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Part 3 – The Great Smokey Mountains

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Day 3, and we were leaving Nashville. To fortify ourselves for the drive to Knoxville, we headed to the Pancake Pantry , which is a breakfast hotspot near Vanderbilt University. Very cute neighborhood with good shopping. Inevitably, there was a line out the door, but it moved pretty quickly, and we were soon seated and perusing the menu. The Pancake Pantry is particularly known for its sweet potato pancakes, but one of the things we’d noticed over the last few days was how sweet everything was – definitely extra sugar compared to up north. So we ended up passing on something that sounded like it would be super sweet, and went for the buckwheat pancakes and “the grill cook’s medley” – basically everything with an egg on top. Yum. You need to go there.

Our next stop was the Gaylord Opryland, a huge resort and conference center where the Grand Ole Opry is now recorded. The Gaylord properties are known for having huge covered inner courtyards, and Opryland is the biggest of them all. It has a river running through it … As we arrived, we found we could either pay some ridiculous amount for all-day parking, or park for free for 20 minutes. So we set the stop watch and sprinted in. The property is truly gorgeous and I could easily see myself spending a weekend there without ever leaving the hotel. Unsurprisingly, there was a music theme to be found throughout the interconnected courtyards. (A side note for my fellow miles and points junkies: This is actually a Marriott property and can be had for 35,000 points a night, which strikes me as a pretty good deal.)

Having made it in and out of Opryland in record time, we headed across the street to Cooters Place , which can only be described as a shrine to The Dukes of Hazzard. With the famous General Lee parked out front ($5 to have your picture taken sitting inside!), it is part museum, part souvenir shop, and abounds with memorabilia you may find a little offensive if you don’t have a sense of humor. In other words, Stu loved it, and we walked away with a confederate flag bumper sticker as a gag gift for our very Democratic neighbor.

With that, we finally left the Nashville area and made our way to Knoxville, about 180 miles to the east. Along the way, we stopped at Burgess State Park to take in the waterfalls, and climbed up Bee Rock Overlook to admire the view.

We spent the night at the Hilton Knoxville, the highlight of which was being able to use my cell phone as my room key for the first time (more on that in a separate post), and had lunch with friends of ours the next day before heading to the Tail of the Dragon. The Tail of the Dragon is an 11-mile stretch of US Route 129 across both Tennessee and North Carolina that is known for its lush scenery and insane switchbacks, all at between 900 and nearly 2,000 feet elevation. Supposedly, “many of the curves are banked like a race track”. Needless to say, it’s a huge attraction for the boy racer and biking crowd – which meant that Stu had to drive it.

I haven’t seen such a concentration of sports cars and motorbikes since we drove the Nuerburgring 3 years ago – people were obviously there to drive the road, not get from A to B. The scenery was gorgeous – bright green late spring foliage, with occasional breathtaking views of the Smokies. All drivers were very courteous and would pull over to let people by who were going faster. Stu was being “sensible”, but I was still hanging on for dear life. I’m including a video, but it doesn’t really capture the twists and turns adequately. There are photographers stationed at various spots along the way, and you can buy pictures of yourself driving the Tail.

We continued onto Route 28, which we later found out is known as the Moonshiner, and has some pretty dramatic curves too, and finally wended our way over to Highlands, NC, where we would be staying at the Old Edwards Inn. I’d picked this one because Travel and Leisure had declared it the best hotel in North Carolina. Highlands was a pretty little place. Founded by two golfing buddies who selected the site because it was at the intersection of two lines going from Chicago to Savannah and New Orleans to New York, they figured it had to become a great commercial hub. They didn’t figure very well, and most certainly didn’t take into account its altitude of 4,118 feet. So to this day, Highlands is a sleepy little town of less than 1,000 inhabitants, lots of rhododendron, and good golfing. Its micro climate makes it about 10 degrees cooler (and therefore more pleasant) than the rest of the American South. I couldn’t help myself and started looking at real estate, but in practical terms, having to zig-zag your way down the mountain each time you need to go to the supermarket will probably stop me from actually moving there. Anyone who pictures the Old Edwards Inn as a a little old inn is in for quite a surprise when they get there (that would be me). The place is a resort more than anything else; the first sign is when they give you a map of the property at check in. There is an old inn building at the heart of the resort, but several new buildings have been added, and the resort now seems to take up about half the town. There are two pools, a croquet lawn and a games room. We stayed in one of the cottages, which were slightly more affordable. I was pleased to note that these literally are little cottages containing just your room, so you have no direct neighbors at all, and it felt very private. We were clearly there before their high season kicked off, and things were quiet. So is this truly the best hotel in a state that also features the Inn at Biltmore? Impossible to say without having stayed everywhere else, but we did really like it. The grounds were gorgeous and immaculately maintained; staff were incredibly friendly and helpful; accommodations were luxurious and thoughtfully designed; best of all, there were free Dove ice cream bars to be had at reception! I wish we’d taken pictures to share, but you’ll have to check out the website instead. For dinner on our first night, Stu had made reservations at Madison’s, the Inn’s upscale restaurant. We treated ourselves to pre-dinner cocktails in The Library bar first, and then indulged in a wonderful meal at the restaurant. Steve, the manager/wine steward was very helpful and let us try several of their wines before we decided on one.

The next morning, hiking was on the agenda. The Inn had provided several possible hikes, and I had plumped for the first one, which was tagged “difficult”. Having only just gone on a short walk to Burgess Falls that had been sign-posted “very strenuous” and was anything but, I didn’t put much store by that rating. Big mistake. We found ourselves hiking up a trail that was more vertical than horizontal, and holding onto tree branches to pull ourselves up. Within about half a mile, we stopped seeing trail markers, and there being no obvious trail to follow, we conceded defeat and headed back to the car. Luckily, we spotted a sign to Glen Falls on the way back to town and hiked around there a bit instead. Highlands actually has a very large number of waterfalls, one of them, the Bridal Veil, right on the main road into town.

The afternoon may have involved a nap, but I will admit to nothing! Deciding to check out the local scene that evening, we headed over to The Ugly Dog Pub, where there was some live music going on. It seemed like that was where everyone in town was that night, so we bellied up to the bar for some brews and wine, and made small talk with the locals. Stu was too embarrassed to order the loaded tater tots, so I did it for him – totally worth it! Our main courses may have been marginally healthier.

Then it was back to our little cottage for the night, before heading to Asheville the next morning.

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