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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Would you believe until last year I had never spent a night in Kentucky?  I’ve driven through it on the way to points North, unsurprisingly, but somehow went almost 50 years without vacationing in a state I can drive to in an hour.

We remedied that last October during Fall Break, a modern invention that did exist when I was a youngster.  It’s a great time to travel and we had an entire week off from school.

First we went to Mammoth Cave.  That’s the longest known cave system in the WORLD, y’all.  And it’s a National Park, which means it’s inexpensive to visit.  And you could easily spend days there.

We stayed in nearby Cave City, which is mostly known as the city near Mammoth Cave, or at least that’s the way it looked from the exit where our hotel was located–a strip of hotels and fast food and touristy things.  But we are adventurers and we found the REAL town and explored it.

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Look at that sweet little main street! We walked up and down looking in windows (everything was closed for the evening, sadly) and seeing what there was to see.

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I didn’t get any pictures but one of the charming things–and to William and Lorelei’s delight–several of the shops had cats in residence, hanging out in the window displays.

At one end of town we found a park with a little Civil War history, and also a tiny IGA at which to buy snacks for our room.

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Of course we didn’t come for Cave City; we came for the CAVE, and we spent two days exploring, which included walking around the grounds, taking in the museum exhibits, and going on cave tours.

Here’s some of what we saw above ground.

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The railroad cars are part of the very interesting history of the cave, its discovery, and early tourism.  Would you believe that part of the cave was used as a tuberculosis hospital for a time in the belief that the air would be good for the lungs?

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Look, y’all! A graveyard! I find them everywhere I go!

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When you visit Mammoth Cave, you should plan ahead, unlike us, and book guided tours in advance.  Some of them were unavailable to us because we did not do that.  Also be aware that some of the tours are quite strenuous, with lots of climbing.  But don’t worry, even with those caveats we found plenty to see.

We went on two cave tours, the first one being to see the first cave to be rediscovered in more-or-less modern times.  Native Americans were using it over 5,000 years ago, and we were able to see some extremely well-preserved artifacts.

Here’s the mouth of the cave, seen from above before we went in and then from below as we climbed the stairs back up.

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It was VERY big and VERY dark in there.  Our guide turned off all the lights so we could see what real dark looks like.  Answer:  like nothing.  Wave your hand in front of your face and you will see NOTHING.  Then he lit one match and it was cool to see how our eyes adjusted to see the entire room with just that tiny amount of light.

He also showed us where saltpeter was mined in the cave during the war of 1812.  Due to conditions in the cave, the site doesn’t look as though it was abandoned 200 years ago but remains well-preserved.  Here is a picture from this area of the cave.

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This was an easy hike just to get a feel for the cave.  The next day we did a more picturesque and much harder hike.  It was kind of bizarre to enter a cave through a door into a hill.

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This cave had more of the formations you’d expect to see if you’ve been in “touristy” caves like Ruby Falls.

Whenever we left a cave we had to go through a process of washing the bottoms of our shoes to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome, which has killed a large portion of the bat population.

There is much more of Mammoth Cave to see, and I would love to go back there someday.

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Our vacation was a two-part affair, with some days planned and some left open.  At our motel we found a brochure for a nearby attraction, and we decided to visit Kentucky Down Under on our way to Louisville.

This was a good choice.  The kids are STILL talking about this place.

Kentucky Down Under is a zoo, but an unusual one.  It’s family-owned, for one thing, and if it’s not obvious from the title, there is a focus on animals from Australia.  But there are other animals here as well, including Great Pyrenees dogs who serve as protectors and roam freely throughout the zoo.

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This was the first animal we saw, just after we left the gift shop.  William was thrilled, because crocodilians are one of his favorite groups of animals.  After we spent some time with him, we hopped into the golf car we’d rented and began to explore.

We got yelled at by talking birds and surreptitiously petted a coati.  Here they are, along with some other animals we saw.

Next we arrived at the more interactive part of the zoo.  We listened to a talk by one of the keepers, and then those of us who wanted to (William) got to pet a snake.

Much more to my liking, we were able to pet some draft horses in their beautiful pasture.  Kentucky is almost as pretty as Tennessee, y’all.

