It’s not the Hamptons, but living in Nashville offers residents a number of opportunities to get out of the city for the weekend, including Gatlinburg, TN and its neighboring Pigeon Forge, which sit at the base of the Smoky Mountains, just about three hours from home. I found the area to be high on kitsch and holly rollers, light on “culture” — but still a lot of fun.
Gatlinburg offers visitors a long row of shops peddling knick-knacks and tee shirts, but also an adorable and impressive salt and pepper shaker museum (more on that below), truly gorgeous scenery, and if you’re the outdoorsy type, hikes on the Smoky Mountains. Pigeon Forge is home to legend Dolly Parton, a country singer even New Yorkers have heard of, and boasts a really fantastic amusement park with awesome thrill rides; way too many mini golf courses; a weird, super religious parrot sanctuary; and an alarming number of dinner theater options. It’s a lot of good, clean family fun, so you have to go there with your tolerance for corny, touristy stuff turned way up. This might prove challenging for New Yorkers. (Even coming out of Queen of the Night last week, I resented having to walk through Times Square to get to the subway.) That said, if you’re ready for the silly, you might have a blast. Be prepared to spend on everything. It’s a tourist trap, so they’re going to squeeze you for your last dime.
Here are my highlights:
Dollywood – Pigeon Forge
The high-thrill rides are BOSS at this amusement park. I rode the Soaring Eagle twice and dangled my legs from the front row each time. It feels like flying! The park also has an extensive Dolly Parton museum, and on the way out, Dolly’s Uncle Bill Owens enthusiastically introduced himself! Just going to check out her shoes is worth it. An interesting feature of the park is a bald eagle sanctuary and some bird whisperers that have all kinds of knowledge about the patriotic vertebrates.
Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum – Gatlinburg
My precious favorite attraction was this little, family-run museum, the likes of which I’ve never encountered. The S&P Museum holds over 30,000 salt and pepper shakers, collected by a European lady who simply adores them. The proprietor is her very friendly son, who could easily win the award for nicest person ever. You’re allowed to take all the pictures you want and put your pin in the map on your way out. The little shakers are arranged thematically, and there is so much to take in. Entry fee is only $3, and for that, you can get $3 off on your own set from a neat collection in the gift shop. I bought a Kirk and Spock set, and my boyfriend picked out a neat little bird with a head that twists from salt to pepper. We even were inspired to start our own collection! Definitely don’t miss this gem, even if you’re passing through for a day!
Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster – Pigeon Forge
As we approached the mountain slide, I said I wouldn’t do it. It’s the longest sled ride in the U.S. with over a mile of track. You get strapped in to a little car (smaller than a go-cart!), hooked onto a moving cable system, and slowly pulled up the mountain. I was expecting the ride up to be long and boring, but it was actually very relaxing. When you get to the top, the speed control is up to you! Even though I was scared waiting in line, I floored it and didn’t slow down the entire ride. It goes up to 27 mph but feels much, much faster. Tip: as your sled starts boarding, ask the attendant to give you an extra minute as the person before you ascends. Since riders control the speed, the person in front of you could be a slow poke, forcing a traffic jam on the way down.
Ripley’s Believe it or Not? – Gatlinburg
Gatlinburg offers package deals for five or so attractions owned by Ripley’s. We went for Ripley’s Believe It or Not?, the Aquarium, and the Haunted House. Believe It or Not? is a kitschy blast through Robert Ripley’s collection of bizarro artifacts from around the world. A calf with two heads. John Dillinger’s death mask. Charles Manson’s prison shirt. A medieval iron maiden. There’s plenty of opportunity to play in the optical illusion rooms. A tip: Halfway through the tour, there are restrooms. Check all the doors. You’ll see why.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies – Gatlinburg
For me, a good aquarium brings an unparalleled sense of tranquility and wonder. Save this for the afternoon when you’re feeling a little tired of the hyper-stimulating main strip and crave the cool, dark mystery of the sea. It’s voted #1 U.S. aquarium by Trip Advisor and has some rare species, like the mesmerizing sea dragons that cost over $10,000 each. I was too entranced to even take a picture. A tip: Check out their schedule beforehand so you can catch the mermaids and see the penguins get fed. We missed both.
