Thursday, April 28, 2016

Virginia / Tennessee Trip

In April we had a fun family vacation to Virginia and Tennessee to visit a dear friend of Jacob's from his mission, Lora Haynes. Her health has not been good and we weren't sure if we would see her again if we didn't make this trip.

Early in the morning on Saturday, April 23, we got Jacob's friend Jeremy's assistance in parking at his house (by UNM) and him dropping us off for our Delta flight. Before the flight even took off both of our kiddos made their way to the cockpit to visit with the pilots. They were nice enough to let the check out a couple things before the flight took off.

 Future pilots!
 Having so much fun!

We arrived in the tri-cities airport just after lunchtime, and walked off the plane onto the landing area where we headed into the tiny airport (only a single terminal with 4 hubs for planes to board passengers) to get our rental car. 

Tyler was cute as he took every opportunity he could to jump over cracks in the ramps whenever we were in an airport queue. The airport had large bowls of candy which the kids got to take from each time we were at this airport.

Once we had our car seats secured in our rental Toyota Camry, we decided to forgo eating fast food like burger king, and instead, guided by Yelp, headed to Johnson City where we ate at Scratch Brick Oven Foodworks.

Since their pizza took awhile to cook, the kids walked up and down the street and explored the little parking lot out back while we waited. They had a good selection of sodas we shared, and delicious cheesesticks. I wasn't the biggest fan of the pizza itself, but Jacob liked it. Afterwards we spent the rest of our afternoon at the "Hands On!" regional museum, where we got in free because of our Explora membership (Explora is part of the ASTC passport program). The kids got to explore the innards of a car, crawl around a coal mine, play with light, money, and bubbles, and pose inside a plane and tractor.

Noah's Ark remake

After we found our hotel, we bought some drinks at the Dollar General that was right next door, then went to the famous Purple Cow for some take out dinner. We only spent $20 despite ordering a feast from there -- fries, a pb&banana sandwich, hot dog, burgers, shakes, etc

Sunday April 24 is Lora's birthday. We drove to her house in the morning, which was only an hour from our hotel. We spent a few hours with her and also saw some of her kids and grandkids. Her daughter kept asking how long we were staying, and suggested we go down to Pigeon Forge if we had time. We took her advice the following days! But this day, after leaving Lora's, we headed towards the Bristol Caverns via Blountville.

We first stopped at a Pal's in Gate City, Virginia to eat some of their yummy food, and were disappointed to realize we couldn't sit down to eat there. We ended up eating parked at a gas station in the car, and also driving, which was just as well since we barely made it for the very last Bristol Caverns tour of the day (5:00pm).

The Bristol Caverns were amazing! We missed the penultimate tour for a restroom break and so started out by looking around the gift shop, and found some fun souvenirs for our kiddos! The coolest thing we found was a "mining ore" bag full of sand, which you have to sift to find hidden gemstones inside. They fortunately let us take it with us at the airport, after doing a chemical trace test on the outside of the sealed bag.

Our tour guide was young and knowledgeable, and we happened to be the only people going on his tour. Although the caverns aren't as deep as Carlsbad, they were maybe even cooler because an active river flowed through them, and there was wildlife (we saw subterranean fish and crawdads and some other kind of creature) and lots of dripping water. We were very close to the formations and it was a much more personal experience than Carlsbad. We learned about how the caverns were discovered and the Indians that would hide in them after stealing from the European settlers. 

Driving back after our tour, Jacob saw a fireworks shop in Blountville and felt like stopping to get some. He came into the car with a bag filled with what he thought were magic wand-type roman candle fireworks. Elise got into them and starting peeling their wrapping while we drove to our hotel. We went to El Loco Taco for dinner, which had some really yummy food, and then stopped by the nearby Walmart to get a lighter, some soda and other sundry things.

Jacob took us outside the hotel, between it and an apartment complex where there were some trees and glass, so he could show off the fireworks to the kids. He lit one in his hand, and held the tube toward the side of the hotel. Instead of a harmless colored ball coming out, these roman candles were filled with exploding shells like the big fireworks at a show, and it was very loud and hot. The candle held four charges, and the second one that fired he turned in panic toward a tree and away from us, but the kickback from firing caused him to drop the tube and we fled in haste and panic back to our hotel room. Thank goodness no one saw us, and no one got hurt! Now we just had to hide our goods from hotel staff that might find them while cleaning our room. We hid them in our car the next couple day, before finding someone to give them to at a gas station in on our way back to our hotel our last night.

Monday morning, April 25th, we got up early to drive down toward Gatlinburg. We had decided to visit the Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies and do some shopping. We passed by a lot of cool places in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, and I asked Jacob if we could come back the next day as well. Gatlinburg is about half an hour further than Pigeon Forge, and after parking near the aquarium, we spent most of the morning and early afternoon looking at crazy fish and having fun with the kids. They absolutely loved it! They had a tank where you could pet jellyfish, which Tyler was afraid to do and Elise was a little too fearless about it. We also pet and picked up hermit crabs, and my favorite part was probably the Penguin Playhouse, which was full of African Penguins. There was also an interesting Pearl Harbor exhibit that had a cute sinking submarine simulation that the kids enjoyed playing on and a lifelike wax model of President Truman.

