The Great Smoky Mountains, USA

Ever wondered what it is like to visit the great wilderness of the Smokies? Two British Idiots did, and this is what they found.

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Look below for an English idiot’s view of the Smokies, including a stay in the deep forests, and visits to Clingman’s Dome, Elkmont, and Pigeon Forge. If you are travelling here, this is a must-read before you go.

Pelting rainfall followed by swift summer heat, incredible panoramas of mirror-still lakes, verdant trees and winding roads as far as the eye can see, slipping like gloves into thick cloud coverage. A Vegas-style town dumped in the middle of the wilderness—lights, music and alpine rollercoasters. Ghost towns nestled in the trees, a still image of times long gone. These are the most intense memories of a place beyond splendid.

The dream was a wooden cabin in the thick of the woods, quaint and secluded in trees, and fifteen miles from the nearest town. Branches hung thick over what might be described more accurately as a tree house; the perfect location—we thought. The reality was actually two English idiots living in the wilderness, frightened by the calls of wild animals and the worrisome nightly noses that seemed to close in after dark. Insects threw themselves wildly at the windows, yowls and barks filled the silence. We soon realised we were very poorly prepared to deal with the real American outdoors. The dark was a complete dark, open eyes or closed eyes made no difference. We made sure we had everything ready for the night to come before the sun fell. Feeling vulnerable was an understatement. In reality, we found, the thick of the wilderness was a daunting place to stay. Even during the day we didn’t stray far on foot and kept our eyes about us. We carried walking sticks, not really knowing what we would do with them, but they did offer a little comfort.

Clingman’s Dome is a major tourist attraction; the highest mountain in the Smokies, and therefore presumably, boasting the very best views. We looked forward to a secluded, possibly romantic spot, to look out over the clear horizon, over heads of trees and blue waters, and soak in nature at its finest. The reality, when we got there, was insufficient parking, thick crowds of people and a foggy outlook. We circled the inadequate parking lot for nearly half an hour before admitting defeat. Jumping out a short photo session was possible, only to realise the low cloud coverage had all but obscured what would have been an incredible view. Even at 2000 metres, the humidity was stifling, so I was glad to recline back into our air-conditioned vehicle. This is probably best visited on off-peak times of the year, or if this is not an option, early in the morning, before the crowds.

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Elkmont ghost town is also a stop worth seeing for most tourists. It is situated in the Little River Valley of the Smokies, in the state of Tennessee. In the early 20th century, it was the base for logging, providing nearby places with their building needs. Now it is deserted. The wooden cabins stand hauntingly like statues of times passed by. Being English idiots, we assumed an abandoned village would have hundreds of years of history; we were surprised to find that the buildings were just over 100 years old. This is old, perhaps, for America, but is barely scratching the history books for an English country couple; I was raised in a black and white cottage, in the English countryside, with a plaque over the fireplace reading ‘1601’, where my mum often digs up little medicine bottles from the 1800s, and arrowheads from the Stone Age in the back garden. Despite this, Elkmont had an awful lot of charm and told an enchanting story of a life and a time that is nearly forgotten. It was only a snapshot of what life must have been like, and undeniably immersive.

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Pigeon Forge was a town that immediately struck us as tourist central—it was Dolly Parton’s Vegas. A seaside resort, slash theme park, dumped in the thick of the forest. We enjoyed the ‘only in America’ feel of the area with its bright lights, and attractions in an onslaught of colour. There are all manner of entertainments to be found: alpine rollercoasters, go carts, mirror mazes, out-of-this-world crazy golf courses and a choice of excellent night time horse shows. It is a shame a lot of people might go here thinking they had seen the Smokies, when in fact there is a lot more to offer. It is in stark contrast to the tranquil hills and treetops half an hour’s drive outside town.

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Of the more ‘different’ attractions included ‘Goats on a Roof’. Which, surprise it or not, is exactly what it says on the tin; The goats live between a hilarious inter-network of platforms between the buildings, and can be fed by tourists by a pedal-powered conveyor-style device which lifts a cup of food to the storey above; the goats are well accustomed to this. Often, the goats allow the food to comically fall over their heads before devouring it. The best view for this is an upstairs window overlook, which can be entered from the ground floor shop. The goats seemed to worship this contraption, rubbing their head against the still mechanism, waiting for it to move.

One of several shows available is the Dixie Stampede—which seems to get the best reviews of the area. It is a dinner show, with fantastically behaved animals. I was brought to tears by the beautiful bond the riders had with their horses, and there is the chance to pet them if you get there in good time before the show. You can see herded buffalo, ludicrous little racing Shetlands and baby pigs. If you are an animal-lover then this is a must-see! It was a powerful and entertaining show with a patriotic ending. I left with a feeling that I knew more of what America is really all about by the end of it.

