Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Gatlinburg was an interesting Appalachian experience to say the least, but it was only a set-up for what was to come. Now, you have to understand, I’m a California beach person so anything east of the Mississippi is going to be met with wonder and sometimes, just plain old jaw-dropping amazement. And, Pigeon Forge delivered big-time on the last one. 


 Pigeon Forge

All of you Dolly Parton fans will recognize Pigeon Forge as the home of Dollywood and there’s a reason; this is Dolly's home turf. Born the fourth of twelve children, her early life is well documented as is her love of this gorgeous country and the people in it. But it wasn’t until she was approached to invest in an already existing theme park did she find a way to be a blessing to her people. Her name and business savvy turned the modest park (renamed Dollywood) into a huge success, and in doing so, provided incomes to this once impoverished area.

I had no idea what to expect as we drove into Pigeon Forge, but I was not prepared for what I saw! The road we were on opened up into a broad avenue lined with what I can only describe as huge Las Vegas style edifices to entertainment. Clearly influenced by the Las Vegas Strip, the facades were just as gaudy and eye-catching. However, unlike Vegas, here it is all about the family and every kind of entertainment and thrills and chills rides you can imagine. This is in addition to Dollywood which is located several miles out of town. All I can say is bring your wallet. You’re gonna need it!

For something to do, we chose to go to a Titanic exhibition, which I would recommend only if you haven’t ever been to one. This had very few actual artifacts from the sunken ship. What you get are mock-ups of some of the rooms and areas complete with sound effects etc. The most impressive exhibit was a very large model of the Titanic a young man did with Legos. The exterior did provide some good photo-ops though.

My travel buddies and best friends, Tom, Kay and Gayle

More interesting to me was an “adult” area of Pigeon Forge where an old gristmill (now a restaurant and very cool gift shop) still stands by a lovely river. The mill was established in 1830 and bought by a distant relative of mine, John Sevier Trotter in 1849. The food was finger-lickin’-good as was the ice-cream across the street. Oh yes, and don't forget to visit the fresh-from-the-still moonshine store!

Sevierville and John Sevier

You will find the name, Sevier, all over Tennessee.  Sevierville is in Sevier County and so on. So, who was he? Well, besides being one of my great-great etc. ancestors, John Sevier, a pioneer, and Revolutionary War hero, almost single handedly created the state. He had help of course, but back when the territory was under North Carolina control, he moved all of his family and his extended family (which was huge) into what is now Tennessee along the Nolichucky River. Later, he and his brothers fought a decisive victory against the British who had sought to defeat the Patriots by an eastern assault. Sevier was a natural leader, very much like his Commander and Chief, George Washington, and when No. Carolina released its claim on its northern territory so that it could become a state, John Sevier was voted its first Governor.

Sevierville was named after John Sevier by a good friend and supporter. The town is also very proud of the fact that Dolly Parton grew up there. Unfortunately, we didn’t spend a lot of time in Sevierville. It looked like a charming little town. We did stop at the Sevier County Court House, a beautiful old building with monuments to not only Dolly but to John Sevier who is almost as famous as Dolly 😊!


Sunday, August 6, 2023


The Breath-taking Beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains 
And, The Most Visited National Park in the Nation!
(Image courtesy of Google Images)

One of the reasons I wanted to tour the Smoky Mountains (besides going on another memorable trip with my Besties) was to be able to see where some of my direct ancestors had lived. I had been surprised to learn, in my research for an ancestral biography I was writing, that many of my Stewart, Franklin and Sevier ancestors all had homesteaded around North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee as far back as the 17th century. I wondered what was so special about this particular area that had drawn my several times great-grandparents to it? This trip was going to be so much more exciting because of the possibility of connecting with them in a deeper way, and I knew that would only be possible when I could immerse myself in the areas where they had lived.


After my friends and I arrived in Asheville, North Carolina, we began to hear the terrain around us called by several names: Smoky Mts., Blue Ridge Mts., and the Appalachians. At first it was confusing until I looked at a topographical map and saw that they are all a part of a large chain of mountains that stretch from Maine to Mississippi. The Smokies encompass the entire area between North Carolina and Tennessee and are a smaller mountain range bordered by the Blue Ridge Mts. to the south and the Appalachians to the north.

