Y: YOLO (Travel Adventures)
We knew we were on the hook for a kids-inclusive spring break vacation this year. Last year my husband and I got away for a trip to Las Vegas over spring break while the kids went to their grandparent’s home in sunny southwestern MN. In March 2014, we were just seven months off our 10-day family vacation to Glacier, so we reasoned that a mom-and-dad only trip was justified.
Ideas for our March 2015 spring break started popping up in family discussions around October 2014. At the end of October, my husband returned from a business trip to Ashville, North Carolina, where he got a little taste of a state that lies east of the Mississippi. We started quizzing ourselves about what we knew about the Eastern U.S. and realized neither of us had visited much, nor did we know what we’d do in that area of the country.
We got out a big atlas map and started charting a possible route for a road trip experience with the final destination as the Smoky Mountains (near Ashville, NC, our inspiration point). It would be a marathon. Luckily, the kids, Ava age 11 and Calvin age nine, were road warriors. In other words, we’ve groomed them through frequent summer weekend trips to Okoboji, IA (6.5 hrs round trip), a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota (26 hrs round trip and in-trip driving) and a trip where we flew into Calgary, but logged about 30 hrs between Glacier National State Park, Waterton and Banff, Canada (see our August 2013 Trip Adventure). Important prep and groundwork for setting expectations and practicing patience en route for our upcoming trip.
The kids’ schools tacked on a freebie Friday prior to the week-long spring break so with dates of Friday, March 27 – Sunday, April 5 wide open, we set a rough outline of our nine-day itinerary. We started by booking our Smoky Mountains lodging. The cabin we wanted was available for three nights toward the end of the vacation (Mar 31- Apr 3), so we booked that in November 2014, and continued to ruminate on the other cities and points of interest along the way over the next few months. Having a trip on the horizon was a great focus for the after-Christmas-blues!
After coming up with the inspiration, destination and first lodging, my husband turned it over to the rest of the family. And everyone stepped up, just like professional travelers. Ava took it upon herself to research accommodations in the cities we outlined along our route – St. Louis, MO, Nashville, TN and Chicago, IL, for starters. We gave her a budget and criteria for each city including location (based on ease of access and top one or two things we highlighted in each city). I anticipated reviewing her suggestions and having to do more research to find something more suited. I was wrong. She did an excellent job via her ipad over two months of research off and on to find good deals, great locations and a balance of experiences from modern to kid-friendly to historic.
To correlate with the accommodation search, we all chose top priorities of things we’d like to see and do in each city and along our way. They included The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, The Country Music Hall of Fame and The Grand Old Opry in Nashville, The Hermitage (Andrew Jackson’s estate) outside of Nashville, The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, somewhere in Kentucky, and obviously, The Smoky Mountains. These top priorities helped us feel confident in our accommodation choices and helped us explore the cities we’d be visiting.
About a month prior to the trip, we talked about the length of the vacation. The Sunday prior to going back to school and work would be Easter Sunday. We wanted to re-enter that Monday on a high note so decided that we’d plan to stay in Chicago the last Friday of the trip with friends (no sight-seeing this time around, because Chicago would be an easy summer weekend trip). This meant we could have an easy 6.5 hour drive back to Minneapolis on Saturday.
We had a solid, working plan. We’d leave Friday, March 27 at 6:00a.m., arrive in St. Louis by 3:00p.m., spend one night there, leave Saturday open (Nashville was too limited and spendy to book on Saturday night), book Sunday and Monday nights in Nashville, visit The Hermitage on Tuesday morning, arrive in Townsend, TN (in the foothills of The Smoky Mountains near Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN) for our three-nights, spend 12hrs in the car on Friday, April 3 to make it to Chicago and then head home the following Saturday.
Well, it didn’t quite happen that way. Which was intended, actually. By planning enough and leaving a bit of room for spontaneity, we were able to roll with all of the unknown surprises and unanticipated challenges that travel always presents. For instance, we didn’t anticipate that one of the two small roller trams in the Gateway Arch would malfunction and cause extra-long lines on a Saturday. We discussed and agreed that spending an extra two hours there would still be worth arriving later than planned in our next city, Louisville, KY.
In Nashville, although we intended to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame, it was a beautiful day for a walking tour of the city. So we opted out of the more expensive, lengthy venue and tour for a historic, quaint, 1.5 hour visit to The Ryman, the birthplace of the Grand Old Opry. On the way out of Nashville, we cruised by the new location of the Grand Old Opry and with its vast, theme-park feel and our Ryman experience surrounding the Opry, we didn’t feel compelled to stop. And although we arrived to The Hermitage mid-morning with plenty of time for a tour (in fact, one I was anticipating a great deal), the family was just not into another two-hour tour. Looking back, I realized we had just come of The Gateway, Churchill Downs and The Ryman tours. The Hermitage would have to wait.
One of the most difficult things for me to do as a traveler is relax. I get this charge and excitement from being in a new city or destination that can’t be quelled. I tend to go, go, go. Traveling with a family required that I temper this a bit. However, I did find my early-riser son and I could do some things (like get in a run or workout) before the rest of the family rose. And the three night stay in a rustic cabin in the mountains (Black Bear Hollows) certainly helped with the relaxation factor. For $150 a night, this gorgeous three-story log cabin (sleeps 10) with a pool table, hot tub, fire pit and isolation was a destination in itself. A find, indeed.
The weather was cool to warmish (29 in Louisville to 70 in Townsend, TN) throughout our vacation. Even as a Minnesotan craving some sunny solace, I went into it with zero weather expectations. After all, we weren’t going to Mexico. In Nashville and two of our days in the Smoky Mountains, we had perfectly warm, beautiful days. True to form and all of our perceptions of what The Smoky Mountains might be, a purple haze (or “blue smoke” as observed by the Cherokee) settled in over the tops of the mountains during our visit to the top.
One day prior to our arrival, the park opened their summer season only road, Clingman’s Dome Road. We found ourselves on this seven-mile road that reaches the very top of the mountains at Clingman’s Dome, enveloped in fog. We turned around half-way up, reasoning that we couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us, it would only get worse and we’d not be able to see a vista when we reached the summit anyway. After hiking, exploring waterfalls and Cades Cove in the park, we were fine with this decision. We knew we were somewhere in the Smoky Mountain Rain and that’s all that mattered.