Counting Down the Rollercoasters!

Sunday, June 27, 2010



Chapter 1: Smoky Bear Says ‘Hi’ and Simon Checks Out on the Way to Atlanta
Looking out for Smoky Bear!
Time to leave Pigeon Forge and also Tennessee on our way south to Atlanta – we will miss Tennessee as both Justyn and I had such awesome and memorable experiences whilst in the Volunteer State. Staying in our cabin Angel Haven was ‘interesting’ with our hot-tub loving next door neighbours, Cinnabon cereal and unfortunately for Justyn, some bugs that took a liking to him and attacked him in the night! We had been warned about the lady bugs that are used as a pest control and can sometimes swarm into your cabin, but we don’t think it was something as genteel as a lady bug that bit him! Before taking the scenic route down the Appalachian Highway through the Smoky Mountains, Justyn wanted to visit a Walmart – a quintessential American experience that he wanted to tick-off his list of ‘to-do’s’ in the US of A! So today, Thursday, 17 June, Big Red, Simon and I helped Justyn find a Walmart and off we went – which was probably a good thing as we needed to buy some lotion for Justyn’s bites! Once Justyn had sated his Walmart longing, we re-programmed Simon for Atlanta and turned Big Red off the interstate. We skirted to town of Gaitlinburg and it was such a pretty town – our advice to anyone going through Tennessee would be to give Sevierville and Pigeon Forge a miss and head straight to Gaitlinburg. Just a lovely mountain town that looked lovely even from above as we headed up the gentle slopes of the Smoky Mountain ranges. Big Red, Justyn and I really enjoyed the drive – around each bend was another panoramic postcard picture opportunity and we took most of them! We spotted deer, burbling brooks, and eagles – all very Smoky Bear! While we were enjoying ourselves, Simon must have felt a tad unloved and he fell silent (or the GPS lost the satellite while we were in the forests of the Smoky Mountains) and we found ourselves driving blind for a while. We kept hoping he would start chatting to us again, but for the time being we were on our own. So we aimed for the town of Cherokee which we figured would have signs pointing to Atlanta and we would just find our way the old fashioned way! It turned out that Cherokee was in North Carolina (we didn’t realise we were going to go through North Carolina!) and it was an Indian reservation where they lived a traditional lifestyle, which was obviously good for the tourist dollar as tourism is its main industry. Driving through the streets, we saw people dressed up in the stereotypical Indian garb with headdresses and beads with plenty of tourist queuing to pay for a photo with them. All very strange and in also a little sad to see. We were not long in Cherokee as we thought we found a signpost to Atlanta – Simon was still giving us the silent treatment – and we continued on our way. A few more miles down the track we thought we should pull in for some directions and at a McDonalds, a very helpful UPS delivery man told us we were on the right track, out of the Smoky Mountains and only 160 miles from Atlanta.

Chapter 2: The Infamous Atlanta Traffic and a Haven in the City
Now that we knew we were on the right road to Atlanta, Simon finally decided to talk to us again which was a good thing as we were a little concerned about finding our way to our hotel without a map! Down the interstate, we passed the cute little town of Dilsboro, North Carolina, chucked a u-y and headed in for a bite to eat. Billed as the ‘Historic Town of Dilsboro’ it was very quaint and boasted a Whistle Stop Cafe which is where we decided to eat a late lunch. Obviously we were very late as the Whistle Stop Cafe was closed and we had to amuse ourselves browsing in the air conditioned shops looking for a magnet to acknowledge our visit to North Carolina. Magnet located and purchased – tick. Lunch – no tick. Oh well, it was less than 100 miles to Atlanta and we were sure to pass a Cracker Barrel along the way! (We did!) The closer we drove towards Atlanta, the busier and wider the roads got. Soon we were driving on roads that were eight lanes wide – just on our side of the road! We slowed to a crawl and relied on Simon to let us know when to exit. Which we missed. Fortunately Simon didn’t get cranky with us, he just replanned and let us take out time moving across the lanes towards the next exit. We were booked into the Ellis Hotel in downtown Atlanta for which we booked valet parking for the duration of our stay which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because of all the roadwork and one way streets, we would never have found alternative car parks! And with the valet parking, we just called down for whenever we wanted the car! The Ellis Hotel was very boutique and ‘green’ – their keycards were made out of corn and were biodegradable – just keep them away from all electronic devices or they would be de-programmed! After dropping our bags off, we decided to go for a wander to see what was around where we were staying and grab some dinner. We ended up at Max Lager’s American Grill and Brewery which was well known for its microbrews and pizzas as well as being Georgia’s oldest independent brewery. A great meal, a couple of beers and drinks under our belts and we were ready for a quiet night in watching the basketball final between the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics – LA won for the second year in a row, defeating Boston 4 games to 3 in the seven game series final. 

