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Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg offer a get-away close to the Upstate

Even in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and nearby Gatlinburg still offer many fun activities for the would-be tourist.  Over the last few years, the four of us have made an annual pilgrimage to this area just before Christmas.  This year, we debated about going, but finally loaded the van for an adventure, and we are glad that we did.

In Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, most tourist attractions remained open with some modifications to accommodate the COVID outbreak.  One could still visit Dollywood which reopened in June after a 3-month shutdown.  Gatlinburg’s streets and shops appeared busy.

We stayed at the Music Road Resort Hotel in Pigeon Forge.  Beautifully decorated for Christmas, this establishment offered excellent service and a relaxed pace as well as convenient access to the Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg areas.

As one would expect, this pandemic had impacted the hotel and its operation.  Business seemed down a bit.  In the past, we would wile away many hours in front of their giant fireplace, warming ourselves and drinking the free coffee provided there.  Fortunately, the fireplace was still operating, but the coffee had been discontinued.  However, the hotel graciously provided coffee that one could brew in the hotel room.  

In addition, they no longer offered the free buffet breakfast due to the pandemic.  As a result, we tried out several local restaurants for our breakfast fare.  Our favorite turned out to be Flapjacks located down the road from the hotel.  Their fritters are to die for, their food delicious, and the service awesome.  

Finally, the hotel’s physical fitness room was closed due to the pandemic. There was a silver lining there as well.  The closure led to several interesting hikes in the areas behind and around the facility and the creation of many unique and special memories for this 2020 trip.

“The Island” at Pigeon Forge

Pigeon Forge’s “The Island” offered several shopping and dining options such Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen, serving up a variety of entrees in a family style format.  Especially enjoyable was a visit to Emery’s 5&10, a nostalgic store that contained many unique products and books one just would not expect to find anywhere today. At night, the show fountain lit up with vibrant colors and the waters “danced” to cheery Christmas tunes.  This area also included the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, a 200-foot-high ferris wheel with a unique view of the area.

On one of our vacation days, we explored Cades Cove by car.  We encountered no bears probably due to the time of year. However, we did spy several white-tailed deer and wild turkeys as we drove through the area.  Our excursion into this portion of Smoky Mountain National Park included viewings of several historic churches with their associated cemeteries and fascinating old tombstones.  Most notable were the old log cabins belonging to original settlers and the so-called cantilever barns.  This 19th century barn design included a larger upper story with a sizable opening built into the lower and smaller ground story.

On another day, we travelled up to Anakeesta, 600 feet above the heart of Gatlinburg.  Just getting there was an adventure and involved boarding an open-chair ski-lift or a closed-in cabin to ascend the mountain. Our group chose the cabin, and the view was exhilarating as we approached the top.  For the more adventurous, Anakeesta offered ziplines, a treetop skybridge, a treehouse village, and a mountain roller coaster.  Several novelty shops dotted the property, and one could dine at Kephart Café or the Smokehouse as the day progressed.  Climbing the Anavista Tower, some 60 feet high and situated in the middle of the serene and beautiful Vista Gardens, provided an unobstructed view of the mountains below.

During our brief excursion, several restaurants and activities stood out.  One simply cannot miss a cup of hot cider or coffee and the individual fried apple pies sold at the Apple Barn.  The best lunch spot can be found at the Old Mill Pottery Café and Grill.  For supper, one must experience the fare at Applewood Farmhouse Grill or Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant.  They serve you everything you could possibly want in a meal, and all the food is fresh and delicious.  And, of course, no visit to this area would be complete without a trip or even two to The Incredible Christmas Place!

Along the way, unexpected joys snuck into our trip making it extra-special.  At Anakeesta, we lingered over steaming cups of cocoa from Pearl’s Pie in the Sky while rocking in our chairs and taking in the breathtaking expanse of mountains far below.   We woofed down hot apple fritters and tasty glasses of apple julep at the Apple Farmhouse Restaurant.  Complimentary potato soup and large misshapen biscuits awaited us at the Five Oaks Farm Kitchen.  The closing of hotel gym facilities provided opportunities to hike along a tributary of Pigeon River located behind the hotel. There, we spied a pair of Canadian geese strutting along the bank while a piliated woodpecker hammered away at an old tree stump.  The woodpecker was amazing sight because it is such a large, striking bird—about the size of a large hen!  Another exercise excursion took us across the street behind the hotels where a small church surrounded by row after row of tombstones some more than 200 years old was hidden like a gem.  

At Pigeon Forge’s “The Island,” we spied an unexpected rainbow peeking out from the water fountain display.  And who could predict the sense of pride and wonder welling up within us while visiting the light display at Patriot Park and  catching a glimpse of the colorful displays depicting the Statue of Liberty as well as the four marines raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima?  

Then there was this giant cross, rising some 110 feet and set upon a hill.  This structure, created by James Potter, stood guard over Pigeon Forge.  Visible from almost everywhere we travelled in Pigeon Forge, it stood as a silent reminder of the faith that informs our lives.

Finally, on the way home, imagine our surprise when mounds of snow piled along the road from Gatlinburg to Cherokee greeted us.  This sight created a sense of childlike wonder, playfulness, and hope within each of us.

Snow-capped mountains at Cades Cove…part of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

So, in the end, our annual pilgrimage provided rest, a renewed sense of purpose, a much-needed adjustment in attitude, and quality family time.  Even in the midst of these troubling days, simple pleasures–a view of snow-capped mountains, hot apple fritters, a warm fire in the fireplace, and steaming cups of cocoa can still restore the soul and take ones breath away.  One quote by J.R.R. Tolkien and posted in the Vista Gardens at Anakeesta says it all—“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”  May we all choose wisely as we embark on this brand-new year of 2021.  With all that wonderful food we just ate on this trip, diets may be in our future!

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