Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Knoxville Offers Best Of Tennessee Sights And Flavors

SunsphereKnown as the Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, Knoxville offers visitors plenty of outstanding eats and attractions.

Destination Knoxville

I didn’t know much about Knoxville before our visit over the Labor Day weekend. After three days of exploring this dynamic eastern Tennessee city of about 180,000, I now wonder why it took us so long to visit.

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For those in the Raleigh area, Knoxville is a “straight shot,” about five-and-a-half hours of driving due west on I-40. The drive itself is enjoyable, as we passed through the scenic areas of Asheville, NC, and the Great Smoky Mountains on our way.

Tennessee VolsWe stayed at the Holiday Inn Knoxville Downtown, which is in a prime location, just a few blocks from downtown’s Market Square and only a 15-minute walk from the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. Our trip was planned to spend time with Diane, a classmate of my wife’s, and her husband John. On John’s bucket list was to see a major college football game. As luck would have it, the UT Volunteers opened the season that Saturday.

UT Vols Excitement

Getting to the stadium involves an enjoyable stroll through the World’s Fair Park. Knoxville hosted the World’s Fair in 1982 and it sparked a revitalization of the city. The most visible reminder is the Sunsphere, the iconic 266-foot golden tower that stands above surrounding fountains, waterways and festival grounds.

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Neyland Stadium is the fifth largest in the US with a capacity of 102,455. It trails only Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Texas A&M in stadium size. The Vols fans are fanatical and the stadium was filled with a sea of orange and ringed with enthusiastic tailgaters. Each touchdown was accompanied by fireworks, a rousing chorus of Rocky Top, waving flags and an appearance of the old blue tick hound mascot.

The stadium is located on the Tennessee River and the Vols Navy, an assortment of fancy yachts decked out in UT colors, was out in force. Unfortunately one caught fire and sank on Friday night. That disaster was only a foreshadowing of the one coming the next day as the Vols were upset by Georgia State, a 25-point underdog.

Oliver RoyaleMarket Square Munching

Downtown Knoxville is highly walkable, with plenty of interesting shops, restaurants and outdoor art. Two main areas of interest are Market Square and Gay Street. Market Square is a tree-line square with a variety of restaurants and shops. The farmer’s market, held there Wednesday and Saturday, is huge and adds a festive atmosphere.

Gay Street is home to Knoxville’s theater district. The historic Tennessee Theater and Bijou Theater are two of the finest regional performance centers. The street is vibrant with shops, restaurants and Cruze Farm Ice Cream. The ice cream, served up by Farm Girls in red checked uniforms, is a delicious treat. The variety of flavors and toppings is seemingly endless.

There are many dining options on Market Square. For vegetarian or vegan diners, we suggest Tomato Head, which has a bevy of salads, sandwiches and pizzas in a bright and casual setting. Tupelo Honey is a popular spot for scratch-made Southern comfort food. The biscuits alone are worth the trip.

The gastronomic highlight of our trip was Oliver Royale, which dubs its food as comfort food with a cultural kick. I opted for the Kurobuta Porkchop with parmesan polenta, braised apples, crispy brussel sprouts, hoguera chorizo, and plantain chip. The rest of our party ordered the Petite Filet, Sous Vide Swordfish and the Spaghetti Pesto.

Every dish was presented artfully and each bite was an explosion of flavor. I opted for the 2016 Santa Rita 120 Reserva Especial Carmenere to accompany our meal. This is a light bodied red from Chile that blended nicely with the wide range of our meals.

There was no letdown with the desserts. The flourless chocolate torte was a deconstructed masterwork. The lemon bar dessert included a nice dollop of ice cream.

Natural Beauty Knoxville AreaGreat Smoky Beauty

A trip to Knoxville would fall flat without enjoying the spectacular scenery. On the way into town, we detoured to Gatlinburg (about an hour away). Note to self: Don’t visit one of America’s top tourist sites during Labor Day weekend. Once we battled through the traffic and pedestrians, we took off on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. My wife was determined to see a black bear. We had visited here a few years ago and spotted a few. Guess what? We saw another bear, but I learned that a bear frolicking through the woods is faster than me getting my camera ready to take a shot.

The mountain vistas are fantastic. The Roaring Fork is picturesque and there are plenty of pull-offs to enjoy the sights.

For a destination closer to downtown Knoxville, try the Ijams Nature Center. Ijams has 315 acres of hiking, biking, paddling and climbing. It is one of Knoxville’s top attractions. We enjoyed a hearty hike along the Tower Trail to the River Trail Boardwalk. The nature center itself has several interesting displays.

Following a buffet breakfast at the Holiday Inn, we were set to leave on the trip back. Honestly, we didn’t want to leave. Knoxville is a city loaded with delectable food, world class attractions and fun activities. We’re already planning our next visit.

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