Then we got to watch some sheep-herding in action!

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And finally, the piece de resistance, the part that William is still talking about months later–we got to pet kangaroos! (Also a terrifying emu and some capybaras!)

Seriously, y’all, did you SEE that emu?  Anyway, it was a wonderful experience and I highly recommend this zoo.

Oh, and I almost forgot to include that this zoo has its own cave, Mammoth Onyx Cave, which as far as they know is not linked to the Mammoth Cave system.  It’s not lighted so you get to wear actual head lamps and it was a really pretty cave–with the price of the tour included in zoo admission.

We’d had quite the busy day already as we headed to Louisville, where we were meeting friends and upgrading our lodgings quite a bit by staying in a bed and breakfast called The Inn at Woodhaven.  The four of us stayed in the attic.  Take a look at this place!  These were taken in our attic.

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And here are some taken outside.

On our first day in Louisville, we went to another zoo!  We have decided in the past year that we will make it a point to go to the zoo every time we are in a city that has one, since that’s something we all enjoy.

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Now, it would be hard to compete with the peak experience of petting kangaroos! But we did enjoy the Louisville Zoo.  Here are pictures of some of our adventures.

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Louisville seems like an exciting city with a lot of fun places to check out.  Besides the zoo, we also visited downtown to see the Cathedral of the Assumption and to get a bite to eat.

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Louisville 9We didn’t get to spend as much time looking around the Cathedral as we would normally because they were practicing for a wedding and we didn’t want to disturb them.  Here are some pictures of the nifty area of restaurants where we found a place to eat, just around the corner.

I’m telling you about the Kentucky trip a little bit out of order because I want to save the best for last, as it were.  So now I’m going to share about the Lincoln day trip we took.  Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, so we visited the site of his birthplace and of his boyhood home, as well as a little town with monuments and a museum.

Here are some photos from the home site, which includes a museum and a super-fancy monument that I’ll bet you never knew existed!

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Three miles down the road lies Hodgenville, Kentucky, with its town center dedicated to Lincoln, and housing a very special museum.

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The museum is in a storefront on the square.  The downstairs has several re-creations of scenes from Lincoln’s life.  The place is a delightful jumble of all kinds of artifacts.

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Upstairs there is an entire room of art inspired by Lincoln because the town has been hosting an art contest annually for many years and now there is an amazing array of truly creative pictures.  Here are two of my favorites.

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I like this one for its Christian symbolism.

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This one is amazing.  I don’t know whether you can tell but it’s actually made up of other images of things that were important in Lincoln’s life!

Finally, we made a stop at Lincoln’s boyhood home a short distance away, which would have been the first home he remembered.  There is no museum there, but here are some pictures of the fields where he worked and played.

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We loved the Lincoln portion of our trip and could not believe we had been living so close to this important piece of history for so long without visiting.

Now, finally, I am going to tell you about the other planned event of our trip, the whole reason we came to Louisville at precisely this time of year, the annual Louisville Jack O’Lantern Spectacular.  Y’all, it was indeed spectacular.  I could not stop taking pictures, the best of which I will share below.

There was a jack o’lantern to symbolize each of the 50 states

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as well as ones commemorating people who had died,

showcasing current events and famous people,

and representing films, pop culture, literature, and fictional characters.

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And there were all kinds of more typically carved pumpkins as well.

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We wandered slowly on a trail through the woodsy park marveling at all the wonders we were seeing.  It was a lot to take in and a perfect way to spend an autumn evening.

So that was our trip to Kentucky, and this was a LONG post.  We squeezed a lot of fun into fall break last year, but there is still more to see and do in Louisville, and I wouldn’t mind spending another weekend in that attic!

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OK, y’all, so I only JUST got back from a short vacation (about which more later!), and I’m already wishing I had known what I am about to share with you before I planned it!

I don’t know about you but when it comes to traveling, I am always looking for hotel deals.  Ever since I first discovered Hotwire several years ago, I have made it my business to find the best hotel deals I can.  That’s especially important when our whole family travels together, because the days are long gone when we could cram all the kids in one room.  We need three rooms these days and you can imagine how quickly that adds up.

So I have various sites I frequent, but one thing I had never thought of was Groupon.

