Filled with friendly locals and overloaded with charm, small towns make the perfect getaway for those looking for a change of pace, a place to ditch city life for just a bit. And during the pandemic, they've become popular with travelers looking for a way to escape.
According to Airbnb's 2021 U.S. Travel Report, 51% of respondents said they are "more interested in being isolated beyond major tourist areas than they are in being surrounded by people and energy (24%)." Sixty-two percent said they wanted to vacation within driving distance of home.
Vrbo, another short-term rental site for homeowners around the globe, also notes that its customers are preferring to escape to destinations closer to home, seeking nature-oriented experiences when they do.
Here's a look at five small towns within driving distance of Chattanooga that are big on charm and amenities while still offering space to spread out.
Drive time from Chattanooga: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Nestled in the heart of the North Georgia mountains, Dahlonega is a gem of a city on many levels. Not only is it the location of the first gold rush in America, but its dining scene is scrumptious and outdoor activities abound.
Things to Do:
Dahlonega is the site of the first gold rush in the United States, and still today, gold can be found. But winemakers, too, have struck gold, finding the mountain air just perfect for growing their grapes.
* Drive the 39-mile Dahlonega Wine Trail and discover breathtaking views and award-winning wines. The surrounding mountains offer the ideal elevation and soil for growing a variety of European, French and American grapes. Wineries offer tastings and tours that can be reserved so that you don't need to worry about social distancing, etc. Two wineries, Wolf Mountain and Montaluce, also have full-service restaurants. Visit dahlonega.org for more information.
* Panning for gold is a fun way to experience the thrills miners must have felt when searching for gold in the North Georgia mountains. While you may not hit the mother lode, you'll most likely get a flake or two, and it's a great way to entertain the kids for an afternoon. Consolidated Gold Mine is the largest gold mine east of the Mississippi. Founded in 1896, the mine focused on removing gold trapped in quartz veins throughout the property. Tours take you 200 feet underground and 100 years back in time to experience life as a turn-of-the-century gold miner. After the tour, you can pan for gold and mine for gems. Crisson Gold Mine, an open-pit mine established in 1847, is home to Georgia's only working stamp mill, a machine used to crush gold-bearing rock into sand so that it can be processed. See it in action, then pan for gold and precious gems yourself.
* Visit the Gold Museum on Dahlonega Square. It's located in one of Georgia's oldest standing courthouses, which dates back to the early 1800s. Visitors can learn about the gold business that once flooded the town with prospectors, as well as see a complete set of rare gold coins minted at the United States Branch Mint in Dahlonega. There's also a gold nugget that weighs more than 5 ounces. And look closely — the bricks used to build the courthouse sparkle with flecks of gold. A State Historic Site, the museum is part of the State Parks service, so visit gastateparks.org to learn more.
Where to Dine:
Ready to eat after your day of adventure? Loosen your belt and get ready for some amazing victuals. Many of the town's restaurants have remained open during the pandemic, though with social distancing in place.
* Crimson Moon looks like a dive bar, but it's far from it. It's located in the second-oldest building in town and is a wonderful place to sample local music and enjoy diner-type fare with an upscale twist, such as the popular fried green tomatoes with housemade peach chutney and roasted red pepper dressing, topped with goat cheese.
* Spirits Tavern has spooky good food — especially its Gooey Burger, a messy, delicious beef patty topped with three kinds of cheese (white American, pepper Jack and smoked Gouda), then mounded with mac and cheese and smothered with mustard. "They make the best burgers I've ever had," says Penny Sharp, who, with son Jeremy Sharp, offers a food tour of Dahlonega called Savoring the Square. "You could put Spirits' burger up against any other in a burger contest and they'd win, hands down."
* Step into the Big Easy without leaving Dahlonega at Bourbon Street Grille and order up a New Orleans favorite: muffuletta. This sturdy sandwich will surely entice you to come back for dinner and order the very fresh blackened redfish served over house-whipped potatoes and topped with grilled asparagus. You can enjoy dinner on one of two floors. The upper floor offers a more intimate dining experience. Downstairs, a lively bar and pet-friendly deck offer a totally different vibe. Rest assured, both offer excellent fare and service.