Chapter 3: More Rollercoasters at Six Flags Over Georgia and Happiness Is a Coke
Atlanta was on our itinerary as there was a Six Flags themepark with more coasters to be ridden to add to the birthday tally. Justyn and I bought season passes to the Six Flag parks so we headed off in Big Red to see what coasters we could find to challenge us. Located only 15 minutes outside of Atlanta, we still managed to get a little lost, even with Simon directing us, but with the coasters soaring over the interstate, we turned Simon off and headed straight for them. Today, Friday 18th June was the 13th day of temperatures in the 90’s (mid to high 30 C’s) in Georgia so riding coasters was going to be hot business! The first ride was Goliath and my 31st rollercoaster. A pretty cool ride, it reaches a height of 200 feet (61m) and a top speed of 70 mph (110 kph) and crosses through another rollercoaster! Ride 32 was the Ninja and it was a rough and tough steel coaster and #33 was Superman Ultimate Flight for which J joined me! This is a steel flying coaster and there are actually three of these coasters around Six Flags in the US. Similar to the Firehawk, you sit in the coaster and then the back of the chair is dragged up and locked in so you are facing the ground. With loops and corkscrews and dips and plunges, you have the sensation of flying for the two minutes the ride takes to go around its course. We loved it!  Ride 34 was the Georgia Scorcher which is a standing coaster – the first one for J. Not the tallest or fastest standing coaster we’ve been on, but it had its fair share of inversions and loops to warrant a number of giggles and gasps from both of us.

Because of the heat of the day, the park was not particularly busy and we were able to ride all the rides we wanted by mid afternoon so we thought that we would head back to our hotel and then walk around to the World of Coca Cola – mecca for me! Between us all, we had consumed litres and litres of coke so far on our expedition and it was time to pay homage to the home of the drink of the gods (in my opinion anyway!) Atlanta is the home of CNN, the 1996 Olympics, Delta Airlines and of course Coca Cola. Invented in the late 19th century, Coke was originally sold as a tonic and cure-all before gaining popularity and through brilliant marketing, becoming an international drink. The World of Coca Cola is a trip through the history of Coke, memorabilia from around the world, its role in pop culture, movies, television etc, even viewing its own little bottling plant where they bottle little 8 ounce (the only place in the world where they bottle this size). A highlight is a tasting room where they have Coke dispensers dishing out over 60 different Coke varieties from around the world – not the original Coke flavour, but the other products distributed by the bottlers like Fanta and Sprite. There were some very interesting flavours eg Beverly from Italy (disgusting!). The tour finished up in a huge merchandising store where you could buy anything and everything labelled with Coca Cola – literally including the kitchen sink! After visiting the World of Coca Cola, we wandered through Pemberton and Centennial Park with a lovely fountain that commemorates the 1996 Olympics and then headed back to our hotel for some respite from the late afternoon heat of the day to do some blogging and have a bit of a rest. Much later in the evening we walked up the street to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner before turning in for the night.

Chapter 4: Stone the Crows! Its Stone Mountain!
Deciding what to do for our last full day in the South (and the 14th day of 90 plus degree heat), we had the options to do the standard walking tours around the city, however we decided to take Big Red out again and drive to Stone Mountain, a nature reserve around the worlds largest exposed granite rock (a bit like Uluru in the middle of a city). On the side of this huge hunk of rock is a carving that is the largest in the world – bigger than Mount Rushmore – of the three key figures in the American Civil War for the Confederates atop their horses – Jefferson Davis, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson and Robert E Lee. You could describe this place as an amusement park – they have putt putt, a train that travels around the base of the mountain, a SkyRide which is a cable car that goes up to the top of the granite mountain, a night time laser light show, an Antebellum Farm – and it was the site of the archery and the velodrome during the 1996 summer Olympics (these last two areas have now been converted into a bird sanctuary). It was also the place that I experienced my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich – cut into a circle with no crusts. Okay okay, it was probably meant for kids, but I was hungry and it seemed like a good idea at the time!

Chapter 5: Fine Dining in the South, Tea Rooms and Wood Grills.
Around mid afternoon we left Stone Mountain and headed into Mary Mac’s Tea Room as I had been on the hunt for Peach Cobbler. Mary Mac’s has been around since 1945, opened after WWII by some enterprising women in search of a living. Famous for traditional southern cooking, their peach cobbler was regularly listed as the best in Atlanta. Upon sitting down, we were served a complimentary cup of pot likker and cornbread as it was our first visit to Mary Mac’s. We also had a basket of bread delivered to the table which had cinnamon rolls, cornbread and yeast rolls, all handmade that day. On the table is an order form with pencils and you fill out what you would like to eat, so Justyn ordered the chicken and dumplings with their famous mac n cheese and whipped potato as sides and I had the country fried steak and gravy with sweet potato soufflĂ© and coleslaw as my sides. Deee-licious! All washed down with sweetened iced tea. Then dessert, the peach cobbler! Exactly what I wanted! Lived up to all my expectations and then some! We were very glad to have the traditional southern cooking experience at one of the best in Atlanta.

