Before joining in Outdoor Recreation’s trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., Spc. Joe Luna had never been snowboarding. In fact, the Texas native hadn’t had too many snow vacations at all. Now, the annual trip is practically a tradition.
Luna’s first trip was two years ago before his deployment to Afghanistan. He went again after returning to Fort Benning — and he’s already signed up for this year. The trip will be Jan. 20-22.
“You get a lot of bang for your buck. You really do,” said Luna, 11th Engineer Battalion. The trip costs $175 for skiers and $195 for snowboarders with a $50 discount for single Soldiers. There are only 24 slots, which typically fill up, said Brittany Beadle, Outdoor Recreation specialist, and the deadline to register is Dec. 30.
The price includes two nights at the River Terrace Resort, transportation, equipment rental, an evening and daytime trip on the ski lift, two tram tickets up the slopes and one beginner lesson.
“It’s definitely more affordable than someone trying to take a ski trip on their own,” Beadle said. “With us they get a great value because they get everything included. The place where we stay is right in town. It’s absolutely gorgeous. You can walk to the ski resort. There’s plenty of restaurants and shopping. We had a bunch of single Soldiers go last year who are now friends with each other. It’s always a fun trip.”
Even if you’ve never been on a board or skis before, you can still hit the slopes at Ober Gatlinburg. Luna has a few tips for beginners — namely, to take the starter lesson.
“It takes about an hour to get your balance together, but as the day goes on you fall down less, and then it gets a little more fun,” he said. “Once you actually get on that first run and you can go down the hill without falling, you feel pretty accomplished.”
Even if you don’t plan to do much skiing, you can explore the town. The River Terrace Resort offers spacious accommodations close to the parkway — the retail strip where you can find arcades, old-time candy stores and lots of Ripley’s attractions.
If you like panorama city views, be sure to see the Gatlinburg Space Needle. It’s a brisk walk from the hotel and one of the more affordable attractions in town. Your ticket gives you one ride up the 407-foot tower during the day and one at night. When it’s clear, you can see stunning views of the Smoky Mountains. After dark, the city lights are impressive. The viewfinders at the top are free.
Don’t leave the Space Needle without grabbing a pizza from the Flying Saucer Italian Bistro. What makes this eatery different is the chef’s homemade dough, fresh cheese and clever combinations of spices and toppings. It’s honestly the best restaurant pizza I’ve ever had and surprisingly not at all overpriced, especially given its prime location. Save some for later. Your hotel room has a fridge and microwave.
Questions? Want to register for the trip? Call 706-545-9636.
There’s plenty more to see and do in the Gatlinburg area, particularly if you’re headed up for a longer stay. Gatlinburg is the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. There’s no admission cost for the park’s many waterfalls, forests, mountain views and glimpses of wildlife.
A quaint town less than 10 minutes from Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge has plenty of shopping, dining and entertainment options. The city seems to be especially rich in dinner shows. I counted no fewer than seven, one just opening this month.
I recommend the Great Smoky Mountain Murder Mystery Dinner Show. Its Frankly Scarlett, You’re Dead! will keep you laughing and keep you guessing. It’s more interactive than most shows of its ilk — you can unscramble clues to get hints at whodunit, and you just might get your shot at stardom and be part of the play. Tasty food, a shop with unique souvenirs and actors who stay in character all night make this show stand apart.
Another five miles from Pigeon Forge and you’re in Sevierville, famous as the hometown of Dolly Parton. It’s pronounced “severe-ville,” by the way. The local who cleared up my mispronunciation — once she understood what I was talking about — explained that tourists typically distort the name.
A statue of Dolly Parton, a zoo and underground caverns are just a few of the sights located in town. The best of the bunch is the awe-inspiring Cirque de Chine, a high-flying affair that combines circus stunts with cultural pageantry. The show features 10-foot-high hoop diving, aerial silk dancing, juggling, contortion and motorcyclists making 360 degree circles inside a steel sphere. Housed in the beautiful Smoky Mountain Palace, this act is perfect for all ages. Kids 5 and under get in free.