually, the downtown area is wonderful to look at thanks to the Bavarian architecture and quaint, old-world charm.

Olfactorily, the downtown area was somewhat unpleasant because there were a lot of people standing around smoking. As far as I know there wasn’t a tractor pull scheduled in Helen that weekend, but you’d never know it from looking around at the pedestrians.

Aurally, the downtown area is downright appalling thanks to upwards of ten outdoors musicians within fifteen feet of one another playing covers of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Confederate Railroad. Not to mention all of the restaurants and bars trying to drown each other out with their own prerecorded Top 40 White College Male Hits of the Aughts.

I was experiencing some pretty severe cognitive dissonance thanks to the combination of charming old world surroundings and vomitus modern Southern Rock and the yard of  Geborsthalleschlasse I had imbibed at Old Heidelberg wasn’t helping me cope. I wanted streets with the pleasant strains of Händel and Schubert playing in the background, with the occasional rowdy polka tune thrown in. Instead I was getting a redneck cacophony.
Remind me to write a strongly worded letter to the Helen Chamber of Commerce.

Side Note: Everyone that worked in Helen was tremendous. We had nothing but wonderful interactions with every clerk, waiter, and staff person in town.

The people visiting Helen were not tremendous. It was a bizarre mix of boisterous college-age kids, massive families that seemed to be there just to obstruct sidewalks and doorways, and old, loud drunks.

Jolly’s Toys

If you know me, then you know mine is a family that likes a toy store. And yet another perk of staying at the Heidi motel is the presence of Jolly’s Toys right next door!

Jolly’s Toys has been in Helen for thrity-eight years. I know this because I asked. I asked because as soon as I set foot in the store I was overwhelmed by memories. The setup, the smells, even some of the toys – I had been here. The feeling of nostalgia was like an ocean wave hitting me full-on. Whenever that childhood visit to Helen had occurred, we had gone to Jolly’s Toys.

As a matter of fact, I do believe this was the store where I acquired a coonskin cap and a boomerang. I was much better at wearing the cap than I was at throwing the boomerang, but neither made me as cool as I was hoping they would.

The lady I spoke to this time was absolutely wonderful, filling me in on some of the shop’s history as she made sure the kids in the store had a never ending supply of toys to play with. My son shot a toy crossbow and flew a small drone, and we completely failed to escape from a rope puzzle.

Jolly’s Toys was jam-packed with all manner of vintage fun. We enjoyed our time there and I’d say it’s a can’t-miss feature of Helen.

Other Shoppes of Note

Lindenhaus Imports – A great little store with lots of imported crafts, knick-knacks, and cuckoo clocks.

Tim’s Wooden Toys – A charming place where everything appears to be handmade. A gentleman was sitting at a work bench making things while we browsed. There were all kinds of neat items for sale, including swords, rubber band guns, wooden cars, and the best tops I have ever seen in my life.

Alpine Candy Mine – A candy shop themed to look like a mine. It’s cute, has a fine selection of candy, and the staff was super nice.

Underground Helen – If you need dreamcatchers, statues of bears, rock candy, or a neon Schaefer Beer sign, this is the place for you.

DJ’s Magic Dragon – Helen’s finest knife and airbrushed t-shirt emporium! It escapes being included with the next listing purely by virtue of its weirdness.

Crappy Tourist Shops – Unfortunately, many of the shops in Helen are of the same variety you find at the beach – loaded with ugly t-shirts with things like Confederate flags and dogs drinking beer, miniature plastic outhouses, and flip flops. For every delightful store like Lindenhaus Imports, there are three shit shops with garbage merchandise.

Remind me to complain about these lousy shops in my letter.

Hansel and Gretel Candy Kitchen – This was definitely a big draw, as we saw more people come through this store than anywhere else. It’s a fairly large space full of homemade candy, fudge, and other desserts. I couldn’t believe how many verities of sugary confection they had available, including what must have been fifty different kinds of truffles. They had fresh samples on the back counter and my son and I tried some carrot cake fudge that was just ridiculous. I left with a bag of pecan pralines. They were delightful.

The Meeting Place Family Restaurant

Located across the street from the Heidi Motel, The Meeting Place had indoor and outdoor seating and both were pleasant environments. The staff was great and we enjoyed our breakfast. I will throw this warning out – there’s a big Christian presence, so if you’re a jerk that can’t handle that kind of stuff or can’t control your language in public, you might want to find another place to eat.

I’d recommend the Wendy’s down the street. That red haired devil has zero standards.

From the website. I didn't take a picture because I didn't realize I'd be writing this up.
Outpost Gold & Gem Mining

My son’s only goal for the trip was to pan for gold. I totally understood this.

I very clearly recall that on my family’s trip to the Helen/Dahlonega area when I was a kid, that was my primary interest as well. We found an operation set up somewhere that let you take a pan and sift through sand in a little artificial creek for as long as you wanted. After a couple of hours of what was probably my parents working a whole lot harder than I did, we brought our finds to the people in charge so they could be preserved in a tiny jar of water. I still have the treasures that we labored so hard for that day – three flecks of what probably isn’t gold, a green gem the size of an ant, and a red gem that is slightly smaller.

