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Remembering the Gatlinburg Fires: One Year Ago Today

November 28, 2016.

This is a date that brings back many different feelings for those that live and work in Gatlinburg, as well as the millions who visit this scenic mountain town in Tennessee. Of course, I’m referring to the wildfires that spread and nearly wiped out the entire city. Many of us didn’t actually experience it, but to those that have fallen in love with this place, it was a helpless feeling watching the events unfolding–and getting constant updates on social media.

This can’t be good.

I remember earlier that day seeing the pictures of Gatlinburg being overcome by ash and smoke and seeing people covering their faces having a difficult time in the smoky air. This was certainly a harbinger, and I was fearful of what might be happening given the reports of high winds forecast with rain still a long way from hopefully halting the progress of the fires that were already spreading just a few miles away in the National Park. I was concerned, to say the least, but I felt that things would hopefully change for the better as the day progressed. Boy, was I wrong.

Gatlinburg is going to burn down

In the evening it became abundantly clear that things were not ok at all, and with the winds becoming hurricane force, I was officially worried. When I realized how close the fires were–after seeing reports of the trees on fire by the Spur–those sinking feelings started setting in: Are the tourists getting out safely? What about the people in the mountains in their cabins? Are they evacuating? Is Gatlinburg going to burn to the ground? We’re going to have to find another place to vacation. At this point, I began to update my wife on what was becoming a dire situation, so she joined me in following the events via Knoxville television social media outlets. All of those previous questions and concerns were being shared as we watched in horror.

I remember staying up pretty late that night, going to bed after hearing the rains had finally come to assist the firefighters in their efforts to save the city. Tragically, people lost their lives trying to escape and countless others had their homes wiped out. So many people’s lives changed that night, and once again, I had never felt so helpless, because I wanted to help but there wasn’t much I could do; eventually, I would make a small monetary contribution to help out those that lost everything.

A huge thank you has to go to the firefighters who made unbelievable sacrifices to at least salvage a large share of what makes Gatlinburg a thriving tourist destination–the many businesses and attractions on the Parkway. They braved blinding road conditions through the mountains and intense heat; and did everything they could possibly do to save lives.

Gatlinburg is still intact, but it is still going through a major rebuilding process that will take some time yet. It is important on this day to take a moment in remembrance of those that had their lives taken from them so tragically and honor everyone that had a hand in helping–and saving–this community, as it is more than just a tourist hotspot; people do live here. Hopefully, we can all learn something and turn it into a positive lesson that we must respect nature and hope that nothing like this will ever happen again.

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My Top 3 Candy Shops in Gatlinburg

Candy? In Gatlinburg? No, really?

I know. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist–or much research at all–to figure out that Gatlinburg is pretty loaded when it comes to sugar content, especially downtown on the Parkway. I have a sweet tooth and–like many people who are on vacation–love to indulge in a little of life’s sweet pleasures: chocolate, fudge, taffy; all of which are abundantly displayed in the many shops that line the Parkway, making for a very carnival-like atmosphere. I have managed to whittle down the candy shops, somehow, with my three favorite candy shops in Gatlinburg. Now I admit, I haven’t tried every single one of them, but I have a good idea–after about 12 trips here–which ones I recommend to people who haven’t had a chance to visit this magical place. Here goes.

3. Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen

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With two locations on the Parkway, you can see why they are a hit with tourists. They are most famous for their taffy puller located in the front that invites walkers to stop in the window to see how taffy is made. This has been going on for about 70 years so this is more proof they are doing something right here. I think their taffy is pretty good, but it’s not my favorite. I was impressed by their seemingly unlimited chocolate options–my favorites being the different truffles they make which have a nice chocolate shell covering a ganache center sweetened with different flavors: caramel, maple praline, and peanut butter just to name a few. Their selection is probably the best in Gatlinburg, and they also sell souvenir bears and package quite a bit of their treats that make their way here after they are displayed in the glass cases. Rarely can you find a place that has lasted as long as they have, so make sure to check them out on your visit.

