Gatlinburg is quite unlike anywhere I’ve ever experienced before. The place I could probably kind of compare it to, at a push, would be Vegas. Except without the casinos. With a lot more countryside instead. The Vegas comparison comes from it’s larger than life feeling, but that’s mostly where it ends. And I actually liked it a whole lot better than Vegas, to be perfectly honest.
I’ve never been the kind of traveller to turn my nose up at tourist attractions and destinations, as long as it gives you a great experience and provides some fun, who the hell actually cares? In the end, it’s all about doing what you enjoy, and everyone enjoys different things. And that’s cool.
There are probably lots out there who would turn their nose up at Gatlinburg, to call it a gaudy tourist trap, with more than its fair share of cheesy attractions. But as we explored more, I found myself really embracing its outlandish charm. Because y’know what? This place is quirky. It’s offbeat. It’s unusual. Gatlinburg is FUN. And I’m all about the fun. Screw your travel snobbery, here’s a rundown of what we got up to, and why you should pay a visit.
I mean, I drank 22 shots of moonshine in one day, for a start.
For two nights, we made ourselves at home in the Gatlinburg Inn. Being my usual curious self, I’d already checked it out online and found the whole vibe of the place quite charming – although I’d half expected it to be on a quiet country lane than the main street of the town. Mind you, a lot of things about Gatlinburg kinda surprised me during the visit!
The inn had a rustic feel, with rocking chairs on the porch, lots of exposed wood and brickwork and a cosy lobby. The bedrooms were spacious and almost ‘log cabin’ like, with double doors leading onto a private balcony. Our twin room had two comfortable double beds, and all the standard mod cons you’d expect from a hotel. Overall? It was definitely cute. Totally the kind of place I enjoy staying – clean and functional, but with real character too.
Dinner at Loco Burro
Dinner for the night came in the form of Mexican, which I’m always down with. As I’d soon learn about many places in Gatlinburg, concept restaurant Loco Burro definitely goes to extremes with its decor. In the best possible way. Giant, cartoon style sculptures Mexican imagery – and an actual bucking bronco – filled the two interior floors of the venue, and our rooftop table gave us views of the main Gatliburg street (I can’t quite Vegas-ify it by calling it a ‘strip’), with atmospheric forest in the distance all around.
Loco Burro may seem like it’s a lot of style, but the food proved it has plenty of substance too. If there’s one thing I love to eat in the States, it’s a Mexican salad. We’re not talking a plate of sad lettuce with some dressing here. Hell no. The Southwest Chicken Salad I ordered had lettuce, but also came with…*deep breath* grilled chicken, corn, black beans, tomatoes, red onion, avocado, cucumber, bacon, Mexican cheese blend and Tortilla chips. Served not on a plate, but in a fried tortilla bowl which was legit the size of my head. I’ve never enjoyed a salad so much since the time I had a Southwest Chicken Salad in Los Angeles. These guys have totally got their salads sorted – and there are leaves involved, so it’s obviously healthy. Shh.
Post-dinner, a few of the group decided to grab some beers before bedtime, and found ourselves a sweet deal at the Smoky Mountain Brewery pub, which had a selection of beers on draught for just $2 each. Ultimate bargain.
Crockett’s Breakfast Camp
The cinnamon buns were a WHOLE WORLD of amazing. These are no standard English sized buns – Gatlinburg does ’em at least three times the size. Served with loads of sticky caramel and cream on top. I’m not even the biggest cinnamon fan usually, but quite like it in buns – and these ones were truly epic. Between a table of ten, along with our other loaded plates, we struggled to eat too.
Speaking of our loaded plates, the main breakfast dishes were just as impressive. I say plates…someone ended up going for the mega-massive The Black Bear Camp Skillet with all the trimmings.
Obviously, that someone was me.
See that pan in the bottom photo? Yep, that’s mine.
Pecan smoked bacon, cured ham, sausage and two fried eggs, served with biscuits (American-style biscuits, which are v. different to Hobnobs and more like scones) and grits (ground up corn that’s nicer than that description makes it sound). Oh, and a side of pancakes, which looked more like a Victoria sponge than a Shrove Tuesday special. And it was all VERY GOOD.
Not going hiking
Nope, we did not go hiking. Which is a slight shame, considering I really needed to walk off my skillet of breakfast.
We were meant to take a walk through the gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains, but ridiculous high winds put a stop to that. So we went for a little countryside drive instead. It was actually quite scary – branches were falling off trees, roads were blocked, and it all had a kind of apocalyptic feeling, like the beginning of a disaster movie. Scary, but really cool, because I’ve always kinda secretly loved disaster movies and could totally see myself averting a fictional end-of-the-world crisis.
On the drive, we learnt that fires had recently devastated parts of the town, and that locals had lost homes, businesses, and even lives. You might look at the brightness and attractions of tourist destinations, but to people who live in these places, that tourism is their livelihood and the town their home. We were lucky enough to get to know a few local people, and talk to them about Gatlinburg and their lives there. Even behind the most obvious of holiday destinations, there are people making and living their lives. And those lives are super interesting to me.
Shopping in Gatlinburg
What does one do when hiking’s off the table? Browse the shops, of course.
Gatlinburg’s shopping Village is pretty different to any other shopping village I’ve encountered. It’s cosy, centred around a courtyard with a fountain and passages stretching off it. I’d say it has an almost Disney-esque vibe, with the cute signs, cottage-like buildings and tons of personality. The shops range from hiking gear and candles to hot sauce and fine art, and even if you’re not in the buying business, they’re really fun to look around.
