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Friday, Dec 19, 2014
Lifestyle Stories

Road trip to Pigeon Forge, Cherokee offers contrast in country culture

BY DOUG KELLY
Tribune correspondent

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Our objective: A vacation reachable with a few tanks of gas.

The location wish list: A mountain retreat with cultural charm as well as sightseeing excitement.

From that starting point, my wife and I researched, researched, researched to form a list of potential sites. Then it became a process of hitting the delete key until two choices remained: Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Cherokee, N.C. When the map revealed them to be about an hour’s drive from each other in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we drew a circle around both.

The only variable involved whether to rent a car or place faith in our 2005 Chevy Impala with 135,000 miles of experience. Could the old girl handle steep mountain ascents and, just as importantly, buffer the nose-diving descents? After a tuneup and a clean bill of health from a mechanic, the old roadster performed as sure-footed as any fancy SUV.

An Internet map marked an 11-hour trek from our home in Clearwater to our first stop in Pigeon Forge, about 677 miles (approximately 35 miles from Knoxville). We endeavored to make it in one day with the proviso that any sign of fatigue would trigger a roadside lodge stop. Fortunately, even with stops for meals, fuel and bathroom breaks — and a cuss word-worthy traffic jam in Atlanta — we did it straight through in 12 hours.

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Although hotel choices abound in the Smokies, staying in a log cabin to fully appreciate the mountain experience dominated our “must” list. And so it was that after arriving in Pigeon Forge as the light of day flickered, we picked up the keys from Cabin Fever Vacations for “Once Upon A Time,” our rental cabin. We GPS-ed our way up umpteen steep inclines and hairpin turns until we found the gorgeous wood-paneled home. It didn’t take long for us to clean up and hit the sack.

Our Pigeon Forge leg commenced on a Friday and we stayed through Monday, placing us amid a weekend crowd of mostly Southern tourists.

Dollywood (dollywood.com) represents the centerpiece of Pigeon Forge. You know Dolly Parton, the chirpy blonde country gal who grew up hereabouts with the narrow waist and the famously big … voice. Parton partnered with a theme park entertainment group in 1985, and her fame quickly catapulted Dollywood into the region’s premier attraction. Even on the Sunday afternoon of our visit, parking lots were jammed and long lines formed at the park’s food counters.

Dollywood serves up plenty of rides for all ages, ball-toss games for stuffed animals, country bands, performers, a large selection of attractions and copious eateries befitting a major theme park. However, we observed one very noticeable and refreshing difference: Only a smattering of the thousands on hand sported saggy pants, nose rings, tattoos or other unconventional urban adornments. Few teenagers walked around with eyeballs glued to cell phones. Expressions like “thank you” and “yes, ma’am” were the norm. How refreshing.

Don’t miss the Dollywood Express ride featuring an authentic coal-fired steam engine that winds 5 miles through the park and foothills as a country-bred conductor provides an entertaining narrative about the now-extinct logging industry and a former backwoods lifestyle. Many local descendants of the 600 men and women who lost their logging jobs in 1936, soon after establishment of the national forest, now have successful careers in the Pigeon Forge-Dollywood tourism industry.

Dollywood is a kick — even a replica of Parton’s tiny childhood cabin is on display to reveal her humble beginnings — along with the “Chasing Rainbows” museum displaying numerous awards, costumes and memorabilia of her singing and movie career. Plan a full day here.

With the exploding popularity of Dollywood, Pigeon Forge expanded with more and more tourist magnets. All along Parkway, the city’s 3-mile main drag, it’s a riot of hotels, restaurants, thrill rides and souvenir shops. We counted 16 breakfast buffets alone. Glitzy electronic billboards flash with ads for dinner shows and major attractions. Pigeon Forge has become the Smoky Mountains version of the Las Vegas strip.

Of the umpteen activities in Pigeon Forge, three favorites stood out besides Dollywood. The Lumberjack Feud (lumberjackfeud.com) offers two raucous shows per night featuring a two-team competition of wood chopping, tree climbing and log rolling with pond-leaping dogs thrown in. The added dinner option prior to the shows consists of chicken, pork loin, applejack fritters and assorted fixings. The meal will suit most palates, but it’s the lumberjacking spectacle combined with humor, dancing, hooping and clapping that makes it an upbeat experience.

A total thrill is the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster (smokymountainalpinecoast.com), an exhilarating ride on rails where each individual controls the sled’s speed along a winding run through canyons and hills. It lasts only a few minutes, but you’ll be dying to do it again and again.

What you would not expect are the unique photo opportunities at the Hollywood Wax Museum (hollywoodwaxmuseum.com/pigeon-forge/). Instead of simply browsing likenesses of famous people as in typical wax museums, you can pose with these works of art while your partner snaps pictures. Yep, that’s me cradling the waist of Marilyn Monroe, leaning on the bar counter with the Rat Pack, standing beneath the Predator’s fangs. You won’t miss finding the museum on Parkway — just look upward at King Kong scaling the Empire State Building.

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A landmark Pigeon Forge restaurant deserving of its fame is The Old Mill Restaurant (old-mill.com) just off the Parkway main drag. Just getting to the door represents a considerable challenge with a parking lot reminiscent of a mall on Christmas Eve. It’s worth the trouble, however, as tables in the huge former mill turn over quickly and you won’t see any moss on the busy servers’ feet.

You won’t go wrong with a cup of corn chowder preceding your entrees, which in our case were the Southern Fried Catfish and pork chop lunch entrees. Both tasted splendid, but the corn fritters served with maple butter absolutely stole the show. I consumed reorders of the fritters with all the grace of a bulldog lapping a bowl of pudding.

