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When the daily grind gets to be too much, there is nothing better than a road trip to cure what ails you. We chose to visit northeast Georgia and had the chance to tour the area behind the wheel of a Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab. Our trek took us two hours from Atlanta, where this part of the state rubs up against the Carolinas.
Why northeast Georgia? It offers plenty of places to explore and endless backcountry opportunities for those who come seeking a respite from a busy world. For outdoorsmen, there's canoeing, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, fishing, camping, biking, and day hiking. Immersion into the more genteel side of Southern culture includes the chance to visit folk artists who still live in the hollers and along the numerous creeks that drain the southern end of the Appalachians.
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Also awaiting travelers are the melodic sounds of bluegrass music endemic to this part of America and a burgeoning state-of-the-art wine industry. Grist mills dot the landscape and the skills associated with using them are being resurrected in the rural South. If those aren't reasons enough to visit, eateries with delicious barbecue and regional museums offer a peek into the provincial nooks and crannies that are such a huge part of the American scene. The country roads are lined with produce stands and impromptu farmers' markets.
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Stowing our gear aboard a Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab, we were ready to take advantage of the 800-plus-mile odyssey to see how this latest iteration of Dodge's half-ton truck would fare. It came equipped with an all-new coil-spring multilink rear suspension, part-time 4WD, automatic transmission with tow mode, and the next generation of the 5.7-liter engine with MDS. We weren't on the road all that long before the Ram made its presence known: The aesthetics of the Ram emblem that crowns the front of its larger and bolder hood power bulge and the grille below that drops aggressively aft (giving it the profile of an in-your-face drill instructor) turned heads as we turned corners.
Like a giant spider web, the byways that crisscross northeast Georgia make touring this bucolic countryside a disarming experience. When possible, we skipped Interstates, opting instead for two-lanes and gravel country roads.
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After spending a pleasant night at the Apple Pie Ridge Lodge just minutes northeast of Gainesville on Highway US23, we visited Toccoa, the town that was once home to the Airborne. Here, American paratroopers trained during WWII for the invasion of Normandy. The museum is in the old railroad depot and includes the actual barn (complete with thatched roof) used by the paratroopers as their headquarters in England leading up to the invasion. This is the kind of Americana that goes undetected if you stick to the Interstate. Toccoa Falls, a waterfall higher than Niagara Falls, is a 10-minute drive from the museum.
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Heading north from Toccoa, we could've followed the new four-lane Highway 441, but elected to take Old Highway 441, which winds and loops like a ribbon through the Appalachian foothills. Either road takes you to Tallulah Gorge. The gorge is 1000 feet deep, two miles long, and a half-mile wide and includes five waterfalls so spectacular they could lead you to believe you were on the threshold of the Grand Canyon. We walked to the bottom on a system of stairs (531 in all) built by the Georgia State Parks department. The view from the bottom is awesome, but regardless of what Sir Isaac Newton had to say about gravity, what goes down here must come back up--it's an invigorating hike out.
Some of the scenes from the movie "Deliverance" (starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight) were filmed at Tallulah Gorge. This is also where (circa 1970) Karl Wallenda stretched a tightrope (cable) across the half-mile gorge and walked across, setting a record that stands to this day. The special platforms built to hold the single cable for his epic walk are now part of the park's history. One last but important note is that, twice a year, water is released from the dam above to create some of the wildest whitewater kayaking on the face of the earth.
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As we mentioned, northeast Georgia is the land of grist mills, and Sylvan Falls Mill near Clayton is one we stopped to visit. Owned and operated by Mike and Linda Johnson, Sylvan Falls Mill is the cornerstone of a cottage industry the couple has helped revive. Using the energy of the waterfall and a giant 150-year-old water wheel, Mike and Linda grind organic corn and rye twice a week, marketing it in specialty shops and restaurants across the South, at the grist mill, and online. They also operate a bed and breakfast where, every morning, Linda fixes an excellent breakfast consisting of these organic products.
The region has always been moonshine country (still is), but today there is a parallel (legal) spirits industry where folks who are into viticulture and the art of making fine wines are winning international awards. A couple really good ones can be found near Clayton--Persimmon Creek Vineyards and Tiger Mountain Vineyards--and we'd also recommend Habersham Winery in the town of Helen. The microclimates here are perfect for producing excellent reds and whites, and that's exactly what they do.
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For the experienced equestrian and the novice rider, Dillard House Stables (Highway 441) in the town of Dillard offers excellent guided horseback rides. Also in town is Dillard's Restaurant, a family-style eatery that overwhelmed us at dinner with the many entrees and huge quantities served on platters and in large serving dishes. They keep refilling the bowls and platters until you tell them to stop.
If you'd rather ride inflatables on whitewater, travel 20 minutes east of Clayton on Highway 76 to Wildwater Ltd. It's located on the Chattooga River, the dividing line between Georgia and South Carolina, and provides whitewater rafting and canoeing through a designated scenic wilderness. Two-hour, half-day, and full-day guided river trips are available as well as overnight adventures with all gear and food furnished.
Then there's the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds, located 45 minutes west of Clayton (Highway 76) in the town of Hiawassee. This authentic Appalachian Mountain village among the pines is where local folks demonstrate the operation of yesteryear technology and industries like sawmills and moonshine stills. Quilting demos are given and bluegrass groups play the music that originated here. Flattop guitars, fiddles, mandolins, banjos, acoustic basses, and vocals come together in the delivery of classic tunes like "Cumberland Gap," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and "Amazing Grace."
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Northeast Georgia boasts an array of excellent eateries with fare that spans the entire epicurean spectrum. In and around Clayton are several restaurants where you simply can't go wrong. Grapes & Beans, a gourmet lunch box, serves specialty coffees and wines from around the world. Just south of Tallulah Gorge is Glen-Ella Springs, where Chef David Knopp takes creative license with gourmet cooking and brings dining to a new level. The Tallulah Gorge Grill serves a delightful eclectic mix of redneck and New York Fifth Avenue fare. Near Helen is the Nacoochee Grill where the chef could easily step into the lead role at any five-star restaurant. Edelweiss German Inn & Restaurant, just minutes south of the town of Helen on Highway 384, serves sauerbraten, strudel, bratwurst, knockwurst, and smoked chops (all made on site) among the many selections. Soque Smokehouse in Clarksville is as good as barbecue gets. At this roadside stop, pulled pork, homemade coleslaw and baked beans, and baby-back ribs, chicken, and turkey are in abundant supply and in great demand.
Bellies full and minds fully at ease, we were ready to get home. We were impressed with the new Ram, the biggest shock being how thrifty the Dodge was on fuel. We used the dash light to observe when the ECU took cylinders out of service to conserve fuel at the optimal times (steady state, cruising conditions, etc.). In fact, we completed our travels logging an amazing average of 24.0 mpg. Dodge touts a significant improvement in fuel economy for 2009, but this level was a pleasant surprise.
As for luxury, comfort, and road manners, this truck excelled on all levels. The new interior is stylish and functional, and we were happy in the cab. That plus the beauty and culture of northeast Georgia made this a trip we won't soon forget.
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| dodge Ram 1500 band
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Dillard House Stables
Edelweiss German Inn & Restaurant
Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds
Grapes & Beanss
Northeast Georgia Mountains Travel Assn.
Persimmon Creek Vineyards
Soque Smokehouse BBQ
Sylvan Falls Mill
Tallulah Gorge Grill
Tallulah Gorge State Park
Tiger Mountain Vineyards