My favourite was, obviously, the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen. Packed with sweet treats, I managed to resist buying twenty boxes of fudge and a cuddly monkey. Just.
There are also some great puns to be found. The Donut Friar, anyone?
Go Karting and Mini Golf at Cooters
Even though the aforementioned hiking plans were cancelled, there’s still plenty to do in Gatlinburg. Which is why our next stop was Cooters – a Dukes of Hazzard themed venue where you can ride go karts. Awesome, right?
While the go karts were warmed up for us, it was time for a spot of nine hole mini golf. The course takes you around the upstairs of the building, where Dukes of Hazzard pictures and merch line the walls. It was pretty much perfectly in-keeping with the quirky, vibrant setting of Gatlinburg. Anywhere else, this’d normally be kinda strange – here, it felt strangely kinda normal.
Although the go kart track was pretty small, I got super into it as I rounded each corner and slammed my foot down on the accelerator. Trying to overtake the others without crashing into the barrier, smelling the burning rubber. This was hella fun. And I only span out ONCE. Supreme driving skills, right there.
Pizza at Mellow Mushroom
Girl gotta get her pizza. Seriously, I’d been in the States for about four days and hadn’t had a big slice of cheesy tomato-based goodness yet. I was kinda worried I was ill, to be honest.
Mellow Mushroom definitely rectified this problem. Come at me, cheese, sausage meat and jalapenos.
There was just SO MUCH cheese I almost didn’t know what to do with myself as I potentially died of dairy-induced happiness. Seriously. Very good pizza. My main regret is getting a small rather than a large. Although as a result, I ate all my crusts.
Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery
Gatlinburg is home to multiple moonshine distilleries. When you think of moonshine, you probably think of illegally brewed stuff from the back of a bearded hillbilly’s car, which I definitely didn’t partake in on my last trip to the States in a car park next to the Ocoee river. Y’know, the stuff that’ll make ya blind (spoiler alert: my eyesight survived intact).
Thankfully, the distilleries in Gatlinburg are perfectly legal and regulated, making up high-proof distilled spirits from corn mash. Which, as the Ole Smokey Distillery tour showed, looks like a REALLY strange thing to make booze from. We managed to see moonshine in various stages of the making process, and learnt a bit about how the stuff is concocted. Which was pretty interesting.
Once we’d been shown how the stuff was made, it was time for the best bit…the tasting. Lining up along one of the bars in the store, we were presented with small shot glasses (probably about 1/3-1/2 the size of a normal shot, which was a blessing as I definitely wouldn’t have survived…) and taken through a moonshine menu featuring peach, fruit punch and ‘Snow Cream’ liquor. One of my favourites was the blackberry, which I picked up a jar of to take home.
After all the moonshine drinking, I had to have a little hotel lie down because I felt funny.
Smoky Mountain Trout House
As if we hadn’t stuffed our faces enough in Gatlinburg, dinner time rolled around again, and we made our way to local family-owned restaurant, Smoky Mountain Trout House.
My main course was by far the healthiest thing I’d had to eat since my plane landed. Grilled trout, served with broccoli. I totally felt the goodness surging into my veins as the nutrients from the broccoli hit my carb-loaded body. Yeah. The good stuff.
The food at Smoky Mountain Trout House really felt like it had been lovingly made, from the unusual sounding but delicious blueberry salad dressing (trust me, it REALLY worked), to the crisp-skinned, super fresh trout. Despite being terrified I’d have no room after all the day’s consumption, this went down very quickly!
Obviously, the whole healthy dinner business was ruined by er…more moonshine tasting.
This time, we hit up Sugarlands Distillery, for a second tour and tasting. The distillery itself had a really cool, steampunk industrial vibe with big copper machinery. The tours are definitely both worth doing if you’re interested, as they were quite different and talked about their brewing methods in very different ways.
The second moonshine tasting of the day came courtesy of Sugarlands hero O’Dammit (great name), who packed the session with a ton of energy and enthusiasm. A few flavours were similar to Ole Smoky’s, but there were also some different ones to try – and I ended up coming away with jars of Hazelnut Rum and Chocolate Orange moonshine. Yes. My cases were very full of moonshine…
After our distillery tours, a few of us headed for another night in the Ole Smokey Brewery for more $2 beers. Because at that price, who wouldn’t? As the storm got worse outside, we sat at the same table dissecting Gatlinburg and some of life’s big conversations, until suddenly, the power went out. As if the disaster movie vibes weren’t enough, we were sat in a pitch black pub with a raging storm outside
Luckily, the only disastrous thing that actually happened was me walking into the cleaning cupboard instead of out of the door when I went to the loo.
As the rain eased off, we left the pub and went to bed, ready to leave early in the morning to head to our next stop. Gatlinburg may be kinda OTT, but it’s a whole lot of fun. Despite the artifice and cartoon-town like features, it has a much more authentic vibe to it. Like, it’s kinda gaudy and ridiculous, but the locals buy into it. It has a much more relaxed feel to big cities and the showy-ness of Vegas, and the countryside surroundings make it feel less purposefully touristy, in some ways. It’s weird and silly but also honest and real, falling perfectly somewhere between those extremes to be a pretty damn lovely place.
I actually fell a bit in love with Gatlinburg – there’s honestly nowhere else I’ve been quite like it.
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