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I’m assuming you’ve heard of Groupon (who hasn’t?).  I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never used it even though I’m usually pretty savvy about all things online and saving money.  I had some kinds of vague idea about two-for-one deals, but I had no idea that Grouon also had a large coupon code site.  Anyway, if you aren’t familiar, Groupon offers savings at over 9,000 retailers! There are over 70,000 coupons, promo codes and deals to choose from.

Here’s how it works.  Say you want to plan a trip and you generally reserve your lodgings through Orbitz.com (which is my usual favorite).

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Don’t go straight to Orbitz–instead, click here.  That will take you directly to the Groupon page for Orbitz where you will find many coupon codes (including one for 15% off most hotels which would have saved me some money last weekend!).

I’ve already mentioned I’m a Hotwire fan.  Take a look here at the available deals.  Travelocity and Expedia are just a couple more of the many travel sites offering deals through Groupon.

I’m focusing on travel sites in this post because that’s where my mind is at the moment and because that’s what historically I’ve been most likely to search for coupons for, but Groupon offers deals for places like Walgreens and Target that it would never have even occurred to me to search for (until now).

Groupon is easy and free (and because I am a US Family Guide blogger, they are compensating ME for telling YOU how to save money–so we are all winning here!).  Check them out and if you have any other great ways to save money shopping online, please tell me in the comments.

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By the time this is published it will have been almost a year since our week in Minnesota–St. Paul, to be exact–where we stayed with our friends Renee and Erik and their daughter, Mikaela.

Some background:  Renee and I were roommates all four years in college.  Randomly placed together, we became the best of friends.  John was in her first French class so she’s known him longer than I have.  Renee started dating Erik the summer after John and I became a couple, so this is a friendship of very long standing.  Yet things being the way they are, the last time we saw Renee was when she and Mikaela flew into Knoxville to help me get my house in order before Lorelei arrived (that’s the kind of friends they are) and we hadn’t seen Erik since our last visit to Minnesota which was about 17 years ago!  So this was a much-anticipated reunion.

We could not have asked for better hosts.  They gave us a whole basement to stay in and took us shopping and bought food for the week, taking account of very picky William.  William had a hard time being away from home and routines for a week and they could not have been kinder or more understanding of his needs.  Some days they had to work–in fact, Renee had to go out of town on business for a couple of days–but they made sure we had places to go, things to see, and a home to return to.  We had so much fun!  And I’m going to share some of the highlights with you.

First on our agenda was Como Park, which was just down the road a piece.  First we went to the Conservatory.

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Next we went to the zoo.  Now we’d been to the zoo on our last visit and had joked over the years about how . . . shall we say . . . behind the times it was.  I am happy to say that conditions were vastly improved.  I didn’t take a lot of pictures but I can tell you that we especially enjoyed watching the gorillas and their baby.

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There’s a story behind that polar bear picture.  Last time we visited, the polar bear exhibit was much smaller, and the bear was obviously disturbed–swimming in a particular unvarying pattern over and over again.  We’ve never forgotten about this sad sight, so we were very excited to see that the polar bear exhibit was revamped and the bear was playing with toys and splashing and just having a marvelous time.

But then we learned the rest of the story . . . when we happened to move to the other side of the exhibit and saw that inside the enclosure the original bear was pacing, clearly as sad and disturbed as ever.  I guess the change came too late for him.

You’ve probably heard about all the lakes in Minnesota and we enjoyed several, going swimming in two that were nearby and walking around the one at Como Park.  I don’t know why I didn’t take more pictures.

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The following day we visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  We couldn’t see everything, and William has an interest in Asia, so that was the section where we started.   We never made it to the European exhibits. Again, I wish I had taken more pictures.  It’s an incredible museum.

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Teddy joined us midweek–he’d been working in Connecticut–and he came with us to tour the absolutely beautiful St. Paul Cathedral.  It was the perfect place to explore on a rainy afternoon.

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There’s never enough time to really experience a cathedral.  What with all the statues and side chapels and iconography and inscriptions I cold have spent hours there.st paul 3st paul 4st paul 6st paul 7st paul 8st paul 9

It wasn’t the best day for it but the windows were still pretty.

