We got up very early in the morning and headed straight to the car, because the Aged Ps had booked a surprise adventure on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, not realising that the Railroad was located on the other side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from where we were staying in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
But no mind, the drive across to the North Carolina side of the National Park actually took us through some of the most amazing mountain landscapes, and we made plenty of stops at various lookout points along the road to stretch our legs and enjoy the view.
One of the longer pitstops we made was at Newfound Gap, which is the lowest drivable pass through the Smoky Mountains, making crossing the mountains so much easier for travellers. Even in the most heavy snowfall, the Newfound Gap road remains open and passable to travellers, who would otherwise have to drive around the mountain range in order to get to Tennessee from North Carolina.
It is travelling on the road through this gap that you can observe a noticeable change from the hardwood forests to the evergreen spruce forests as the road climbs nearly 3000 feet.
The evergreen woodland at Newfound Gap is so marvellous. Upon exiting the car, I took a deep breath of that wintry air and the fragrance of the spruce filled my lungs. The whole place smelled just like Christmas.
Over at Newfound Gap, the road crosses the North Carolina and Tennessee state line, and intersects with the Appalachian trail. Had we enough time in our travelling schedule, we would have loved to wander along the Appalachian trail for a little bit, but the kids were distracted by other things, namely…
J and Little E are tropical beings, so this tiny remnant of snow by the side of the road was a real wonder to them! They built a tiny, tiny snowman and spent a considerable amount of time pelting each other with snowballs.
Meanwhile, I wandered up and down the road, trying to look for twigs to decorate their snowman, occasionally coming across tiny, fast flowing streams of melting snow.
After nearly a full morning’s drive, we finally reached Ocanoluftee Visitor Centre, in Cherokee, on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The kids, after sitting in the car for so long, were two balls of pure energy, so they went zipping up and down the wide open field, jumping over logs and dragging sticks through the dirt.
The Aged Ps, who were also tired of sitting in a cramped car for so many hours, were quite happy to wander around the old historic buildings near the visitor centre.
While the kids and the Aged Ps were wandering about exploring the log houses of the Mountain Farm Museum, I was inside the warm warm visitor centre, learning about the Trail of Tears, when the American Indians were relocated from their ancestral lands to Indian Territory.
We were hoping to have lunch in Cherokee, but when we reached there, most of the little cafes and eateries in the dusty little town were closed and we had no choice but to head straight to Bryson City. Fortunately, we’d had a late breakfast that day and had some snacks in the car so it was not terrible situation for us!
At Bryson City, most of the cafes were closed as well, but we did manage to find this amazing sandwich shop, The Filling Station.
I was really excited about this deli, because apart from some delicious sounding salads and soups, they also made wonderful specialty sandwiches – including a cuban sandwich!
I cannot stress how much I had been wanting to try a cuban sandwich. On the plane journey over, I had watched a movie which was basically all about the wonders of the cubanos. I had thought about nothing else for days. And when you are 6 months pregnant feeling nauseous at the though of most foods, it’s tough to ignore those cravings when they come round.
Well, the cubanos was every bit as deliciously indulgent as I imagined. The marinated slices of roast pork, together thin slices of savoury ham were pressed in a loaf of bread with sharp swiss cheese and sweet, thinly sliced dill pickles with a whisper of mustard. This was grilled so that the flattened outer surface of the bread had a satisfying crispy crackle in it, and the cheese had just melted.
Ohhhhh it was GOOD.
After this, we finally headed over to the Bryson City Depot, to climb aboard The Polar Express! This was the special surprise adventure that the Aged Ps had arranged – and it was pretty fun sitting inside the old fashioned steam engine chugging along in the quiet wilderness, enjoying mugs of hot chocolate and singing christmas carols.
The train took us on a journey to “the North Pole”, which was basically a tour of houses along the track which were bespangled with multicoloured fairy lights. Most of the other kids on the train were dressed appropriately in pyjamas and were carrying their own copies of The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg to read along with the narrators on the train.
Of course, the highlight of the tour was when Santa Claus came round and gave each little child a small silver sleigh bell (from his reindeer, of course). J and Little E are just young enough to be properly enchanted by this whole experience, so they were thrilled about meeting Santa Claus.
The Aged Ps had not realised how far away Bryson City, North Carolina was from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and how driving back through the Great Smoky Mountains would be in the pitch black darkness with no streetlights. We were too nervous to drive through the mountain highway (although it was the quicker, shorter route back), so we took the Interstate which goes around the whole mountain range. It took about 3 hours to get back to our hotel, with the kids sleeping soundly in the back of the car the whole way.