Friday, September 9, 2016

Flying High in the Smokies: A Family Road Trip to Tennessee

This summer we took the longest road trip I've taken in many years, certainly since my motherhood journey began. We began with a long drive down to Florida from our home in Massachusetts, to drop my kids off with their dad in Miami. My partner Jon and I (along with his two teens Hannah and RJ) stayed in South Florida for a couple of days before embarking on a longer trek back up north, with a stop for two nights in Sevierville, Tennessee.

I had very little in the way of expectation before arriving in Sevierville. I have always been a beach worshiper, and  I had never really considered a summer vacation someplace so far from the ocean. For our return trip, we debated crossing over to the Carolinas and staying at the shore, but then opted for the Smoky Mountains to check out something new. I was pleasantly surprised by how good of a choice that was. 

The Smoky Mountains are home to America's most visited national park, and after visiting the area I can now certainly see the appeal. The gorgeous, unhindered views of the mountains and relaxed country vibe make this the perfect place to get away. The seemingly never ending stream of attractions will also make sure you never get bored. 

Jon and I have six kids between us, so we are always looking for affordable vacation options. The Smoky Mountains turned out to be an excellent opportunity to take an affordable, extremely fun, action-packed vacation. 

Our lodging was at the Hidden Mountain Resort in Sevierville. This resort is easily in the top three best places I have ever stayed in my travel career. The management was friendly and warm, and the rental cabins were pristine. Ours had two master bedrooms, a large soaking tub in one, a wrap-around screened porch bedecked with hot tub and pool table, and a full granite kitchen far nicer than the one I have at home. The pool at this resort was gorgeous and clean, a short walk from our cabin. Hidden Mountain Resort has almost 200 cabins for rent of all shapes and sizes, with prices as low as $75 per night. The resort is close to the action of Sevierville, yet tucked up into a mountain with nothing to hear at night but the crickets. Our only complaint was that we didn't get to stay longer. 

We began immediately with the family fun, heading out to go horseback riding within minutes of arriving. It was a joy to fulfill a dream for Hannah (and on her 15th birthday!) by taking her riding at Five Oaks Riding Stables. They popped us all on calm, steady mounts and wound us up the trail with glimpses of the mountains and the zip liners whizzing by in between the trees.  It was a short ride, just under an hour, but plenty of time for our novice saddle behinds.

Our next day was jam-packed with more adventure than most people experience in a year, and included a trip to a local zoo (link), zip lining, mountain caves, and a unique airplane experience. 

We headed up to Foxfire Mountain in the late morning, in time for the 11am zip line tour. RJ and Hannah were strapped into gear by experienced guides Tim and Sydney and teamed up with six other people for their 1.5 hour tour, including the second highest zip line in the United States, the Goliath. The tour included five lines, totaling over two miles of zip line, for just under $95. Beware that in order to zip line on the Goliath you must weigh less than 250 lbs, and they weigh everyone who shows up for a tour. Jon and I were able to watch the kids fly through the air while hiking on several wooded paths on the property, including a stroll across the county's longest swinging bridge. We hiked up to Foxfire's waterfall, relaxed in a hammock, and took in the views of the stunning green Smokies. The kids came back flushed from their zip line experience with huge smiles pasted on their faces. They loved every second of it. Be sure to bring cash to tip your guides on this tour, the guides' livelihoods depend on it.

After an adventurous morning we were ready for something a little more low-key, so we headed over to check out the Forbidden Caverns of Sevierville, a set of huge underground caves buried deep into the mountain. We took a guided tour equipped with a light show that lasted about an hour. Beware,  while these caves are large and spacious (and did not induce claustrophobia) it was quite chilly down there at 58 degrees year round, definitely bring a sweater. We also learned that you may not touch any of the amazing stalactites or stalagmites that line the chambers, as it can lead to corrosion. It was a challenge, but we managed to keep our hands to ourselves. Tours run hourly and cost about $15 per person.

Our action packed day concluded with a ride in an old-fashioned biplane piloted by Marc Hightower at Sky High Air Tours. After many years as Captain of boat in Key West, Marc transitioned his life to Tennessee and purchased and restored a beautiful Waco biplane built in 1927. As pilot, mechanic, marketing manager, and all around one-man show, Marc runs his business right out of the tiny Sevierville airport and his pickup truck. Friendly and knowledgeable, Marc was quick to ease any nerves we might have had about taking off in the open aired cockpit. Marc has over 1000 hours of flying time in this gorgeous antique plane, and as the mechanic he is able to keep it in pristine condition. Two people can fly with him at a time (with a combined weight of less than 400 lbs) and he charges by the flight, not by the person. Flying with Sky High is a unique and one of a kind experience not to be missed. Cruise over the fields of Sevierville and take in the fog covered mountains all around you, it is like gliding down the highway in the sky, bringing you right back to the 1930's, when air travel was a novel concept. Marc offers several packages for flying, and the personal touch he gives to every take off makes this experience worth every penny. Biplane rides start at $95.

No visit to the Smoky Mountains is complete without chowing down at one of the many southern eateries. When visiting Sevierville make sure to check out the Applewood Restaurant. The apple fritters served at the beginning of every meal are unbeatable, and you can get a five course meal for around $15. The streets in Sevierville are paved with biscuits and gravy from what I could tell, and we did our part to fill our tanks with the delicious (but not exactly health-conscious) grub. After driving for days, and chowing down on chicken-fried steak and grits, we were ready to head home again and cleanse ourselves with leafy greens. Road trips with kids are not for the faint of heart, but Sevierville and the beautiful Smoky Mountains made the extra mileage worth it.