Fortunately for us after our huge meal, we had at least six hours until our dinner reservation at Woodfire Grill. Woodfire Grill is owned and operated by Kevin Gillespie who was a contestant on Top Chef and faced up in the finals against the Voltaggio brothers (for those who watch Top Chef!) One of the reasons we were excited to be going there was that of all the restaurant experiences, this one had the potential to actually have the chef in the kitchen while we were there! Arriving at the restaurant, we had a cocktail while waiting for our table. Taking us through to our table, we passed the woodfire grill that the restaurant takes its name from and you can see the cooks working away preparing meals. A choice awaited us with the menu according to Matthew our waiter – go from the a la carte or select the five course ‘blind’ degustation. As long as some form of pork was included in the degustation, we went with Matthew’s recommendation of the ‘blind’ meal. Cherries were in season and the amuse-bouche was made with cherries but J is allergic to them, so they had to whip up a different one just for us which was freeze-dried compressed cantelope (rockmelon) and chilli with a ginger lime foam. We noticed that we were not the only ones taking photos of our meal as there was a lone diner making notes and taking piccies just like us. Unfortunately we couldn’t find a setting on the camera that could take a decent photo of our meal without blinding half the diners with the double flash, so unfortunately for us, we do not have many photos of our meal. Course one was porcini mushrooms on a dry corn sauce with white vinegar topped with thai basil and asparagus, followed by my favourite of the evening which was rainbow trout dusted in cornflour and flash fried in canola oil served with sugar snap pea and avocado puree and sweet and sour mango and tomato chutney with a smidge of curry powder. It was sweet and moist and oh so tasty! The refreshing mid course shot was tomato water with basil oil and compressed cantaloupe and a buffalo mozzarella bomb. Moving into the proteins was the one we were looking for, pork two ways. One piece was hickory smoked pork belly and the other was a green chilli pork sausage, both served on fried green tomatoes and a pork jus – tender and full of flavour. Second last course came with lamb sitting on slices of roasted potato, turnip and radish with a base of taro breadcrumbs and coffee and cream paste and parmesan fricassee and for dessert, I was pleasantly surprised to be having coca-cola cake with a chocolate cola glaze, Georgia roasted pecans and a root beer float. The cake tasted of Coca Cola and had that sticky sweetness that you just know is coke. To accompany our dessert, J had a delicious dessert wine and I had a ‘taster’ which was a splash of three different dessert wines. What an awesome meal! And to top it off, our waiter managed to get our menus signed by the sous chef EJ Hodgkinson as Kevin had already left. EJ also came out to meet and chat with us about the meal and the inspiration behind their recipes as apparently they change their ‘blind’ degustation depending on the fresh and local ingredients that they can get on the day. Another awesome dining experience that was topped off by meeting the chef – how much better does it get??

Atlanta has been such a great experience – rollercoasters, awesome dining, city highlights and big rocks, even a college ‘Greek’ night where all the fraternities were out on the streets chanting and cheering on their houses in the lead up to their college ball games. All added up to an sensational time in Georgia. We will be back!

Saturday, June 26, 2010



Chapter 1: Heading East Across Tennessee to the Cracker Barrel
The time was going pretty fast and we were enjoying our time immensely in Tennessee. Today, Tuesday 15 June we were on the move again, this time headed for Pigeon Forge, on the other side of Knoxville. Our drive was uneventful, Big Red was up to the drive, I was well rested and Simon was programmed up. We did stop along the way for a late lunch at a chain-restaurant that had caught may eye called Cracker Barrel. So Justyn conceded to the driver and we pulled into one at some exit along whatever interstate number we were driving. A quaint little restaurant, it had quite a few rocking chairs outside (for purchase although I did take one for a test drive) and inside we were seated and given another huge menu to peruse. As this was brunch, I went straight to the breakfast menu that they served all day – music to my ears! Bacon, eggs, biscuits (huh?), grits (wha’?), sawmill gravy (whod?) and sweet apple (weirder!). So I ordered and waited to see what would land on my plate. A pile of deliciousness – that’s what! The bacon and eggs were pretty good, but I also had turkey bacon and a pork sausage, the grits were interesting – kind of like a corny tasting gritty semolina porridge, the apple tasted like it had been stewed in bucketfuls of sugar, molasses, syrup – anything sweet they could get their hands on, and the biscuits were like lightly salty scones – fluffy, light and delicious with whipped butter. My arteries keep on hardening with every delicious mouthful of tempting food and goodies on this trip! Even J admitted that while he was concerned about a chain restaurant and potentially fast food, he enjoyed his meal too – even though the pancake he ordered never turned up!

