My family has never taken a "family vacation."
Sure, we have stayed in hotels together, gone camping with other families, even driven across the country together, but this was always with some purpose other than a trip for just the four of us.
We have worked family time into wedding travel, graduation travel, even my touring schedule, but we have never gone anywhere, just the four of us, just to be.
Josh works very long hours and I have school/music/mama responsibilities so I feel like we never see each other. It is just a busy season in our lives and we are determined that it will not be forever, but for now it is what it is.
I decided we all needed to get away and hang out together in a cabin for a few days. No agenda, no real trip plans, just the 4 of us in a cozy cabin with good food and games.
If you know me, you know how "obsessed" I get when planning or doing anything, so in typical fashion, I read about 293847936 Trip Advisor reviews and made a few helpful spreadsheets (haha).
We wanted to go near Gatlinburg, but not really to it, and wanted to stay in a property that didn't feel commercial. However, every cabin that was off the beaten path seemed to be decorated in plaid and looked like a grandmother's mobile home. There is nothing wrong with grandmother's mobile home, but if I'm spending money on place, I want to be able to relax and really feel like it is a vacation spot.
After much searching we found what seemed to be a great cabin in Townsend, TN--close enough to the Smokies to go into the national park while totally avoiding Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg.
Here are pictures from the website:
Not too bad.
We packed up 3 days worth of carefully planned meals (including raw meat on ice to cook there), tons of board games, our kiddos, and we set out after work on Thursday evening.
I LOVE driving together. That night I loved listening to good music and talking and riding through the mountains with the moonlight overhead. It was great. We played a game trying to remember all of the states and their capitals and spent a good part of the night just laughing with our silly girls.
I had been DREAMING of this trip and I was so excited to get there!
We finally reached Townsend at around 10pm Eastern time. I had all of our check in instructions and we drove up the mountain to our cabin. Josh ran inside to check things out and did not come back out for awhile. I knew something had to be wrong. As soon as he came back out he told me that the heat didn't work. It was about 30 degrees outside and the cabin had been sitting vacant for awhile. It was COLD.
There was no telephone in the cabin (although the website said there was) and our cell phones did not get reception in the cabin OR in the town below.
We had to drive up and down the mountain multiple times trying to get ahold of the rental company from a pay phone. The website says they consider heat to be essential and that they provide 24 hour service should any problems arise. That would have been nice, but no one answered the phone and we had no other way of reaching them.
Finally we decided to try to sleep bundled in one bed until we could sort it out in the morning.
I had not been in the cabin yet, but as soon as I walked in my heart sank.
- It was NOT the exact cabin shown in the website photographs. I had specifically emailed and asked this and they told me it was. This cabin had small couches with bear tapestry cushions (yes, bear pictures), the layout was a little different, and the bed linens were not the same. I know that sounds picky, but I had paid for what I had seen and expected to get that.
- I was FREEZING. Keeping a house cool in the winter is one thing, but a cabin in the woods with no heat in 30 degree weather is something else. COLD.
- There were bugs. I know it is the woods, and I am accustomed to bugs while camping, but not to wasps in the bathroom and flies on the bed. The floors were dusty and it looked like it had been sitting empty (without being cleaned) for quite some time.
- I was so tired I decided not to think about it and just go to bed. All of us were in one bed, Josh nearly asleep, when the girls and I all heard the same thing. I tried to ignore it. Surely nothing was walking on the beams above our heads?? Surely I was spooked. Then the girls spoke up in a whisper, "We hear scuttling!!" Scuttling is exactly what I had heard. I made Josh check upstairs. Nothing. He came back to bed. We all tried to sleep. I was too cold and decided to go sit in front of the oven for warmth for just a bit. Just as I walked into the kitchen something FAST ran across the floor. At first I thought it was a giant cockroach and I screamed. Then the girls screamed. Then it ran back the other way and the 3 of us screamed. The girls ran out into the living room and perched on the chairs. I tried to wake up a groggy and annoyed husband. Then I heard Amelie scream, "IT'S A RAT, IT'S A RAT!" And literally, both girls were hugging each other and crying, "Take us away from here! I want to leave!" That's when the mice began to dart across the kitchen floor and I started saying the same thing as the girls.
So, at 2am, we packed up ALL of the food we had unpacked into the refrigerator, packed up all of our belongings, and went to the only place we could think of where we could find last minute lodging nearby: Pigeon Forge. Initially Josh suggested going home, but every time he did I just started crying, so he figured out to stop saying that.
Thanks to Trip Advisor we found a super clean Quality Inn with a refrigerator at a very reasonable price. I think the manager felt sorry for us and knocked about $100 off the bill. However, Pigeon Forge is like an even tackier Las Vegas in the middle of the mountains. Why anyone would go there on purpose is beyond me. Especially when there are BEAUTIFUL mountains all around. Here is a visual:
We checked in at 3:30am and had to be out by 11am.
I didn't even check for bed bugs. I don't think I had the heart to be disappointed yet again.
We got a free continental breakfast and decided to go ahead and find free wi-fi in Gatlinburg and to try to secure lodging.
This whole time we were trying to keep our food cold (thank goodness the hotel had a fridge) so we had to buy extra ice and throw it in on the coolers once we got to Gatlinburg. We found coffee and wi-fi and then I had a great conversation with the folks at Elk Springs Resort. They are rated #1 on Trip Advisor. They are rated #1 for a reason. Their service was TOP notch, and they worked to get us into a cabin ASAP.
