So, you’re a surgically enhanced international country star who’s written hits like ‘Jolene’ and ‘9 till 5’ and started a successful literacy programme for poor children: what else is there to do but invest in your hometown’s struggling theme park? Dolly Parton, through a probable mix of canny business sense and a desire to bring employment to Pigeon Forge, decided back in the ’80s to get involved in Silver Dollar City, a local theme park that had been through numerous identities in mostly unsuccessful attempts to drag visitors to the backwoods of Tennessee. Hence Dollywood, a surreal blend of country music, hokey American home style fun, and huge rollercoasters – and now Tennessee’s most visited tourist attraction. This article describes it as ‘the place on a Venn diagram where gay camp and Southern camp overlap’, which I think pretty much sums it up perfectly.
We got there earlyish, which meant that the queues were very short (we walked straight onto some rides, and actually got to go straight round on the log flume again as nobody was waiting). Even for ‘Tennessee Tornado’ and ‘Wild Eagle,’ the biggest rides in the park, and ones that compare favourably to the big attractions at places like Alton Towers,the longest we had to wait was about 20 minutes. The rides were good, although there wasn’t a huge selection (and unfortunately the new ‘Lightning Rod,’ apparently the world’s biggest wooden rollercoaster was closed), and the lack of queues meant we got through the big attractions quite quickly.
Once we’d exhausted the rides, and I’d gorged myself on a portion of fresh-baked cinnamon bread (doused in sugar and probably at least a thousand calories) we went to ‘Show Street’ to explore the museum, which had a variety of Dolly memorabilia, including an impressive selection of Dolly’s stage costumes. You could also wander around her tour bus, which was pink, swanky as hell and boasted a bath. Apparently, the bus driver was a model citizen and in three decades of use the bus never once committed a traffic offence, which means that it probably trundled down the interstates playing country music at 45 miles per hour and annoyed the hell out of all and sundry.
We then wandered into the ‘My People‘ show, which, even by the standards of Dollywood, turned out to be rather surreal. A cast led by members of Dolly’s extended family (we got two nieces and two cousins) perform excerpts of Dolly’s songs and talk about growing up in the Smokies. A pre-recording of Dolly herself appears on a screen behind, and she sings and has ‘conversations’ with the live performers. It was word-perfect, but a little bizarre, especially because most of the audience were 60-plus Americans – I did feel a little like we’d wandered into a Tennessee rest home!
All in all, I enjoyed Dollywood very much, partly as a sheer celebration of camp, but mostly because you can’t really argue with rollercoasters, Dolly Parton and fresh-baked cinnamon bread.
After Dollywood, we left Pigeon Forge and the plains behind and drove straight for the Smoky Mountains ahead. After a few miles, the road started to climb and narrow, and soon we were back in my favourite driving territory: rural, quiet and windy roads with beautiful views. And, despite the fact that it was raining, the vistas over the Smoky Mountains were spectacular indeed, with clouds curling up through the forested hills – so spectacular so that we made quite slow progress due to stopping at so many overlooks for photo opportunities.
As the rain started to slow, we decided to take a detour on the way to Cherokee to visit Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest point in the Smokies and one of the highest points on the Appalachian Trail. It’s only a thirty minute (paved) walk from the car park to the summit, which is topped with a weirdly Soviet-style concrete edifice. The short walk also crosses the famed Appalachian Trail, of which I can now proudly say I have walked approximately ten feet (another time, perhaps). Unfortunately we were now in the thick clouds, meaning that this viewing tower afforded us only this vista:
Things improved a little as we descended from the mountains towards Cherokee, and once the rain cleared we could see a full vista of the beautiful forested slopes.
The dead trees are apparently Fraser Firs, which have been killed off by an invasive European insect in the past few decades, and the park are having to work to protect other trees from invasive threats. The Smokies are certainly stunning, and I’m only sad I didn’t have chance to do any proper hiking there.
As we’d spent quite a long time both at Dollywood and driving the short distance through the mountains, we didn’t make it to Cherokee until around 8.30. Cherokee was a small mountain town, and our late arrival left us with relatively limited options for dinner (American restaurants in small towns close early). In fact, the only option that seemed to still be open was located at the town’s major attraction: the casino. Whilst we only wandered through the gambling floor itself, it was huge, dark, and seemed to be mainly populated by retired Americans sat sadly in front of luridly coloured slot machines. The attached restaurant, however, was more like a more upmarket Zizzi’s, and, unlike most of the food we have been eating (more on food soon), contained items that were neither deep fried nor made principally of corn syrup. You’re welcome, stomach.
Highlights: Riding the Wild Eagle, listening to Dolly Parton’s family with retired Americans, driving through the Smokies.
Lowlights: Missing out on the view at Clingman’s Dome, not having enough time to hike in the beautiful Smokies.
Up next: Two kids, six cats and seven puppies.