Chapter 2: Onto Pigeon Forge, Our Accommodations and the Cereal Aisle of an American Supermarket
I was a little excited to be going to Dollywood – not because it had particularly exciting rides (although I was looking forward to the Mystery Mine ride) but because I admired Dolly and what she had accomplished in her career and the idea of her having her own themepark was just way to cool! We had booked a cabin as Pigeon Forge was at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains and we thought it would be nice to wake up in the countryside rather than the cities we had been in so far on our trip. On the outskirts of Knoxville, we ran into a storm and traffic slowed considerably. Reports on the radar mentioned hail and severe damage so we crossed our fingers that we were either ahead or behind that storm pattern because we had no idea where the counties were that they were mentioning on the radio. We passed through Knoxville and headed into Pigeon Forge via Sieverville which is where Dolly Parton was born and grew up. What I thought would be a quaint little village at the base of the Smoky Mountains was fast turning into a Vegas (minus the casinos) crossed with the kitchyness of Niagara Falls with either a putt putt golf or a Ripleys Believe It or Not or a pancake parlour on all corners. And to top it all off, when we found the location where we were to pick up the keys to our cabin, right next door was a replica of the Titanic – including iceberg – which housed a museum dedicated to that ship! We picked up our directions to the cabin and got off the main parkway and headed into the woods. ‘Angel Haven’ was the name of our cabin and it was a cute, two-storey wooden cabin that backed onto the woods – right next door to Angel‘Large Woman in a Hot Tub on the Porch’ Meadows. Yep, you read right – fortunately while we were right next door, we did not have any windows on that side. In our little cabin there was a pool table, kitchen, two bathrooms and lordy a washer and dryer. We sorted our clothes to do some more washing and thought about what we wanted to do for dinner. We weren’t able to buy tickets to the Dixie Stampede for that night so it was either TGIF’s or some such other chain meal or we could find a supermarket nearby and provide for ourselves. Our vote! So back into Big Red we hopped and drove to the nearest supermarket, Krogers. It was like walking into a themepark! They had packets of peeled hardboiled eggs, bananas for only 29c per pound, Ben and Jerry’s icecream with flavours we’d never seen able to be bought for only $2.59! And the cereal aisle! What wondrous cereals are available! Everything from Applejacks to Chocolate Peanut Butter Corn Pops to Marshmallow Blasted Froot Loops; and then the miracle – Cinnabon cereal! I just had to buy it and attempt to eat the whole packet in two days! They also sell Krispy Kreme donuts and beer and wine and an amazing assortment of coffee but hardly any tea bags; you can purchase pharmacy items as well as your fruit and veg and perhaps weirdest of all is the BBQ chicken which we decided on for dinner. It was a rotisserie chook that they threw BBQ sauce on – or lemon or original.... We took our chances with the BBQ flavoured chicken and took it home – along with the Cinnabon cereal, some fruit, a couple of tubs of B&J icecream, some salad to have with the chook and perhaps a number of completely unnecessary items that we just had to have! That night we ate at home in our cabin, with B&J for dessert watched TV, played pool and blogged while our washing was on. Quite a nice evening in!

Chapter 3: The Road to Dollywood!
The weather channel was forecasting highs in the 90’s with afternoon thunderstorms so we decided to head to Dollywood as close to when it opened do as many rides as we could in case it rained. The day was already heating up as we parked and caught the shuttle to the park entrance. With a big breath, we stepped into the olden days as was the central theme of Dollywood. We had the obligatory park photo, took our ticket and turned left (we did listen to you B!). The first ride we encountered was Thunderhead. A wooden coaster that went for nearly over 2 minutes! This was to be ride #29. It was also my first ride on my own as I had no Patty or Barb or Kelly to ride with me and Justyn was not going to ride any wooden coasters! The queue was not long and as a single rider, I progressed pretty quickly through the line and jumped in. Pretty smooth running, it had some pretty sharp bends and turns and was heaps of fun. 

Ride Thirty – the three quarter mark was the Mystery Mine. Runner up to Maverick at Cedar Point in 2007 as the Best New Theme Park Attraction, this was the ride to ride at Dollywood. Fortunately, the wait was not too long – about 15 minutes – and I was soon strapped into the car with 7 other nervous riders. What a cool ride! I wasn’t able to find a video that really showed what it was like to take this ride as it takes place inside and outdoors, so I’ll try to explain it; upon departure from the station the track twists and turns for a bit, along with a small drop. You then begin ascending the first vertical lift. We then plummeted down over eight stories, beyond vertical! Immediately after this, the train swoops into an overbanked turn and through a helix. And just when it may seem over, another vertical lift is looming. The highlight of the ride is here as you drop down at a ninety-five degree angle, the steepest drop on American soil! And we are then thrown into a heart-line roll, the ride’s first inversion. Soon following this is the second inversion which is a slow rollover loop. Finally after two beyond vertical drops, a top speed of sixty miles (100 km) per hour, two inversions, two vertical lifts and an incredible themed experience, Dollywood’s Mystery Mine was over.