Double click on the picture for a full screen view.

The Cherokee Nation considered these mountains sacred and named them, “the place of blue smoke,” which the early pioneers translated to Smoky Mountains. And, they truly do emit a blue colored fog, which surprisingly comes from plants. Plants emit a natural gas that have a distinctive scent but they also release vapor, and that vapor, together with millions of other plants, creates a smoky appearance. The bluish tint of the fog also comes from the gas in the vapor by scattering blue light from the sky. It indeed gives one the feeling of ethereal spirituality the Cherokee Nation honored.


Skirting around the northern edge of the Smokies on the I-40, we left Ashville, NC and headed for Gatlinburg, TN where we settled into our motel (more on this Appalachian experience later!) We looked forward to taking a daytrip through a very iconic part of the Smokies called Cades Cove, an isolated valley located about an hour and twenty minutes from Gatlinburg.

Just getting there felt like a fireworks show. Every turn of the bend was a 'Wow!" moment. The scenery is absolutely breath-taking, so lush and thick with emerald green vegetation. We stopped first at the awesome Sugarland’s Visitor’s Center where we loaded up on maps and souvenirs. (Don't miss stopping here! It is probably the best visitor's center I've ever seen.) From there we followed the winding route of the Little River; every square inch of which is absolutely gorgeous!

The road along the Little River


The Cherokee Nation had called this verdant valley home for over 8,000 years before American pioneers began to settle there around 1818. They quickly replaced the Cherokee population as they set about clearing land, building log homes, barns, corncribs and smokehouses. They found the land rich and fertile, producing abundant crops. Everyone grew corn which called for a gristmill to be built early on. A very religious group, a church meeting house seemed to be built every few miles, including Missionary Baptist, Primitive Baptist, and a Methodist Church.

The states of Tennessee and North Carolina saw the tremendous value in preserving the area for the enjoyment of all people and began to buy up the land to donate to the Federal Government in 1927. It officially became a National Park in 1934. Because of their visionary efforts, many of the original log cabins, churches and settlements were preserved.


Gatlinburg lies in a tiny valley with towering mountains rising up on either side filled with trees, vines and lush vegetation. Visually it is a pleasant place to be for the three days we were there, but unfortunately the town’s main income, tourism, has blighted the landscape. We took a ride down main street and were shocked by the wall-to-wall commercialism. It seemed to be comprised of one noisy arcade or fast-food shop after another. And, even though it wasn’t tourist season, the place was full of people, most with children in tow. On a walk after dinner one night, we discovered a shop selling all things Trump next door to a store that sold all things sharp and lethal. I could have bought a really nice set of brass knuckles or a key ring made of a shotgun shell with my name on it. But I resisted the temptation.

Our motel, advertised as a 4-star establishment, was woefully overstated. First of all, the bedsprings squeaked (which actually made us laugh every time someone moved), a lamp was missing, leaving an exposed electrical box, no coffee maker (we had to go down a steep hill to the office and make our own), and a combination cramped bathtub, sink and clothes rod (no closet) was so small, we had to take a number to use it. 

Oh, and the view! I dubbed it “The Hatfield and McCoy Cottage” complete with laundry facilities and a sofa bed on the veranda for those unexpected guests. The trailer seemed to be a permanent fixture serving as shade for a makeshift vegetable garden grown underneath. And this place wasn’t exactly cheap. A survey of other nicer looking places to stay revealed obscenely high prices, so our Appalachian accommodations didn’t seem so bad after that.

Of course, there are many nice places to go in Gatlinburg, wonderful dining and shops galore that sell hand crafted items—just not on the main street of town. So do your homework and you will enjoy your stay! Also, remember that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the Nation so try to avoid visiting during the height of the season!

NEXT TIME:  Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Dollywood!

Thursday, June 22, 2023


So, you’ve done the “Palace and Castle” tours of France, England and Italy and you can’t imagine anything more spectacular than those. Well, Friends, prepare to have your socks knocked off!

