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Maria Carter

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Get away to Knoxville

It’s been more than thirty years since Knoxville hosted the World’s Fair, and there’s only been one such expo in the United States since (New Orleans in 1984). Yet after its fifteen minutes of international fame, “Knoxpatch” settled back into its easygoing, unpretentious ways. You won’t find Tennessee’s third-largest city hosting a prime-time drama like ABC’s Nashville or launching an aggressive advertising campaign like upstart Chattanooga. Since 1982, K-town has been quietly turning its downtown warehouses into hipster bars and boutiques, repurposing its historic buildings, and cultivating its Appalachian roots. It was local before local was cool, and the national media, from the New York Times to Garden & Gun, have taken notice.

At its core, Knoxville is a university town, embracing the catchphrase “Austin without the hype” that originated with a San Francisco music critic. Just ask the 100,000 people (more than half of the city’s population) who drive—or boat—to Neyland Stadium when the University of Tennessee Volunteers take to the gridiron. The hallmarks of collegiate culture—youthfulness, irony, experimentation, indie everything—color Knoxville’s food, music, nightlife, and ambience.

The best place to savor the city’s vibrant spirit is downtown, so we checked into the Oliver Hotel, a twenty-eight-room inn located in a brick building with large arched windows originally built for the Peter Kern Bakery in 1876. Velvet chairs and tall upholstered headboards glam up its tight spaces, while handcrafted tables and prints by the beloved but recently defunct letterpress shop Yee-Haw Industries provide artsy warmth.

From the hotel, we could walk over to Market Square, a promenade and outdoor concert venue flanked by boutiques, coffee shops, wine bars, and restaurants—with nary a Starbucks in sight. The plaza has served continuously as an open-air marketplace since farmers gathered here in the mid-nineteenth century, and it still hosts weekly farmers markets as well as art walks, concerts, and the famous annual International Biscuit Festival in May. Exploring the area, we discovered finds like regional artisan wares at Rala, cute clothing and accessories at Bliss, and barrels of vintage-style candy at Mast General Store.

As the Lady Vols are an integral part of the city’s fabric, we visited the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, where we saw amusing artifacts like an eight-door Pontiac station wagon used to transport Moore’s All American Red Heads, a midcentury women’s pro team. Admission to the hall is only $7.95, and, as we soon found out, some of the best things in Knoxville are free. The WDVX Blue Plate Special, for example, is a gratis noontime concert held daily in the Knoxville Visitors Center. We saw the Knox County Jug Stompers, a young bluegrass group on banjo, harmonica, guitar, drums, and washtub bass (played by a barefoot April Hamilton). Another no-budget activity is riding the elevator up the Sunsphere, a gold disco-ball tower left over from the World’s Fair. We borrowed complimentary bikes from the Oliver and cycled there via the Greenway, a system of paved trails along the Tennessee River.

I appreciated the calories burned on said trails, given the temptations of Knoxville’s culinary scene. A pesto and sun-dried tomato pizza with an impossibly thick yet crisp crust proved that resident favorite the Tomato Head lives up to the hype, and we had our fill of fancied-up Southern dishes like spring succotash gnocchi with crème fraîche and cast-iron seared steak with Benton’s bacon at newcomer Knox Mason.

Nightlife options also abound downtown. The Bijou, the oldest purpose-built theater in the state, and the iconic Tennessee Theatre, a 1928 movie palace boasting an interior that rivals the Fox, are here, as are many cozy bars and nightclubs. We sipped specialty martinis at Sapphire (a modern gem housed in a former jewelry store), savored housemade beer cheese dip and locavore pub grub at the Public House, north of downtown, and eventually ended up back in the Oliver’s Peter Kern Library, a speakeasy hidden behind a nondescript door (though easily recognizable by the chatter of conversation and clinking of ice cubes). It makes sense that a city of academics would have a literary-themed bar—with a cocktail menu masquerading as a World Book encyclopedia and drinks named the Grendel and Mr. Darcy.

