(This article was originally published on 10/15/08)
Down home in Knoxville
From Houston, you can be in Knoxville in less than a day's drive and enjoy every minute getting there. The South is a hospitable place, as many visitors will attest, and Knoxville, located in eastern Tennessee, is a luscious, green, rolling, attractive destination. A charming mix of convivial conversation and down-home country living, Knoxville deserves a spot in must-visit American cities. Last spring, I spent several days in the third largest city in the Volunteer State, alternately wooed and amazed by the slow, gracious attitude and the large number of interesting things to do.
SAILING THE TENNESEE WATERS
I boarded the “Volunteer Princess” for the evening dinner cruise (www.volunteerprincess.com). Pushing away from the downtown dock, with a cocktail in hand, I admired the rows of twinkling lights edging the gorgeous double-decked yacht. Spacious and clean, we slipped past fabulous multi-millon-dollar homes lining the banks. Dinner was served on china and crystal and was excellent. Owners Walter and Beverly LeMasurier provide the ultimate experience for every occasion as they have hosted weddings, private events, corporate meetings and University of Tennesee pre-and post-game delights.
Two nights later, I enjoyed a trip on the Watts Bar Belle (www.wattsbarbelle.com), an authentic luxury paddleboat that perused Watts Bar Lake. Guests loved the elegant dinner and live entertainment cruising the beautiful countryside about 30 minutes outside Knoxville. There are great views from the open-air upper deck or watch the paddle wheels roll through glass windows behind the bar as you sip an adult beverage.
THE WARM HAPPY INDEPENDENT FOLK OF SOUTHERN APPALACHIA
“This museum is the collection of my father, who started it in our garage years ago,” said Elaine Myer as she welcomed me to the Museum of Appalachia (www.museumofappalachia.org). Visitors of all ages can spend hours admiring the hundreds of thousands of artifacts, carefully placed in a series of historically accurate buildings spread over 65 acres. Myer's father, historian John Rice Irwin, has ceremoniously curated his love for the mountain people of Tennessee, “the warm happy independent folk” of the area. If you are lucky, Irwin will tell you stories of how he came to acquire the extensive collection. The Museum hosts live music nearly every day and several events and festivals throughout the year. Lunch prepared by Miss Faye was a tempting feast of fried chicken, cornbread, fresh vegetables and cobblers.
Across the street is the Appalachian Arts Craft Center (www.appalachianarts.net), a nonprofit gallery with works from more than 70 local artists, which began in 1970 as one of the “War on Poverty” programs.
A FEAST FOR ALL SENSES
Tennessee has joined the swelling numbers of states making wine. The Tennessee Valley Winery (www.tnvalleywine.com) offers more than 25 local wines. A retired Delta Airlines pilot started the winery 24 years ago, the second in the state. The Shady Grove Meadery (www.shadygrovemead.com) is a “second job” for a fun-loving group of chemical engineers whose day job is at the nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Their Mead, created with the help of Tennessee's busiest bees, comes in a variety of flavors such as pear, apricot, ginger and peach.
The Tic Toc Ice Cream Parlor in Loudon (865-408-9867) has long lines of locals and visitors who queue up to enjoy the handmade treat offered by proprietors Bob and Mary Jones. The Joneses were looking for a business to run during their retirement and spotted the long lines at the Tic Toc on a road trip. They offer 28 delightful flavors, with the butter pecan their number one seller. Our sundaes came in a huge parfait glass dish and we licked the spoon clean sitting on a stool in the 100-year old building.
We stopped for lunch at the Knoxville Visitors Center and sat enchanted for an hour, listening to the free, live music offered by listener-supported radio station WDVX-FM, which began in a camper 10 years ago. Today it is an award-winning station keeping the Tennessee sound alive. Each weekday, the station invites a music group to entertain during the “Blue Plate Special” show, from noon to 1 p.m. (www.wdvx.com). This is a don't miss activity. You never know who will be performing but you are guaranteed to have one fine hour of fun.
A short walk led to the eclectic Yee-Haw Industries (www.yeehawindustries.com) where I enjoyed the laidback feel and admired the handmade, letterpress posters, prints, stationery, bookmarks and other vintage feel items. Julie Belcher and Kevin Bradley are owners and resident artists who are usually found engrossed in creating special projects such as one-of-a-kind wedding invitations, programs, shirts and other designs first carved in wood, then letterpressed using vintage machinery. When they started, Bradley said, the rare machinery was treated as junk. He bought all he could find, restoring it himself. Today, the machines and the art are sought-after rarities.
MY GRASS IS BLUE
That night, we made the trip to Yonder Hollow in Rockwood (www.yonderhollow.com). Housed in an old furniture store, it features “olde time music” under flourescent lights. Two hundred folding chairs, four rows deep, sit before a stage where live music is offered every Friday night from April to October. There were lots of overalls and babies; one audience member sat knitting and tapping her toes as Alex Leach and His Travelin' Bluegrass Show delighted the crowd. Leach turned 19 the day I visited and proudly announced that he knew 'every bluegrass song there is' before he was 9 years old.
SHOP "TIL YOU DROP
Morristown and Rugby, two nearby towns, are havens of antique stores. Store after store are operated as co-ops with every nook and cranny stuffed with great items at unbelieveable prices. I spent the day perusing jewelry, silver, books and furniture, all the while wishing I had a U-Haul to take it all back to Texas.
Tennessee's version of 'Northern Exposure,' the popular TV show from a few years ago, is alive and well at Morristown's Cafe Mozart (423-318-9222). Belgian native Johnny Witkowski took over the German-themed restaurant 18 months ago, marrying the establishment's young, beautiful and only waitress. Today, she cooks homemade breads, local fresh vegetables and all the German dishes while he greets and serves guests.
A drive through Panther Creek State Park (www.state.tn.us/environment/parks/PantherCreek/), with stunning views of the Smoky Mountains, ended at the Flatwater Grill (100 Melton Lake Peninsula, Oak Ridge; 865-862-8646). An elegant, airy space offers great views and an affordable menu. The service was perfect. Order the artichoke dip with flatbread-the best I've had.
Continental Airlines flies into McGhee Tyson Airport four times a day. Knoxville is approximately 780 miles from Houston, a driveable distance. Fliers should rent a car in order to enjoy the vast variety of Knoxville-area attractions. I stayed downtown at the Hampton Inn (618 W. Main Street; 1-800-Hampton or 865-522-5400; (www.hamptoninn.com). It was wonderful! Many of the clean, spacious rooms have a view of the river. A friendly staff, convenient location and a wonderful hot breakfast bar is included.
For complete visitor information, visit www.tnvacation.com