Monday, September 23, 2013

Let's go to Tennessee!

I've often wished that I could be more spontaneous. I'm a total over planner, and am always jealous of people who can just fly by the seat of their pants. So on Friday late afternoon when A. and I decided to drive to the Smoky Mountains (leaving 20 minutes later after throwing things in a bag) I had to pinch myself a few times to see if it was really happening. We'd talked about going to Gatlinburg since I'd done a little bit of research and it looked like a fun weekend getaway, and we found a great deal on a mountaintop hotel (which was owned by Hilton, so we'd get lots of points with a current Hilton Honors 3x the points weekend deal going on) and off we went. I'm blessed to have a husband who doesn't mind driving through windy/mountainous terrain in the pitch black, because I don't think I could have done it.

We arrived in Gatlinburg around 10pm and headed up to our 6th floor mountain view room. Of course at this point it was too late to see what our view would be - I set an alarm for sunrise (7:15) on Saturday morning. The woman at the front desk warned us not to leave any food in our car because they have bears in the area.

When my alarm went off the next morning I headed out to the balcony to see that it was a very cloudy day. They were calling for a lot of rain, but it hadn't started yet. The view of rolling mountains was fantastic. Throughout the weekend, everytime we came back to the room my first stop would be to the balcony to check out our everchanging view. As the clouds rolled in and out, the mountains looked totally different. Below are four of my favorite views:
First morning "sunrise"
Clouds and fog as the rain rolled through.
2nd morning sunrise.
Panoramic view from our balcony.

Saturday morning we headed to the Log Cabin Pancake House for some breakfast. Gatlinburg has pancake houses on every block (at least.) The service was fantastic, the food was delicious and came out quickly. It was also nice that they have a private parking lot. Gatlinburg has a lot of pay parking lots, so we appreciated not having to pay $5-10 to park for breakfast. I should note that our hotel, the Park Vista by Doubletree, is on the Gatlinburg Trolley green and red routes, but we were planning to go do more exploring after breakfast and needed a car for our next adventure.
Wagon on top of the Log Cabin Pancake House. They had a long porch with rocking chairs for waiting, but we were lucky and were seated right away.
Up the same mountain that our hotel was on is the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, a 6 mile one-way trail you drive in the mountains. Apparently on a good day you can see all kinds of wildlife; black bears, deer, etc, but they must have all been hiding. While we were driving the trail the rain really started to come down. There are pull-offs along the trail, and parking areas if you're interested in taking one of the hikes, but we were totally unprepared for a long hike in the rain, and enjoyed most of the trail by car.
Overlook along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, before it started pouring.
Waterfall coming down a cliff on the side of the road.

After our drive through the forest we headed to the Parkway/downtown Gatlinburg area to check out some of the tourist attractions. In my opinion, Gatlinburg is a really interesting mix of incredible nature and a ton of tourist stuff. Ripley's has several attractions including a museum, aquarium etc. We didn't do any of these things, but they seemed to be popular. The Parkway area reminded me of the boardwalk in many Jersey Shore towns. Souvenir and t-shirt shops with "White Girl Wasted" t-shirts in the windows etc. We did some window shopping and then stopped by the Old Smoky Moonshine Distillery to learn more about Tennessee's first legal moonshine distillery. They have free samples in their shop and a little area you can walk through to see how they make moonshine and read about the history of bootleggers during the Prohibition era.

Next we headed to the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, an 8 mile loop just outside Gatlinburg where over 100 arts & crafts shops have set up. They have every type of craft you can imagine, from pottery to walking sticks, leather belts to jewelry, woodworking to Christmas stores and more. Some of the shops are set up in little malls and others are just standalone galleries. We bought a few pieces of pottery, some for us and some as gifts from Alewine Pottery. We also stopped into a Christmas store, where a creepy Santa asked us if we were being good. We got a black bear Christmas ornament and quickly left that shop. Sometimes I'm too awkward for my own good.
I really loved these carved black bears found all over Gatlinburg. My parents' dining room has kind of a black bear theme, so I must come by it naturally.
By this time we were exhausted and headed back to the hotel for a quick cat nap and so that A. could watch part of the Notre Dame football game. Eventually we headed out for dinner at the Peddler Restaurant along the creek. We had to wait a while but were pleasantly surprised when we got seated along a wall of windows overlooking the creek, which they have lit up at night. The food was pretty good, I had rib eye and mountain trout, and A. had NY strip steak.

Sunday morning we got up (me at 7:15 to check out the sunrise!) and headed to the Donut Friar in a cute little shopping area on the Parkway called The Village. The Donut Friar has been around for a long time and opens every morning at 5AM. I hopped out of the car to grab coffees and a few donuts while A. circled the block. Again, who wants to pay $5-10 to get donuts and coffee? On our way out of town we decided to take the 6 mile Foothills Parkway to I-40. Apparently the Foothills Parkway was supposed to be part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but when Congress allocated funds for the Blue Ridge Parkway in the 1930s, they didn't include any land in Tennessee, so the Foothills Parkway is only partially complete. It was a beautiful drive, with scenic overlooks every few miles. Our GPS had directed us to take it on Friday night, but I'm really glad we ignored it and took a slightly less curvy, mountainous route in the dark.

I'm so glad we stepped out of our comfort zone and took this totally unplanned, "on a whim" trip. There were plenty of things we didn't get to do, because of the rain or because we hadn't planned anything in advance, but we had a fantastic time. Maybe we're turning over a new leaf?

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