The Biltmore has always been one of the top places on my list of things I really, really have always wanted to see, and thanks to my BFF’s and travel buddies, Kay and Tom, my wish was fulfilled a few weeks ago. After several years of planning a road trip through the Smoky Mountains, we finally set a date and made our reservations. Flying into the Raleigh Airport in North Carolina, we joined up with our friend, Gayle, rented a car and headed for Asheville and my dream destination, the Biltmore!


Asheville is gorgeous. One of the top producers of American made furniture, it is easy to see why. The quaint town is in the midst of hundreds of miles of lush, green forests so thick it’s a wonder the first pioneers ever found their way through them. George Vanderbilt so loved this area that he decided to build a home here to take in the spectacular views. The result is one of the most beautiful homes I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen some of the best.

There is so many positive things to say about the Biltmore that I could gush on and on for hours, however I will spare you that agony and encourage you to read the links I have provided at the end of this blog to give you more detailed information. I will say this: I could live there for the rest of my life and the next one. Happily. It would like being on a perpetual episode of Downton Abbey complete with all the upstairs, downstairs drama. I could easily imagine what it must have been like at the turn of the 20th century, filled with laughing and lighthearted guests and family coming and going after playing golf or riding the trails on horse back or just taking a stroll through 75 acres of exotic gardens…because this 250-room home was built by George Vanderbilt expressly for the pleasure of his family and guests.

The thrills begin at the main gatehouse just outside downtown Asheville. George Vanderbilt hired one of the best landscape architects in America, Frederick Olmsted, (who designed Central Park in New York) to transform hundreds of acres of worn-out farm land into a paradise of natural beauty. Olmsted designed a three-mile entry road that would leisurely take Vanderbilt’s guests up to the home. On the way the guests could admire the beauty of the carefully cultivated landscape thick with flowering rhododendron, azaleas, evergreens and countless natural plants. It was designed to hide the house from view by the vegetation until at the very end of the road where it is suddenly revealed…and the effect is stunning! Built in the style of a French chateau, it rises out of the landscape like the jewel it is. It literally took my breath away.

Our tour of the house was wonderfully managed. Only a few guests are allowed in at one time and I thankfully never felt rushed or overwhelmed by a crowd of visitors. We were given plenty of time to see everything and best of all, take a ton of pictures! (*Be sure to book your tickets well in advance!)

As we passed through the huge ornate doors of the main entrance, we were welcomed into a spacious light-filled entry hall, but our attention was immediately drawn to the Winter Garden on our right. If I lived here, I would never leave this space. Chocked full of tropical and flowering plants (all grown in the Estate’s gardens and greenhouses), it is softly lit by an immense skylight. Scattered around the tiled floor are comfortable seating areas, perfect for curling up with a good book.

The home is decorated with the finest antiques and furnishings which Vanderbilt spent months shopping for all over the world. Yet for all of its luxury, it feels like a comfortable home. First of all, it is built with large windows everywhere in order to take in the spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance and the carefully planned panoramas of the surrounding landscape. The rooms are spacious, each opening up to the other giving one the feel of a wonderful, light-filled space.

To the right of the Winter Garden is the jaw-dropping main dining room. Designed to be able to seat dozens of people or serve an intimate dinner in front of the fire, it is impressive for its size and appointments. At one end is a pipe organ whose workings take up an entire room in the basement.

Antique mantle and print in the music room.

Smaller dinning room with portraits by Singer Sargent.

A sitting area next to the Winter Garden and opening onto the loggia.

Spectacular view looking west toward the Blue Ridge Mountains from the loggia. The home is built to be able to take in the magnificent views from any room in the house.

The long room is designed to enjoy the west facing views and is a wonderful spot to take tea, read a book or just sit and talk. The antique tapestries that line the walls are vibrant and stunning. Every room is equipped with one or more fireplaces even though the house has central heating. It was built with all of the modern conveniences of the time, including telephones and electricity. Each bedroom had its own bathroom.

The library was George Vanderbilt's favorite place and is filled with thousands of hand picked volumes. There is a hidden entry to the library behind the fireplace so that it could be accessed from the second story bedrooms. The painted ceiling is reminiscent of Versailles.

The spiral staircase as seen from inside and outside of the home is an architectural gem.