* Kick up your heels and dance a jig at Shenanigans, the place in town for Irish fare like bangers and mash, among other offerings from the Emerald Isle. There's more to the menu than Irish fare, though. If you choose to have a full meal, consider the ahi tuna with citrus saffron rice or wild salmon with sauteed spinach.
Where to Stay:
With views of the charming downtown square or of the mountains, there's really no bad room in Dahlonega. But for a memorable night, here are some that offer a few more amenities than others.
* Limelight Inn is five miles out of town and has 11 private rooms with a reservation system similar to an Airbnb. There is no check-in desk nor on-site staff. The inn has three king and eight double queen rooms, each with its own private deck overlooking the forest. A continental breakfast is included with your stay and is served in the hospitality building with fireside lounging.
* Dahlonega Square Hotel is a boutique hotel featuring 12 rooms plus one suite, a tasting room serving local wine from nearby Kaya Vineyards, and a breakfast-in-bed option. The hotel is just steps from the center of Dahlonega Square and is convenient to many of the town's top restaurants.
* The Smith House is a landmark property sitting on what is one of the richest veins of gold ever discovered in Dahlonega. The inn, which opened its doors to overnight guests more than 100 years ago, has an on-site family-style restaurant serving platters of fried chicken, pot roast, fried okra, creamed corn, homemade yeast rolls and other Southern favorites. Guest rooms are located in the main house as well as the private carriage house and other properties.
Drive time from Chattanooga: 3 hours, 30 minutes
Visitors who come to this picturesque Blue Ridge town end up staying for a while — playtime here is a must, as evidenced by the Barter Theatre which stands proudly on the square, the nation's longest-running professional theater. Used to be, townsfolk could pay 40 cents or barter with vegetables, dairy products or livestock in order to see plays. The 88-year-old theater is still in business today, but tickets will run you $20 or more.
Things to Do:
* Want some more playtime? Walk, run or bike the 34.3-mile Virginia Creeper Trail that snakes its way across the mountains with amazing views of Mount Rogers, the highest point in the state. Access is easy and there are bike rental shops that will shuttle riders to the highest point along the trail for a modest fee, then you pedal the easy section — it's all downhill from there.
* Main Street Abingdon is the place to get your shopping fix along old brick-lined sidewalks. The shopping district is a 20-block area with architecture that spans two centuries, the oldest being The Tavern restaurant. The area is also home to a thriving farmers market every Tuesday and Thursday where you can pick up a peck of pickled okra or grab a bottle of muscadine wine. Along the way, duck into Wolf Hills Brewing Co. for some local suds, or see local artists at work in The Arts Depot.
Where to Dine:
Abingdon was voted Best Small Town Food Scene in the Country by USA Today's 10Best in both 2019 and 2020. Walking its historic streets, you might spot signs in restaurant windows sporting the Rooted in Appalachia logo, a testament to a restaurant's mission to serve local Appalachian fare and connect diners to the vibrant food heritage of the mountains. Among them are:
* Rain Restaurant and Bar is a restaurant that considers perfect mashed potatoes a work of art and its homemade Szechuan chili oil so sexy it will liven up any dish, especially the spicy garlic eggplant and beef noodles.
* White Birch is a breakfast place, lunch haven and weekend dinner favorite with a dedication to using the most-regional ingredients possible. You'll find local eggs at breakfast, along with small-batch, cold-pressed juices; and local beef in the burgers and greens in the salads at lunch and dinner.
* The Tavern is located in the oldest building (1779) in Abingdon and boasts the state's oldest bar which is also the eighth-oldest in the nation. So the restaurant has had a few years to get it right — and it has. The restaurant is said to be the most popular in town and has a menu that befits its ambiance. North Carolina rainbow trout over wild rice and Springer Mountain chicken over local wild mushroom risotto are just two uses of regional fare. The Tavern also serves a variety of German favorites, such as jagerschnitzel (thin, fried pork cutlets) and kassler rippchen (brined and smoked pork chops) made using local pork. Reservations are not necessary, just recommended.
Where to Stay:
Need some serious downtime? Lay your head in an historic inn that can put you in the mood for the history in which you'll be engulfed when visiting Abingdon. Are you a time traveler or a tourist? You may have trouble deciding which.
