NORTH GEORGIA MOUNTAINS
As I gazed down the heart-stoppingly steep slope from the crest of the road, lost in the neighborhoods of Blue Ridge, Ga., I felt we would all die. There was no way I'd point the car down that roller coaster, so I gingerly backed us around at the top of the hill and rode the brakes down the gentler pass I'd come up. We weren't in Florida any more.
Fortunately, most roads in the environs of Georgia's Blue Ridge, just to the west of the Chattahoochee National Forest and the start of the Appalachian Trail, are not that gulp-inducing, but if you stay in a cabin on the mountains, you'll be happy if you have four-wheel drive or sporty low gears to take you up the gravel one-lane grades that pass for roads. As my long-distance hostess assured me we would, soon we were whipping down the mountains as if we'd lived there for years.
More and more, friends and acquaintances mention their vacations to the mountains of North Carolina, their cabins in north Georgia. Florida flatlanders love getting into the hills for a different point of view. When a friend relocated to Cherry Log Mountain — where land is cheap and rent is cheaper — and invited us up, that was it: We snagged a cabin rental for $60 a night and arrived in time for the truly fabulous Fourth of July fireworks over Lake Blue Ridge. After a hard day's drive, we lay on a blanket and looked up into a psychedelic dream: The flares directly overhead seemed to burst down toward us. And then there were the fireflies . . .
The villages schedule festivals throughout the year, and the shops are full of antiques and other treasures, while the restaurants bustle. We slept in and missed the next morning's patriotic parade, choosing instead to laze around our fully furnished cabin, gazing at the soothing view of trees and mountain laurel from our porch. It's 10 degrees cooler here, and drier. Many people have built vacation cabins and do not occupy them year-round, but they're eager to have them occupied, so they advertise through word of mouth or Craigslist, or they list their properties with local cabin rental and real estate agencies. The cost of living is lower here, but wireless Internet service is painfully slow, and fresh mozzarella is still foreign just 90 miles north of Atlanta.
You might see black bears, deer, woodchucks and hummingbirds. There are huckleberries, wild strawberries and blackberries for the picking, cool mountain streams — and chiggers and ticks and scorpions (but not many mosquitoes). Most cabins have hot tubs, fire circles and wood-burning fireplaces, but if you do decide to get up out of your rocking chair, there's plenty to do.
We drove to Dahlonega, site of the first U.S. gold rush (in 1833), and spent an afternoon panning for gold, mining for gemstones and taking in an underground tour of some restored shafts in the Consolidated Mines complex. The Gold Museum was worth the visit, and the quaint downtown invited shopping and strolling. We headed over to the Smith House Inn for a delicious country dinner buffet. You sit with people you've just met and pass the fried okra like family.
Take the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, operating out of Blue Ridge and covering 13 miles up to the twin towns of McCaysville, Ga., and Copperhill, Tenn. It's an hour's ride — get an open-air car for the full effect — and it's unexpectedly enjoyable as the train carves its way through the countryside's mountain and river views. Shop a bit in the towns (and straddle the state line!), or get a package deal and tube down the Toccoa River. (Several outfitters also offer their own scheduled whitewater rafting, tubing and kayaking, at different levels of difficulty, on the Toccoa/Ocoee Rivers.)
We did a horseback ride one afternoon. There are many stables vying for tourist business, but we picked the one with the names and pictures of their horses on the brochure. (Tourists come and go, but Comanche and Lightning will not fade away.) Pick trails from one hour to three, and relax into your saddle. Pass blackberries you can't reach, hear the cicada's whine, ford streams and clamber up slopes, trot through woods and fields, breathe in the smell of horse sweat and leather, and take in the mountain views. Did I mention there were no mosquitoes?
Freelance writer Melanie Hubbard is a frequent contributor to the St. Petersburg Times.