The main altar was stunning, and then behind it were wooden carvings, every one with meaning, that also cast these cool shadows.

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There was a mini-museum downstairs with some of the history of the cathedral, and after we took a look at that we headed out to drive around downtown St. Paul and look for some dinner.

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We ended up in a neat neighborhood with an Ethiopian restaurant and a cool used bookstore right down the street.  William had never had Ethiopian food, and he pronounced it “grand.”

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Our hosts thought we might like a trip to Duluth, which was a bit of a drive, so on one of the days they could accompany us we went on a road trip!  Duluth has lots of cool shops and restaurants so we started off by exploring the town.

Then we went swimming in Lake Superior–wading, really, because it was chilly and the waves were rough.  The kids had never seen a Great Lake before and I think they were pretty impressed.  We had fun chatting and watching them play.

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On our last day in Minnesota we did something I bet you’ve never done–we went to the Corgi races! Yes, you read that right.  We went to a nearby racetrack which was hosting a special event and it was just as cute as you might imagine.  The corgi races were interspersed with horse races, which is something I had never experienced in person so that was also pretty cool.

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That was our last day and the racetrack was actually along the road (the VERY LONG VERY FLAT ROAD) toward home, so we left straight from there.  I’ve left out tons of details from our trip–the non-photogenic ones like going to see the newest Star Trek film together, and shopping at the largest liquor store we’d ever seen, and watching movies together every night, and playing with their sweet elderly cat, and assisting Mikaela as she made homemade pasta–but I think you can tell that it was a wonderful trip with wonderful old friends who we probably shouldn’t wait 15 years to visit again!

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A little over a year ago, almost all our family (Jake excepted) took a short vacation together.  Going on vacation all in the same car was something we thought we’d sworn off forever, but this was a quickly planned journey.

John’s uncle was sick, and he wasn’t getting better.  John felt strongly that we needed to get up to Baltimore to see him, and soon.  It turns out he was right.

We had a wonderful couple of visits with Uncle Boh.  He’d been in the hospital right before we arrived, and had to go back almost right after we left, but he was home while we were there, and we were able to share meals and conversation.  It was truly a blessing, as he died less than two weeks later.

We couldn’t burden Uncle Boh and Aunt Barbara with our company the entire time we were in town, obviously.  So we took the opportunity to see some sights.

Even when you’ve spent as much time visiting one place (Baltimore) as we have, there’s always something new to explore if you look! We visited Harpers Ferry, West Virginia one day and the Baltimore Museum of Art the other.

John and I had been to Harpers Ferry close to 30 years before, but I had only the vaguest memories of that rainy day visit.  We were blessed with incredible weather this trip, which made for some beautiful pictures that I am excited to share here.  Unfortunately, my waiting so long to memorialize this trip means that this post will be long on pictures and short on explanations.

If you’ve heard of Harpers Ferry at all, it will be in connection with John Brown and his failed attempt here to abolish slavery via armed insurrection.  You’ll learn plenty about those events if you visit.

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That, obviously, is the man himself!  Below you’ll see the building where he and his men holed up.

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Harpers Ferry is full of history with displays in several of the buildings on the main street.

There are also shops and restaurants to explore along the main thoroughfare and side streets.  Harpers Ferry is a stopping point along the Appalachian Trail so there is some serious hiking gear available.

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There’s an historic home to visit and a church (and the remains of a church) to investigate.

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Situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, it’s also a place of extraordinary natural beauty.

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Looking back at this visit one year later, I still remember how beautiful everything was and how happy we were.  It was one of those perfect days.

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The next day we stuck closer to home base, and visited the Baltimore Museum of Art.  I can’t think why we’d never been there before.  It’s not because of the kids, because our kids like that kind of thing.

Here’s some of what we saw outside:

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Inside there were several sections to explore.  We saw sculptures and other three-dimensional expressions of art:

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The collection of the kind of paintings most people probably think of when they hear the words “art museum” was indeed impressive:

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But they also have interesting collections of art from Africa and Asia:

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They also had a great modern collection that we had to rush through because we were supposed to be somewhere.

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But that’s okay, because now I have a reason to go back there!

