In June of 2021 I sold the Lexus Ls460L to Dani and we took a road trip to transfer the car from Orlando to Chicago. It was our first trip since the Pandemic began in March 2020, so we started out rather gingerly, with AirBnB’s booked along the route, wearing masks, and only dining outdoors. But after traveling through Georgia and spending a lot of time in Tennessee, we got used to the laissez-faire attitude prevalent everywhere and loosened up. By the time we reached Chicago, all mask mandates had been lifted, and life was starting to return to normal.
Here are photos from our trip along with a chronology.
The longest drive of the trip was from Orlando to Atlanta, so we wanted to get it over in a hurry. We stopped along the way for a good hamburger at Espresso 41 Coffee Roasters in Tipton, GA.
We checked into the Atlanta Lama Luxury Cottage, and AirBnB at a small llama and alpaca rescue farm owned by two women, one of whom it turned out knew Linda from WDI days! It’s to the southeast of Atlanta, in a nice area of wooded rolling hills. Lovely cottage.
Arrived in time to host the weekly Wednesday AMI Wine Zoom (we brought the wines for the next two weeks).
Fed the llamas carrots, and had dinner at a nice place they recommended in the gayborhood, Argosy.
Visited the Georgia Aquarium. Dani wasn’t expecting much, since she grew up at SeaWorld, but when we entered the tank with three full-size whale sharks swimming overhead, her jaw dropped.
Visited the Cocal Cola museum, which still gives you the ability to taste the more interesting soft drinks they make in other parts of the word, but unfortunately doesn’t offer them for sale. Beverly from Israel is always my bitter favorite!
Visited S.O.S. Tiki bar. It’s neat inside, but we had drinks on the patio.
Picked up some sandwich makings at Public and headed for Gatlinburg, TN.
Stopped at Tallulah falls along the way. The visitor center and view were just meh. Had a picnic in the car.
Beautiful drive through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Stopped at an interesting mill and other abandoned cabins. Dani got an audio guide that provided interesting GPS-triggered narration as we drove.
Gatlinburg was a hell-hole. Traffic inching along the only road through town, and hordes of unmasked people packing the sidewalks. Nothing but tacky tourist chains–not the charming kind of home-grown tacky, just mass produced tourist traps, half of the seemingly owned by Ripley’s Corporation.
The AirBnB was fine (we had to bring our food in from the car because of bear warnings) but the traffic was so bad we just ordered really mediocre Mexican food delivered.
We decided to abandon our AirBnB a day early and I booked a night at The Tennessean Hotel in Knoxville.
In Gatlinburg we road the chairlift to the top of the mountain and walked across the glass Skybridge.
We got a cheap discount on a photo package with our tickets (well worth it), then another company tried to sell us different photos at the top!
We finished our Great Smoky Mountains audio tour outside of Gatlinburg, then drove through Pigeon Forge–another hell hole of tourist tacky, but more spread out than Gatlinburg.
The Tennessean is right next to the old World’s Fair site, the only obvious remnant of which is the Sunsphere. Nearby there’s a nice square with lots of restaurants, but it was bustling, and the good ones were all booked. Dani got a kick out of posing on Gay Street!
We had a lovely dinner at the hotel restaurant/bar, and also had breakfast there the next morning. Very gracious service and good cocktail mixology.
On the way to Chattanooga we stopped at Lost Sea Adventure, a neat lake in a fairly deep cave. It’s a nice cave walk, because there is less elevation change than you’d expect, since you enter from the side of the mountain. The lake is stocked with trout, and you go on a short boat ride to watch them being fed. Pretty cool.
Another nice AirBnB across the river from Downtown. We ate at a big outdoor place called State of Confusion.
Just a bit outside of Chattanooga is Ruby Falls, a very deep cave you need to take an elevator to access. This is a very well-developed site, and they use Alcorn McBride equipment to tell the engaging story of the caves discovery, and to put on a beautiful light show of the very tall waterfall at the end of the path. There are a few tight spots and low ceilings, so not for the claustrophobic.
Lunch was outside at Main Street Meats, and excellent deli. Then back to the AirBnB for the Monday Wine Club Zoom.
An OK breakfast at Ruby Sunshine, a local breakfast chain, and then on to Nashville.
We stopped at Old Stone Fort State Archeological Park, which has a decent visitor center, and a pleasant walk on the river, but there are really no runs to see here, just some mounds.
The Jack Daniel’s Distillery tour was excellent. Great visitor center, and we had an excellent guide who took us on a tour and conducted a tasting of four of their whiskeys. It was really interesting to learn that their whiskeys are all the same as far as production, barrels, and aging. The only difference is how high (and therefore hot) the barrels have been stored in the warehouse prior to bottling.
Our place in Nashville is the top level of a four unit townhome near the college. Quite nice to be a bit out of downtown. It was an easy walk to dinner at a tapas place, Barcelona Wine Bar, where we ate outside.
Lunch was downtown at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which was better than when I ordered it shipped during the pandemic, but not life-changing. I think I am over Nashville hot chicken.