2. Aunt Mahalia’s

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Billed as having The Best Homemade Candies On Earth, I wouldn’t argue this claim for one second. They also have two locations: one at the Mountain Mall, and another on the opposite side of the Parkway. Aunt Mahalia’s has operated in Gatlinburg since 1939. You can do the math; that’s a long time. I have found that while their selection is not as impressive as Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen, the quality here is a shade better. It is also important to note that they are slightly more expensive, but that just means they might be using better ingredients (I have no knowledge of what they use, but they just taste a little better to me). Aunt Mahalia’s packages more of their candies, as their glass cases are smaller, but that doesn’t sacrifice the quality of their products: fudge, caramel apples, peanut brittle, taffy, and pecan nests. The latter is one of my favorites; if you are a fan of pecans, you need to try everything they offer with pecans in them–all very tasty. Heck, I tried a sampler package, and I found a few gems in there that I had no idea what they were, but to me, those were some of the best tasting treats I’d ever tried. If you’re not afraid of their slightly higher prices–remembering you’re on vacation–you need to at least give them a shot.

1. Chocolate Monkey

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What’s great about Chocolate Monkey is I don’t have to spend much time deciding what I want here. They have the poorest selection of the three, but they are a clear winner in several different categories: best ice cream, and best fudge. Their selection of fudge and ice cream is pretty darn good, and even though the ice cream is Blue Bell, it is simply amazing. Plus, they rotate their selection to sync with the seasons, including their fudge offerings. With their homemade fudge, they always offer a buy 2, get 1 free, and it is the smoothest, creamiest, and best tasting of all the fudge in Gatlinburg. Most other fudge places in town either keeps their fudge in the case too long or don’t use the perfect combination of ingredients; Chocolate Monkey succeeds at providing a superior product, despite having a handful of locations now–but still not considered a chain in my book. They also have caramel apples, buckeyes (O-H!), and a modest variety of chocolate treats that are simply mouth-watering. My wife’s favorite fudge is Monkey Butter–taste it for free in the store to see why it’s a favorite of hers and many others.

That is my definitive list of the best candy shops in Gatlinburg. Of course, this could change with forthcoming visits, but I believe Chocolate Monkey has a firm hold on this list for quite some time. Hopefully, you’ve gained a little knowledge of where you would like to try some of the best candy concoctions in the candy land of Gatlinburg. Thanks for stopping by a reading this post! If you like it, you can search other articles on my blog for more ideas. See you all again soon!

The 2017 Version of Winterfest and the Chili Cook-Off in Gatlinburg

Yes, the time is fast approaching. It seems like just yesterday that folks were sweltering in the summer heat but enjoying everything that Gatlinburg offers to its millions of guests every year. But now that the leaves are changing their color–albeit a little slow this year–and the chill has returned to the mountain air, the annual Chili Cook-Off and the kickoff to Winterfest are upon us again. This year proves to be another spectacular–and scrumptious–event jam-packed with people just waiting to get their favorite fixes.

The Chili Cook-Off is scheduled for Wednesday, November 8 from 5 to 8 p.m. in downtown Gatlinburg. This year at least 22 vendors will be creating their own special recipe of chili in the hopes that they will take home the prizes offered in the competition: People’s Choice Award and Best Booth Presentation (yes, looks are also considered in this event). A detailed list of all the known participants can be found here.

The event has no admission fee; however, if you want to vote for your favorite–and sample all the chili you can possibly stomach–there is a $10 fee to fully participate and have a say in who wins. If you want a souvenir for getting involved in this once a year event, there are T-shirts for sale that identify this as the 2017 version.

Those of you that have been to Gatlinburg recently know that the setting up of the Christmas lights has been well underway for weeks now; especially, considering there are over 3 million (yes, MILLION!) lights to be hung all around the city. This is the official beginning of the winter tourist season in Gatlinburg, and for those that don’t mind coming here when it’s more likely that the mountains are snow-capped, it is a special treat to see the city decked out in Christmas spirit.

