Sure, North Carolina has mountains, too. But the north Georgia mountains and
historic Glen-Ella Springs Inn are worth the 3-hour drive.
by Page Leggett
Normally, I’d be leery about driving directions like these: “… we are located on an unpaved road that is narrow in places and can be quite dusty and bumpy in the summer.”
But Glen-Ella Springs Inn looked beautiful on its website — the very place that warned about the road — and came highly recommended.
The approach to the inn is precisely as advertised. Along the way, I passed an abandoned house on the left and several vine-choked trees on both sides of the gravel road. But the humble surroundings don’t adequately prepare you for the moment the circa 1875 inn, painted a hue I’ll call “old-barn red” and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, comes into view.
It’s sort of like that moment when The Wizard of Oz changes from black and white to color.
Luci and Ed Kivett bought the inn in 2008 and moved with their two sons from Winston-Salem to become the property’s on-site caretakers. Another couple had purchased and restored the inn in 1987 after it had suffered 30 years of neglect.
Ed, a former Hanesbrands executive with undergraduate and MBA degrees from Wake Forest University, had always wanted to be his own boss and manage a retreat center. (The Home Depot and The Coca-Cola Co., both based in nearby Atlanta, have held retreats here.) Luci, originally from Brazil, redecorated every room. The fresh flowers in the lobby and on each table in the restaurant? She probably cut them in the garden out back.
You won’t find a TV in any of the guest rooms. “We want this to be a restorative place,” Luci says. There is a TV — along with books, movies, coffee, sodas and snacks — in the Garden House, which is open 24/7, though I never saw anyone watching it. I did, however, meet people on the front porch, drinking coffee and rocking in rocking chairs. Nearly everyone I encountered during my stay was a repeat guest.
Why watch TV when the inn’s garden is always in bloom? In May, peonies, viburnum and mophead hydrangeas show off their colors. In June and July, purple veronica, verbena and bottlebrush buckeye take center stage. Staffers and guests alike urged me to come back in the fall, when the landscape is its most impressive.
All 16 rooms in the inn were booked the weekend I was there, but I still had the pool overlooking a manicured meadow to myself. It was sunny and 80 degrees. The inn — at least for the 48 hours I spent there — and the weather were straight out of Central Casting.
Despite having a lazy afternoon, I was hungry by dinnertime. The inn’s restaurant is a popular destination for area residents — you don’t need to be an overnight guest to dine there — so reservations are a good idea, especially on weekends.
If the weather’s nice, request a table on the terrace overlooking the garden. After savoring the nightly special — corvina (sea bass) en papillote with jasmine rice and roasted local snap peas in a Gruyere consommé — there was still a little daylight left. So, I lingered with a glass of rosé in the garden, as Ella Fitzgerald’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye” played in the background.
I had only been at this woodsy respite a few hours and was already melancholy about leaving on Sunday.
But first, there’d be a good night’s sleep in my pristine second-floor room with heart pine floors and soothing neutral shades on the walls and bedding. Plus, there was a full Saturday to enjoy, starting with breakfast at the inn — a buffet of homemade granola, fruit, yogurt and pastries, along with one hot entrée. Cheese strata was the main course one morning; caramel French toast the next.
Tallulah Gorge State Park, the area’s main attraction, is just a 15-minute drive from Glen-Ella Springs Inn. The gorge had its 15 minutes of fame on July 18, 1970, when 65-year-old Karl Wallenda performed a high-wire walk across it. He even did two handstands during the walk. You can learn about this daredevil spectacle and more history of this natural wonder at the Jane Hurt Yarn Interpretive Center — it’s worth a visit.
Tallulah Gorge is 2 miles long and nearly 1,000 feet deep. For comparison’s sake, the Empire State Building in New York City is 1,250 feet tall. Rim trails lead to several scenic overlooks, but the best view of the Tallulah River and waterfalls might be from a suspension bridge that sways 80 feet above the bottom of the gorge.
Permits to hike to the gorge floor are free, but only 100 are available each day. However, you don’t need to navigate all the way to the bottom for spectacular views. The 2.25-mile Hurricane Falls Trail starts at the Interpretive Center and descends more than 300 steps leading to the suspension bridge. If a twisting staircase with a handrail seems like a lazy way to hike, wait till you have to come back up. I made friends along the trail with other stair climbers who had stopped to “enjoy the scenery.”
The 540-acre nearby Lake Rabun offers even more opportunities for recreation, such as boating, fly fishing and trout fishing.
Just a 15-minute drive from the inn, Clarkesville’s surprisingly thriving downtown features antique shops, clothing and gift boutiques and several good restaurants, all within walking distance of each other.
I had lunch at Midtown Grill, a no-frills spot almost entirely devoid of charm. But, no matter: The Ellijay burger with bacon, spring lettuce mix, goat cheese and apple jelly was divine. The sweet potato fries came with a side of something — ranch dressing, maybe? No, that something turned out to be — have mercy! — marshmallow cream with a hint of cinnamon. (Why isn’t every restaurant serving sweet potato fries this way?)
Thus fortified — and having reached my steps goal for the week in one hike — I was able to do something I consider essential whenever traveling: Shop. Mark of the Potter is worth seeking out, if, for no other reason, its picturesque creekside setting. The shop is part of what used to be Grandpa Watts Gristmill. One of the in-house potters might even be throwing clay on the wheel while you’re there.
North Georgia is also a wine-growing region. Wolf Mountain, Habersham and Frogtown are among regional wineries worth a visit.
If you want to go “off campus” for dinner, Harvest Habersham in Clarkesville is a good choice. The farm-to-table restaurant has an ever-changing menu that depends, according to its website, on what “the farmers, fishermen and foragers” have available.
Back at the inn on Saturday night, I ordered a glass of Chardonnay from the restaurant and took it up to my room. But I didn’t go inside right away. The stars were out, the crickets were singing and the rocking chair on my terrace was just the right perch from which to revel in them.
After Sunday breakfast, I packed up and headed back down the gravel road. By now, it felt sweet and familiar — not as primitive as it appeared on my way in. Now, I knew it led to someplace special. And I knew I’d be back, someday soon, driving slowly down that narrow road to a destination that feels like a well-kept secret — but one you want to share with friends. SP
Get away from it all. Find Glen-Ella Springs Inn down a gravel road in Clarkesville, Ga. Learn more at glenella.com. Explore all the recreational opportunities the Tallulah Gorge offers at gastateparks.org/TallulahGorge. Learn about Clarkesville at clarkesvillega.com.