Unfortunately due to the threat of electrical storms in the area, Dollywood’s other major ride, the Tennessee Tornado was not operating, so I wasn’t able to add that one to my tally. We wandered around Dollywood as in addition to standard amusement park thrill rides, Dollywood features traditional crafts and music of the Smoky Mountains area. The park hosts a number of concerts and musical events each year, including appearances by the one and only Dolly Parton herself and her family, as well as other national and local musical acts. It turns out we missed Dolly by one week! It is the 25th anniversary of the park and the week before, Dolly was there with Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus to film as special show – bummer! A couple of live shows that we went to see were also cancelled due to the “the report of lightning in the area” – one literally in the middle of a song, the performers walked off stage and the other was just as they were about to start, they apologised and left! But for all that, it was a real treat to visit Dollywood – it was a themepark that seemed to have some soul and heart, even if you had to dig around the commercialism a bit to find it. PS, thanks to Bec & Helen for the tix to Dollywood for our birthdays – it was awesome!

Chapter 4: Oh I Wish I Was In Dixie, Hooray, Hooray!
While we were in Pigeon Forge, I wanted to go to Dolly Partons Dixie Stampede – a four course dinner and show with horses, dancers etc – a bit El Cabalo Blanco or Australian Outback Spectacular! One hour prior to the main dinner and show, we are seated in a "Carriage Room" where we buy novelty drinks served in a plastic boot and watch an opening act. Mountain Ruckus, entertained us playing bluegrass and country music. At show time, we are then are escorted into the arena, where the Dixie Stampede dinner and show begins. Although the attraction bears her name, Dolly doesn't appear in person, except by video in the very Amercian, Red, White and Blue patriotic sing-a-long. But before that, the is essentially a modern-day Wild West revue, pitting sections of the audience against each other in a good-natured way as "the South" and "the North" battle to win various horse riding competitions. It is also said that if you are close enough to the stage, dirt will fly into your plate from the horses running around in the arena – fortunately we didn’t experience that! What we did experience though, was the meal, which is made fresh daily and baked on property, consists of a whole, yes a whole, rotisserie chicken, hickory smoked barbecue pork loin, creamy vegetable soup, homemade biscuit, corn on the cob, herb-basted baked potato, an iced apple turnover – all served without cutlery – dig in with your fingers and teeth! We completely immersed ourselves in the fun and ‘hickiness’ of it all and of course our side ‘the South’ won!

Sunday, June 20, 2010



Chapter 1: Meeting ‘Big Red’ and Sun Studios
Elvis' microphone!
Sunday, 13 June was, sadly, the end of our stay in Memphis. We had booked a car to take us through to Atlanta and so after storing our luggage at the hotel, we caught the free shuttle back to Graceland and then a taxi to the airport to meet our car. Considering all the luggage we had (an additional bag by this stage) and not wanting to be a little car on the big roads and freeways we booked a standard car. The guy at Thrifty thought we looked like ‘red’ people and introduced us to a Dodger Charger – kind of a 4 door muscle car (for families perhaps). She was gorgeous!! We introduced ourselves, worked out where the lights were, blinkers, checked the mirrors – and realised the park brake was on. Only problem was, where was the park brake? Not on the console like the Buick LaCrosse. More looking around and referring to the instruction manual, the park brake was a foot operated pedal! It was also time for Simon (our GPS) to come out of his box and guide us through Tennessee - the 'Volunteer State'. First stop – Sun Studios . A very easy drive back into Memphis and we negotiated our way into the car park and made it inside to join a guided tour that was just starting. Sun Studios is famous for recording Elvis' first single and signing to their label artists including not only Elvis Presley, but Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis – to name a few legends. The studio is in its original working condition despite having sat for years either unused or in another capacity including storage and a barber shop! They had some great memorabilia and after being guided through that section, we went down into the studio where some of these legends had actually recorded. The original microphone stand used by legends including Elvis is still there and we were given the opportunity to pose ‘a la Elvis’ with it! Artists still record there today but in the evening when it is closed to the tourists and fans, and the week we were in Memphis, John Mellencamp was also there recording.