If you’re into barbecue — really, really good barbecue — J.T. Hannah’s Kitchen (jthannahs.com) on the Parkway earns a double yodel. It’s no exaggeration to say that the half-rack of the house specialty St. Louis spare ribs I scarfed down rates as my best ever — and I’m no amateur scarfer. Beverages arrive in huge Mason jars so you don’t worry about refills. The Wild Jumbo Buffalo Wings appetizer could pass for an entrée unto itself, the chicken moist and tender beneath the Q sauce.

Good grazing aside, no dutiful tourist can resist hitting a souvenir shop or two. My wife owns scores of T-shirts, each gathered as a memento of our travels, the way others collect fridge magnets. I buy ashtrays for my daughter and shot glasses for my son at each venue, and that’s about it. Of the many shops we sampled, we liked Hillbilly Village on the Parkway the best. It offers a massive array of corncob pipes, Indian dolls, bottled honey and molasses, walking sticks, moccasins, back-scratchers and miscellanea galore. Backyard displays include an old mountain cabin, moonshine stills and an outhouse with that trademark half-moon carved in the door. Yee-haw.

Be sure to allocate time to drive through the adjoining town of Sevierville and into the heart of the mountain range for splendid overlooks of tree-covered valleys, streams and the low-lying clouds that earned the Great Smoky Mountains their name. We visited friends in their spectacular cabin atop an islanded mountain in Sevierville, with front and backyard vistas of Douglas Lake and the surrounding range. The clean, crisp, fresh air soothed us like a soul transfusion.

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It’s 42 miles of S-curves through passes and a mountain tunnel to drive from Pigeon Forge to Cherokee, N.C. The route intersects Gatlinburg, Tenn., and even the short run through this vibrant little town convinced us of the merits of a future visit. Chic diners and stores stack up side-to-side along the walkways, making for convenient pedestrian access.

Before entering Cherokee, we pulled into the National Park Service’s Oconaluftee Visitor Center, a renovated facility with a small museum and a grassy field dotted with cabins, barns and other structures of yesteryear. Whereas Pigeon Forge is go-go action, Cherokee wishes to remain serene and serious. But that doesn’t mean it’s boring.

The area serves as headquarters for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a sovereign nation of 15,000 who embrace modernization but fiercely hold onto their ancient traditions. The most representative attraction of the Cherokee culture is the Oconaluftee Indian Village (visitcherokeenc.com), a recreation of 18th-century dwellings, meeting huts, a dance arena and an outdoor canoe-building shop. Dugout canoes are crafted from poplar trees and range 30 to 60 feet in length and take up to eight months to shape, dig out with an ax, burn and char.

An Indian guide — in our case a beautiful young woman clad in Cherokee garb — escorts each group of tourists at the village. She led us through a series of enclaves where natives demonstrated craft skills with beads, basket weaving, pottery and weaponry. The making of arrows, tomahawks and blowguns was explained, and from 60 paces our guide sent two darts into the bull’s-eye of a target.

Two other cultural attractions should be on your Cherokee itinerary: “Unto These Hills,” a song-and-dance production in the 2,100-seat Mountainside Theatre with surround-sound effects, and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, with interactive exhibits highlighting the 11,000-year richness of all things Cherokee (both at visitcherokeenc.com).

An interesting anomaly involves listening to Cherokees speak English — it’s with an unexpected but understandable Southern drawl. Every Indian we met exuded a calm and friendly demeanor, an unpretentious gentleness that’s very disarming, even when notions of impatience might arise.

If you’re a bear lover, spend an hour at the Cherokee Bear Zoo (no website; ((828) 497-4525) near the downtown district. Huge grizzly and black bears are in open-habitat enclosures, allowing safe feeding by dropping slices of apple, bread and lettuce into open mouths. The grizzlies will even “clap” paws to encourage being fed a snack. Entry is only $5 with paper trays of bear food for $2. On a separate ground level, kids can feed goats and deer or observe lemurs. As with all attractions, you exit through a gift shop, which in this case includes an ice cream and soda counter.

A special souvenir stop in Cherokee is Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual (qaullaartsandcrafts.com), where you’ll find woven baskets, beadwork, jewelry, clothing, wood and stone carvings, pottery, blowguns and bows and arrows for sale — all crafted by 250 Cherokee men and women. It’s as much museum as shop, with a fascinating array of goods on sale.

Anglers should bring along fishing gear, because Cherokee is famed for 30 miles of trout-filled streams. You’ll see plenty of fly fishers staking out the shallow freestone Oconaluftee River that flows through town, all hoping for strikes by rainbow, brown, golden or brook trout. Freestone streams flow from melted snow or rainwater, the descending currents providing eddies, new embankments and points where a cast often snares a feeding trout.

Although not big gamblers, we dropped by the 21-story Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort (harrahscherokee.com) for a short visit. All the popular casino table games are available, as well as seemingly endless aisles of slot machines.

We crashed for one night in Cherokee at the Newfound Lodge (no website; (828) 497-2746). Somewhat of a “vintage” motel, it’s pet friendly and comfortable enough, with Internet and a restaurant by the same name across the street and down the road. Its biggest asset: Each unit’s balcony hugs the Oconaluftee River. It’s relaxing to hear the trickling waters as mallards parade by.

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The return to Florida seemed even smoother than the drive up, thanks to taking U.S. 441 south and bypassing Atlanta before connecting to Interstate 75. We hit a Cracker Barrel for breakfast and lunch, kept the gas tank happy and pulled into our driveway just before dusk. Weary but exhilarated, we later pillow-talked about all the highlights of our trip — already tossing around ideas for our next drive-to destination.

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