There will also be musical guests during this year’s event that you may want to come see while your sampling some hot chili: the headliner being Departure–a Journey tribute band hailing from Georgia; also on the docket are some bluegrass/rock from Grassabillies and Greenbrier band to round out an entertaining evening full of fun for the whole family.

Sadly, I will not be attending this year’s event once again. It is the hope and dream of mine to someday be able to cover this event every year as it is happening so you can get my perspective on the event–even though you can check out others’ videos on YouTube, in the meantime. Thank you for reading my post, and I will get to work by plugging away at those hopes and dreams that some of you have already read from my previous posts. See you again soon!

My Top 3 Restaurants for Pancakes in Gatlinburg

Recently, I wrote about where I thought were the best places in Gatlinburg to get a pizza. Now I would like to specify that these were not necessarily the best restaurants overall, since we only usually visit these places for their pizza–and we haven’t tried some of the Italian or other entree selections. The same goes for these: They are my favorite places for pancakes; there is one place on this list that is number one, but it is for overall breakfast. In this post, I would like to help you by offering my opinion–after multiple trips to each restaurant–of where I think you cannot go wrong with this popular breakfast treat. With Gatlinburg being a part of a hotbed of pancake houses, it should be considered high praise to be included on any favorites list–even if it’s just from an amateur food critic like myself.

3. (Tie) Crockett’s Breakfast Camp, Atrium Pancakes

I couldn’t possibly leave one of these out of my top 3–and with both of these restaurants selling a similar pancake, I felt it necessary to give them equal praise. Crockett’s is my favorite breakfast restaurant in Gatlinburg, and while their pancakes are not the favorite thing I’ve eaten off their menu, they still are mighty tasty–if you can manage to stomach them. They are called Frankenstein Pancakes for a reason; they are large–sometimes about an inch thick–and they can scare you away from food until later in the day. The cornbread flavor is unmistakable in the ingredients, and they can be enjoyed with a cinnamon swirl throughout and various fruit toppings. It is a different kind of pancake than most are used to, but don’t let that keep you from trying these monsters.

Atrium Pancakes is home to the Baked Apple Pancake, and it is so good, it renders their other pancake selections average. This pancake is famous for being featured in Taste of Home magazine. The flavors are otherworldly with the apples taking center stage, and the size being very similar to Crockett’s Frankenstein Pancakes. There’s probably a better chance that you will be able to eat more of Crockett’s pancakes, because the Baked Apple Pancake feels more like eating a cake–and probably is more caloric (but who really counts calories on vacation, right?). Give both of these pancakes a try to see what I mean about what you are getting.

 

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Crockett’s Frankenstein Pancakes
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Half of Atrium Pancakes’ Baked Apple Pancake is plenty

 

2. Log Cabin Pancake House

This is the only pancake house on my list that is not on the main drag in Gatlinburg but is a short drive down from the road on which the Space Needle sits. The restaurant has a covered wagon on the front so it is hard to miss; go inside and you will find some of the best pancakes in the area. Their Pancakes Royale features a sugary sweet cream sauce with a banana helping to soak up the liquid with the pancakes. The pancakes cut pretty easily with a fork even with a drier topping like butterscotch chips. You can always tell how well pancakes taste if they can be eaten without the added syrup. The syrup is the real deal–I mean real, as in actual maple syrup without the added preservatives in syrups that sit on grocery shelves. Try Buckwheat Pancakes too if you want a little something that you don’t see much of in places other than the South; I was not disappointed in the least.