Chapter 2: Time to Hit the Road!/”We’re going to Jackson” – Next Stop Nashville (well almost)
Sun Studio parking lot & 'Big Red'
After leaving Sun Studios with another bag of souvenirs, we collected our luggage, programmed our Nashville hotel into Simon and set off. Memphis was such a quiet place – very different to what I expected and we have made a pact with the city to come back again one day. Getting out of Memphis was very easy and the drive on the interstate even easier with Big Red’s cruise control. The speed limits in America are slight slower than at home (generally 45 / 55 / 60 / 65 miles per hour which equals 72 / 88 / 96 / 104 kms per hours respectively) and these roads were very smooth like most of our freeways at home – surely the speed limit could be a little higher we wondered. And we guess the cars, trucks and vans zooming past and leaving us in the dust were without doubt speculating the same thing! Lots of trucks on these roads too but they were speed limited and weighed at the many truck stops along the way. By this time we were nearing halfway between Memphis and Nashville and since we’d missed breakfast and now lunch, we were pretty hungry and started to look at the variety of food exits along the way. J was not convinced by some of them as they were standard fast food fare, but one sign piqued my interest for some ‘country cookin’’ at Casey Jones in Jackson, Tennessee. Casey Jones, Casey Jones, that name was ringing bells with me for some reason. Justyn was perhaps a little overwhelmed by the food options coming with each exit, and we thought we’d pop into Jackson as we had assumed it was the Jackson of Johnny Cash and June Carter’s song Jackson so we took the exit. A train and a museum dedicated to Casey Jones! That’s who he was – a railway engineer who alone was killed when his passenger train, the Cannonball Express, collided with a stalled freight train on a foggy and rainy night. His dramatic death trying to stop his train and save lives made him a folk hero who became immortalized in a popular ballad and heard on the Disney show back in teh 70’s and 80’s. Aaaannnnyways, we decided to pop into the buffet car area and met with coach-loads of people who were wandering around this replica country store and looking for the dining area. It was huge – but so was the country store! Apparently this place was famous for its all you can eat buffet (according to our hostess) and that was that. We were shown to our booth and then we ventured out to check out this infamous buffet. Let me tell you, it was a little overwhelming – not in the way the Las Vegas buffet was with its variety, but rather with the variety of beige and brown colours of blobs and bits floating or swimming in gravy, sauces, soups, broths etc. Negotiating our way around the bain-maries, we took a little of this and a little of that and met up back at our booth. With a questioning glance at each other, Justyn and I dug in and came up quite surprised that the majority on offer was actually quite tasty! Especially the little savoury pancakes, one of the brown goos which we think was chicken, the ham – we went back for seconds! Searching for the salad bar, they had some items that weren’t tones of brown, and we certainly had the pick of that section as many people seemed to steer clear of that portion of the buffet. And all you can drink soda (as in Coke) which in this weather (still in the 90’s!) went down a right treat (we will have to wean ourselves off Coke when we get home....). We wandered around the Country Store part after we finished filling our tummies and then set off again for Nashville.

Chapter 3: The CMA Concert – Brad, Darius, Trace and Blake all rock out
Arriving at our hotel in Nashville was very easy. We pulled into the Hutton Hotel, were directed to the self parking area and parked Big Red, pulled all our luggage out and set off for the lobby to check in. Again easier said than done! Fortunately after wheeling our bags around the car park for a few minutes, some of that Southern hospitality prevailed on us and we were directed to the check in counter. As we were checking in, what obviously looked like a band were also checking in – later that night we shared the shuttle ride with some members of that band who were with Paul Simon’s son, Harper Simon (nope – no idea either...). (Later in our stay, we also found out that Stevie Wonder, Darius (the artist formally known as Hootie) Rucker and Ryan Seacrest were staying there and we had a close encounter of the farthest ends of the lobby with Brad Paisley – more on him later!) Our room was very very nice, with a view of downtown Nashville but our most pressing thing to do was our washing! The concierge found a coin-op laundry and then we used the free car (they drive you, and pick you up within a three mile radius of the Hotel) to head down to while away a few hours. The driver who picked us up mentioned that tonight was the last night of CME Week (Country Music Association) and the last concert was on down at LA Field which is a big football (gridiron) stadium where the Tennessee Titans play. Big concerts with big name country singers were playing Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and Nashville was recovering from their huge floods in March 2012 which closed the Grand Ole Opry so the town was in high spirits. We decided on a whim to head down to the stadium to see if we could buy tickets on the door to go in and be a part of it. (We had been looking for a live gig to go to, but I don’t think country music was on Justyn’s radar!) We walked across the footbridge and could hear the crowds and the music blaring out. People had bought 4-day passes to this week which included seeing all the bands and singers as well as free concerts around the place. We’d missed the first two people on the card, but we arrived in time for the last four singers which were Blake Shelton, Trace Adkins, Darius Rucker and Brad Paisley (maybe you can Google them if you haven’t heard of them – they certainly have in Nashville!). The heat was insane, there was no cooling breeze at this time of night, yet these country music fans was singing (they know ALL the words of ALL the singers), dancing, whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ and basically enjoying themselves! And apparently the standard dress code for girls was summer dresses or short shorts / skirts with cowboy boots – boy I wanted a pair of those cowboy boots! (but not the short shorts!) It was a great concert, especially for the measly USD$38 we’d paid to get in! And it went to about midnight – 12:30am. It was a great night, completely unplanned and despite the long walk in the humid night air back to our hotel, we really did enjoy ourselves – even Justyn got a little country!

