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TENNESSEE'S HIDDEN GEM
 
(2018 - Spring/Summer Issue)

Writer: JULIE REKAI RICKERD



When we needed a short getaway, an activity-filled long weekend in East Tennessee fit the bill.

We chose Knoxville, Tennessee, a city of about 186,000, as the base for adventures that began when we checked into our hotel, The Tennessean, which is perfectly located within walking distance of most of the sites we planned to visit. Our palatial room looked out onto Knoxville’s unique landmark, the Sunsphere, a tower built for the city’s 1982 World’s Fair. Free to visitors, its observation deck features a spectacular 360-degree view of the city and surrounding area.

CITY SITES

Once settled, we walked to Market Square, the heart of Knoxville’s downtown core. Founded in 1853 as a farmers’ market, it evolved into a cultural, commercial, political and culinary gathering place. Most of the buildings around the square date back to between 1870 and 1930. Associated with the early development of country music and described in detail in novels by local literary giants James Agee and Cormac McCarthy, it remains a favourite gathering place for musicians and artists. Outdoor artworks are ubiquitous around the square and their plaques very cleverly bear the name of their creators, their contact information and the price of each work, almost all of which are for sale.

Having worked up an appetite we ate dinner at the Maple Hall Bowling Alley. The jocks among us immediately occupied two of its 11 lanes in hot competition, stopping only to share our feast of gourmet snacks: wings, fried pickles, pretzel bites, barbecue treats, hummus, fries, quesadillas, dips and great salsa.

The next morning, after a breakfast of French crêpes available in 15 savoury and 13 sweet versions at The French Market Crêperie, we drove 6.5 kilometres to Zoo Knoxville. Beautifully laid out over 21.5 hectares and featuring plenty of space for animals and visitors, the zoo has developed since 1948 into one of the world’s most successful breeding facilities for endangered species like Madagascar flat-tailed tortoises, and in the future, Malayan tigers, of which only 400 remain in the wild and 70 in zoos.  As we strolled through the grounds, we witnessed the close, loving relationships between the animals and their keepers. Feeding a giraffe was definitely a bonus.

Back in town we popped into the lobby of the Holiday Inn Hotel to see the world’s largest Rubik’s cube, a gift from Hungary for Knoxville’s World’s Fair.

Walking to the Tennessee Theatre, built in 1928 by Paramount Pictures as a deluxe movie palace, we marvelled at its Czech crystal chandeliers, the Italian Terrazzo flooring in the grand lobby and the Wurlitzer organ once played prior to screenings. The venue welcomed such celebrities as Tom Mix, Glenn Miller and Donald O’Connor who promoted their films. Television sent the theatre into decline but it was renovated and restored in time for the World’s Fair. Its 1,650-seat auditorium now presents live theatre, opera, concerts, ballet performances, Broadway shows and a classical film series.

Directly across the street, the Tennessee Historical Society comprises the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, a first-class genealogical research library, and the Museum of East Tennessee History. The museum displays 300 years of the region’s 35 counties as well as divisions on the Cherokee Nation, pioneers, Civil War, country music, women’s suffrage, “hillbillies” and more. There are also replicas of an old street, a drug store and a vintage streetcar, all complemented by interactive recordings and videos providing accounts of what life was like then.

As an interlude, we enjoyed the WDVX Blue Plate Special, a live performance noon-hour radio show of bluegrass and Americana music at the WDVX studio—a free event to which we brought our own lunch; however, we could also have ordered it on-site.

Wonderful treasures awaited us at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Among its highlights were works by local artists Catherine Wiley, an American Impressionist, and Richard Jolley, one of today’s most inventive glass sculptors. His Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity is one of the largest figurative glass and steel assemblages in the world. Made of blown, cast and acid-etched glass as well as welded steel, it measures four metres high and 32 metres long, weighs seven to eight tons and took five years to create. The work has a seven-part narrative: primordial, emergence, flight, desire, tree of life, contemplation and sky. Wiley’s works fit in well with another exhibition, American Impressionism: The Lure of the Artists’ Colony, which also included paintings by Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam and Robert Reid.

We enjoyed a superb dinner at the Bistro at the Bijou, a farm-to-table restaurant that offers three seasonal menus often interspersed with Appalachian specialties such as collard greens, grits, cornbread and chicken with dumplings. Back at the hotel we couldn’t resist trying bartender Ian Mahaffy’s signature cocktail, a Smoked Old Fashioned, which was as much fun to watch being made as it was to drink.

BEYOND CITY LIMITS

On our third day, we drove to the notorious “secret city” of Oak Ridge where, on a vast 24,300-hectare property, 75,000 scientists and their support staff developed the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. The compound’s American Museum of Science and Energy is a cornucopia of scientific information and history, where, among many scientific marvels, we learned about the techniques required to separate uranium 235 from uranium 238 by means of calutrons for the making of bombs. Many other buildings can be toured by visitors but those actively in use are restricted because they continue to develop leading-edge technologies.

After a wonderful Appalachian lunch at the Museum of Appalachia, 32 kilometres north of Knoxville, we explored the remarkable complex. Founded in 1969 with one log cabin, the museum now encompasses over 26 hectares, dozens of historic log structures (including Mark Twain’s family cabin) and exhibit halls filled with countless mountain relics, musical instruments and elaborately carved furniture showcasing how mountain people survived hardship with nothing but their faith, creativity and wits to help them: “What we had is what we made ourselves.”

Driving back to The Tennessean we regretted not having time to avail ourselves of hiking and biking along the self-guided trails of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. Located a mere five minutes from downtown, it boasts one of the only double-black-diamond bike trails in the Southeast. Non-bikers enjoy over 80 kilometres of multi-use trails, 10 parks, four Civil War sites, sensational views and extraordinary natural features.

Next time, for sure!

Travel Planner

Delta Airlines offers daily service from various Canadian gateways to Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport. For more information, visit:

Knoxville Visitors Center: visitknoxville.com

State of Tennessee’s Department of Tourist Development: tnvacation.com

Atomic Heritage Foundation: atomicheritage.org

East Tennessee Historical Society: easttnhistory.org

Knoxville Museum of Art: knoxart.org

Museum of Appalachia: museumofappalachia.org

Outdoor Knoxville: outdoorknoxville.com/urban-wilderness

Tennessee Theatre: tennesseetheatre.com

The Tennessean Hotel: thetennesseanhotel.com

WDVX Studio: wdvx.com

 
 
 
 
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