If you were to ask your children to suggest ingredients for their dream holiday, they might say something like this: ‘We want to go somewhere with crazy golf on every corner and loads of go-kart tracks. For food we’d like drive-thrus selling donuts with icing so colourful they’ll make our teeth tingle. There would also be a massive theme park nearby…’
Clearly such a nightmarish place could only exist in the fevered mind of a child. Or, as it turns out, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
But here’s the thing. If you do go, you will have a truly wonderful – and at times bizarre – holiday during which you will experience the warmth, hospitality and outstanding natural beauty of Tennessee.
Who is it good for? Children between the ages of 6 and 13, and who’s fantasy holiday includes the aforementioned criteria.
Pigeon Forge describes itself as a ‘vacation hub’ and on its doorstep it has the two most-visited attractions in Tennessee: Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
One a monument to the rhinestone-encrusted queen of country, the other a celebration of the natural world.
On our first morning, we presented ourselves at the entrance to Dollywood. This is a unique hybrid of extreme rides, traditional craft exhibits, authentic food stalls, old-style shops and live music.
This surreal combination means it’s perfect for families, offering something for everyone.
We decided to keep the kids happy first and headed for the rides – all of which offer plenty of ‘hang time’ – that terrible moment when your bottom hovers an inch or two above your seat and your stomach an inch or two above your head.
Usually, I stumble out of a theme park begging for mercy. But in this part of Tennessee the roles are reversed. Dollywood is bucolic, but its host town, Pigeon Forge, is an apocalyptic horror show.
But one Parent’s purgatory is often their child’s version of paradise and if I had a dollar for every time the kids said they loved Pigeon Forge, we wouldn’t have had to pay for the holiday at all.
The town is a six-mile stretch of crazy golf courses, multi-level go-kart tracks, malls, motels, pancake houses, donut drive-thrus and, perhaps the best-named shop I have ever seen: Fudge, Knives, Swimwear & Leather.
It also hosts the seismic weirdness that is the Dixie Stampede. The show gets underway when 10 bison trot out into the arena, and are chased off by women on horses, who do dangerous things while dressed in leather and spangly chaps. While this is happening, 1,500 of us are served dinner: corn, soup, potato and a whole chicken.
Both Pigeon Forge and Dollywood lie in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so named for the drifts of cloud that seem to linger in the steep-sided valleys.
The best way to see nature at her best is to get out and walk. Clearly that’s never a top option for children, but the path we stumbled across had rope bridges and stepping stones for them to jump about on while we took in the dizzying views. Whenever the children started to lag behind, we reminded them to keep an eye out for bears – the park has a thriving population of grizzlies.
The next day, we headed to one of the area’s first churches, a white clapboard building known as Chilhowee.
While we sat in one of the wooden pews a group started to sing. Their harmonies soaked into the rough planks of the ancient room. And it struck me, as I let their voices wash over me, that from these worshipful hymns to Dolly’s heartfelt tunes, music has been bringing people together in these mountains for centuries.
Travel time: Flights from London to Nashville take 10 hours and 30 minutes. Dollywood is a further 3 hours and 30 minutes by car.
How to get there: British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Nashville (via Dallas or Chicago); from £690 return for adults and £608 for children. Car hire is available from Dollar; from £137 per week.
Where to stay: Luxury log cabins around Pigeon Forge cost from $209 per night with Majestic Mountain Vacations (+1 865-934-0654)