And don’t worry, we didn’t leave Baltimore without taking part in the essential summertime ritual:

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Our Notre Dame adventure is about to come to a close.  The day this is published, we will be in South Bend for Teddy’s graduation, and I’m sure there will be stories and adventures to share!

But before that, let’s go back to last February, to Junior Parents’ Weekend, which for some reason I did not write up at the time.

Many colleges have special weekends each year for families.  Spring Hill did, and I attended four Family Weekends, bringing along various family members each time.   Because Emily did not have a car and we had to pick her up for every vacation, our visits to Mobile were quite frequent, and we grew very familiar with and fond of the city.

Our Notre Dame experience has been different.  In contrast to the over 20 times one or the other of both of us drove back and forth to Mobile, we’ve been to Notre Dame maybe six times.

So JPW was a big deal.  It started off rockily, as we were a little late to the big dinner gathering Teddy’s friends and their families–three tables full of them, with Italian food served family style.

JPW 27JPW 28JPW 29 Afterwards, we headed to the Joyce Center for the Opening Gala, but we only milled around there for a bit because we were tired.

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The next morning we attended the Open House at the Business School (Teddy has double-majored in Political Science and Finance).

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We spent the rest of the day walking around campus and seeing sights.

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We’ve visited Notre Dame in summer, fall, and spring, and for this winter visit I was hoping to see some snow, but I suppose I should be grateful that it was unseasonably mild as you can see.

Notre Dame boasts its own art museum, the Snite Museum of Art.   We thought we were going in for a quick look but remained for some time, impressed by the size and quality of the collection.

Of course, I couldn’t pass up the chance to walk around one of the lakes with Teddy.

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There’s no such thing as a special weekend at a Catholic college without a special Mass, so next we headed back to the Joyce Center for Saturday evening services.

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Then it was just a short trip to another area of the building for the President’s Dinner.  Check out the Irish detailing on the dessert below!

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The REAL fun happened after the dinner and the speeches, when Teddy and a group of his friends hosted a party for us at one of their off-campus residences.  Some of dads in particular had a lot of fun reliving their misspent youths.  There was certainly much alcohol, and beer pong was played, but what I enjoyed much was talking to Teddy’s friends and renewing friendship with some of the moms I had met on my last visit.

It was a LATE night, and then there was brunch in the morning followed by the long drive home.  I can’t believe that it was more than a year ago already, but what is even more unbelievable is that Teddy’s four years at Notre Dame have gone by so quickly.

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We didn’t go anywhere for Spring Break this year, except to the zoo.  Today’s planned trip to Dollywood was canceled due to illness.  So I got to feeling nostalgic about last year’s Spring Break trip, which I had never gotten around to sharing here.

Because I’ve waited a year to write about this, the details of the trip are less than clear.  So I’m going to dump a LOT of pictures here, with less explanation than usual.  But let me start by saying that if you live in Knoxville, and you’ve never taken a trip to Chattanooga, you are missing out.  If you live farther away, it’s still worth the drive.  We only did about half of what we wanted to do last year–the children’s museum, the nature center, the art museum, and more all await another visit.

So one year ago yesterday we packed up and drove 90 miles to Chattanooga, where our accommodations were cheap and convenient and that’s the best that could be said about them.

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Clearly, Echo was not in favor of our leaving!

Tickets to local attractions are available at reduced prices online, so we were ready to get started as soon as we arrived.  We began at the bottom of Lookout Mountain and rode the Incline Railway to the top.

I’ve ridden this thing before, years and years ago, but the cars were more enclosed than they are now and the . . . STEEPNESS . . . did not register with me.  It registered with poor William, though, and he was not a fan.

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Once at the top, the first thing to do is marvel at the beautiful views, which are not in short supply on Lookout Mountain.

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We also got a look at the machinery that runs the Incline Railway.

Our first stop was Battles for Chattanooga, right down the street.  On our way we enjoyed the beautiful homes and gardens we passed.  We browsed the gift shop which is replete with Civil War memorabilia while we waited for the show to start.

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The show itself is a combination of film and one of those models of all the battlefields that lights up to illustrate the various campaigns.  You may have seen something similar in Gettysburg or Atlanta if you’ve been there.  This was the first time I’d been to this attraction, and it was very instructive and provided context for Point Park, our next stop.