Please Don’t Bother
Please don’t bother with Dolly’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Theater. With the exception of Biscuit, the pretty awesome banjo player in the pre-show, the dinner theater is a far cry from entertainment. You sit in a huge arena on benches that circle a pit of sand. Here, you’re served your meal with factory-style precision by a team of cheerful waiters (who were by far the best part) as you watch people ride around on horses in scenes that are just slightly strung together to resemble some kind of narrative the of settlement in the New World. The opening act of Indians complete with a day-glow headdress and bird costume, dancing around with horses nearly made me click together my ruby slippers. It was followed by a herd of terrified bison making a quick cameo, further reminding us of the rape of the this land. I didn’t have time to dwell on history though because a hoard of white people driving covered wagons came onto the scene, and some hillbilly shenanigans ensued. The event is made further bizarre by a North vs. South theme. One side of the auditorium (mine, for what it’s worth) was dubbed the North, and the other side, the South. The states battled relentlessly all night long, as pigs ran amok and people hid in barrels. While I’ve never found Civil War themes to be quite fetching, I simply couldn’t embrace the spirit of competition. The final irony came when — just as dinner was served — some children were invited to chase chickens around the circle in a contest, during which time, a little girl picked up a large hen and carried it about 100 feet. My neighbors laughed uproariously, spewing bits of their chicken dinner everywhere. I played with my vegetarian dish: cold noodles with corn and ketchup.
Please don’t go to Three Bears General Store, otherwise known as the sad, sad bear pit. It’s a horrendous spectacle in Pigeon Forge that I did not patronize and you shouldn’t either.
From what I hear, Parrot Mountain is not worth the money, and from reading Trip Advisor, I got the feeling that only the most religious zealots enjoyed their experience in this Christian bird land. But the owner’s replies to negative ratings are a hoot.
We researched our options pretty thoroughly before booking. I was rooting for a romantic cabin, but my boyfriend, forever logical, pointed out that there probably wouldn’t be anyone around to, say, fix the a/c if it broke. We stayed at the Econo Lodge in Pigeon Forge. It’s on the main strip, had an excellent Trip Advisor rating, and was super cheap at about $80 a night. It included a really good breakfast (with eggs!), a clean pool and hot tub, a comfy bed with fluffy pillows, and a friendly, helpful staff. The Wifi worked great and we had cable! I usually think that talking to people is overrated, but I kind of liked chatting with folks pool-side. It’s just 15 minutes to Gatlinburg, so you’re close enough to everything.
The Only Thing…
Here’s where my northeastern predisposition for the secular made me bristle. Be prepared for some serious Christian kitsch. Jesus Saves signage is posted everywhere. Even the magician Terry Evanswood at Wonderworks lectured the audience about God, claiming that he “couldn’t stand here in arrogance and ignorance and not give credit where it’s due to the Lord our God” RIGHT AFTER explaining that as a magician, he must constantly be rooted in reality while the audience gets to enjoy illusion. I don’t know. To me his words were out of place, but everyone else seemed gung-ho, as applause and supportive cheers followed his sermon. He was a decent magician and did excellent slight of hand, but it totally killed the mood for me. I even wondered if he believed it himself or just knew how to placate the southern crowd.
Okay, the only TWO things that irked me. For being in the South, the area is super homogenous. As a New Yorker, I am used to seeing people from all over the world when I walk down the street, hearing a chorus of languages I don’t understand, and being exposed to cultures I otherwise would have no knowledge of. It was a predominantly white crowd. What’s with that, South? Maybe it’s because Pigeon Forge includes very little diversity in its attractions and programming, or because any depictions of people of color are tokenized, stereotypical, or — let’s just say it –downright racist. This is something about Tennessee life with which I may never find peace. I’ll write more on that in the future.
Photographically, I’d like to represent these opinions with *just a few examples* of Duck Dynasty merchandise I saw while in East Tennessee.
But overall, a good time was had by all. If I ever find my way back to East Tennessee AKA “God’s Country,” I’ll probably do some hiking and stay away from the strip malls. To see it once was enough.