Monday, April 25, 2016

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Afternoon and Dinner

After lunch, we retraced our path west out of town back towards the Visitors Center. On the way into town, we noticed a footbridge across the Little Pigeon River and I made a mental note to stop on the way back past it.

Us on the Footbridge Over the Little Pigeon River
Notice the Great Blue Heron in the lower left corner of the photo above. I managed to get a shot of it just before it flew off croaking away. Ann was somewhat surprised to see it, associating herons with her time in Florida. I've come upon them in the oddest places, in all bodies of water all over the east, and in creeks not 18 inches across.

Great Blue Heron; Little Pigeon River
From the footbridge we proceeded west along the river in the direction of Cade's Cove and saw the first of many, many turkeys that we would see in the park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Most were toms casually foraging on the side of the road. We never saw any hens; they're probably all up in the woods on nests.

One of Many Turkeys
Shortly past the Visitor's Center, we came to the parking area for Laurel Falls and it was full, even on a Monday afternoon. We parked a quarter mile down the road and backtracked, taking us past some yellow trilliums in full bloom. They don't have the prettiest of blooms, but the foliage is outstanding.

Yellow Trillium
The path to Laurel Falls is a paved and easy path with way too much company, including a ton of kids. I would skip this on a subsequent visit. The crowds outweighed the beauty of the falls for me. Still, it was a quick hike that fit into our jammed itinerary.

Laurel Falls

Annie at Laurel Falls
It's a good 45- to 60-minute slog from Gatlinburg to Cade's Cove along a beautiful stretch of two-lane road that meanders alongside the river, at places with overhanging rock. The drive is slow and twisty but a lot of fun if you're into that kind of thing. Cades Cove is wide green valley surrounded by both mountains and trees, making it an ideal foraging spot for wildlife. The major attraction here is the bears and the traffic on a Monday afternoon was nearly intolerable. I would not make the drive again, preferring to be in much more peaceful, wooded, and less populated parts of the park.

Cade's Cove, a Sea of Green Surrounded by Mountains
About two-thirds of the way around the one-way loop, we came across this little yearling bear foraging for leaf buds in what appears to be a sycamore tree along a hidden creek.

Yearling Bear Foraging for Leaf Buds
After a few minutes of watching it and wondering where the mother was, we finally spotted her in the brush about 50 yards away. She was encouraging junior to come back to her and he very reluctantly climbed back down the tree and headed slowly back down the creek to her location.

Mom is Calling Junior Back to Her; He Reluctantly Climbs Down
The yearling, after touching base with mom, decided to go back up the tree and continue snacking. After a few minutes, we finally saw why the mother was in the brush: she had a little baby with her. She and the baby finally joined the yearling in the tree.

Mom and Baby Come to Join Yearling
The photo below shows all three of them, the mother on the main trunk, the yearling up to the far right, and the baby is the black spot on the lower left along the creek bank.

Mom and Her Two Cubs
It's quite amazing how limber and agile these big creatures are. Note to self, climbing a tree isn't going to keep a bear away from you! It's also amazing how hungry they must be right now just having emerged from hibernation to be eating fairly non-nutritious buds of a tree. It was pretty cool to see how relaxed these bears were. Around here, we generally see their rear ends as they are running away from humans though we do have them in town each spring raiding bird feeders and scavenging pet food and trash.

Mother Bear in on the Act, Eating Leaf Buds
By this point, it was getting to be very late afternoon and we had to hustle back to get showered and make our dinner reservation at the Lodge at 7pm. There really wasn't any hustling with all the traffic but we made it back in time to relax for a moment before dinner. On a slow Monday night, we were able to secure the last table outside on the porch with a fantastic view of the mountains. We decided to eat at this restaurant before we left because it is really the only fine dining restaurant in the area.

Beautiful View from Restaurant Porch
Despite the beautiful view, there were warning signs almost immediately that our night was heading south. We came into the restaurant with typical fine dining expectations and wanting to spend a leisurely dinner over a bottle of wine.

Those expectations seemed doomed almost immediately upon looking at the wine list which comprises a handful of wines. Still holding out hope, I asked if perhaps there were a full wine list. No such luck. The list is the list, a few very commonplace and ordinary wines with huge markups. We got a bottle of Champagne that was served in really clunky flutes. That seemed to be a trend for the trip: none of the restaurants in which we dined had really good stemware. Why is that?

The menu was equally limited with four appetizers, two salads, and five entrées. So much for our preferred method of ordering many appetizers to share: it wasn't going to happen with this menu. We bit the bullet and ordered traditionally, scallops and filet for Ann and mussels and pork shank for me. It was barely light enough (with a lot of help from Photoshop) to get pictures of the appetizers. It was too dark to record the entrées, not that we would have wanted to remember them. More on that in a moment.

Scallops with Peppercorn Sauce

Saffron Mussels
I really hate to beat up a restaurant because being in the business, I know how hard people work and how deflating a bad word can be. Still, I would be lying if I did not say that this was perhaps the worst executed meal for the dollar that I have ever had. I don't mind paying for food, but if you are going to charge top dollar, you are going to get judged against top standards. Our meal, against these standards, was a failure.

Our sampling of the tiny and unimaginative menu led us to conclude that the food here is characterized by overuse: too much smoke on the smoked shrimp amuse bouche, too many peppercorns in the beurre blanc for the scallops, too much cheap saffron in the mussels. I've never had worse mussels; these reeked of sulfur (gunflint) and were tiny and flavorless. Ann's steak was buried in an obscuring sauce redolent of A-1; we have no idea how the meat tasted. My pork shank ($36 for an entrée that cost maybe $4) could have been cooked a bit longer, was not super flavorful pork to begin with, and was served off the bone on a wad of not well executed lukewarm to cold-in-the-center mash. I ate a third of the mussels, maybe half the pork, and none of the mash.

After we beat a hasty retreat without risking dessert, Ann wondered aloud and probably only half in jest if we could get pizza delivered: we both went to bed hungry. The experience made the decision to skip breakfast again the next morning a no-brainer. It's really a shame that a first-class property such as the Lodge at Buckberry Creek does not have a restaurant of comparable quality.

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