My daughter, who is one of my best critics and also my strongest supporter, tells me I should write these blogs more as memoir and less as travel facts. I’ve been contemplating her suggestion, but unable to make it happen as yet. So, I thought I’d post this in the meantime, and I welcome any feedback, positive or negative.
I originally planned to begin with New Zealand or Belgium, as I’ve been to both many times over the years and have friends in both places. However, I’ve decided to start with something much nearer home—Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Since we were there quite recently (December 2021), my memories are still fresh. My husband Norm and I go to Gatlinburg almost every year around the time of our wedding anniversary, December 19. Things didn’t work out so well in 2020. I’d reserved a log cabin in the next town over, Pigeon Forge, and we started in that direction. Our kids (adults now with families of their own) were anxious. Sevier County, they told us, was setting records that week in new cases of COVID-19. So, we turned back, hunkered down, and spent a cozy week at home in Clarksville, Tennessee, instead. The proprietor who rented us the cabin was gracious enough to give us a full refund, and I hope to try that log cabin, if God wills, in 2022.
In 2021, however, we decided to stay at the Zoder’s Inn in Gatlinburg. This was one of our favorite destinations when our kids were small. It is in walking distance of many Gatlinburg attractions, no small deal since parking can be expensive and hard to find. Also, we always enjoyed the features and amenities at Zoder’s, which included balconies overlooking a rushing stream with the Smoky Mountains in the background, and a large recreational facility with racket-ball courts, a fitness room, an indoor pool with a bridge, a waterfall, and a hot tub, and a breakfast bar that provided a brief menu where you could mark your choices of juice, cereal, toast, etc.
Upon arrival in 2021, we were told that almost all the amenities were closed, with the exception of the pool. Nonetheless, we stayed at Zoder’s, planning to spend most of our time away from the room anyway. Over the years, we’ve had far more good, or even great, experiences in Gatlinburg than disappointing ones, though we’ll never forget the year (we were at Zoder’s that year as well) when I contracted food poising or a wicked stomach virus. But I digress.
I won’t attempt to describe every activity or every meal from our recent visit, so I’ll focus on two of each.
Not everyone loves a theme park, but I do…
The first December that we went to Dollywood around Christmastime, many years ago, almost all the rides were closed for the season. We had a pleasant time walking around at night, taking in the lights and the nativity scenes, listening to some Christmas carols, and shopping for a few souvenirs, but that was about all that was happening. Now Dollywood brims with choices.
Buying online tickets for the park and for parking was easy and saved us a bit of time as we entered. Prepaid parking wasn’t clearly delineated, but we veered into a lane to the far right where an attendant appeared to be waving people through, and it worked. The lights were more spectacular than ever, and the live entertainment choices abounded.
With the exception of the water rides, most of the rides were up and running. My attitude toward theme park rides, roller coasters in particular, differs from Norm’s. Although we both suffer from some neck and back issues, as well as a predisposition for motion sickness, I’d be willing to take my chances in exchange for the thrill of the adrenalin rush. He would not. The last time I talked him into a vintage roller coaster ride that looked relatively tame, the old-fashioned wooden coaster proved more jarring to neck and shoulders than some of the more dazzling modern coasters.
Another memory surfaces. One year when I was a teenager—or preteen, perhaps—a traveling carnival came to my hometown of Mayfield, Kentucky. My best friend Laura and I fell in love with the tilt-a-whirl. We rode it over and over, embracing the feelings of spinning, of dizziness, of lightheadedness, of being out of control. When we got off, we’d stagger around, laughing, and get back in line.
Years later, I talked Norm into a similarly spinning type of ride. His face turned white, then almost green. Watching him throw up when we got off, I promptly followed suit. Now, when we see those kinds of rides, we shake our heads. “No, thank you,” we say. “Not for us.” But still I hold onto my appreciation of roller coasters and only reluctantly pass them by.
I focused my efforts this time on mapping out the sequence of showtimes that would enable us to see as many as possible, without missing the fifty-foot Christmas tree, the Merry & Bright fireworks display near closing time, or the train ride. By accessing the showtimes online for the week we were there, I was able to map out a tentative schedule the night before we went.
Although I’ve seen it many times, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas remains one of my favorite shows, and this year was no exception. I was a bit disappointed in the acoustics for Christmas in the Smokies, but we managed to do almost everything on my list, with the exception of taking a peek into Santa’s List, to find out if I’d been naughty or nice (Norm says that’s a no-brainer). We caught the last train ride of the day, and it was so crowded I’d swap it for the peek at Santa’s workshop, or the concert by the Mistletones if I had a do-over. This was the first time we saw the show, Heart of the Holidays, featuring some of Dolly’s relatives, and it was worthwhile.
We were so busy taking in the sights and sounds, we nearly forgot to eat. But on the way out, we stood in a relatively short line for a steak panini with caramelized onions and peppers. Delicious! No wonder Dollywood is often ranked as one of the best theme parks and one of the best Christmas attractions in the world.