* The Martha Washington Inn, or "The Martha" as it's known by locals, began life as the home of Gen. Francis Preston, his wife and their nine children in 1832. Today, it's a luxury hotel and spa that retains much of the original character in the original brick residence, including its grand staircase and many original furnishings. It opened as a hotel in 1935 and now boasts 63 rooms and suites, as well as an on-site restaurant with a Southern focus, Sisters American Grill.
* White Birches Inn Bed & Breakfast, located in an early 20th-century English country-style home, has five suites, all named after famous playwrights, a nod to the town's connection to the Barter Theatre. Complimentary beer and wine are offered in each suite, along with cookies and chocolates. White Birches is also the city's first B&B to go green, utilizing motion lighting, timers, low-energy bulbs, and water minimization and conservation in all showers and toilets, among other measures.
* A Tailor's Lodging occupies a home built in 1840 on a lovely tree-lined street in Abingdon's historic district. The inn is small — just three guest rooms — but is conveniently located in downtown Abingdon. A sister property next door, Black Dog Inn, has three guest rooms, as well.
BELL BUCKLE, TENNESSEE
Drive time from Chattanooga: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Even the name Bell Buckle has a ring to it that brings a smile to your face, so it's no surprise that it's often considered a small-town treasure — just 450 residents — and one of the most picturesque in the Volunteer State. The village, which dates to 1852 in the heart of Middle Tennessee, has Victorian homes from a bygone era, with big, welcoming front porches that just make you want to sit and have a glass of sweet tea.
Things to Do:
Strolling through town, you'll find plenty of eclectic shops filled with art and antiques. And there are sights to see while you soak up all the Southern charm.
* Make plans now for the 2021 Bell Buckle RC Cola-MoonPie Festival scheduled for June 19. MoonPies may have been born in Chattanooga, but nowhere are they more highly celebrated than in Bell Buckle. The festival offers an afternoon of bluegrass, clogging, crafts and games, all outdoors for a socially distanced celebration of the South. Visit bellbucklechamber.com to learn more.
* The Bell Buckle Farmers Market opens the first Friday in June, but this year, due to the coronavirus, there will be one vendor only: Green Thumb Produce. Still, it's a chance to get produce fresh from the farm if you're staying in a cabin with a kitchen. Check the market's Facebook page for updates.
* For a challenging game of golf, the chance to catch that prize fish, hike 10 miles of easy terrain, swim, spot that elusive bird or take a guided float down the Duck River, Henry Horton State Park is nearby, offering a wide range of outdoor activities. The park also has cabins, a lodge, restaurant and camping facilities, and a day trip to Bell Buckle makes for a pleasant break. Visit tnstateparks.com for more.
Where to Dine:
Life slows down in Bell Buckle, and its restaurants give you a chance to take a break and enjoy friendly service in places that are the epitome of small-town life. From fried green tomatoes to fried apple pies, you'll find a taste of the South in most every eatery in town. The attire is casual, the people are friendly, and the food is good.
* Bell Buckle is famous for several things: its artsy community, the MoonPie Festival, The Webb School — the oldest continuously operating boarding school in the South — and the Bell Buckle Café. You just can't go to Bell Buckle and not get a taste of what has made this little place one of the top 10 restaurants to visit in Tennessee, as rated by Only In Your State. From burgers and pizza, to chicken-fried steak and meatloaf that come with three sides and cornbread, the menu has a little bit of everything.
* 82 Market and Diner is an unimposing place along Route 82 where you can fill up your tank and your tummy. It's a gas station/country market/diner all in one with surprisingly good made-from-scratch food beginning with made-to-order omelets with hashbrowns at 6 a.m. Lunch lasts all day and features plates of meats, like meatloaf or hamburger steak, with two sides, like mac and cheese and fried apples. The menu changes at dinner. "Whatever the cook feels like making," says employee Lisa Hamler.
* Bell Buckle Coffee Shop and Book Swap, a charming brick café on Railroad Square, is a place to begin your day with a double shot of espresso and a bacon, egg and cheese muffin. Or grab a book from the café library and have a Reuben or pimiento cheese sandwich for lunch.
