SHOW #66 June 23, 2015
This week on Episode 66 Smoky Mountains Radio, It’s trip report time! Let’s go!
It is Tuesday, June 23, 2015 and this is Episode 66 of Smoky Mountains Radio. It’s been a couple weeks, but it is good to be back with all of you again this week. I’m Mike, and i’ll be your guide around the 800 plus square miles of the Smoky Mountains and the 150 square miles of towns that border the parks. If need info about coming to the Smokies, you will find it here. Put my 40 years of experience to work for you to have the best vacation possible. Thanks for making Smoky Mountains Radio part of your week, and I hope you find something in the show that you can use on your next trip.
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Now, let’s get on with the show!
Well, its been awhile since i’ve gotten a chance to talk to you guys. I’ve been in the midst of job interviews and all kinds of changes at home, so finding the time to do a show has been a challenge. I’m sure you can all relate. But i’m back with you and ready to get onto a brand new show. On the last show, I told you I planned on doing some history all around Mount LeConte, but I think I am going to push that one until next week and give you guys a trip report. My wife and I just got back from a quick trip and have several things to report to you. I was hoping to get together with a couple of you guys while I was there, but we were just in and out and ended up running out of time. I did get to talk with several of you back and forth during the trip, so it was good talking with you even though we didn’t get a chance to hook up. I’ve been a little slow getting back to some of your emails and Facebook posts, but hopefully i’ve gotten caught up. I’ll address a couple of those towards the end of the show today. In the meantime, thanks for listening and participating in the show. You guys are the best!
So we headed into the Smokies for a quick trip like I said. Let’s start with the ride in. I decided to stay clear of exit 407 and the Parkway, as I advise you guys to do. We took the route in from highway 321 off of exit 364 on I-40. I know nearly 70 percent of you come in from interstate 40 as well. This exit takes you through Lenoir City, Maryville, and into Townsend, bypassing Sevierville and Pigeon Forge. I often like going this way, as the traffic is always much easier. As has been the case for the last several years, this area is building up fast. There are a ton more restaurants, hotels, and shopping than there was even five years ago. The other thing that there is a lot more of of around here than there was five years ago is stop lights. They are getting more and more abundant. Obviously these will slow you down. It’s gotten to the point that this way is not really much of a time savings anymore than exit 407. Still, at no time will you end up in bumper to bumper traffic, so it is still worth it in my opinion. And to give you the flip side of the equation, we took the parkway back out of town. It was early in the morning, so traffic wasn’t bad, but let me tell you, the entire area near the interstate is an absolute mess. They are rerouting traffic all over the place as new lanes are going in and traffic in every direction backs up like crazy. As I mentioned before, even the TDOT model of how the new traffic pattern at this exit would work when it was finished was a nightmare. It will be and is even worse right now. Unless they get smart enough to keep stoplights out of that area, it will always be awful there no matter how many lanes they add. So bottom line, don’t go that way unless you have to. Moving on…
We decided to stay at a place we have not stayed before in Gatlinburg, the Best Western Twin Islands. If you have spent time in Gatlinburg at all over the years, you know that place or at least have seen it. It has been there since the early 70’s and honestly, much of it has not been refurbished since then. But, before I get to far into that let me tell you about the place. It is located on the Parkway on the right side of the road if coming in from Pigeon Forge. It is situated near the turn onto 321 towards Cosby, the Aquarium, and a tasty mexican restaurant. It is just steps from the Mountain Mall and all the shopping, restaurants, and t-shirt shops you could ever want. It is not a midtown motel, but the location is good.
As with any hotel, think carefully about getting in and out of motel. Turning into traffic can be a real pain, especially if you are going left out of the parking area. One plus about this place is that there are two entrances, so you can get out a couple different ways. One puts you past the 321 stoplight, and the other puts you near the stoplight at River Road. It is much easier getting out of here than midtown motels, but it can still be tricky depending on the time of day. There is plenty of parking, and since it is in town, it makes it nice to be able to park your car for free and walk around. So let’s get into the motel.