We spent an hour at the Country Music Hall of Fame, which neither of us were interested in, but you have to in order to tour RCA Studio B, which was quite interesting. It’s where hundreds of hit records have been recorded, including most of Elvis’. It was fun seeing all the old recording equipment, having used much of it myself, and also interesting to get a peek into the still-operational modern control room.
Chopper is a great tiki bar! It has a giant robot over the bar, and robot-shaped tiki mugs. I had a tiki drink with coffee in it that I really liked. Here’s my approximation of the recipe:
Dopamine Tiki Drink from Chopper Nashville
Bourbon 1-1/2 oz.
Demerara rum 1-1/2 oz.
Coffee 1-1/2 oz.
Coconut Syrup 4 pumps (about 1 ounce)
Lemon 3/4 oz.
We had a nice dinner at Butcher & Bee, recommended by one of Dani’s friends who went to Nashville for graduate school.
After an okay breakfast at nearby Fido we headed for Memphis.
The Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum in Jackson, TN does a great job of presenting the history (and mythology) of that famous train wreck.
Our AirBnB in Memphis was in a particularly nice area, obviously the gayborhood, and walking distance to lots of restaurants. For dinner we walked to Alchemy and had a nice meal and cocktails on the sidewalk.
Another excellent restaurant was right around the block, so we had lunch outdoors at Central BBQ. Yum.
For me, one of the unexpected highlights of the trip was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Following a path through 25 very well-interpreted display rooms, you find yourself looking through a glass wall into the room where Martin Luther King was staying when he was assassinated. Seeing his everyday belongings scattered about the room really brought the reality of it home.
We stopped for a flight of bourbon at just a few blocks away, at Max’s Sports Bar. Max’s is owned by a couple who owned a condo next to our in Chicago, and they kindly invited us to drop by. At their suggestion we had the BBQ nachos, which were amazing, actually better than lunch at Central BBQ!
We drove along the river and stopped for ice cream at A Schwab, a vintage pharmacy selling tourist junk on tourist junky Beale Street.
After an excellent to-go breakfast from the very busy Cafe Eclectic, we headed for Branson.
Our first stop was at the Sultana Museum, right after crossing the river into Arkansas. The Sultana was a steamboat that sank, killing 2300 or so Union soldiers who had been prisoners of war and were being returned to the North at the end of the Civil War. It was the largest maritime disaster in US history, but hardly anyone has heard of it because it happened the week after Lincoln was assassinated. The museum was hosted by a very sweet, knowledgeable woman who gave every visitor a self-guided tour of their many displays, photos, and artifacts. Highly recommended.
Trying to avoid the interstate, our lunch stop was at Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant, which was still pretty much in pandemic mode, with almost no tables, and ordering at a desk. A lot of fried stuff, not that good.
At Justin’s suggestion, we stopped at Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail for a fun golf cart journey through a beautiful (but man-made) journey through rock work, waterfalls, a cave with a tiki bar in it, and an expansive view.
Then we made our way through Branson to our condo in a luxury resort, which involved very confusing directions and an odd, after-hours check-in procedure. But the room is beautiful. We ordered pizza delivered for dinner.
This is the day that desensitized us to pandemic crowds. We went to Silver Dollar City, and the place was packed. We started with a false sense of security on the Flooded Mine ride, which we had to ourselves. It’s a charming and nonsensical boat ride / shooting gallery through animated scenes of prisoners trying to deal with leaking water.
We didn’t have such luck at Mystic River Falls. It LOOKED like a reasonable line. 2-1/2 hours later(!) we boarded our river raft. I must say, though, that it was a great ride. And we got soaked.
I’m not sure why the throughput on that ride is so slow. It seemed like it could have handled a lot more boats, and some went through empty.
After a truly horrendous BBQ bowl and a cinnamon role to recover we headed to Walmart for dry shoes, Dinner at the nearby El Lago Mexican restaurant was surprisingly good, and the GIANT margaritas were great.
Before leaving Branson we stopped at the WORLD’s Largest Toy Museum Complex. They aren’t kidding. This is a highly recommended stop, with buildings full of every imaginable toy, curated by type and vintage. An hour was not nearly enough time to explore here.
I was surprised that I liked Branson. It’s tacky, but my kind of home-grown tacky; the roads are laid out on the ridge lines, so there are great views; and there are lots of alternate routes, so the traffic isn’t as bad as in some tourist areas.
We had lunch at the Funk Yard in the gloriously tacky Uranus, Missouri, where every employee is in on the pre-teen joke (“The best fudge comes from Uranus.”)
We made a brief stop at t. James Winery, which has been a long-time supporter of the Florida State Fair Wine Competition where I’ve judged for the past 30 years. Typical of hot, humid states their wines are mostly really sweet. I bought a Pink Catawba and a Concord, both of which ended up being enjoyed as mixers during the following week.
Our last night was spent at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis. Road construction made it so difficult to get to this hotel that we just had dinner in the lobby at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.
The drive from St. Louis to Chicago is almost as tedious as the one from Orlando to Atlanta. We stopped at 217 Roadhouse Bar and Grill, where the hamburger was a lot nicer than the server.
And then, by late after noon, we arrived at out condos, and Dani was reunited with Trish.
Best of all, the car fits in the garage.