Go "hog wild" in the Smoky Mountains

Saturday, June 15, 2002

Since making Missouri my home in the early '90s, I've jetted around the world, but never explored my own new back yard. However, my vacationing style changed slightly this month when all the men within our circle of friends did what boys do best -- buy big toys! Which in our case spelled out H-A-R-L-E-Y - D-A-V-I-D-S-O-N.

Suddenly everyone we know has one of these rockets and weekend group rides seem to be the current temporary cure for everyone's spring fever. With a hop, skip and a jump, we skirted through Illinois, took a short run down Kentucky and landed early afternoon in Tennessee. The Smoky Mountains is the perfect get-a-way because of its close location by either bikes or cars for groups, business retreats, family reunions and honeymoons.

This vacation had it all, a new sense of beauty with plush green woodlands, budding trees, wildlife and activities galore. Besides it's picturesque beauty it is filled with a certain gender-related past time shopping. These mist-covered mountains boast of over 200 area stores and at least six outlet malls.

The two main towns that host attractions is Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, which are only about 5 miles apart but are distinctly different. Pigeon Forge is a huge family mecca of excitement. This thrill a minute town is home to go carts, laser tag, bungee jumping, indoor skydiving, bumper boats, roller coasters, restaurants and low-end budget hotels sprinkled in between.

One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to the NASCAR race track. Here I squared off against my husband and four of his buddies for seven laps of NASCAR excitement.

This was well worth the $25 and signing a waiver acknowledging bodily harm. It is worth every penny of it if you are in the need for speed! I put on my helmet, strapped on the body harness, put my gas pedal to the floor and never looked back.

I squealing with delight as I led for six laps. The final lap was nothing but bumping, squealing, smoking tires as some so-called friend took me out causing a four-car pile up. What a rush. So my only prize was the attendant advising that "technically I had won," and as I got out of the car the bystanders exclaimed, "Oh my gosh that was a girl driving!" This is a must-do experience.

Pigeon Forge is proud of its heavy ties to southern gospel music, good wholesome fun and the home of Dolly Parton. Many parts of town are a dry county, so no alcohol is served in any of the restaurants of Pigeon Forge; however, this is not the case in neighboring towns including Gatlinburg.

Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood with its new attractions, thrill rides and non-stop music. One must-see would be the Dixi Stampede dinner show and a visit to the Comedy Barn.

There are numerous nightly shows, and selecting one can be difficult. Five miles away nestled in a valley lies Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg is filled with quaint little shops and restaurants that surround the recently added Aquarium and Ripley's Believe it or Not. Gatlinburg has plenty of charm, but little parking, so if you are not staying in town be prepared to pay to park.

You can take a tram to the top of the mountain, or ride a chairlift over the town into the clouds. The view from the top is spectacular. Location, location, location -- this is the key to having a perfect trip in the Smokies! You need to decide if you want to be in the hustle and bustle of town, or if you want a true smoky Mountain adventure.

For us, we found the perfect mix and location of secluded cabin life, and yet being in the heart of everything at Hidden Mountain Resorts.

During our four-day trip, we wound through the pristine mountains, stopping at look-out points, lakes, streams and wildlife. A short ride landed us in the Cherokee Reservation on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. This culture-rich town lies only about 35 miles from Gatlinburg. Here you can attend a pow wow, buy a totem pole and learn about those who roamed the Smokies for centuries. We passed on buying the totem pole figuring it would be a little hard to bring home on a motorcycle.

Our final quest was hiking the dome. A mile hike (or so it seemed) to the tower over-looking the highest point in Tennessee was worth the rain and hiking pain. I wanted to stop to rest but when a woman in her 80s and her 6-year-old grandson passed me it would of been just too humiliating to stop.

To get your perfect Smokies vacation:

1. Pick a good quality hotel in a good location. We suggest Hidden Mountain.

2. Give yourself enough time to enjoy all the area has to offer. We suggest a bare minimum of four to five days.

Day One: Dollywood.

Day Two: Shop, play at all the activities in Pigeon Forge with a dinner show such as Dixi Stampede.

Day Three: Spend the day in Gatlinburg, visit the Aquarium and Ripley's Believe it or Not. Take the tram and chairlifts to the top of the mountain.

Day Four: Head up to the Dome for an early morning walk, and view of scenery that stretches into North Carolina.

Day Five: Relax in your beautiful mountain home, fish or hike, or take a nature drive to Cades Cove or Deals Gap.

This would be my suggested itinerary, unless you are one of those boys on your big new toy, then chances are you will just want to drop your spouse off at an outlet mall and ride and ride and ride!

The options are endless. You truly have the perfect dream vacation all right in your own back yard in the Smoky Mountains.

Carolyn Kempf is president of Elite Travel in Cape Girardeau. (334-1234 or carolyn@elitetravelinc.com)

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