* Bluebird Antiques and Ice Cream Parlor is a turn-of-the-century antiques mall/ice cream parlor that serves its hand-dipped ice cream in waffle cones and doesn't skimp on its banana splits and handmade fried fruit pies. White chocolate-raspberry ice cream is the house special, but you can't have your dessert until you finish your lunch. Perhaps a cheeseburger with fried green tomatoes?
Where to Stay:
You'll find most all chain hotels along the interstate, but drive a bit off the beaten path and you can enjoy the comforts of home. There are several vacation rental properties to be had around Bell Buckle, but why not let someone else do the cooking and book a stay at one of the area's B&Bs?
* Walker Inn is a Victorian home with a gracious front porch and is well over 100 years old, but with free Wi-Fi and other up-to-date accoutrements, you may feel as if you have one foot in the past and the other in the 21st century. Made-to-order breakfasts are served daily. A bar/lounge area offers a relaxing break for an afternoon or after-dinner drink.
* For an elegant overnight in an antebellum 1852 home-turned-inn, make the short drive to Shelbyville where you'll find Belmont Inn. Rooms here are named after famous horses. You're in the heart of Tennessee Walking Horse country, after all. The grounds of the Walking Horse National Celebration championship horse show, held around Labor Day, are just a mile away. Back at the inn, the rocking-chair front porch overlooking the expansive lawn is welcoming. And you'll have a restful night's sleep in one of the big four-poster beds. The included breakfast is self-serve.
Drive time from Chattanooga: 2 hours, 15 minutes
With water at its front door and mountains at its back, Hiawassee is a town of jaw-dropping beauty. And with those two features, it's also one where adventure abounds. Hiking, skiing, biking — it's an outdoor-lover's paradise.
Things to Do:
You won't have any problem finding time on your hands in Hiawassee, population 815 according to 2019 figures. Nor will you struggle with finding inspiration to explore the great outdoors just beyond.
* Overshadowing the scenic downtown is Bell Mountain and high above in the distance is Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia at almost 4,800 feet. Driving to the top of Bell Mountain on a one-lane road is hair-raising, at best. But the dynamic views of Lake Chatuge and the town of Hiawassee are worth the trip up. The hike up Brasstown Bald is a fairly easy half-mile walk through a forest filled with blooming native plants in spring and summer. At the halfway point, stop and look up at the summit. It's spectacular. When you reach the top, you'll witness 360-degree views of Mother Nature at her finest, and on a clear day, you can see four states from the observation deck. Visit fs.usda.gov to learn more.
* The North Georgia mountains have some stunning waterfalls, and Hiawassee/Towns County is home to several. On the trail to High Shoals Falls, you'll pass Blue Holes Falls which, though smaller, is equally as beautiful with its deep turquoise pool beneath. The trail on to High Shoals Falls can get tricky, but it's doable. And the creek is a great place to cool off on a warm afternoon. The Northeast Georgia Mountains Travel Association offers information on these and more of the area's waterfalls.
* With more than 130 miles of shoreline, Lake Chatuge is made for wetting a line, skiing, boating, camping; whatever activity in and around the water whets your whistle. There are four species of bass, bream and catfish to catch, and there are marinas on the lake that offer rentals for boats, jet skis, deck boats — most any kind of watercraft, really. Check out boundarywatersresort.com or yhwatersports.com. If you're in need of a fishing guide, look no further than bigolfish.com.
* Wander the paths at Hamilton Gardens at Lake Chatuge, a sprawling botanical garden with more than 3,000 plants, including dogwood, native azaleas, wildflowers, trillium and rhododendron. In fact, the more than 400 varieties of rhododendron make it the largest collection in the state.
* Check out the event schedule at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds for the Georgia Mountain Fair, the Georgia Mountain Roots & Music Festival, the Georgia Mountain Fall Festival and Georgia's Official State Fiddlers Convention. Located along the lake, the grounds have camping facilities and multiple venues.
Where to Dine:
For a small town, downtown Hiawassee has some big tastes.
* Sundance Grill is open breakfast through late night, offering homemade biscuits, specialty pastas, burgers, salads, barbecue, steaks, and typical bar fare for the late-night bar crowd. Eat in or outside on the patio.
