As the pathetic middle child, my parents still extend me an invitation on their family vacations, and I, with my five weeks of paid time off, gladly accept any invitation handed to me. For over a decade, my dad has mentioned visiting his childhood friend in Knoxville, Tennessee, and after years of thinking about it, we finally planned to visit. Then, there was a plot twist: dad decided we should road trip, so off we went for a week of a lot of family time in my dad’s Suburban listening to an audiobook about Amazon the whole way.
Day 1, we drove 9 hours to Oxford, Mississippi which officially turned the Tennessee road trip into the Tour of the SEC. My brother is in high school and a huge football fan, so he was all about this SEC Tour. The town of Oxford is cute and quaint. It is surrounded by green rolling hills, and the Ole Miss campus is gorgeous. We stopped by the famed Walk of Champions on Ole Miss’s campus to take a picture, and we ate at City Grocery in the town square. City Grocery was phenomenal. We devoured everything—from the grouper with caper sauce, the snapper with zucchini puree and fried green tomatoes, the mahi mahi with skillet corn, and the famed grits that have been on the menu for 21 years. We topped of our feast with a few desserts. The poached strawberries were amazing. City Grocery made our stop in Oxford well-worth it.
Day 2, we drove a few hours to Nashville. We stayed at the Omni Hotel downtown which is attached to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Relics from country music’s biggest stars, including Willie Nelson’s New Balance running shoes, decorate the lobby. We visited Vanderbilt whose campus I didn’t find that impressive after all the hyped-reviews people had given me about it. Near Vanderbilt is Centennial Park where there is a replica of the Parthenon which houses an art museum. We skipped the art museum and took a picture of the Parthenon instead. We headed back downtown where we stopped at Tootsie’s Orchids which is right by the Rhyman Auditorium (original Grand Ole Opry). Tootsie’s is one of the famous honky tonks on Broadway. It has multiple stages that always are hosting live bands. When we went, there was a cover band playing some country classics; however, if you are lucky, you may see a big name star grace the stage. We ate at Tavern which is a trendy, young professional type of restaurant with a gastro pub style menu. I was told to expect a wait here, and that was true.
Day 3, we went to the Country Music Hall of Fame. I like country music, but I am not a HUGE fan. I don’t follow it regularly and know all the new songs, but I found the Country Music Hall of Fame fascinating! Then, we headed to Andrew Jackson’s home—the Hermitage which was a working plantation back in his day. We toured the museum, his house, and the grounds. I love history, so I loved the Hermitage.
Afterward, we drove a couple of hours to the reason for the trip—Knoxville. We checked into the Four Points by Sheraton which a certain Peyton Manning is co-owner of. Unfortunately, Peyton wasn’t there this time, but rumor has it, you may run into him if you stay there. Conveniently I have a friend who lives in Knoxville; thus, I was given a break from family time. My friend brought me to Market Square (I notice a trend in these small Southern cities—they all have squares) for drinks and dinner. We ate at Tupelo Honey café where they serve delicious biscuits and jam when you sit down.
The next morning, we walked around University of Tennessee’s campus. I don’t particularly like universities called UT with bright orange as their color, but the University of Tennessee’s campus was really pretty. We saw the famous “Rock” and Neyland Stadium. We spent the rest of the day shopping around the downtown square and ate at Café 4 (try the fried green tomatoes) and Cru. Later that night, I got another respite from my parents and grabbed drinks with my friend again. We went to the Peter Kern Library which is a super cool speakeasy type of bar at the Oliver Hotel. The bar is hidden. You have to enter the bar from the back alley, not through the hotel lobby.
Day 5, we headed to the Smokey Mountains and drove through Cades Cove. It took forever because there was so much traffic on a Saturday morning. We saw a bear and hiked a little, but then just sat in traffic as we tried to make the Cades Cove loop. Then, we made the biggest mistake of our lives. We were ready for lunch and headed to Gatlinburg thinking that was the nearest city with dining options. Worst idea ever.
Gatlinburg is a combination of a theme park, a state fair, a Wal-Mart, and Panama City Beach. It is home to every single cheesy themed chain restaurant, like Dick’s Last Resort, random carnival games, and tacky souvenir shops. The traffic there was outrageous. Moral of the story: NEVER GO TO GATLINBURG!
After that horrible stop, we drove to the Nantahala National Forest and checked into a cabin at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). The NOC is where the Olympic kayak team practices. It has cabins fore rental, a general store, and two restaurants. We watched some kayakers practice and ate at the barbecue place. Note to all future visitors: don’t eat at the barbecue place. No no no no. It was disgusting and will give you an awful stomach ache.
The next morning, we woke up and went on a white water rafting trip. We opted for the trip with class 2 rapids and a couple of class 3 rapids because mom threatened us with our lives if we brought her down a river that was too turbulent. It was a great trip down the river. I sat in the front and was drenched by the frigid water by the end of it. Once we finished the trip, we, even mom, wished we would have gone with a more difficult route. Next time.
After drying off from our rafting trip, we drove what seemed like 9,000,053 hours to Tuscaloosa, AL. We drove around the University of Alabama (SEC school #3). Fact: the University of Alabama is GORGEOUS! All the buildings match (which is a stark contrast from my Alma Mater). We stopped at Bryant-Denny Stadium and found the 2012National Championship plaque that commemorates their 13-1 season, with that 1 loss being a result of my Alma Mater’s victory! Whoop!
The final day involved another 8,101,818 hour drive back home. En route, we stopped at SEC school #4—LSU and drove around the campus. Mike was roaming his cage, and we were almost back home.
Road tripping has its perks: you get to see a lot of the country and stop in some small-not-really-destinations places. However, I would prefer not to road trip anywhere for another decade.