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.

 

Travel Iceland

If you are travelling to Iceland this year, make sure you read this first.

An Icelandic digression! A recent trip to the land of ice in October has taken the limelight somewhat, so a quick (chilly) hiatus, before heading back to the USA 🙂

What will be covered in this entry?

A glimpse of Iceland. Campervan, Hotel or City Break? Driving in Iceland. How long to stay. North and South.The people. Equipment. Eating. Where to go.

Iceland, with its vastly changing landscapes and hauntingly epic scenery is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It might be expensive, but most people would agree it is utterly worth it.

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A glimpse of Iceland :

Boulders spat over the countryside like God’s cookie crumbs, lonely and covered in green fleece. He transforms all with a swipe of his brush and verdant mountains sweep into chimney autumn shades—his palette is so much brighter at the turn of the season. He loads his canvas with rich contrasts; a swarm of tones and textures, soon to be hidden under its soft quilt for so many months.

 Bushes pretend to be twiglet trees, bowing and naked and emaciated. A sandpaper roar carves its way through the flat and lends soft silt to my eye—a present for days to come. The roar bristles through me like a spectre. Lakes smile at the shoreline and lend a looking glass to the scenery.

Autumn is a particularly pretty time to see Iceland. The country is an oil canvas of contrasting colours. It feels like the land boasting its splendour, screaming its last goodbye before the inevitable quilt of snow for so many months. Every sight was a photograph. In this sense, Iceland would have two separate ‘characters’, to see the country fully it would be worthwhile to see the two sides of its personality: the rugged side and the snowy.

Campervan or Hotel or City Break?

It has become popular to take short breaks to Reykjavik, stay in the city and take a couple of excursions—however, if you get the chance to visit this exquisite place, there is far more to see if you can afford to splash out and see all of it. Many would say this country is the most beautiful in the world, so it seems a shame to view snippets from a tour bus window if other options are available.

Doing it properly—what exactly is she on about? You might be wondering. I’m talking about hiring a campervan or motorhome. Campervans mean that home each night is wherever your wheels pull up—and you can get some pretty epic views of everything from waterfalls to lava flows from the cosy comfort of your front window. It is possible to travel the entire number one road which takes you the whole way around the island, which is about 18 hours solid driving.

On the one road you will pass glaciers and lagoons, icebergs and lava flows, waterfalls and geysers, plus volcanoes and areas of massive geothermal activity.

But, you might be asking, why would I need to hire a really expensive camper when I could just hire a car and stay at a hotel each night?

Excellent question. Well,

There comes a time every day, usually around the time of sunset, when the tourists realise it’s getting dark and all head off to their hotels. This is the most fantastic time of all. This is the time you can sit and watch the truly epic landscapes with a glass of something stronger than water, and truly appreciate the beauty of it all. This is when you can see the sunset over glaciers. This is when you can be in the middle of absolute nowhere and appreciate the darkest night skies you have ever seen, with shooting stars and galaxies and more stars than you ever knew existed. This is when you can appreciate the Northern lights through the skylight as you lie back in a cosy bed with someone special. This is when you sit eating breakfast to a red sun rising over a waterfall.

Anywhere you choose can be home for the night. Iceland is one of the very last countries to not restrict where people can camp for the night—as long as it’s public land and not private. Some farmers will even allow you to park up for the night if you ask them very nicely. You can stay on volcanic beaches and park up on cooled lava flows, or perhaps find a place as far away from civilisation as possible (a lot easier than you might think!)

Food is cheaper in a motorhome, why? Because you can cook for yourself. Buying produce form supermarkets (as long as it’s not meat) is far cheaper than eating out.  Although the benefits of a campervan or motorhome do need weighing against the expense of the van in the first place (around £2000 a week in low season, and much more in high), it is worth considering that you would have to hire a car anyway, pay each night for hotels, and pay a premium for food, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the two options were not that far-spaced in price. Ultimately it depends how you are comfortable travelling—if you don’t like pooping a foot away from another person, or peeing in bushes because the toilet’s nearly full, then campervan/ motorhome travel probably isn’t for you.

And… a note of caution:

It is probably worth noting that we were told to be aware that the campervan renting companies were renowned for taking money for damage they claimed was done to the vehicle during your rental period. We had no such problems with the company we used ‘McRent’. We made sure the sales person saw we were very thorough marking damage before we left. We also let them see us take date-stamped pictures of every part of the van before we left, as evidence. This way there we could be falsely accused of damage we hadn’t caused. We were careful to cover our backs after the rumours we heard, but I’ve seen no evidence to suggest the rumours are true.

Driving in Iceland

Why is it called the one road, you wonder? Well, because there is only one proper road. It is pretty hard to miss, and even harder to accidently turn off, but beware; even the one road has great stretches that can be rather alarming to foreigners if you are not expecting it. Oh, and for those British people here (and anyone else this might apply to), they drive on the right hand side, and the steering wheel is also on the ‘wrong’ side.