Chapter 4: A-Sleep-in and a-Wanderin’ in Nashville Day 2
With the end of CMA week last night in Nashville, things were a little quieter around town today. We decided to walk downtown and to the Farmers Markets which were recommended as a great place for lunch, so we headed to the Music City’s Visitor Centre, picked up some maps and directions and set off. The weather was still sticky and hot and we walked in the shade wherever we could find any. After about an hour, we found the Farmers Markets, but due to the flooding in April / May, the restaurant section had not re-opened yet! Big thumbs down to the guy in the visitors centre who sent us merrily on our way there! By this time it was getting on in the day and I was hot, sweaty and hungry and not willing to walk back into town so we called a cab and hit the Hard Rock Cafe for a late lunch. Outside the Hard Rock was a stop for a trolley tour of Nashville. We booked our tickets expecting an open-aired trolley / tram type vehicle which you could take photos out of, but apparently they had to bring in the smaller air conditioned buses as it was too hot (in the high 90’sF – over 40C) to tour around Nashville open-aired. I’m glad we decided to do this as there were no other tours really on offer and while we’d had what I guess was the quintessential Nashville experience last night, and our walking tour we did ourselves really didn’t highlight any areas or information regarding the town, we wanted to know a bit more about Nashville. Our tour guide was very engaging and he, along with what seemed like every other person we’d met so far in Nashville was in a band or played an instrument – the hotel shuttle driver had been to Australia to play at a US military base in Alice Springs earlier this year, the guys from Harper Simons’ band, the waiter in Hard Rock Cafe. Here are some interesting trivia items about Nashville that you may not know!:

• Publishing bibles etc is the second biggest industry in Nashville (they call themselves the belt buckle of the bible belt...)
• Nashville was granted the first FM license in the United States.
• The proper name for a citizen of Nashville is Nashvillian
• Oprah Winfrey was raised in Nashville by her father Vernon Winfrey
• They have an exact replica of the Greek Parthenon temple in Centennial!

At the end of the tour, we stopped at Mike’s Ice Cream for a well deserved ice cream – it was pretty good ice cream too! – we caught a taxi home to our hotel for a long cold shower. For our last night in Nashville, we decided to go to a restaurant recommended by the trolley driver and where apparently Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman ate “just last week” and was regularly listed on the places to eat in Nashville guides. Called Rotier’s Restaurant, it is hole-in-the-wall dining at its finest. Known for its cheeseburgers (but apparently Keith had the steak and Nickers the salad), we were not the ones to buck with tradition, so we ordered the cheeseburgers – surprisingly they asked if we wanted lettuce and tomato with our burgers – not had the option before so we can guess why it was evidently a favourite haunt for Keith and Nic. Too full from late lunch and my burger to eat it right then, I decided to live dangerously and order the icebox pie ‘to go’ as J was thinking about going to the AAA baseball game which was between the Memphis Redbirds and the Nashville Sounds. I resisted looking at the pie until we made it back to the hotel and fortunately the evening had cooled down significantly that my icebox pie did not need an icebox for the 15 minute walk back to our room. On our way back to the hotel we passed the Exit / In club which holds many small gigs – both comedy and music – which is where Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin were discovered. We had a look in but no one was playing tonight so we continued on under our own wandering star back home.

PS The icebox pie was pretty good – kind of like a lime-ish cheesecake with a whipped meringue-type topping and went down a treat before bedtime!

Thursday, June 17, 2010



Chapter 1: Stax Records – Soulsville USA!
Today was a very big day for both Justyn and I – we were going to Stax Records AND Graceland. A huge fan of the style of music put out by Stax, Justyn was beside himself that we were going there, and I was realising a life-long dream to go to Graceland to look for Elvis. So we booked tickets to Graceland for later in the day, and we caught a transit bus to Stax Records. The trip to Stax was interesting in itself as the studio was based out of Memphis and the bus meandered through many different types of suburbs from more affluent to those that were the equivalent of public housing / housing commission and even squats. It was a scorcher again and as we headed for the air conditioned Stax studio, three full coach loads of students from Dallas on a ‘civil liberties’ tour also arrived en masse as Stax, along with Sun Studios were considered to be very influential in the merging of black and white music in the turbulent years of the mid-1900’s in America. I’ll hand over to Justyn for his account of his visit to Stax:

Stax was not the original building but a facsimile with a heap of memorabilia, which we were a bit worried about but that was soon forgotten as one of The Mar-Keys (with security guard) there to meet the kids from Dallas. After the obligatory film to start the tour, which gave a greater insight into the record labels history, we headed on into the museum proper wandering leisurely through the museum occasionally being enveloped and overtaken by tour groups. Two main points of interest came out of the tour for me; the first was just how big Isaac Hayes was, I have always known he sold a heap of records – in spite of his fashion sense or ego - but he was massive, and wrote a heap of stuff for others. The second was how Stax came to an end; basically, the suggestion is that Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in Memphis directly led to the failure of Stax, that that event introduced issues of race to a record label, and a greater community of musicians and music fans that created a strain that led to the labels demise. The music is still fantastic, and there is so much of it, so do not hesitate in picking up any Stax compilations, you will not be disappointed.
Chapter 2: Elvis Has NOT Left the Building
After our tour of Stax, we waited in the blazing sun for another bus to take us back into town to drop off our souvenirs, grab another bottle of water and detour via the Peabody Hotel to view the famous ducks who live in the hotel’s fountain. The Peabody Hotel is a luxury hotel and every single day, 5 ducks are escorted down from their residence on the roof by the Duckmaster, across the lobby to swim in the hotel fountain for a few hours each day. Very cute! More info in the Peabody duckies can be found at

