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Time to offer an apology to town of Helen

I owe an apology to the entire town of Helen, Georgia, which I once described as "Hell in Georgia."

I was complaining, in that column, about what was supposed to have been a restful weekend in a rustic mountain retreat. Instead, it turned out to be a long, tiring two days of browsing through tacky curio shops and being jolted out of bed at 6:30 a.m. as "Helen's Angels" rumbled by on their $20,000 Harleys.

Recently, however - and here's the apology - I have seen the error of my ways. I have learned that things are not always as they seem. I have come to understand the inherent unfairness of my judgment.

I have been to Gatlinburg, Tenn.

The root of my disappointment with Helen was that it failed to live up to expectations. As mountain villages go, it's neither peaceful nor rustic nor even particularly authentic, unless you count the fat guy in Tyrolean knickers playing the accordion outside the beer garden.

And yet, compared to Gatlinburg - another alleged mountain haven - Helen is all those things and more. Compared to Gatlinburg, Helen is a veritable jewel among resorts, a vacation destination much to be desired.

I'm exaggerating, you say? OK, let us count the ways in which Helen outshines its neighbor to the north, starting with traffic.

Most of us who live near the I-85 corridor can drive to Helen in about 90 minutes, even during peak season. In Gatlinburg, you can't drive to the grocery store in 90 minutes. You might be able to walk there in an hour, provided you're not run over by a tour bus from Indianapolis or abducted by someone selling time-share condominiums.

In fact, about the only thing I liked about Gatlinburg was that I didn't have to worry about the Harleys rumbling by. They were stuck in traffic just like I was. The only thing rumbling was my stomach, as we inched toward the Cracker Barrel 200 yards ahead.

And what about attractions? Sure, Gatlinburg has an aquarium, and Dollywood is in nearby Pigeon Forge - "nearby" meaning only four miles away, or in other words, a mere six-hour drive.

But if looking at fish and riding roller coasters is your idea of a vacation, you might as well just stay in Atlanta.

The fact is, you can enjoy the entire Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge experience without the 500-mile round trip. Just take a Friday afternoon and sit in downtown-connector traffic for two hours, then go to Six Flags on Saturday and take in the Georgia Aquarium on Sunday.

As a native Tennessean, I'm not yet prepared to admit that everything we have here in my adopted state of Georgia is superior to what they have in my home state. (Can anyone say "college football"?)

But our faux Bavarian alpine village sure beats the Helen out of theirs.

Rob Jenkins is associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. E-mail him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.