In 2018, the Dahlonega Plateau—a swath of the state’s Appalachian foothills with soil similar to Italy’s Piedmont—was designated the newest viticultural area in the U.S. To earn the appellation, 85 percent of a wine’s grapes must have been locally grown, making the region a fun place to discover new varietals like Touriga Nacional, Tannat, and Norton. Georgia wineries also are experimenting with California grapes, putting their own spin on familiar Chardonnays, Zinfandels, and Cabernet Sauvignons.
The third-generation winemakers at Chateau Meichtry, with family vintners tracing back to New York and Switzerland, offer 18 different wines for tasting. Some, like the 2017 George’s Cuvée (90 percent Norton and 10 percent Noiret), are estate grown, while others, such as a Burgundian-style Chardonnay and a bracing Zinfandel (16.4 percent alcohol), are crafted from California grapes. However, the imported fruit is shipped whole in refrigerated trucks, minimizing sulfites. Plenty of outdoor umbrella tables and a patio bar make it easy to find ample space, and there’s a steady rotation of live music and food trucks.
At the nearby Fainting Goat Vineyards & Winery, yes, there are goats (Ronnie, Reagan, Dolley, and Mamie), and they do faint. But these mascots only pass out when they’re scared, and they’ve grown accustomed to visitors, so don’t get your hopes up. This boutique vineyard tucked into the side of Burnt Mountain offers expansive views of the surrounding hills. You’re welcome to bring your own picnic (they don’t serve food) and enjoy free sunset concerts on weekends around the terraced lawn—you can even bring your leashed dog. We recommend the Patriot, a dry red made from regional Lenoir grapes, which has hints of leather and tobacco. And it’s hard to resist a souvenir glass with an upside-down goat.
If wine’s not your thing, head to the Etowah Meadery & the Dahlonega Brewery, which share space in a roadside facility where they raise bees, ferment local fruits and honey, brew, and pour. Bottled and on-tap sparkling meads are on offer, including fruity varieties like the Strawberry Rhubarb and Spiced Pear-Licious. High tops afford plenty of space on the shaded patio, and water bowls for your pup mean you can all take a load off after a long hike. You also can pick up a six-pack of cute cans.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Georgia mountains story without whiskey and moonshine, given the area’s history of Prohibition-era distilling. In an old stone building in Dillard, find the R.M. Rose Distillery, a 2016 revival of a historic brand founded in Atlanta in 1867. It manufactures its own copper pot stills and cypress fermenting tanks and makes varieties seasonally with local fruit. At the young venture, aged varieties were distilled elsewhere for now, but they’ve had plenty of action in their stills. They offer tours of the tiny space, but there’s not much reason to linger in the Prohibition-style tasting room, though it’s fun to pop in and pick up a bottle of whiskey or a jar of moonshine—or even a half-gallon of hand sanitizer—straight from the source.
From big to small, rustic to luxe, east to west, here are a few of the great places to hide out in the wide open. > Read the full list
Golf above the clouds
The dramatic, craggy Northwest Georgia cliffs make McLemore one of the most spectacularly beautiful golf courses on the East Coast, with jaw-dropping overlooks, meandering creeks, and immaculate greens. This Rees Jones–designed, highlands-style course has been nominated as one of this year’s best new courses by Golf Digest. Other amenities include a short course, rock-climbing routes, waterfall-studded trails (including a soon-to-open trek to Singing Sisters Falls), private homes, a clubhouse due in October, and a planned hotel. The resort takes its name from the adjacent valley, McLemore Cove, named for John McLemore, the son of a Scottish fur trader and Cherokee princess who eventually became a Cherokee chief and fought for the U.S. in the War of 1812. To get into the private course, rent a cottage for a stay-and-play package (from $250 per person).
(Especially spectacular when the leaves are turning in October.)
Ridge & Valley Scenic Byway 51 miles
The terrain on this loop ranges from pastoral valley with fertile farmsteads and 19th-century farmhouses to climbs along ancient ridges with long views and unusual geological outcroppings. Pass hikes like Keown Falls (where the trail actually passes underneath a waterfall, usually larger than a trickle only in spring and after a rain) and magical picnic spots like the Pocket Recreation Area, where you can cool your feet in a stream.
Blackhawk Fly Fishing
On Abby Jackson’s quiet, private stretch of the Soque River near Clarkesville, you can haul in 12-pound rainbow trout and browns. Then, you can bunk up at the 1860s farmhouse and even hire Jackson—who is also a professional chef—to prepare meals. (Pick up a jar of her Sweet Fire Pickles while you’re at it.) $200 half-day access and $275 full-day, plus another $100 to $150 if you want a guide
Whimsy Flower Farm
For a dreamy day, try wandering a field of bright blooms. At Whimsy Flower Farm, zinnias, anemones, and ranunculus thrive, but now is the season of the dahlia, which you’ll find in 50 colors. Owner Jennifer Flowers (really) Logan and her husband, Rusty, cut flowers daily (no picking yourself!) and assemble glorious bouquets from $15.
Sure, you’ll still see muscadines and slushie machines, but visit North Georgia now and you’ll find sophisticated small-batch varietals you’ll never spy at Total Wine.
Wolf Mountain Vineyards has won more than 200 medals in major U.S. competitions and produced the first Georgia wine served at the James Beard House. Open terraces like those at Yonah Mountain or Tiger Mountain offer scenic hillside views, while Kaya currently allows guests to spread out across all 90 acres—plus cottages to bunk up in.
Cartecay River Loop
Opened in the 1980s as one of the first mountain-biking trails in the state, this nearly four-mile trail in Ellijay can be a rugged ride, says Dondi Fontenot of Cartecay Bike Shop. But it is unmatched for its beauty as it twists and turns through dense forest and meadow and drops down (sharply) to the wild Cartecay River (which you’ll have to climb back up from). You’ll need a day pass from georgiawildlife.com.
Park (or camp) and catch a movie on the big screen outdoors
The 1950s-era Tiger Drive-In, where viewers can tune in via FM radio from their cars, drop the tailgate, or spread out a blanket or tent on the grass in front of the screen, is seeming less like a throwback novelty these days and more like a brilliant activity. Reopened in 2004 by the original owner’s daughter, the drive-in features family-friendly classics (The Sandlot, Ghostbusters), first-run films, and now, virtual concerts and reduced capacity for plenty of space. Three 1960s-era campers with their own viewing patios are available to rent on Airbnb, and RVs can hook up for $20 a night. $10 adults, $5 children (4–11)
Conasauga Snorkel Hole
You might feel a bit odd packing your snorkel for a trip to the mountains, but hear us out: The Conasauga River watershed is home to more than 70 different species of native fish—more than in the entire western U.S. You may come face-to-face with salamanders, freshwater drum, crayfish, and turtles. Waters are calm here, and the pool is just a short walk from the parking lot. Getting there requires a confusing drive through gravel roads with spotty cell service, so have directions on hand.
Even though my miniature schnauzer Jasper (pictured) is a seasoned traveler, he’s usually not welcome at posh resorts. So I was delighted to find that swanky Amelia Island loves canines as much as I do. In fact, most Nassau County beaches permit leashed dogs year-round. Many area restaurants and bars have outdoor seating, where servers greet your pooch with a friendly pat and a water bowl. I decided to check out the island and let Jasper get a little sand between his paws.
What to do
Owned by a husband-and-wife team, Adventure Up the Creek offers guided kayak tours for all levels of experience. For a peaceful paddle with lots of shade, try the two-hour Lofton Creek excursion. No need to risk your own camera; many guides are willing to take action shots of your party and any wildlife you spot and email the images to you.
Where to eat For breakfast, the Patio Place has an extensive range of sweet and savory crepes, plus lots of outdoor seating and biscuits for your pooch. Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen is helmed by Kenny Gilbert of Top Chef fame and features inventive Southern fare, ranging from pimento mac and cheese to alligator ribs. For fine dining, AAA Five Diamond Salt at the Ritz-Carlton delivers stunning beach views, specialty cocktails, and its namesake salt tastings—including steak served atop a 250 million-year-old Himalayan salt block.
Where to stay
From around $300, the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort boasts 3.5 miles of beach access, several pools (including one for adults only), and pet-friendly rooms in both the main property and surrounding villas. Nine restaurants are on-site, and some have pet-friendly outdoor areas.
Where to drink
Get acquainted with local bars and island history on the two-hour guided Mixology Tour in downtown Fernandina Beach. After sipping off-menu cocktails crafted just for the tour, you’ll vote for your favorite.
Dogs are welcome at Dog Star Tavern (904-277-8010) and in the bone-shaped pool at the Nassau Humane Society Dog Park ($10 for a day pass), which benefits the Humane Society next door.
This article originally appeared in our August 2016 issue.
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