This motel is very large, with many, many buildings. The small office is located at the farthest entrance to the motel. I found the check-in staff as well as the rest of the staff adequate, but certainly not friendly. Not a bad experience. They simply all seemed to want to be somewhere else. This was pretty much the impression we had with everyone we came into contact with. Our trip was pretty last minute, so there were virtually no rooms left, so we ended up in a two, double-bed room. So the rooms. The rooms are definitely showing their age. The room had a bit of a musty smell and the furnishings were very much in need of an update. The TV was about a third of the size of the one we have at home, but we didn’t watch too much anyway, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. The room did have a refrigerator and a microwave, so that was a plus and we did make use of both of them. The carpets were a big dingy and the bathroom was really small. The cleaner that they use, maybe to hide the musty smell, was a bit overpowering. But, it was clean, which was the most important part for us. The rooms are not very soundproof despite the fact that many of the walls are brick covered. So if you have neighbors that are loud, you will hear everything. Just an FYI. Just from the standpoint of comfort and appeal, it is not high on our list for a repeat stay. Still, it’s not too bad, and others seem to agree. It ranks #25 of motels in Gatlinburg, so that is pretty decent.
One of the marketing points of the property is the “Twin Islands” which have water running around them. All the rooms have a view of the water either by balcony or terrace, but it is not very great. Water levels are low and non-existent in some places. I was told this has been the case for several years. So if you expect a view, in most cases in most room locations, you will be disappointed. Another reason you shouldn’t trust company pictures. The resort has a pool and hot tub. They are outdoor. We made use of both of them. The pool was a little bit dirty, but storms had been blowing in and out so debris had likely just blown in. There was a guy in the mornings cleaning it, so it was at least maintained. The hot tub was nice and the temperature was good. They had a free breakfast every morning which was great. There was biscuits, gravy, sausage, cereal, pastries, waffles, juice, and milk. It was pretty good and well presented. Definitely a plus of staying there. There was also a nice playground area that we saw several kids enjoying. We didn’t use it, but they seemed to like it. My wife had a higher opinion of it than I did, but overall, it was okay. I would stay there again if the price was right, but it does not crack the top ten places to stay in town as it stands today.
We had dinner in two places in town that I haven’t reviewed before, so i’ll go through that next. I will usually advise you to eat in places that are unique that you can’t get at home. Places like the Old Mill in Pigeon Forge are on my mine, Randy’s, and many of your top choices. I tell you to stay away from chain restaurants unless its a unique experience and you can’t get it at home. Well, we went to two restaurants that are both chains, but we don’t have them at home.
Our first stop was at the Mellow Mushroom in Gatlinburg. Like many of the restaurants in town, it is located on the second floor. You have to take stairs to get to the main restaurant level. Once there, it is a pretty large space, so even on a Friday night like when we went, we were able to get seated immediately. They have several things on the menu including various salads and sandwiches, but the main focus of the place is pizza. They will let you know right up front that the pizzas will take between 25-30 minutes to make, so if you are super hungry, you might want to go for an appetizer. They have several options that all look pretty good. We opted to wait for the pizza, and were not disappointed. There are a lot of places to get pizza around Gatlinburg, and honestly, most of them are terrible. Maybe i’m an old Chicago pizza snob, but I find most of the pizza in town cardboard with sauce. Geno’s isn’t bad. Up to then it was the best in town, but in our opinion, this is the best by a mile. It’s not the best pizza i’ve ever had, but easily the best in the area. We couldn’t finish the pie and took some of it back to the room. Surprisingly, it was even good reheated. If you want pizza in Gatlinburg, please don’t call Dominos. This is a much better option. I definitely recommend it. And if they are full when you come in, the bar area is huge and you can get a full menu there. That place gets a big thumbs up from Mike.
The other place we ate was the Bullfish grill in Pigeon Forge. Again, another chain restaurant, but there is not one anywhere near us and i’ve gotten great reviews on the place from family and listeners, so we gave it a shot. Another big thumbs up. From the outside, it feels like maybe an O’Charleys, Olive Garden, or similar restaurant. Inside, it is a cozy, dim, and casually sophisticated restaurant. We both had steaks that were very, very good. Everything was very well prepared and presented. Salads, bread, and entrees were all very tasty. The atmosphere was very nice and intimate. Maybe it was just the time that we went, but the loud people and screaming kids were non-existent here. That was a huge plus for us. The service however, is what made the experience over the top. Our server was impeccable. He was prompt, courteous, and checked in with us just enough as to not be overbearing. Truly terrific service. That isn’t big for everyone, but it is perhaps the biggest thing for me when I go out. And it was truly terrific. Good food, good service, good everything.