* Tilted Café might sound a little wacky, but take a look at the specials board as you enter and you'll find tradition — a BLT or a hot ham-and-cheese croissant — mixed with some creative culinary endeavors, such as sausage-balsamic-blueberry flatbread or creamy Brussels sprouts soup. Tilted is a fun environment with interesting food, a worthwhile stop while in Hiawassee.
* Hiawassee Seafood Bar & Grill is unexpected in this small inland town, but it's a town favorite serving fried seafood platters, gator bites, fish and chips, and several Cajun dishes such as stuffed catfish Pontchartrain and a tremendous muffuletta. Clever cocktails, too.
* Hiawassee Brew is the town brewpub. Every town's got to have one, right? And this one has a nice selection of craft beers and local wines, plus burgers, salads, tamales, nachos — the full monty of things that go with a cold brew.
Where to Stay:
Towns County is packed with places to stay: mountain cabins, lakeside campgrounds, and hotels such as these.
* The Ridges Resort on Lake Chatuge has newly renovated accommodations right on the lake, along with activities like horseback riding, boating, fishing, swimming, a tiki-themed party boat and Splash Island inflatable obstacle course. The pet-friendly resort has a marina with boat rentals, a fire pit, walking paths and sporting courts.
* Lake Chatuge Lodge is located on its namesake lake and offers more than 100 cozy guest rooms, all with balconies or private patios. The stone fireplace in the lobby is a popular place to relax, and the lodge has on-site laundry, a fitness center and the highly rated Hawg Wild BBQ and Catfish House restaurant.
* Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa is a premier resort in the North Georgia mountains. In addition to a championship golf course and riding stables, the resort has trails for hiking and a full-service spa for relaxing. Many guest rooms have balconies with mountain and valley views, and there are four-bedroom cottages for families.
WAYNESVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
Drive time from Chattanooga: 3 hours, 15 minutes
Waynesville is Haywood County's largest city, but with only 10,000 residents, it's still pretty small. But what it lacks in population it makes up for in charm. It's an enchanting town located 31 miles west of Asheville in a valley between the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The views are astoundingly breathtaking, and Waynesville has become a popular getaway for people looking for good food, magnificent vistas, artisan shops, skiing in winter and hiking in summer. This little town has something for everyone.
Things to Do:
Where to begin? There's so much to do you'll need to pack your day planner. For a full list, log on to visitncsmokies.com. Here are some suggestions:
* If your vacation isn't a vacation without shopping, no problem. Downtown Waynesville has a quaint, urban charm, perfect for walkable shopping in local boutiques and gift shops for artisan goods. You'll find everything from gently worn resale to high-end retail; candles, candies and coffees; handmade furniture and antiques.
* Mountains and amazing waterfalls are at your back door, and a good place to start is on Middle Prong Trail, an easy 1.3-mile hike that will get your legs moving before heading to more challenging hikes, such as the trail to Ramsey Cascades. Don't get put off by the 8-mile out-and-back distance. The views of the tallest waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are worth every step.
* Spring is the perfect time to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway and see the mountains come back to life. In the summer, roll down your window and breathe in the cooler mountain air. In fall, Mother Nature paints her mountains with brilliant colors. It's a drive that's a feast for the senses.
* Start your day bright and early with a visit to see the reintroduced elk of Cataloochee Valley, best seen at dawn and again at dusk. Spring and summer are the best times to get a glimpse of the elk. It's a short drive out of Waynesville into one of the most remote parts of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The valley is rich in mountain history and beauty, with some of the original homesteads still standing and open to visitors for a history lesson on what life was like for the area's early settlers.
Where to Dine:
You won't have to worry about going hungry in Waynesville. Choices are numerous, with many menus reflecting the town's Appalachian heritage.
* Chef's Table has won numerous awards, from Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator among them. Executive chef and owner Josh Monroe grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, so he knows a thing or two about Appalachian fare. Adding to that, he had formal culinary training at AB Tech Culinary Institute and, while there, was a member of the school's gold medal culinary Olympic team. Chef's Table has adopted the "slow food movement" and features a menu that changes with the seasons and focuses on regional fare. Pastas are made in-house; aged prime beef is the only kind you'll find here; and risotto balls stuffed with local goat cheese are the house specialty.