George Vanderbilt thought of everything his guests could do no matter the weather. There is a heated indoor pool, a state-of-the-art exercise room, a billiards room, a two lane bowling alley, lawns for golfing, croquet, lakes, ponds and a river for fishing and boating, trails for horse back riding, and acres of gardens for just leisurely strolling. Of course, I loved the gardens...

My BFF, Kay. Celebrating our 60th Friendship Anniversary!
Looking good, Sister!

The greenhouse. All of the flowers and foliage used throughout the house are grown on the property.

Before we left, we had lunch in the converted stable next to the house. Even the horses lived in luxury! I had a pina colada milk shake from their dairy bar that was the best thing I ate on the trip! All of the dairy products are from the estates own dairies. The estate was always designed to be a self-sustaining enterprise. 

**You can click on any picture for a full sized slide show.

The attached links will tell you much, much more about this amazing house and its history. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 1, 2022



    Sitting atop a massive volcanic outcropping, Stirling Castle dominates the landscape.

If you want a swashbuckling tale of bravery and betrayal, murder and intrigue, the story of Stirling Castle has it all. From William Wallace, Braveheart himself, to Mary Queen of Scots, more famous names are associated with this towering edifice than another place you can name. Kings and queens made their beds there giving birth to more kings and queens. As the gateway to the highlands of Scotland, it saw many a bloody battle fought over it year after bloody year. The Romans learned to leave it alone, but the British were more persistent. The Scots lost it to the British only to gain it back and lose it again and again until James VI became the first Scottish King of England and settled the matter. 

The story of Stirling is the story of Scotland

In the beginning, as all good tales are told, the land to the far north of England was a wild and rugged place. Not even the mighty Romans, who sought to rule the island, could conquer the ferocious people who lived there. Like demons they were, with their painted faces and long streaming hair they fought like wild cats and knew no fear. The Romans named the painted ones, Picts, while, the others they called, Scoti, Latin for the Gaels. Interesting enough, the original “Scoti” migrated from Ireland, settling on the western part of what is now Scotland while tribes of “Picts” inhabited the eastern part. Over the centuries, they eventually merged into the unique Scottish people we know today.

Stirling Castle sits atop a massive volcanic outcropping that has been a Scottish stronghold since ancient times. Strategically placed, it guarded what was, until the 1890’s, the farthest downstream crossing of the River Forth. To get to the highlands, and to avoid going upriver where the Forth widened into a marshy and treacherous crossing, invaders needed to cross Stirling Bridge. This narrow wooden bridge made William Wallace, Braveheart, famous.

In 1297, during the First War of Scottish Independence, a British force of thousands led by John de Warenne, The Earl of Surrey, stormed the bridge only to be defeated by Scottish fighters led by Braveheart. The British lost over 5,000 men to Wallace’s few. An incredible triumph, it is celebrated by the Scottish to this day. A towering monument to Wallace sits a few miles away from the castle as a reminder that Scotland’s heart will always be free.

King Robert the Bruce takes pride of place on the castle grounds, but it is the monument to William Wallace that commands attention.

Monument to Braveheart, William Wallace

A private tour of the castle

It had been another nonstop day of rain when my friends, Kay, Tom and I arrived late in the afternoon to tour Stirling Castle. Most of the tourists had already left so we practically had the place to ourselves. We discovered this strategy by accident, but now I highly recommend it! Come late—no crowds!

The entrance meant to be foreboding, leads us into a medieval courtyard. Nothing fancy here, it none the less has plush interiors to soften the utilitarian exteriors. 

The Great Hall

 The Great Hall, the largest in all of Scotland was built to entertain in lavish style.

The huge hall could hold hundreds of guests and has 5 immense fireplaces. Imagine all the gorging and butt grabbing that took place. Ah, good times!


Queens in our own minds, Kay and I command the royal dais!

The Palace, built for James V and his French Queen, Mary of Guise, was also occupied later by their daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots.

The Palace was closed for remodeling when we visited, however we were given a taste of what it would look like hung with these magnificent tapestries. These exact replicas of the original wall hangings were made in a special studio on the castle grounds. To see the finished Palace in all of it's splendor, click on the link:

The weather cleared long enough to take this picture from the Castle toward the town of Sterling.

Practically alone in the castle, we sensed echoes of the past around every corner.

For more information on Stirling Castle, click on the link: