Travel: The Georgia Hills are Calling
Tucked in the Chattahoochee National Forest, historic Dahlonega delights visitors with its gold mining past and winemaking future.
North of Atlanta the road disappears into a thick forest of towering oaks, hickories and sweet gums. Signs of urban life seem to evaporate as you wind your way along the curving asphalt through the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, en route to a tiny town called Dahlonega (pronounced duh-lon-a-ga).
Poised in the center of its historic downtown is the 1836 red brick Lumpkin County Courthouse surrounded by pots of bright scarlet and white begonias. Back in the day criminals found guilty of stabbings and bank robberies received their sentencing here, but today the building is the Dahlonega Gold Museum State Historic Site. It’s both the town’s anchor and a place to learn about the area’s gold rush days.
Prospectors descended on these hills in 1829 to mine a 150-mile gold belt that stretches from Northeast Georgia to Alabama with the richest part passing through Dahlonega. By 1938 there was so much gold here that the U.S. government established a mint. Inside the museum are displays of gold nuggets as large as 5.6 ounces, old mining equipment, and the judge’s chambers. A film tells the history of Dahlonega’s gold mining past.
Walk around Public Square and pop into the General Store where among jars of local preserves and old-fashioned candy, you’ll find Zelda the fortune-telling queen. When you insert a buck into the dusty arcade machine, she’ll tell you your fortune. Zelda’s so beloved by the community that local songwriter/singer Radford Windham wrote a song in tribute to the old gal. In the historic buildings surrounding the square, Bourbon Street Grille is a fun place to eat and drink; grab a seat on the balcony overlooking the square and order Cajun-inspired jambalaya or shrimp and crawfish étouffée. Continue on to Paul Thomas Chocolates for solid bricks of chocolate wrapped in shiny gold foil or stop at the local gathering spot Picnic Café for coffee and dessert.
Signs of urban life seem to evaporate as you wind your way along the curving asphalt through the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, en route to a tiny town called Dahlonega.
The curious will want to explore deep into a gold mine, going 200 feet underground at the Consolidated Gold Mine. Travel back in time through these damp tunnels with Miner D, who with his bib overalls and thick full beard looks like a miner who worked here from 1898 to 1906. You’ll learn about hydraulic mining, which used high-pressure jets to dislodge layers of rock, and listen to the loud echoing sounds of a drifter drill once used to make holes in the rock for dynamite blasting. At the end of the tour guests can pan for gold.
Another stop is Crisson Gold Mine. At this open-pit mine, a working stamp mill crushes quartz rock that modern-day gold seekers pan through for flecks of gold. You can also pan for rough gemstones, finding ruby, amethyst, citrine and others. Take your find to the lapidary, where Brianna Ray Weaver, whose parents own the mine, cuts and polishes gemstones turning them into jewelry.
In the lush rolling hills surrounding Dahlonega, gold wasn’t the only treasure. Farmers found soils rich enough to grow grapes that make fine wines. At the highest point sits Wolf Mountain Vineyards & Winery. Karl Boegner, who started the family business in 1999 after a successful career in the hospitality industry, set out to be a fine wine producer focusing on small European wines, only dry blends. Today, Wolf Mountain has 17 wines in its portfolio, and topping its awards from the San Francisco International Wine Competition are Best of Show and Best in Class, double gold medals, for their Blanc de Blancs Brut.
The winery boasts a romantic setting that looks out at distant Appalachian Mountains and down onto rustic stone buildings nestled in sloping hills where vineyards thrive. Lunch is served Thursday-Saturday and brunch on Sunday in a lodge-like restaurant. The grit fries, made with regional Logan Turnpike grits, and served with pimento cheese béchamel is a must-order that pairs easily with any wine. In the tasting room, a bronze sculpture of a howling wolf anchors the bar where you can sample Plenitude, a sauvignon blanc-style wine; Sunset Rose; Claret and others.
Three Sisters Vineyards, a small farm winery, was started by Sharon and Doug Paul in 1995; it became the first commercial winery in the county. Twenty of the farm’s 187 acres are devoted to vineyards. Among the noteworthy grapes grown here are Touriga Nacional, a Portuguese grape that produces a delicious port, and Cynthiana, an American summer grape once grown by Cherokees who inhabited the area. Sharon uses Cynthiana to make her best-selling Fat Boy Red, a full-bodied easy drinking wine. Rows of pinot noir, chardonnay, merlot and vidal blanc grapes growing on vines create a picturesque scene. On the large covered patio facing the vineyards, a lake and the Three Sister Mountains, guests enjoy a cool breeze as they sample and sip.
For the Tuscany vibe, there is Montaluce Winery & Restaurant. The road up undulating hills is lined with Italian cypress, and after yet another curve, the barrel-tiled roof of Montaluce’s vine-covered stone building comes into view. Inside is one of the longest wine tasting bars. High beamed ceilings, fireplaces and a balcony add to the dining experience.
Best time to visit? You decide. A fall trip offers colorful foliage and Gold Rush Days (Oct. 15-16). An old-fashioned Christmas lights up Dahlonega’s Public Square during the holiday season. In spring the Bear on the Square Mountain Festival celebrates bluegrass music. Visit Discover Dahlonega for more information, dahlonega.org
There’s More …
Where to Sleep: Dahlonega Square Hotel distinguished by its red exterior, white Victorian porch and rocking chairs sits a block from Public Square. Walk to antique shops, cafes and entertainment venues. Once the historic McGuire House, the property maintains a charming 1880s décor. Bonus is breakfast in bed delivered to your door by Chastain Southern Catering.
Getting Here: A road trip from Orlando—eight hours, 500 miles—is doable for those who dread airports. Otherwise fly into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. You can arrange shuttle pickup with DSH Transportation to and from Dahlonega. The company also offers Social Wine Tours to four wineries.
Entertainment After Dark: An underground speakeasy where local talent performs, Canopy + The Roots is a coffeehouse upstairs and a bar and listening room below. Local songwriters, comedians and other performers draw big crowds. Next door the historic Holly Theatre, a 1949 movie theater converted into a performance venue, is known for its stage productions. The season lineup includes Into the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing and others.
Southern Comfort Food: Family-style dining at The Smith House includes platters of fried chicken and country-fried steak with fixins from collard greens and creamed corn to mashed potatoes and fried okra. Wrap your meal with sweet strawberry shortcake.