This aquarium was amazing!

The penguins were my favorite!

For lunch we crossed the street to the Mountain Mall where we shared two slices and a drink from New York Pizza & Pasta. It was okay, but probably not our best dining decision. The kids actually ate though, so it was worth it. After taking some pictures, Jacob went with Tyler to Yukon Heath's Popcorn Emporium where they sampled some popcorn and then bought two bags. One was a chocolatey "zebra" popcorn, and the other was garlic parmesan. Can you guess the kids' favorite kind? It was ours too.

We decided we didn't have time for the Gatlinburg Space Needle, and instead went back to Sevierville where we shopped for a couple hours at the Tanger Outlets. We got some great deals for the kids at OshKosh B'Gosh, Gymboree, and the Disney Store, and I found some good clothes at the New York and Company. Jacob, of course, got some fudge at The Fudgery. It started getting late, and after deliberating over just booking an extra hotel in town, we (due to leaving everything in our Kingsport hotel) drove back and had dinner at the Shoney's in Kingsport. I used the buffet to feed myself and the kids, and Jacob had chicken strips (which the kids tried too). With dead phones, we managed to find our hotel alright anyway and sleep after a very long day.

Tuesday April 26 was our last full day in Tennessee. Jacob had a lot of things on his list, the first of which was the chicago style pizza buffet at Stefano's in Knoxville. I thought it was too sweet, but Jacob loved it. It was a common place he ate at on his mission. Afterwards, we drove to Oak Ridge to go to the American Museum of Science and Energy, where we didn't realize we had free access again due to our Explora pass, and ended up paying. Jacob wanted to look at everything so we spent a lot of time here. They had a lot of interactive exhibits, and a house you could explore from the Manhattan project. They also had a section on coal mining. The kids and I were ready to go before he was, I think.

After the museum, we drove all the way back to Sevierville, where we went to the Smoky Mountain Deer Farm Exotic Petting Zoo. This was a special surprise for our kids. Tyler and Elise got to ride ponies, with Jacob leading Tyler first and then me leading Elise. After that, we bought some animal feed from the shop and pet some goats (which both kids were a little afraid of), and then we also got to feed some other wild animals, including some reindeer and huge dromedary camels! Unfortunately, it was after 4 and they started feeding the animals themselves, so we had to hurry for half of the animals and couldn't really feed them. They also closed the deer petting and feeding area early and we almost missed it. Jacob haggled with the management about what to do, since we were leaving the next morning and couldn't get a return coupon. They had already let the male deer with budding antlers into the cage, so they had to get some employees to keep an eye on them so we could go in and feed the deer with our kids one kid at time. They also gave us an extra cup of feed for the experience. It turns out that the kids didn't like how boldly the deer crowd in on you, and didn't really like the experience. It was still really nice of them to let us do that. We bought Tyler a toy gun set and Elise a stuffed purse with a cute stuffed animal unicorn as souvenirs.

Riding the horses was there favorite!

The camels were huge compared to Elise!

 The animals were all so cute!

Our day wasn't over! We next headed over to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge! This was my favorite part of the whole trip. The attendants in the museum were dressed in era clothing. There were SO MANY artifacts from the ship, and there were 2 separate audio tours we got to listen to as we walked through the museum (1 for kids, and 1 for adults). We barely had time for all of it, and Elise had a very hard time for most of it. It was already after 7pm and she was tired and hungry. She pulled through, though, and I found some good souvenirs in the gift shop. 

This museum is so amazing!

We took a few more pictures outside and then went almost next door to the Hard Rock Cafe for our final nights' meal. Tyler was tired and also having a hard time there (he tends to scream in restaurants while we are traveling, for some reason...), but after cooling off during a time out in the car he was okay. We had some yummy burgers, Jacob got a milkshake in a souvenir cup, and afterwards we found some cool souvenir pins in the gift shop. We didn't get back to our hotel until well after 11pm.


On Wednesday April 27, our flight didn't leave until the early afternoon. We spent the morning at the really small Natural History Museum at the Gray Fossil Site. There wasn't a lot to see or do there, but it was still neat to see what they had. We had a light lunch at McDonald's on the way back, where the kids spent some time playing in the play area. We ran into some trouble at the airport when we realized we couldn't bring Tyler's toy gun on the plane with us. Since the airport is so small, we got some help from the security people in wrapping up Tyler's souvenir and stuffing it into Elise's car seat, which we then checked for free onto our flights.
 They loved the dinosaurs!

We had dinner in the Atlanta Airport, where Jacob had a burger with fries from Boardwalk Fresh Burgers and Fries, and I had deli sandwich at Boars Head Cafe. Jeremy picked us up from the airport and we were grateful to be back home around 10pm that night.

Tennessee and Virginia were beautiful and the kids enjoyed all the green from our 705 miles of driving. I love family vacations!