We walked around Gatlinburg for a couple of hours waiting for the cabin to be ready. I think tacky stores + Christmas-themed-anything has to top Josh's list of annoyances. But how much do kids love tacky and Christmas? SO much. So here they are playing Santa and loving it.
We ate gluten-free pizza at Mellow Mushroom and then got the call that the cabin was ready. It was located in the "Arts and Crafts" district of Gatlinburg and in no way felt like touristy Pigeon Forge or downtown Gatlinburg. The minute I walked in I wanted to cry with happiness. It was PERFECT!
We settled in really quickly and the first thing we did was take a nap on the couch while the girls sat on the front porch "drawing nature" (according to Amelie). It was awesome.
We did nothing else that day except for play games and eat dinner together and listen to music. It was so much fun, and so relaxing.
The next day (Saturday) we did more of the same--eating breakfast together, playing games, and just hanging out. Sera is now a dominoes expert and wants to break the world record:)
In the afternoon we decided to go into the arts and crafts community and to also drive a little bit of a nature trail. The arts and crafts district is tacky in its own way, but I like it--like Santa Cruz or Cambria meets the south--hippie hillbilly. So awesome.
Then we went on to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail where we got to see mountain top views and to also hike around a bit.
I was proud of myself for not googling, "Smoky Mountain Bear Attacks" before hand so we could enjoy the serenity of the woods (although you can bet I did that the minute I got home). Also, the little bridge (above) was above a little river and I was proud of the girls for walking across on their own! Amelie felt so brave.
That night we got BBQ and ate it at the cabin, played more games, and watched the movie Brave (my favorite!).
The next day we checked out and decided to drive to the National Forest and drive the Cade's Cove loop on our way out of town.
This is the girls at an old mill along Cade's Cove. They thought it was so cool to watch the water wheel and to see the mill grind the corn into cornmeal! They were also excited to get "Cade's Cove" badges for their nature bags. Sera already has a Junior Naturalist badge from Shelby Park and they both have badges from the Audubon Park in Kentucky. I think it's such a sweet thing for them to collect.
The Cade's Cove loop is beautiful, and we saw deer, turkey, and finally, a bear.
My whole life I have been fascinated by and totally terrified by bears. I don't think bears are cute and cuddly, I think they want to eat people. BUT they are beautiful and majestic and I really wanted to see one...from the car...and we DID!
He was sunning himself under a tree in a meadow pretty close to the road. We didn't have a long lens and didn't want to be idiots by trying to get closer, so we have no picture of Mr. Bear.
However, plenty of people were idiots, and did try to get close with their cameras--within 50 feet (against park rules)!!
Some people were even WALKING UP TO THE BEAR while holding their toddlers. It drives me crazy that people wouldn't have more respect for wildlife and also more caution with their kids. If that bear had attacked, it would be sad for the people AND for the bear (who would probably be euthanized). It was fun to see the bear, but I kind of wanted to get out of there before anything gruesome went down.
All in all, with the exception of the first day disaster, and then me getting Strep throat the last day, it was a good trip. We already want to go back and will definitely use Elk Springs Resort again. They have lots of cabins with different amenities (some have mountain views, some are secluded, etc.).
Most of all it was just wonderful to BE together. This is exactly what we had hoped for and what the girls got out of the trip. I'll leave you with the essays they wrote after getting home:
Our Trip in the Smoky Mountains
By: Sera Sage Oakes
Last weekend our family went to Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg is in the Smoky Mountains. It took three hours to drive there. The Smoky Mountains were really pretty and they actually looked smoky.
On Friday we went to a candy store. It is called the Candy Kitchen. We saw a man making taffy! I saw lots of delicious looking candy. I liked the candy store.
On Saturday I went to a lot of stores. We looked at lots of things. I saw wood ornaments and I saw carved birdhouses with mini houses instead of perches for the birds to stand on. I liked the stuffed animal black bear. My mom got it for me. I liked it. It made me want to see a real black bear.
On Sunday we went home and on the way we went on a nature drive. We saw how an old mill works with water that goes through a headrace and falls on the wheel and then the wheel connects to a wheel in a house. It turns, and then inside the house it grinds wheat and corn into flour and cornmeal. We saw a black bear sitting under a tree. It was staring at people taking pictures of it.
We stayed in a cabin. It was fun. I did not like the first cabin, which had a mouse in it. The next one was great! It had an awesome bathtub. It had a pool table! We played games like Catan Junior. I liked the second Cabin. The first one had broken heaters!
I liked the Smokies and I liked the candy shop, the stores, the water wheel, the black bear, the nice cabin, and the games. I liked spending time together. It was a good vacation.
By: Amelie Ashe Oakes
Last weekend we went on a family trip. It was fun. I went with my family into the Smoky Mountains. We found a nice cabin, we spent time together, and we saw animals.
At first we had a bad cabin because there were mice in it. Everyone freaked out except for daddy. After that we found a nice hotel, then we found a nice cabin. Our cabin had a pool table. There were no mice. There were nice rooms. We had a nice bath. The bath was like a hot tub and there was a hot tub outside.
We were able to spend time together on our trip. We got to play games. We played Catan Junior together. We watched a movie called “Brave.” We drove together. We went to a candy shop together. We got to see someone make some taffy. We ate pizza together for lunch. We went to antique stores and I got a black bear. It was fun to spend time together.
We saw lots of animals on our trip like deer and a black bear. It was fun seeing deer, the deer came right up to our car. The black bear was sleeping under a tree. There were lots of people taking pictures of the bear.
Our trip was very, very, very, fun. It felt good to spend time with my family. I liked the Smoky Mountains. I want to go back to the Smoky Mountains someday.