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History, rock formations, and views are plentiful in Point Park, which charges a small entry fee on the honor system.  There’s a little self-guided museum, and miles of walking trails which I am hoping to return to explore one day.  Seriously, it’s so beautiful and you could spend an entire day right here.

We had other places to go, though, so we rode the Incline back down (William had to be very brave!) and drove the car back up so we could SEE ROCK CITY, just like the barns say.

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Rock City is an attraction that is hard to categorize.  The brainchild of Mr. and Mrs. Carter above, what began as an extension of the garden around their home is now a network of trails, massive rock formation, nerve-wracking bridges, breathtaking views, and more.

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Above you see a nice solid rock bridge and a swinging bridge.  Can you guess which one I walked across?

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I bet you guessed right! 🙂

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Directly above you’ll see a shot of Lovers’ Leap (with the waterfall turned green in honor of Saint Patrick!) and then what Rock City is probably most famous for: the view of seven states which strikes me as totally possible on a clear day.

There are some rare white fallow deer housed at Rock City.  I didn’t get a picture but you can see Lorelei and William looking at them below!

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The white deer are part of the fairy tale motif for which Rock City is known.  Gnomes are plentiful, and there’s a whole gallery of nursery rhyme scenes.

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At the conclusion of our Rock City adventure, we found a family-friendly Asian restaurant nearby before retreating to our lodgings to rest up for the next day’s activities.

We started the second day of our trip with another iconic Chattanooga attraction:  Ruby Falls.

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All I can say is that it’s a good thing God chose Leo Lambert and not me to discover His handiwork and reveal it to the masses.  The story of his harrowing crawl through the pitch-dark and tiny passageways is terrifying. Luckily we can experience the beauty of the caverns without doing that.  I’m just sharing a few pictures because even with an iPhone (WAY better than the Kodak with flip-flash I had the first time I visited almost 40 years ago!) it’s just hard to capture good images in the low light.

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With Ruby Falls behind us, we headed down Lookout Mountain and into downtown Chattanooga with the Tennessee Aquarium next on our agenda.  They’d added a whole new building since our last visit.  One building showcases freshwater and the other seawater creatures.

I’d give more info on these creatures if I could, but it’s been a year and my memory of what things are is hazy.  William would be able to tell me if I asked him–it’s fun to hear him announce the names of obscure animals without reading the informational placards.

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These guys I recognize and you will too.  There are many of them in the bayou area and it was fun to watch them.

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I love all the beautiful colors and patterns–living art.

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Water creatures share the Aquarium with some other wild things.  This was taken in the butterfly room, where if you are lucky you may find yourself a perch for several butterflies!

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And while penguins seem a bit out of place to me I’m not going to complain because look how cute they are.  We had a hard time dragging the kids away.

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These guys though–they are creepy.

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The other-worldly, ethereal beauty of jellyfish is always fascinating to me.

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And there were more to come, as the Aquarium is currently hosting an art exhibit with jellyfish and art inspired by them.

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I’m pretty sure my kids would name the Aquarium if you asked them which part of our visit to Chattanooga they enjoyed most.

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We were there until closing time and then we hit downtown to search for a William-approved restaurant (Genghis Grill) before heading back to the motel.  We squeezed a lot of fun into two days and I was just talking to John today about how much more there is to see and do in Chattanooga.  We will be back!

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To celebrate 30 years of couple-hood, John and I stole a weekend away in Gatlinburg.  Secure in the knowledge that Lorelei and William were in Emily’s capable hands, we headed South on Saturday afternoon.

We are so blessed to live so close to Gatlinburg, which feels like a getaway even though it takes less than an hour to get there.  After getting settled in our lodgings, we went out to explore.  Normally we stay more in the middle of town, but this time we were on the north end which gave us the opportunity to see something new (to us).

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There are several antique shops at the north end of town and both because of their location and the fact that we always have kids with us we’ve never set foot inside a single one.  American Sideshow Antiques was open and we enjoyed browsing through the eclectic wares and meeting Danny, the owner, who told us about his harrowing escape from the recent fires that devastated the area.  He shared with us the support of his regular customers from many states who have come to his aid by ordering from his shop from afar since the fire.  Having experienced similar kindnesses after our own fire, we were moved by his story.

