As a child growing up in Atlanta, we often made family trips to nearby cities and towns just to see what was there. While my friends were carted off to the obvious places—Myrtle Beach, DisneyWorld, New Orleans, and yes, Chattanooga—my siser and I were plopped in the backseat of the family Dodge and taken to off-the-beaten-path destinations. Which awoke in me, at least, an appreciation for the hidden joys that can be found in even the smallest town.
I distinctly remember a weekend trip to Dahlonega, nestled in the hills and mountains of North Georgia. I got to pan for gold and thought the few flakes I had “discovered” would make me insanely rich. An eight year old's grasp of the economics of precious metals aside, I remembered the town fondly. So when the opportunity arose to revisit it as an adult, I was eager to see what had changed.
Boy, was I surprised. Dahlonega is still at its heart a small North Georgia college town with a history of gold mining that continues to infuse the region, though it has long since ceased to be a source of mined gold. And yes, there are still several mines that offer tours and the beloved panning for gold experience that made such an impression on the younger me. What I was not expecting was the transformation the town has undergone in the just the past decade. It’s turned into a community that has embraced the arts, music and fine dining, and has become one of the region’s premier wedding destinations.
The drive from Chattanooga is under two hours, an interesting jaunt through the North Georgia mountans and valleys, passing apple orchards and cow-filled pastures. Dahlonega itself almost sneaks up on you. You make a turn under the gold tower of the University of North Georgia and are suddenly in the town square.
At the center of the square is the old Lumpkin County Courthouse, which has been converted into the Dahlonega Gold Museum. The road wraps around the courthouse, with parking lots wrapping around the road, and the buildings of the town square wrapping around the whole. It's a layout very conducive to parking and walking the square to discover all the shops, restaurants, and galleries that call the town center home. Dahlonega is very much a walking town, so be sure to bring along a pair of comforatble shoes when you visit.
You can still seek for the original claim to fame: gold. Back in 1828, gold was discovered in the mountain streams, which set off the first true “gold rush” in American history. The mines have been a popular tourist destination for several decades, and for good reason: they’re fascinating. Visiting the Consolidated Gold Mine, for example, gives you the opportunity to don a hardhat and venture down into the mine itself. Much of the mining equipment still remains, along with several visible veins of gold-infused quartz. The knowledgeable tour guides ably explain the history and mechanics of how the mine operated, in such a way to keep both children and adults intrigued. There's a special connection to straddle a set of rail tracks far underground and visualize what it was like for the miners of a hundred years ago who braved the dangers of low-tech mining in search of gold flakes no larger than a grain of salt.
But there is a lot more to Dahlonega than gold. The real gold in them thar hills now comes in the form of grapes. Wineries dot the slopes surrounding the town, growing, fermenting, aging and bottling a wide variety of wines that stand up well in competitions across the country and the world. The red clay that dominates the region’s soil provides an excellent base for the grapes, creating award-winning cabernet, merlot, sangiovese and tannat wines. Every winery has a distinct style and approach to the wine-making process, allowing for a very wide variety of styles and flavors. Tasting all of the wines produced in the region would be next to impossible, but each winery has its own tasting room, and there are two tasting rooms right in the town square.
What I didn't expect to find, though, was a lovely (and rather large) wedding chapel at one of the wineries I visited. Stephen Smith, co-owner of the Wolf Mountain Vineyards & Winery, explained that a little more than 10 years ago, the winery began hosting weddings. Since then, several other wineries followed suit, which has led to a near-explosion of weddings. Smith estimates Wolf Mountain alone hosts nearly 70 a year. The wineries are also a very popular destination for bridal and bachelorette parties (Dahlonega has a surprising number of limo companies for that very reason).
When it comes to food, Dahlonega again surprises. Right on the square is the Back Porch Oyster Bar, a renovated, classic two-story building highly reminiscent of seafood restaurants found in places like Key West or the Carolina Outer Banks. The owners are from the Outer Banks and opened the place 10 years ago when they realized no one in the area offered fresh seafood. Also on the square is the Crimson Moon Cafe, which features live music in an intimate setting, as well as a very nice and rather adventurous menu.
A real highlight, and a microcosm of the continued rebirth of Dahlonega, is Cool Breeze (formerly the Oar House, and still known by that name to most residents). Brothers Joe and Jeff Marshall bought the place and the surrounding 15 acres in December and have already made a substantial mark on the community.
In addition to upgading and improving the menu and food quality (the baked brie appetizer and fresh mountain trout entree are excellent), they have added a riverside deck, a side deck for large parties, and are not content to stop there. I spoke with the pair at length over after-dinner coffee, where they talked about their plans to open a primitive campgorund, convert a 100-year-old barn into a vacation rental, and even build a live-music natural amphitheatre right on the banks of the Chestatee River. It's always refreshing to meet people who think big, no matter where they live.
Dahlonega, being a wedding and tourism destination, does not lack a wide variety of hotels, motels, vacation rentals and bed & breakfasts. Of the latter, the Lily Creek Lodge is a delightful European-style bed & breakfast in a unique, rambling three-story building featuring rooms and suites of varying sizes and themes. An outdoor pool (open during the summer), hot tub, walking trails and even a bocci court provide plenty to do outside, while the breakfast was easily one of the best I've had in a long time. Owner Sharon Bacek and her staff made us feel like we were staying with good friends instead of merely renting a room.
Of special note, in just two weeks, the town will host the 54th Annual Gold Rush Days Festival. The two-day event during the weekend of October 19-20 will feature live musical performances, more than 300 arts and crafts exhibits, children’s activities, food, and a festive parade through the town square. All in all, if you're looking for a perfect weekend getaway, you will be hard pressed to find a more inviting and welcoming destination than Dahlonega.
For more information, visit dahlonega.org