Each of the all-American road trips I took during my three-year stay in the U.S. was like a buffet of American culture, providing me with a taste of each region’s unique landscapes, famous cities from literature and film, and local culture. My road trip through four states in the South was certainly one of those journeys that tantalised my travel palate.
Our seven-day trip started and ended in Kentucky – home of Colonel Sanders, the Kentucky Derby and Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby). After our arrival in Louisville, it was a short drive over the mighty Ohio River into Indiana and the first stop on the itinerary: The Falls of the Ohio State Park.
The Interpretive Visitors’ Center within the Ohio State Park is located on the banks of the river and outlines its history, the surrounding regions and further highlights the Lewis and Clark Expedition across the United States in the early 1800s. Visitors are also able to view some of the 390-million-year-old fossil beds that have been exposed directly on the river banks.
After a historic start, we drove into Tennessee and made the state capital of Nashville our first stop in the “Volunteer State.” The city is synonymous with country music, and, as such, contemporary and classic country tunes spill out from the many bars and restaurants and onto the streets, making visitors feel part of the city’s ethos as soon as they arrive. The Country Music Hall of Fame in the heart of the city topped the list of the places to see. The exterior is designed to look like a set of piano keys, while the circular parts of the building represent the records and CDs used to record country music. The musical references in the building’s architecture invite visitors inside to explore the origins and ongoing evolution of this unique musical genre. Along with the names of all the Hall of Fame inductees, memorabilia from country legends and new stars alike are on permanent display, while various temporary exhibitions are housed in the museum from time-to-time.
Another iconic country music institution is the Grand Ole Opry, located approximately 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) from Nashville. It’s possible to take guided tours of this famous building that has hosted some of country music’s biggest names on its stage; however, we just missed the last one of the day. In the end, we settled for a stroll around the grounds and had a late lunch with a perfect view of the two enormous guitars that stand guard in front of the Opry.
Our next stop in Tennessee was Pigeon Forge, a small town that served as a base for the highlight of the trip for me: a visit to Dollywood. This massive theme park, conceived by the incomparable Dolly Parton, officially opened in 1986 and has been thrilling visitors of all ages ever since. Along with a multitude of fun rides, such as the wooden Thunderhead roller coaster, the Dollywood Express coal-fired steam engine, and Daredevil Falls, a log ride down a 60-foot waterfall (my personal favourite), the theme park offers snapshots of Southern culture, cuisine and crafts.
In addition, visitors get a glimpse into Dolly Parton’s life with her greatest hits providing a foot-tapping, head-nodding soundtrack. A replica of her childhood home is also on display, and one can step onto her tour bus to see what her life on the road is like, or visit a clothing store for some Dolly fashion. While it may not be directly accessible from any major cities, Dollywood is a delightful detour that any visitor to Tennessee must experience.
After the excitement of the theme park, we drove into North Carolina and spent the night near the city of Asheville. The following day, we visited the famed Biltmore Estate—the largest residential home in the United States. This breathtaking mansion, framed by rolling hills and dense forests, officially opened in 1895 by George Vanderbilt and is now maintained as a museum that offers visitors a look at how one of the wealthiest families in America lived. A walk through the expansive grounds, comprising picture-postcard gardens, such as the Italian and Rose Gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, is a must.
The opulence of the Biltmore Estate was followed by a long drive back to Louisville, where our trip culminated with a tour of Churchill Downs, the location of the prestigious annual Kentucky Derby. The tour provided a behind-the-scenes look at the Derby, which is known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports,” as it takes approximately two minutes for the race to finish, or “The Run for the Roses,” because a garland of roses is presented to the winner. The tour also provides interesting facts about some of the winning racehorses, such as Triple Crown winner Secretariat. The interactive museum affords visitors the opportunity to dress up as a jockey and simulate a nail-biting horse race.
And then, wearing my Dollywood T-shirt, with a warm biscuit in my hand and the sounds of Patsy Cline still ringing in my ears, it was time to say goodbye to the South for now, knowing that I would return for another taste of this part of America.