 

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My son’s Butterscotch Pancakes at Log Cabin Pancake House

 

1. Pancake Pantry

There just is no other pancake in Gatlinburg that can compare to what you get in the quality department at the legendary Pancake Pantry. For 50 plus years they have been serving guests here; they also have a Nashville location too. I’ve had four different pancakes here, and they have all been spectacularly good. My favorite is the Sugar and Spice Pancakes: they serve them with a cinnamon cream syrup along with a small cup of applesauce; this makes their real maple syrup–that is sensational as well–a bit of an afterthought. Their pancakes are everything you want from a textbook variety pancake: made-from-scratch, pillowy soft, and no cutting–the fork is just a means to easily make the trip into your mouth. Don’t just take it from me, there are many thousands of customers–some of which have been regulars for decades–who would concur with my sentiments about this establishment. Like Crockett’s and Log Cabin, I recommend you arrive early so you’re not having your experience compromised by long lines and potentially rushed service; both of which don’t hinder their loyal–and hungry–customers from returning for a stellar Southern batch of flapjacks.

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I hope you enjoyed my list of favorite choices for pancakes in Gatlinburg. This post reflects my honest opinions on what I believe to be the best that you can find here. I plan to give more opinions on other restaurants in town as I continue my quest to try everything that Southern cooking has to offer in my favorite place: Gatlinburg. Thanks for reading, and I will keep informing you of more of what makes Gatlinburg our favorite vacation destination. See you next time!

2017 Oktoberfest at Ober Gatlinburg

I know most of you will be visiting Gatlinburg to see the beautiful Fall colors soon, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be taking advantage of some of the other activities going on here. Gatlinburg really starts unveiling its Fall events soon with a myriad of choices to entertain and just keep the visitor occupied in what proves to be another spectacular display again this year. The great people up at Ober Gatlinburg also hope that you can join them in a month-long celebration of German food, music, and dance–and of course, German beer.

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Starting on September 22, you can come see what they have done at Ober Gatlinburg in their full-on Oktoberfest tradition that is now in its 8th installment and loaded with fun and games for the whole family to enjoy–and there is, of course, the food. The cuisine is full of German-inspired dishes that includes bratwurst, sauerkraut, pretzels, and turkey legs. The Seasons of Ober restaurant even changes its menu to accommodate the tasty German food that highlights Oktoberfest.

Of course, no German-inspired offerings are complete without mentioning beer as a choice. Among the various tents set up outdoors will be a German Bier Garten that features different breweries on site each Saturday. Bring your ID and enjoy sampling the various German-style lagers and ales.

The entertainment will be plentiful as well; The Bavarian Fun Makers Oompah Band will definitely sound–and dress–the part wearing German lederhosen and performing yodels, sing-a-longs, and oompah music. They will be performing at the Season of Ober restaurant throughout the month at multiple times daily, so check out the events schedule below or at Ober Gatlinburg’s website here.

There are, of course, many Ober Gatlinburg souvenirs for sale in the shops inside, but outside you can find specialty German-themed items from the various vendors that are only for sale during this time, so hurry in and grab yours before Oktoberfest ends on October 29th. Some of the items for sale include German Beer Steins, apparel, and small knick-knacks to remember from this event.

We visited Ober Gatlinburg in June, and we had a blast! I wish we could make it down to Oktoberfest but once again, it will not be in the cards for us to make a Fall trip. I can only imagine what fun it will be as they get set up for another great Oktoberfest celebration, so don’t forget to make this a priority on your Gatlinburg Fall vacation. Below I will list some of the times and days different events will be taking place. See you next time, and thanks for reading!

Bier Garten: Daily from noon to 6p.m. and 7p.m. Saturdays.

Bavarian Funmakers Oompah Band: Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 1p.m. and 5p.m.; Tuesday at 1, 3, and 5p.m.; Weekends at 1,3,5, and 7p.m.; all performances will be held at The Seasons of Ober restaurant.

Outdoor Games: Sunday through Friday from noon to 6p.m.; Saturdays until 7p.m.

Note: All outdoor activities are weather permitting, so hours may change based on the conditions.

