When I've had enough of the heat, humidity and bugs during the dog days of summer, sometimes I just need an altitude adjustment. That's when I start barking and plan a getaway to the North Georgia mountain town of Blue Ridge.
The summer day I drive into Blue Ridge is warm, but not hot. The nearly 1,800 feet of elevation offers a smidge of insurance that, unless there is some sort of climatic anomaly, the temperatures rarely climb out of the mid-eighties.
With the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a segment of the Appalach-ians, rising to more than 4,000 feet and swathing the town in a pretty, colorful blend of sun and shadows, it seems the ideal place to get high and escape summer heat.
Blue Ridge is quaint, small-town America where the scenery is only part of the show. The people are friendly and accommodating, rising partly from Southern hospitality, partly from the strong values that you'll find among most of the population of the Appalachians, and partly from plain old-timey charm.
"Blue Ridge is a different kind of mountain town," says Jan Hackett of the Fannin County Welcome Center, where I stopped to pick up brochures. "You can rent a luxury mountain vacation home, experience the beauty and relaxation of the mountains and the great outdoors, then go to the town of Blue Ridge for a great dinner and shopping. It's like combining a little bit of city sophistication with a small-town setting."
But the utter bombshell of Blue Ridge is that despite its diminutive size - the year-round population hovers about 1,300 - it has many layers that beckon to be peeled back and enjoyed.
Once the happy hunting grounds of the Cherokee before they were herded away - with part-Cherokee blood running through my veins, I won't dwell on that - the settlers came next, and then the railroad, and then the tourists seeking to escape the heat or enjoy the dazzling autumn color of the mountains.
With tourists come restaurants, and this is one place your palate won't be disappointed.
With Blue Ridge surrounded by clear mountain streams, you might guess that the only thing to eat would be fresh trout. Well, yes, there's that, but more.
For the same reasons that tourists come here, so has Blue Ridge managed to attract world-class chefs. Blue Ridge may be in the backwoods, but it is assuredly not backwoods, especially when it comes to dining.
Chef Danny Mellman sizzles at Harvest on Main, where the homey atmosphere almost overshadows the outstanding food. He honed his skills in England, France and Italy, so he adds European flair to Southern dishes like grits and trout and turns them into culinary works of art.
No way was I going to experience Blue Ridge without sampling trout, so I chose Mellman's dish called Bramlett Farms Local Trout, a delicious meal finished with lemon and thyme that was still has me salivating at the memory.
At Cucina Rustica, Chef Isabella Molinari brings Northern Italy to northern Georgia with cuisine of chicken parmesan, scampi, and Rollatine di Melan-zane, a to-die-for eggplant and cheese dish. Fancy a sweet treat for dessert? The Sweet Shoppe of Blue Ridge just won hands-down on season 6 of "Cupcake Wars."
And there's much buzz about the Black Sheep, where acclaimed Chef Ron Farber will serve Southern comfort food like barbecue, chicken pot pie and lasagna with more worldly dishes from Asia and Europe.
Cabin rentals are uber-popular in the mountains, so for the true cabin experience, Chef Douglas Olsen of Cabin Cuisine will cook and deliver to your digs a gourmet four-course dinner designed just to your tastes and served on a white table cloth complete with candles.
This isn't fried chicken and potato salad, either, but elegant dishes of chicken cordon bleu, filet mignon and lobster tail. And you won't have to wash dishes, as it's all included.
There are plenty of opportunities to work off those calories. Walking through the village proper of Blue Ridge doesn't take very long, but stopping in at all the shops and galleries might. Like moths to a flame, artists are drawn to Blue Ridge for its creativity-inspiring beauty, and from that beauty they write poetry and prose, paint, take photos, hunt out the finest antiques, and handcraft jewelry, pottery and even bamboo fly rods.
One of my favorite stops to plunder outside of town is Mercier Orchards, Georgia's largest orchard, for dozens of varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries, plums, blackberries and peaches.
If you prefer, you can pick your own fruit, depending on the season and availability.
But do drop into the gift shop and restaurant, crammed with all sorts of gourmet goodies. I enjoyed walking through the orchards, enjoying those scents and gorgeous views of the mountains and sampling the sparkling fruit wine.
Fannin County is filled with back roads and hiking trails, so it's easy to take a scenic drive through the mountains, forests, waterfalls and valleys of the Chattahoochee National Forest, Toccoa River and Lake Blue Ridge.
Then there's the outdoors for fishing - Blue Ridge is considered the trout capital of Georgia - rafting, tubing, boating, horseback riding, or hiking the Appalachian Trail.
A family favorite is a relaxing, scenic ride on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, which glides along the Toccoa River on a half-day journey to McCaysville on the Tennessee line. Fall is especially a good time for leap peeping on the rails.
Leaving Blue Ridge, I glanced at the stunningly beautiful mountains and the roadside flowers in the rearview mirror. Apple- and pumpkin-picking time is soon, and I promised a return soon in the cool autumn air.