Not sure if Anakeesta would qualify as a theme park, exactly…
I’d never been to Anakeesta before, and I loved every minute of it. This is a relatively small park atop, you guessed it, Anakeesta Mountain, in downtown Gatlinburg. The price is very affordable. Here too we were able to buy our tickets online, and reserve a time for the Chondola ride to take us up the mountain.
This time the lanes were clearly marked. Anakeesta was booming when we arrived, but almost everyone was in the line to purchase tickets. We were able to move straight on to the Chondola. I’d been wondering if they offered open-air chair lifts or enclosed gondolas, or both, until I figured out that both (hence the name) are on the same line.
We chose the open-air chair lift, and we were blessed with great weather, which made this ride quite pleasant. As we went up the mountain, we passed families with small kids moving down, and the children usually called out greetings or waved. One chair held a Christmas elf. Another option was to ride up in a Ridge Rambler adventure truck. At the summit, you’re about 600 feet above the heart of the city. The views are great, especially if you climb Anakeesta Tower.
You can spend more money inside the village, if you choose. For example, the bobsled looked like fun. But one admission ticket allows you to ride up and down the mountain as many times as you like on the Ridge Rambler or Chondola. We chose to go once in daylight and once at night. In our first visit, we explored the challenge courses, traversed the hanging bridge, climbed the tower, and took in the view while splitting a burger and fries at the Clifftop café. Then we returned late that evening to see the lights ablaze.
The evening visit was magical, as you could choose between rockers overlooking the city and those around a fire, sip on a mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows or indulge in a fried pie or scoop of hand-dipped ice cream (we chose the latter, and it was yummy). If I go again, I may have to try the dueling zipline adventure (extra fee for this), which looked like lots of fun.
Although I’d already joined the kids earlier in the day in the tree-venture challenge, the bear venture, and the treehouse, we retraced our steps to see what was now illuminated. I was so intent on not missing a thing, Norm said he feared my head might pop off my twisting neck. When we prepared to leave at closing time, the line for the Chondola looked long, but it moved quickly. Downtown Gatlinburg, all lit up as viewed on the way down, was more captivating than in daylight.
Looking forward to new places to eat, or old favorites, is one of the joys of travel.
Every time we go to Gatlinburg, we plan at least one midday meal at the Old Mill Pottery House Café in Pigeon Forge. My usual order is the spinach and muenster quiche with a spinach and strawberry salad, and a thick slice of cinnamon raisin bread. Everything there is made locally, if I recall correctly, from the dishes, tables and chairs, to the delicious breads and pies. Although spinach is not usually on my diet (kidney stone unfriendly), and raisins are not one of my favorites, this dish is so tasty I make an exception here. Norm loves their pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes.
This time we also tried a new restaurant located in one of our old hangouts. Townsend, Tennessee, is a little village nestled in the Smokies about twenty miles from Gatlinburg. We spent a lot of time there in the 1990s, when our son was cast in the TV series Christy, based on the Catherine Marshall novel. To learn more about that enchanted period of our lives, check out my first published book, The Past Ever Present. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B091F3MN3R/ref=reader_auth_dp
We usually plan one semi-fancy evening meal to celebrate our anniversary. This year we chose the Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro in Townsend. We read the reviews and made a reservation. What I’d forgotten was how winding the roads are between Gatlinburg and Townsend, and how long those twenty miles can seem if you’re prone to motion sickness.
When our son Clay was involved in Christy, he bonded with Andy, the child who played Little Burl. Clay played his brother, Creed Allen. Andy’s mom loved for Clay to hang out with them because Clay managed to entertain her toddler, Alex, in a way that lessened her parenting burden—understandably so, as Alex was a handful by any definition. I always remember going out to eat with them once when Alex was inconsolably howling his head off. I was at a loss as to how to ease the situation. But his mother smiled calmly. “I love this restaurant,” she said, taking another bite. “Anywhere else, I’d have been asked to leave by now.”
Clay often accompanied Andy, Alex, and their mom on outings. On one memorable occasion, they returned to our hotel in Townsend from a trip to Gatlinburg. Their car, and Clay’s clothing, exuded a decidedly foul odor. Motion sickness runs in our family. Andy’s mom took this calmly as well.
By the time we arrived at the Dancing Bear, I was beginning to regret our choice. Once inside, my nausea subsided, and I ordered modestly but with a growing appetite. Norm had the filet, which came with a foie gras glaze. He ordered it without the glaze, as he eats virtually anything but liver. (I was tempted to ask for his glaze on the side but resisted). I had looked forward to the scallops, but they were only a starter on this evening, so I ordered them plus a pear salad. Both were amazing. I left the restaurant, no longer thinking that I’d never voluntarily undertake that drive again, but wondering what I’d order next time.
In 2020, when we didn’t go to Gatlinburg, Norm baked me a crustless quiche at home.
In past anniversary trips, we have made different choices, including the free-standing shows in Pigeon Forge, the craft circle in Gatlinburg, the outlet mall in Sevierville, the Titanic Museum, and more. Next year we plan to go to the Aquarium in Gatlinburg. So, I anticipate another blog at some point about this quaint and intriguing part of our home state of Tennessee.