I typically don’t like going to eat in Pigeon Forge just because of how awful the traffic is. However, Teaster Lane is perhaps THE hidden gem of roads in Pigeon Forge. It runs from Dollywood Lane nearly 3/4 of the way up Pigeon Forge, so even though Bullfish Grill is located on the parkway, it is easy to reach from Teaster and avoid all of that traffic. So, both of the places we ate get a big thumbs up.
Another thing that we did while we were there was go to The Island in Pigeon Forge. I went there when the area first opened to check it out, but back then there was still some construction, some places were not yet opened, and the traffic flow had not quite been properly worked out. It is completely done and it is terrific. There are terrific stores, some great restaurants, and plenty of things to do. It is anchored by the moving fountain in the center of the Island which is wonderful. This place is very large, and there is no close parking nearby. All the parking is in a marked area off to the side. In fact, the area is so large that they provide a tram to get back and forth. It is pretty prompt and works well. There are lots and lots of people here, but it does not at any time feel cramped. What this place does well that the rest of Pigeon Forge and all of Gatlinburg can’t do is give you space. All of the walkways are very wide, so you don’t ever get that closed in and claustrophobic feeling that you get in other places. There are dozens and dozens of rocking chairs all over the property, so finding a place to relax is quite easy. There are even plenty of chairs circled around the fountain, so you can enjoy the show as the water dances.
One of the biggest complaint i’ve heard and had myself to some extent over the years is how run down Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge has become, and how the atmosphere and people seem to be going downhill with it. Not to be too corny, but The Island is truly an oasis in the middle of all of that. Whether you are staying at Margaritaville, eating at Paula Deans, or riding the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, you will have an excellent time.
Hiking this time around was pretty much non-existent. We ended up with rain and the possibility of thundershowers about the whole time we were there. Not too big of a deal for me, but not something that I want to tackle with the wife. So in the end, I decided to try to give Laurel Falls another chance and see if I could change my impression of the hike to a more favorable view. Well, the best part for me was the crowds. With the weather threatening and small rain dropping, the crowds stayed away. On this usually busy trail on a Saturday, we saw only one group of people on our way up. The rain and overcast skies kept us dry and the humidity low. It ended up being a pleasant walk. I say walk, because it is not much of a hike. We tried to take it slow, but we ended up at the falls and back in under an hour. The paved trail is uneven in some places, but better than I remember. They have added signs telling you not to try to push a stroller or take a wheelchair up the mountain. I have seen it tried before, and like I said previously, it is not a good idea. Bears were active in the area, so we hoped to see a bear while we were there….from a distance of course. But no such luck. However, the trail was far cleaner than the last time up. I saw zero trash this time around, so that was a welcome change. They have added more signs telling you that you need to be careful because people fall off the mountain. Watch your darn kids. Sad that those signs have to be up at all, but better than a terrible accident. Other than that, I still have the same opinion of it that I did before. It’s a great starter hike, or a hike when you need to get into the mountains with a non-hiker. I’ll check in with Laurel Falls again in about ten more years.
Many thanks to the bunches of you that have written or called in over the past few weeks. Listener Tim had about the most jam packed trip I have seen (email redacted). I heard from Todd…sorry it took me so long to get back to you man. Randy, i’ll give you a call tomorrow. Yeah, I literally just checked my Facebook messenger before I recorded the show today. And be sure to check out the facebook.com/smokymountainsradio and check out some of Randy’s posts to the page. He’s been putting up some good stuff. And Melissa, here’s another one i’m sorry it has taken me some time to get back to you (email redacted).
Thanks to everybody that took the time to chat with me, send in a question, or participate in the show on social media. If you want to get in touch with me, all of those ways are right there on the website or check out the show notes for this episode at smokymountainsradio.com/66
Thanks for listening again this week. It’s good to be back with you after a couple of weeks away. In our next episode, i’ll get into the history of LeConte that I planned on doing in this week’s show. In the meantime, plan out a great place to go, or be like Tim and plan on about 20. Either way, until next time… GO TAKE A HIKE!!
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