And actually that’s why I’m writing this post, because in our many interactions with the people of Gatlinburg we discovered that businesses are suffering because of rumors that Gatlinburg was leveled by fire and that there is no reason to visit anymore.  This mistaken belief is causing more suffering to those who live and work in Gatlinburg, many who have already lost their homes and belongings.  Whenever possible, I donate money to fire victims–today I am donating my time and this space to convincing as many people as possible to visit Gatlinburg!

After the antique store, we headed to the Smoky Mountain Trout House, a Gatlinburg institution we had never tried before.   When we noticed that the upstairs was closed, the owner told us that he hadn’t needed that space since the fire because tourism is way down.  Let me tell you that people don’t know what they are missing, with super-fresh trout deboned right there at the table and big enough to cover the entire plate, along with the usual fixings.  We only barely managed to eat it all.

The next morning was cloudy but mild.  We enjoyed our motel’s ample free breakfast before setting out to walk along the Parkway.

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When I was a child, Gatlinburg shops consisted primarily of t-shirts and cheap, kitschy items, and if you went in one of them you’d pretty much seen all there was to see.  A lot has changed since then, with multiple outdoor malls showcasing a combination of local crafts and high quality mass-produced merchandise.  Window shopping is always fun, but if you want to buy something you can do it without breaking the budget! And if you don’t want to carry your haul around all day, many merchants will hold items for later pickup.

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Gatlinburg’s main strip was almost untouched by the fire.  There were two or three shops that remain closed, but most everything was in full swing.  I’ll be honest, though–we spent most of our money on alcohol. 🙂

One big change that has come to Gatlinburg in recent years is the proliferation of distilleries and tasting opportunities.  I believe this began with Ole Smoky Moonshine but they are no longer the only game in town.  We warmed up with two wineries, each of which allowed us to try two varieties for free.  But we were just getting started.

At Sugarlands Distilling Co. we learned that a new procedure for tasting has been put in place.  What used to be free now costs $5 per person, but you also get a $5 coupon good toward the purchase of any item in the store.  Since you are definitely going to want to buy some moonshine after you’ve tasted it, this is the cheapest drink in town.  Our bartender was Gyver, and he regaled us with jokes and creative shine recipes.  Gyver was one of many locals who lost his home and possessions in the fire.  He asked us to encourage anyone who wants to help fire victims to vacation in Gatlinburg.

We sampled 12 varieties at Sugarlands and used our coupons on hazelnut rum.

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Moving on down the road we ended up at Ole Smoky, where live music was in full swing.  We took a look at the product in process before heading in to sample the wares.

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D’Brickashawn was our bartender and he won us over by making fun of everyone who didn’t know what snow cream was.  Yes, there is snow cream flavored moonshine and along with blackberry that’s what we used our coupons for.  By now after 24 (small) samples I was a bit tipsy.  That facilitated bonding with our neighbors at the bar who told us that they were high school sweethearts reuniting for the first time in over twenty years.  Gatlinburg is very romantic!

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Our last stop was also Ole Smoky, at their whisky location on the other side of the road.  We got 13 samples there and took home a bottle of Tennessee Mud.  There is one more distillery in town but they weren’t open when we walked by.  That may have been for the best as each tasting was the equivalent of about 3-4 shots!

After more window shopping we walked back to the motel.   In the evening, we drove to The Peddler restaurant, one of the few old homegrown places left in town.  Because there was an hour wait, we went for a drive up the mountain to pass the time.  This is where you see the devastation wrought by the fire–burned foundation after burned foundation.  It’s unbelievable and heartbreaking.

We had a great dinner–worth the wait–and went back to the motel, enjoying the Winterfest lights along the way.

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It was back to Knoxville, reality, and hungry children the next morning but it’s nice to know that an inexpensive and fun weekend is always such a close drive away for us.

Now, you want to help the people of Gatlinburg, don’t you?  Here are two easy ways:  You can schedule a weekend getaway of your own–or a day trip if you are local!  Or you could share this post to let folks around the country know that Gatlinburg is open for business.

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