Some of the roads are in very poor condition. Predominantly, this is because many of them are gravel rather than tarmac. They seem to be created quite cost-effectively by scooping and piling up the volcanic debris from the nearby area. This leaves some pretty sheer gravelly drops at either side, so make sure you stay well within the road surface when driving.

Additionally, these roads are home to some gargantuan potholes. The Icelandic people seem to deal with this by driving over them as fast as possible, which means, if you are taking it slowly, you may be overtaken very dustily at speed—beware.

Furthermore, when the rain falls on hilly stints, it weathers rivulets into the road, rivulets that become larger and deeper with every rainfall, eventually becoming large enough to pull your wheel alarmingly with its twists and turns. This is especially terrifying when one of the rivulets causes the vehicle to lurch towards the gravelly slopes at the side of the road. Drive on hilly gravel roads with caution.

There are no barriers in Iceland. Even the greatest falls form the highest heights on the scariest of gravel roads do not have barriers. That, the constantly–changing weather and instant-forming fog blankets, can cause a pleasant driving day to descend to petrifying in minutes. Drive with caution or hire a driver who knows the roads. Do bear in mind that most Icelandic drivers continue to take the speed approach to driving even in these conditions.

Most roads are okay to drive on as long as you are careful. The only ones that must be avoided are the F roads. Do not go on the F roads. These are for specialised vehicles only, and many lead up into the impossible terrain of the middle island. If you decide to travel on these roads, the chances are you will get stuck.

How Long to Stay

 You would need at least 9 days to do the one road properly, and have the flexibility to adapt to weather conditions. I have heard of people doing it in a week, but this would be tough going. There wouldn’t be the time to stop and appreciate the scenery, and this would add an element of stress to you trip. Even with nine days, there were people who stopped too much or took too much of a leisurely pace, and didn’t make it all the way around—you have to keep on the move.

Weather can also be a huge factor. It is not unlikely that you will encounter a number of weather conditions that mean you cannot drive for long periods at a time. In our case, we had a hurricane pass over and we couldn’t drive for two days, but thankfully we had allowed the flexibility in our schedule to cater for this and still drive the full circle.

North or South?

There is a debate whether it is best to go northwards or southwards first on the one road.

Going north, you will see more of the volcanic side of the island. There are numerous areas of geothermal activity, geysers etc., plus a wide range of volcanoes, including ones where you can walk over the smoking crater itself.

Going south you will come across the ice. Here there are more glaciers and icebergs. Many people find the south is the most fulfilling side as it has a pleasant mix of geothermal areas and volcanoes, but also has some of the largest glaciers and Glacier Lagoon; a place where vast icebergs calved off the glacier sit in a large expanse of water before being washed down to the sea and washed up on Diamond Beach. This is well worth seeing, and spending a couple of days, as every day is a different sight.

In making your choice, weather is always a factor. Look at the weather going north and south, this should guide your decision initially. If the weather looks fine in both directions then decide what you would most like to see—fire or ice.

Personally, my preference would be south first, and why south first rather than seeing it at the end of your trip?—because if you are really enjoying it, then you can spend a day or two more in some epic places, knowing you can shave it off the end of your trip or decide not go all the way around the island. This way you know you have seen what most people agree is the most spectacular side of the island if the weather gets too bad for you to continue.

The people

Tourists flock to Iceland during the high season (same as British summer) in such numbers that it belittles the 300,000 residents who call this safe-haven home. The attitudes of many of the Icelandic were not favourable towards tourists, and although nobody was out rightly rude, you may be made to feel far less than welcome. In addition to the armies of sight-seers, it might also be something to do with the extreme cost of living over there, which is not mitigated by higher salaries; the everyday citizens struggle to simply pay rent—and then they have all these travellers with lots of money come enjoy their very expensive holidays there every year—well, it’s not going to help relations, is it? It is worth bearing this all in mind if you plan to visit.

One might ask why the residents decide to stay. If they are in tourism then there’s a lot of money to be made, but mostly it seems the people are attracted by the beauty of the place and one of the lowest crime rates in the world. There is no point purchasing theft insurance in Iceland because nothing gets stolen.

Equipment

Dress appropriately. Far too many people go to Iceland in their fashionable leggings and designer jumpers, and stand there dithering and not able to properly enjoy the sights. If you’re going to spend all that money to travel somewhere with such epic scenery, then make sure you are dressed to enjoy it. Ski wear is a good start, making sure you have something appropriate to cover your face such as a balaclava. A thick scarf is mandatory and a hat that clips under the chin (such as a fur trapper hat) will help keep the chill away for longer. Such bulky items do not need to be a problem when packing, because you can wear your gear to board the plane and remove it once seated.

Shoes should be waterproof and warm. Most walks involve an element of stream jumping or shallow wading so a decent warm pair of walking boots or snow boots would be perfect.

Many people decide to take a filming quadcopter to Iceland. They are fairly easy to transport. If you wish to take one then bear in mind that they must travel in hand luggage, and you must declare to the airport that you are taking it because the batteries can be dangerous. Just make sure you take the batteries out of the bag through security. We also removed the propellers just in case it could be perceived as a weapon, and placed these in the hold luggage. You may be asked to purchase a special fire-proof bag for the batteries.