5 Options for Choosing Local Instead of Chain Businesses in Gatlinburg

Sometimes the choices can be a bit overwhelming when you are searching for a place to eat in Gatlinburg. This may result in you getting a bit comfortable with the places you normally stop and visit in your day-to-day busy lifestyle. I would like to steer you toward making decisions that will help the local business owner in town and give the local economy a boost, as well. Here are five businesses that will aid in that cause, instead of visiting the familiar chain establishments.

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Chain: Pizza Hut

Better Option: Best Italian

Sure, we all love Pizza Hut when it comes to good pizza — and Gatlinburg has one right on the Parkway — but I would like you to try Best Italian, instead, when you are visiting town. Best Italian has two locations: one in the Elks Plaza, and one directly off the Parkway. We have not had a better pie in Gatlinburg than here, and we are frequent pizza eaters, so this comes as high praise. They have plenty of good Italian dishes, as many of locals can attest to, but our standards are the Garlic Rolls — which come served with a generous dusting of parmesan, and dipped in a small pool of olive oil — and, of course, their pizza. We ordered a large extra cheese pizza last time, and they were VERY generous with the cheese. Let’s just say this is one of our first stops when we arrive in Gatlinburg.

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Chain: McDonald’s

Better Option: Old Dad’s General Store

I know what you’re thinking; why would I want to go to a convenience store, instead of a place where I know what I want every time. I’m glad you asked because Old Dad’s is more than just a general store, it boasts a grill inside that serves a good hearty breakfast too. You can have everything from a bacon egg and cheese biscuit to a fried green tomato BLT — all for breakfast at a reasonable and comparable price to McDonald’s. They also have a super friendly staff that welcomes you, even if you’re just in to pick up a newspaper.

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Chain: Dunkin’ Donuts

Better Option: Donut Friar

There are plenty of Dunkin’ Donuts scattered across the country, but there is only one Donut Friar. They are located in the Village in Gatlinburg, and they have the absolute best donuts I’ve ever eaten. Opening at the pre-dawn 5 a.m. hour, they serve the early riser and stay open until the evening to accommodate the day crowds. My wife isn’t a big donut eater, but I’ve managed to convert her by introducing her to one of my favorites, the Chocolate Chipper donut. Even with an abundance of breakfast places in town, here you can grab a quick bite and take some back to your hotel room.

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Chain: Texas Roadhouse

Better Option: Cherokee Grill

I will be one of the first to admit that Texas Roadhouse has some mighty tasty steaks, along with their rolls, but there is one place in Gatlinburg that has them beat, in my opinion. We didn’t discover Cherokee Grill until our second trip, and it didn’t take long for us to wonder why we didn’t go the first time. The steaks and the grilled chicken are AMAZING! But I don’t want you to think they don’t have good side dishes. Their Neva’s Potatoes is a twice-baked potato that’s full of flavor, and their spinach mac and cheese hits the spot too. Also on the menu are crab cakes, trout, and shrimp for the seafood lover. Their atmosphere gives off an upscale feeling, but don’t be put off by that, they are most certainly a casual restaurant that welcomes all families. It is our favorite dinner splurge on our vacation, and I highly recommend you try them.

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Chain: Starbucks

Better Option: Coffee and Company

Starbucks is one of the largest chains in the country and Gatlinburg is represented with one, but there is one coffee shop in town that you may not see or be aware of as a visitor. Coffee and Company has been in business in Gatlinburg since 1993, and they are a tiny shop in the Village that is a left turn out of The Donut Friar away. The first time I arrived here, I walked into the open door, even though it wasn’t quite their posted open time, and I got a Coffee 101 lesson when I told the owner I wasn’t sure what to get. I settled on a basic Shot in the Dark, which has an espresso shot, and I walked away not only satisfied with my pleasant tasting coffee, but I was happy that someone cared enough to help me with deciding on the perfect cup for me, which it was.

I hope that you found this a helpful read. I know how difficult it can be to veer off from your normal routine and try something different; however, when you are on vacation, I strongly believe that this is the time to try new things and knowing you’re helping small businesses can give you a special feeling. In our case, it keeps us coming back to Gatlinburg year after year.

 

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