Imagine my surprise when, roughly two minutes into our experience my son had culled this:

Clearly things are a little different in the world of gold and gem mining these days.

Outpost is set up where you buy a bucket of sand – gold, gems, or fossils – and take it to one of their troughs full of water. There, you use a provided trowel to put the sand in a sieve to dunk in the water and slosh around, revealing gems and teeth or whatever. We had a blast here and I highly recommend this place for visiting families, artificial though the experience may be. We bought a gem bucket and a fossil bucket and between the fun we had and the stuff we took home I feel like we got more than our money’s worth.

Scoop de Scoop Ice Cream Parlour

This place is right across the street from Outpost and adjacent to the Alpine miniature golf course, which we did not visit. The service was great and so was the ice cream.

Anna Ruby Falls

Anna Ruby Falls is a nature-oriented attraction located in the Chattahoochee National Forest. It’s close enough to Helen that it can be your whole day or just part of your day, depending on how much you like nature and trees and stuff.

If I were the sort of person that valued trees and streams and bugs over large amounts of delicious food, I’d say this was the highlight of our trip. I’d also weigh thirty pounds less.
The drive to get there took us through some forests and hills, with the reveal of actual, for-real mountains as you approach. As hilly as Metro Atlanta is, it’s exciting to see true mountains in person. For me, anyway. We found it a little strange that the speed limit on these winding, hilly roads was 55 and I have no problem telling you that I didn’t get within 10 MPH of that most of the time. Careening off the side of an elevated highway is not part of my vacation plan.

The whole area dedicated to the falls is beautiful. There’s a walking path that’s about half a mile long and I took more pictures on it than I did of the whole rest of Helen (partially because I didn’t realize I’d be writing this). The creek that flows down the mountain from the falls has plenty of serene pools and tumbling miniature falls and the forest is lush and gorgeous. Despite my normal anti-outdoors attitude, I found myself truly enjoying the serene environment.

At least, I was until I got to the top and one of those huge families was blocking the walkway. This time with the added element of wine that smelled like a hobo’s butthole. It was bizarre. Right at the top of the path there were six or seven people standing there with paper cups full of the foulest-smelling drek I’ve ever had the displeasure of inhaling. It was like the California Raisins got hung over and threw up in a bucket. And then peed in the bucket.

But we quickly made or way past the Mad Dog convention and onto the observation decks.
There are two waterfalls there because it’s where Curtis Creek and York Creek intersect. It’s not powerful like other waterfalls I’ve seen, but it’s pretty and nice and worth the already pleasant trip up the mountain to see.

Troll Tavern

After walking, driving, and panning for gold and teeth all day we had worked up quite the appetites. Unfortunately, we chose the Troll Tavern for lunch.

The ambiance is that of a jocko sports bar with random paintings of trolls here and there. The food was okay at best, but it might have been better if our anger at waiting forty minutes for it hadn’t been the predominate taste.

Eh, no need to belabor it – we didn’t like this place at all and would never go back. End of story.

And that, my friends, is actually the end of the story. At that point we were all tired and ready to head home. We hadn’t booked a room for a second night because we weren’t too sure what Helen had to offer, so I wanted to get on the road before it got too late.

Helen is a beautiful little town with plenty to do. The people that work there are friendly and courteous and very conscious of making sure you have a good time. The people visiting there are probably the worst thig about it. There’s no way around the fact that Helen is a tourist town and you’re going to have to deal with tourists. Now that I’ve experienced that, I might be able to filter it a little bit and have more fun next time.

And that’s not to say that we didn’t have fun. Between the food, the shops, and the attractions, we ended up having a great time and I definitely recommend a family trip to Helen for anyone that’s considering it. It isn’t overly pricey and there’s plenty in a five minute walking distance or twenty minute driving distance to keep you occupied for a weekend. If I could make one wish come true, it would be to get rid of all of the shitty music that was playing and replace it with something more appropriate.

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  1. I really enjoyed reading this!

    My wife and I actually went on our honeymoon in Helen back in May of 2005. I grew up in Nashville, TN and had never heard of it before but a gentleman from our church recommended it to us. It really was a pretty cool place. I remember that we stayed at a cabin my parents had rented for us, went hiking, ate at the ice cream shop and lots of German restaurants, went tubing, played miniature golf, and checked out a few nearby Wal-Marts and such because the Episode III toys were out and the toy hunt never ends. Not even for a honeymoon. We had a great time and picked up some Christmas ornaments that still hang on our tree every year. My daughter is three and a 1/2 now, so it might be fun to revisit with her. I imagine we wouldn't be out much at night, so hopefully we would avoid some of the problems y'all had.

    We vacation in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge with my family almost every year and I know what you mean about the overabundance of shops selling cheap knives, confederate flag adorned memorabilia, and other bizarre stuff. I love country charm and southern hospitality. That stuff is neither and it's everywhere in Gatlinburg! I don't remember much of that in Helen, but maybe it's a recent thing from the last decade or so.

    1. Gatlinburg is on our list. I think Chattanooga might be next up.

    2. Chatanooga has a great downtown and Rock City is unbelieving charming!