The meal that came with it was more than sufficient—but that might be coming from an English girl with a very small appetite. I was saddened to see the waste at the end—whole chickens left uneaten—especially when there was the choice of a doggy bag to take the food home. Being that we were travelling, we took all our excess food back, and it lasted us two days and was superbly good. When booking seating, we didn’t understand—being English idiots—that you get to choose North or South, and on the night it determines whether you are on the North or South side of the civil war.

 

New Orleans and Plantations

If you are going to New Orleans or the area, make sure you read this first!

New Orleans

The city that defies America in a clash of colour, music, life. It is oozing culture from every street corner. The French quarter feels truly French with its filigree balustrades and shuttered windows—this centre of the city is filled with gossamer handrails. Foliage drapes over balconies; emerald waterfalls into the street.  This city didn’t have the hugeness and exaggeration of most things ‘American’ but was more of a pinch of finely selected herbs, delicate and very nearly European. The streets feel quaint and unassuming; a territory of quaintness, with its yoghurt pot colours—a western vibe, in fluorescent. There were ladies on bicycle wagons with colourful neckerchiefs, alive in art with the numerous galleries to be found around the centre.

It feels as though the outside world always associates New Orleans with the terrible tragedy of Katrina, but the people, and the city pulses with vibe and positivity—cheer, even. It is a city seeming to want to forget the bad and move on to the better.

Most of all, the area is not threatening. It is a very comfortable place to wander through. Despite staying on the outskirts of town, in what some may call a ‘questionable area’, we found the people to be very friendly, and more interested in us and what we were doing as tourists rather than causing us any trouble. The locals were excellent fun to converse with, and many had never met a person from England, which was an interesting experience for them.

It is also worth seeing the flea market in the French Quarter, and Audubon Park, which has a different vibe entirely. A Segway tour is a good way to see the city, taking you to all the major sites. Complete with training and knowledgeable guide. Summer is a bit warm for such an excursion though, unless you feel heat is not an issue. City Segway Tours is one of others to choose from.

At the waterfront can be found a softer atmosphere. A more laid back life, watching the Mississippi flow by. But this is still not devoid of culture. Listen out for the tones of the Natchez’s boat pipes, belching out tunefully from the riverside for a mile around. These are played by a pianist on the roof of the ferry. The boat itself seems to be driven by waterwheel and entirely made of wood but, as the waterwheel was running steadfastly when the boat was stationary, this may be a deceptive driving force of the vessel. Tickets can be brought from the water’s edge and you can take musical experience up and down the river. Even if you do not decide to ride, the atmosphere is enchanting.

Many people associate the city with its history in Voodoo. There is a Voodoo museum you can visit in the city. There was a lot of information which negates the classical idea of Voodoo, and although worth seeing, it was a dusty collection, and far smaller than expected.

The Mardi Gras festival, held in February, is the pinnacle of the year, although we were not lucky enough to be there during the festival itself, I understand it is a memorable and very colourful parade where the streets come alive with masked people, costumes and floats.

Plantations

Around the New Orleans area can be found a number of plantation houses. If you don’t have access to a vehicle, then there are numerous places offering excursions to visit one or more from the city. These will often pick you up from your hotel and give you a lift back afterwards.

We visited the Evergreen Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. which is what I believed to be one of the more well-known houses, due to its use in films locations for movies such as Django Unchained and hit series such as the new Roots, although this is one of a choice in the area.

The campus of Evergreen is enchanting with its abundance of the charming moss-draped trees that can be seen lining the long driveway. They remind me of hump-backed old ladies with weather-beaten faces; the ones who speak to no one and drape too many shawls over their shoulders, struggling with twenty shopping bags. And you wonder whether they have a home to go to as they pass you by.

There are grasshoppers the size of your hands that are fairly happy to be handled if you have bug-lovers in the party, and both outhouses, slave houses and machinery that has been saved from the time when this was a working plantation house.

Best part of all was the tour guide, a local, with all the charm, character and enthusiasm that you would hope for in a place with such a colourful history. He spoke melodiously about the architecture, the history of the slaves and their jobs around the plantation, the machinery, the local area, the foliage, the families who had inhabited the house over the years, the use of the location in film and TV, and he did it all as though it was the first tour he had ever taken. He was very informed, and his talk made the trip very worthwhile, despite being so far out from the city.

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There are also numerous books and photographs lovingly labelled in the reception which detail more information to fill in the gaps between the talk. You can spend as much time perusing these as you wish, plus, if you sign the visitors’ book then your next visit is free of charge. The Plantation has seen several major stars in its time, not including those on film location, including the likes of Patrick Stewart. Interestingly, although the exterior of the house was used in a number of films, the interior wasn’t, due to its deceptive smallness, which could not be guessed from looking only from the outside.

Pictures captured using Lumix TZ80, August 2016. Apologies for the focus, it was the first time I had used the camera, and with far too much enthusiasm, I took pictures which were terrible quality. Best viewed small! Later are much improved.