HIAWASSEE — In his new book, "Purt Nigh Gone: The Old Mountain Ways," former governor and U.S. Sen. Zell Miller remembers the days when he could play hopscotch in the middle of U.S. 76.
Today, the highway carries more than 11,000 vehicles a day.
In Miller’s boyhood, the primary industry in Towns County was farming. Today, the road that was once young Miller’s playground is now the conduit for the county’s top industry: tourism.
With wild azaleas and rhododendron in bloom, operators of hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns are hoping that any downturn in the economy won’t mean fewer people turning down the covers in their guest rooms.
Hiawassee, Blairsville, Helen and other mountain communities have become popular tourist destinations.
A four-lane highway, parts of which are named for Miller, have placed the mountains in easy reach of Atlanta and its suburbs.
Hilda Thomason is a key player in Towns County tourism. She is general manager of the popular Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds. In addition, she is the current president of the Towns County Lions Club, which owns and operates the fair. And she is also acting head of the Towns County Tourism Association, the group charged with promoting the area to tourists.
"We’ve had a great opportunity this year for additional concerts," Thomason said.
A promoter from Columbus brought in country music legend Merle Haggard for an early March concert, which sold out. The same promoter lured Clarence Carter, The Tams and Percy Sledge to Hiawassee for a concert over the weekend that was nearly sold out.
The fairground also sponsors a country music series during the year that has a strong following of season ticket holders.
But it is more than music that is bringing tourists to the mountains.
Charlie and Ann NeSmith of Forest Park came to the mountains Wednesday for an overnight trip to visit Hamilton Gardens, the lakeside venue filled with blooming azaleas, rhododendron and other regional flowering plants.
"We saw the article in Southern Living magazine about the garden," Ann NeSmith said as she and her husband strolled through the venue.
"It’s just so calm and peaceful," Charlie NeSmith said. "We’ve been out West and it’s beautiful, but there is nothing as beautiful as the Georgia mountains."
Don and Rita Fowls of Sharpsburg also saw the Southern Living article and booked a room at Hidden Valley Bed and Breakfast.
"I just love the flowers blooming. It’s just absolutely gorgeous," Rita Fowls said as she visited Hamilton Gardens.
The Fowls, both retired, said they don’t take extended vacations, but do enjoy a single overnight visit to places like Hiawassee.
The fair also operates a pair of campgrounds. Thomason said some campers stay for months at a time.
While individual visitors are the bread and butter of the county’s tourism business, more and more groups have found a home in the mountains in recent years.
Last month, the fairground was host to a rally for owners of BMW motorcycles.
"It’s the first time they’ve ever been, and they’ve already booked to come back next year," Thomason said.
In June, a large group of Honda Gold Wing motorcycle owners will converge on the fairgrounds, and also have booked for 2010.
"They love the mountains as a place to ride their bikes," Thomason said.
In his book, Miller laments the loss of old-time mountain ways. The same is true of tourism in the region. Rustic cabins were once the order of the day for mountain travelers. Now, hotels offer all the amenities, including Internet access. Some provide luxury amenities such as spas and heated pools.
Other mountain destinations, including Helen, are gearing up for the tourist season. This week, a steady stream of visitors strolled through the Bavarian village in White County and took advantage of rides in a horse-drawn carriage.
Cheryl Smith, a regional tourism representative for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, said White County already reports an increase in hotel business this year.
She said some customers who once came back yearly may not make the annual trip because of the weak economy, but others may take their places.
"The region is going to have to work a little harder and provide good customer service and good value," Smith said. "I think everyone is optimistic about this year."
Brasstown Valley Resort in Young Harris is a major draw for meetings and small convention groups. The 503-acre resort features a hotel with 102 guest rooms and 32 cottage guest rooms.
The lodge features a picturesque view looking out toward North Carolina a few miles away. The resort includes a golf course, stables and a full-service day spa.
Joe Satterfield, general manager of Blue Ridge Mountain EMC and an economic development leader in the mountain region, credits the lodge with introducing many visitors to the mountains and helping drive the market for second homes in the region.
While the second home market is soft, the operators of overnight mountain accommodations are hopeful that some Georgians may opt for vacations close to home.
"Everybody loves the mountains," Thomason said. "You can go to the beach and that’s great, but going to the mountains is something that is special and exciting."