* Haywood Smokehouse proudly boasts that it has the best barbecue this side of Texas. While that might be a matter of opinion, there's no doubt that you'll get your fix of 'que at this establishment. Enjoy mouthwatering ribs, housemade sausages and brisket hot out of the smoker with a cold brew on the deck. What a way to end a day in the mountains.
* The Buttered Biscuit — the name alone starts your mouth watering, and it won't stop when you look at the menu. Big, freshly made biscuits lathered with butter or smothered with gravy and served with grits and a couple of eggs sound like a good way to start your day? Or a burger for lunch doused with barbecue sauce and topped with fried onion rings? A patty melt and other sandwiches round out the menu, found on the eatery's Facebook page.
Where to Stay:
Rental cabins and cottages dot the mountains around Waynesville, but there are several excellent hotels and B&Bs, too.
* Andon-Reid Inn Bed and Breakfast is a designated historic property in a turn-of-the-century home with high ceilings, tall windows and porches where you can sit and take in the beautiful mountain views. The inn is one of the top five bed-and-breakfasts in North Carolina and has stunning rooms with elegant furnishings. Breakfast might feature egg crepes with fresh tomato relish, crème brulee French toast and many other dishes that turn breakfast into a memorable event. In the afternoon, freshly baked treats are offered with complimentary coffee, tea and soft drinks.
* The Yellow House is a big, beautiful yellow house on a hilltop overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. Built as a summer home in the late 1800s, it features 10 luxurious rooms on 5 acres. Relax in a jetted tub, sink into a comfy bed at night and wake up to a gourmet breakfast in the serene mountain setting. Make your stay even more special with a wine-and-cheese package or arrange for a romantic picnic to take to the mountains.
* Brookside Mountain Mist Inn and Cottages puts a modern twist on the typical B&B experience. No graceful archways or gleaming wood finishes. This B&B is a mid-20th-century ranch-style house, but it comes with five luxury suites and extended-stay cottages that include washers and dryers. The focus at Brookside is on food — a three-course breakfast every morning served on the back patio, weather permitting — and stunning mountain views.
A WELCOME SIGN
As COVID fatigue sets in across the nation, people are getting anxious to get away and let travel begin again. But how do folks in other cities feel about tourists coming to town?
They're more than welcome, says Brindley Faile, digital marketing and public relations manager for Visit NC Smokies — as long as they are respectful of social distancing, wearing masks and other regulations regarding COVID-19.
And with few exceptions, they have been, she says.
"Because of that, our businesses have been able to continue operating and offering entertainment," says Faile. "The local economy is heavily dependent on tourism, so we are all eager to safely welcome visitors to the mountains where it's easy to spread out and breathe fresh air."
Though numbers were off from the previous year in Dahlonega, Georgia — down to 146,000 tourists by the end of 2020 compared to the 200,000 visitors typical in previous years — Sam McDuffie, director of tourism for the Dahlonega-Lumpkin Chamber & Visitors Bureau, says the town's close location to Metro Atlanta and Chattanooga was a contributing factor in it not losing more tourism business.
"We've been very blessed during these times," he says. "As Georgia opened in the early summer months, we became a premier destination to visit for those suffering COVID fatigue. Considering that the Visitor's Center was closed for two months, we were pleasantly surprised (with the numbers) as the year came to an end."
Citizens of the city of Dahlonega and surrounding Lumpkin County have been respectful of mask-wearing and social distancing, and visitors are expected and encouraged to do likewise when visiting any of the local shops and restaurants, McDuffie says.
"If you'd like to spend your afternoon hiking to waterfalls or along the Appalachian Trail, Dahlonega provides that opportunity," he adds. "If you'd like to spend the day tasting some of our phenomenal wines and enjoying outdoor dining, we can provide that experience, too. Find out why we call ourselves the 'Heart of the Georgia Mountains.'"
Faile, who traveled extensively pre-pandemic as part of her role with Visit NC Smokies, also recognizes the personal impact travel can have.
"It's my industry," she says, "but personally, I relied on vacation trips to get a break and a reset from work and life stressors. Not having the ease of seeking out a different landscape and mixing things up has definitely affected my mental health and made me realize how important traveling is to me."