After our short detour to check out the ducks, it was time to meet the shuttle bus that would get us out to Graceland for our 2:15pm tour. Graceland is 12 miles out of downtown Memphis – I think I expected it to be within walking distance! We arrive, had the obligatory souvenir photo taken as we boarded another shuttle bus that takes you across the street to the actual mansion of Graceland. I was hot and sweaty but so was everyone else and the anticipation of actually going to Graceland was really building for me. We received individual headphones for a self-guided audio tour that meant that you could take as long as you wanted to tour the house where Elvis lived. There were many many people who were employees of Graceland to assist and point you in the right direction and remind you that you were allowed to take as many photos as you wanted – just minus the flash. Upon entering Graceland, the white staircase, filled with reflective mirrors, is directly in front and you can imagine Elvis with all his ‘bling’ standing there. The tour takes you past the living room and you can glimpse the adjoining music room and then step through the dining room and the kitchen (where Elvis’ mother would make his infamous deep friend peanut butter and banana sandwiches) and continues through the basement, where Elvis' media room with its three televisions can be seen. There is also a bar and billiards room. The tour continues upstairs again, through the infamous Jungle Room with its dark green shag pile carpet on the floor, walls and ceiling. It’s SO 70’s all over! We weren’t allowed to go up the stairs as that was Elvis’ private area and out of respect to him, they keep it closed off from the fans. Down the sloping lawn, past horses grazing behind neat white fences, we entered the "Trophy Room" with his famous gold lame suit from his early years. Also in the Trophy Room many walls display records, movie posters, memorabilia, his Grammy's and gold records and awards; even Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding outfits! The Trophy Room then winds down the halls through a display of his 68 Comeback, featuring his leather suit, his personal copies of his movie scripts, costumes he wore in many of his movies and a few of his trademark jumpsuits.

Once again outside, the tour moves past his still fully functioning stable of horses. Elvis' Racquetball Court is next, and has been converted to display Elvis' sequined "jumpsuits" and stage costumes and many posthumous awards, gold and platinum records. Then, as the tour winds up and just past the pool area is the Meditation Garden where Elvis, his mother Gladys, his father Vernon and grandmother Minnie Mae Hood Presley lie buried.

I can’t believe how moved I was by this visit. I know it is so commercialised and that his name is a licence to print money, but I just couldn’t believe how sad I felt at the demise of this person I never knew except through song and film, yet I felt his presence all through the house and when you knew you were coming up to the area where he was buried, Justyn had to give me a tissue to wipe away the tears. I was all about taking photos of anything and everything during the tour, but I just couldn’t bring myself to take a ‘happy snap’ of his final resting place. I paid my respects, sang a few of his songs in my head and farewelled the King of Rock and Roll. Even now as I type this, tears well for the loss of ‘what might have been’. I remember the day he died, folding the washing with mum and we had the telly on and she just sat down and said ‘I can’t believe Elvis is dead’. We both had a little cry and watching Elvis movies on a Saturday afternoon became our tradition. Mum and I even went the Elvis Live concert in the 90’s in Sydney when his backing band and singers supported huge screens portraying Elvis singing – the closest we ever came to seeing him in concert!

After the visit to Graceland, the shuttle bus takes you back across the road to the complex that houses his cars, his planes, and various other tributes to Elvis including the ’68 Comeback Special and even his fashion style! And of course souvenirs. Lots and lots of souvenirs! We did have a banana split with 3 scoops of icecream, fudge sauce and whipped cream while in this area and it was the best banana split I’ve ever had – delicious! And then it was all over. I’d made it to Graceland and it was one of the best moments of my life.

Chapter 3: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
Apart from the banana split, Justyn and I had not really eaten all day so we were starving by the time we made it back downtown. After dropping off our (okay my) bags and bags of Elvis memorabilia, we headed to a dining establishment recommended by Barb and a number of other people – Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken (you could have fried a chicken on the footpaths of Memphis!). While we were in the South, we were determined to do the fried chicken and a place proclaiming to be the ‘worlds best’ had to be sampled! We walked up to Front Street to get a last view of the Mississippi river and wandered down to the restaurant and put our name on a waiting list. Gus’ was very low key, no air conditioning, just fans, a jukebox, black and white tablecloths, paper plates and plastic cutlery – we knew we were in for a treat. In the words of Anthony Bourdain, “do one thing and do it well”. And Gus surely did. Gus's fried chook was perfect; crisp golden-brown on the outside, moist and succulent on the inside, and salted and seasoned with just enough cayenne pepper to let you know it's there. Served with slaw, potato salad and fried rice, both Justyn and I reckoned that it was ‘worlds best’. For dessert I took on a piece of sweet potato pie and I reckon that it was a journey well spent! What an awesome, fabulous, perfect day in Memphis – one that I will remember and cherish for a very long time.