There are plenty of places to use the drone, just be aware of the fickle and ever-changeable weather, and look out for signs, which seem to be getting more common, that forbid the use of drones, such as the one at Dettifoss.

Make sure you have an up-to-date camera. Iceland is a place worth splashing out on a new camera for. You will witness some of the most splendid sights you will ever see. There are so many people taking a poor shot of something fantastic with the camera on the back of a five year old phone. If you are a person who treasures memories through photos, then this would be a worthwhile purchase.

Eating

Shopping for basics at the local supermarket is only a little more expensive than food back home—as long as you do not want to buy meat. We are usually meat-eaters but found substitutions with lentils, cheese and nuts to be more than sufficient.

If you have no cooking facilities, then food is going to be a whole lot more expensive. If you are looking to save money then it might be worth visiting a supermarket and buying food you can eat without preparing. Otherwise, absolute minimum, I would imagine you could be looking at about £80 per day per person to eat out for every meal (if you are very selective with where you eat). For example, a small pizza (size of a small dinner plate) will put you back about £20.

Where to Go

When planning Iceland, a website called Travel Sygic (www.travel.sygic.com) was particularly useful. This highlights all the main sights of a chosen country. They are placed in bubbles, where the larger the bubble, the more important the place is to see. Make sure you zoom in if you want to see all the lesser ones. It also provides opening times and GPS coordinates, but beware of the ‘estimated time spent’, it didn’t seem very accurate.

Key places to see:

The South

·         Blue Lagoon

Thermal spa located in a lava field. Although it is one of the most famous spots in Iceland, it is not the only one. There are numerous geothermal spas located across the country and most will be cheaper, less crowded and filled with the life of locals rather than tourists. It is open 0800-2000 from Sept  1st to October 31st. Admission is somewhere between 40-50 euros pp. GPS: 63.8803643, -22.449486

·         Krýsuvík

Krýsuvík is a geothermal area with numerous steaming volcanic vents and hot springs. There is a small walk up a hill. A good place to get a drone shot.

GPS for car park: 63.895750, -22.052569

·         Geysir

A sizable area of hot springs where there is a geyser that erupts every 5-10 seconds. The steaming streams at the side of the road make driving the road towards the area something out of this world. GPS:  64.313879, -20.2995

·         Seljalandsfoss

A plummeting 60 metre high waterfall. The noise is deafening, the scenery is fantastic. Make sure you wear waterproof gear, because the best part about this waterfall is that you can go behind it! It is a magnificent place to film by drone if it’s not too busy. The scenery is beautiful from above, especially if you follow the waterfall back up and over the ridge. GPS: 63.6155282, -19.9886906

·         Sólheimajökull Glacier (Sólheimajökull)

Doesn’t matter too much which one, but make sure you visit a glacier. Take a walk right up to the base of one, or take a boat trip to see one up close. Nothing on this planet is like the groaning and creaking of a gradually creeping glacier, and the occasional rumble of calving happening before your eyes. Some tours will also do trips up onto the glacier with climbing equipment. GPS: 63.5309408, -19.3693686

·         Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón)

A place of spectacular natural beauty—perhaps one of the world’s greatest natural gems. A perfectly blue lagoon filled with towering icebergs recently calved from the enormous glacier in the distance. Amphibious boat tours go about one an hour throughout the day in peak season. This is another fantastic place to get drone footage, especially if you are wild enough to dip down between the icebergs to get a closer look. GPS: Coordinates: 64.0528986, -16.1780012

·         Diamond Beach

Icebergs from the lagoon are washed downstream and into the sea where they take on an artistic translucent quality and are washed up on the beach. Always stunning, but particularly beautiful following strong winds. It is a short walk across the road from Glacier Lagoon. GPS: 64.044408, -16.177608

The North

·         Dettifoss

This  is, apparently, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It’s 45 metres high and 100 metres wide. You can hear the incredible noise  of the crashing water from some distance away and see the rising spray from even farther. On a sunny day you can capture a glimpse of a rainbow in the spray. It is particularly spectacular with the sun rise behind it in the early morning. GPS: 65.814667, -16.384472

·         Leirhnjukur

A huge geothermal area where boardwalks will lead you up to the still smoking caldera of a volcano. Nearby is a geothermal power station and Viti crater. GPS: 65.6979268, -16.7739881

·         Glymur

A half hour hike will take you to a view point for the second highest waterfall in Iceland. Make sure you are wearing waterproof shoes as the trail crosses streams and rivers. Check the noticeboard before departure; if there has been a lot of rain recently then the log over the river will be submerged stopping you from completing the trail. In this instance there is a view from a precarious jut out of the cliff, but be mindful of your own safety as the drop is perilous, and a number of other aspects of this hike have elements of moderate danger. Walk with caution. GPS: 64.3915174, -21.2530088. CAR PARK GPS: 64.385274, -21.293973

All photos taken with either GoPro Hero 4 (fish-eye lens) or Panasonic Lumix Lumix DMC-TZ80

Any questions are welcome.