This article originally appeared in our July 2013 issue.

Get away to Cumberland Island

While I was sifting through the hoards of conch shells, disc clams, and horseshoe crab remnants left on Cumberland Island National Seashore by a generous surf, something in the distance caught my eye: two majestic creatures at water’s edge, standing so close together that they appeared as one hulking beast. Hoping to snap a photo of these iconic islanders, my boyfriend and I crept closer, unsure of the safest distance. A shrimp boat out in the ocean was the only sign of human life for miles.

As a city girl whose interaction with animals tops out at pets and zoos, I was mesmerized. We waited as they approached and eventually separated into distinct entities. Unfazed by our presence, the wild horses paused—for what turned out to be a bathroom break, ten feet from our toes. Lovely.

Manure aside, this closeness to nature is what Cumberland Island is all about. Perhaps it’s what Lucy Carnegie craved when she convinced husband Thomas (brother of fellow steel magnate Andrew) to purchase more than 10,000 acres here in the 1880s. (Native Americans, Spanish missionaries, plantation owners, and freed African American slaves had all inhabited the island before.) Today guests can tour the ruins of the Carnegie mansion, Dungeness , allegedly set ablaze in 1959 by a poacher; the 
Ice House Museum , a collection of local artifacts housed in an outbuilding that once stored 300-pound frozen blocks; and the humble cemetery where General Robert E. Lee’s father, General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, once was buried.

Getting here is no easy task, though. There are no bridges from the mainland, and ferry and camping reservations must be made at least six weeks early by phone or fax, since the park service doesn’t have an online booking system. During peak season (March to September), a passenger-only ferry ($20/adult; no bikes, kayaks, or pets) departs twice daily from the visitors center in St. Marys. If you’re on the early departure, consider making the five-hour drive from Atlanta the day before and staying overnight at the Spencer House Inn, built in 1872 and now operated by the gracious and always helpful Mary and Mike Neff.

Once docked at Cumberland, there are rickshaw-style carts for hauling gear to Sea Camp ($4/person per night), which offers sites with fire rings, food cages, and picnic tables, plus boardwalk beach access, restrooms, cold showers, and water fountains. Rent a bike from ferry deckhands as well ($16/day).

While landmarks on the island’s southern tip (including Dungeness) are easily accessible, Plum Orchard (another Carnegie mansion) and the First African Baptist Church (site of the clandestine John F. Kennedy Jr.–Carolyn Bessette wedding in 1996) are ten miles north of camp. Book the Lands and Legacies Tour ($15/person) for van transportation and guided narration of these sites. Another option is St. Marys–based Up the Creek Xpeditions, which offers half-day kayak trips to Plum Orchard.

We took a break from campfire grub, donned our best dinner attire, and cycled down a path flanked by bright green saw palmetto and moss-draped oak trees to the Greyfield Inn. The white, four-story Greyfield, former home of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie’s daughter Margaret, has hosted many notable guests over the years: Author Stuart Woods penned his novel Palindrome from one of its cottages, and the Kennedy wedding reception was here. Though we were only staying for a four-course dinner ($120/person, which includes round-trip boat fare, a history walk, appetizers, and tip) and not paying the steep nightly rate of our fellow diners (rooms start at $425/night), staffer Dylan Gruby insisted that “Greyfield is your home now too” and implored us to help ourselves to tall “island pours” from a self-serve bar. Enrapt, we followed Dylan around rooms appointed with black-and-white family photos, bookcases full of first-edition tomes, and furniture that was already antique when the home was built in 1900.

It was hard to envision this almost-10,000-acre haven of federally protected wilderness as the private retreat of America’s wealthiest industrialists. The island’s raw beauty and tranquility entice you to wander lost in thought. Just remember to watch your step—wild horses, and what they leave behind, are everywhere.

This article originally appeared in our May 2013 issue.

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