Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Oh, vacation, how I love you so!

Derek, Annalynn, and I just returned from a long weekend in the Great Smoky Mountains and it felt so good to get away. We spent some much needed time disconnecting from civilization and enjoying as much time outdoors as a family as we could.

It was Annalynn’s first flight and – despite months of worrying and planning – she did great. We flew Allegiant Air which, if you’re not familiar with it, is what I like to call a “no-frills” airline. The tickets were cheap, but everything else will cost you, as you pay in an a la carte format for luggage, carry-ons, in-flight beverages, etc. We paid in advance for our checked luggage, avoided paying a $5 boarding pass fee by checking-in via the airline’s app, and chose not to pay the extra $30 per person to pick our seats ahead of time. This was a bit of a risk traveling with a lap child, but thankfully it worked out. Fortunately we were also able to check the stroller, car seat, and carry on a diaper bag for free.

We had an early flight out of St. Pete Thursday morning. We packed the car and got Annalynn up and dressed at the last minute possible. She had a yogurt (because the world would end if she didn’t eat as soon as she got up – no matter the time) and then fell asleep on the drive to the airport.

Despite our attempt at traveling “light” (is that even possible with a toddler??), it was pretty comical unloading the car in the economy parking lot and reloading everything in the shuttle to take us to the airport. It was also raining – yay! It did get easier from there. I ended up wearing Annalynn in the Tula and we loaded everything in the Bob (our stroller) for the trek from the shuttle to the airport. The car seat actually fit perfectly on the Bob, as well as the diaper bag and Derek’s back pack.

(Photo was from our way home, but you get the visual)

I was able to push the stroller and Derek pulled the suitcases. Once inside we checked the suitcases, stroller, and car seat. I had purchased this car seat bag off of Amazon the week before and would highly recommend it. It made checking the car seat incredibly simple and was easy to spot at baggage claim.

Once we dropped all of our stuff off, navigating through the airport wasn’t a big deal. I was able to wear Annalynn in the Tula through security and had no problems with her diaper bag or her sippy cup full of water.

There was a little delay due to lightening in the area, but Annalynn just walked a few laps around the airport to burn out some energy before boarding.

Since we didn’t pay extra to sit together, Derek was a couple of rows behind us. I figured we could switch off Annalynn duty halfway through the flight, but we didn’t need to. As soon as we boarded I put on an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and she fell asleep right around take off. We had a window seat but lucked out with an empty middle seat and a guy on the aisle seat who didn’t mind sitting by a toddler. I even managed to catch some zzZzzs myself.

The flight was short and Annalynn woke right when we landed – just in time for a snack. I wore her off the plane and then let her run around at baggage claim to burn off some energy before heading to the rental car.

After that we installed the car seat in the rental car and were off. Honestly, it was almost too easy flying with Annalynn. The diaper bag was stuffed full of new toys, books, and snacks, but we didn’t end up needing any of it for the first flight. I think having an early flight and a sleepy toddler definitely helped. I crossed my fingers for the worse on the way home and kept some of the new toys hidden for the remainder of the trip just in case.

Derek wanted to try a Man v Food place he had googled the day before, but they didn’t open until 11. I searched “fun things to do” on Google maps and found a nearby park with trails about 10 minutes from the airport. I mean, we’re here to hike – so let’s hike!

It was a little wet and cold, but it felt good to walk around and stretch our legs. It was Annalynn’s first hike and she enjoyed looking at all of the trees and the little river the trail took us along. We did a 1.2 mile out-and-back along the water with Annalynn on my back. It was actually a good test to see what her limits would be for the trip. She lasted about 3/4 of the way before she was bored of the new surroundings and ready to try something new. That’s when we started a very loud never-ending round of “wheels on the bus” which I’m sure made the trail runner who passed us very thankful for her earbuds.

We finished the hike right as the restaurant was opening and enjoyed the tv-famous BBQ burritos from Sweet P’s. (p.s. they were amazing and really filling!) From there we hit the grocery store before heading to our cabin just outside Pigeon Forge.

I’ve been to the Pigeon Forge area countless times as a kid and an adult, but it’s been at least 5 or 6 years since my last adventure to the Smokies. If you avoid the super-touristy (and extremely out of place) areas of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, it’s really a peaceful, family-friendly area to explore and get away from civilization.

We ate at one of my family’s favorite restaurants, Applewood Farmhouse, on our first night.  The hearty southern comfort food really hit the spot and Annalynn enjoyed her first bites of apple fritters, fried okra, and chicken and dumplings.

She still, however, does not like mashed potatoes. What kind of kid doesn’t like mashed potatoes?!? She’ll eat almost anything (including the fired okra!!), but refuses mashed potatoes. Strange kid.

With all of the gear we were already traveling with, I really didn’t want to mess with bringing the pack ‘n’ play, too. We were staying in a cabin we rented through VRBO that didn’t have a crib (nor did I expect it to). I did a little research a couple of weeks prior on what Annalynn could sleep on that I could easily fit in a suitcase. I basically found two options: the toddler blow-up mattress or toddler cot. Annalynn sleeps pretty well on a cot at daycare (or so I’m told, I’ve never actually witnessed this) and it was the cheaper option… so I crossed my fingers and ordered the cot. I opened it as soon as it arrived and she immediately hopped on the cot and laid on it as if she was going “night, night.” Hmmm… this might work. I figured Plan B would be moving her to bed with Derek and me if something went wrong.

Derek set the cot up in the cabin’s second bedroom with her favorite blanket. We removed the room of all hazards (including the night lights that she had developed a fascination with as soon as we arrived) and went about our normal routine: bath time, story time, sleep sack, nursing, and then bed. Before we put the sleep sack on, we asked Annalynn where she was going “night, night” and she climbed on the cot. The kid got it. I nursed her, gave her the pacifier, and then set her on the cot to sleep. Done.

Then I checked the monitor every 10 minutes. Obviously.

She was exhausted from the long day, so it didn’t take her long to fall asleep. She moves around a lot in her sleep at home in her crib, and it was no different on the cot. We found her in several positions throughout the night and even on the floor at one point.

As far as I know, falling to the floor never even woke her up. She seemed happy in that position, so I left her. When I woke up the next morning, she was back on the cot, curled up under her blanket, and facing the other side. Apparently she woke up at one point and realized the cot would be comfier than the floor? Whatever works for you, kiddo!

She ended up sleeping in until 8:30, when we woke her for breakfast. I’m telling you – that big day of travel wore her out!

Oh, and while Annalynn slept, mom and dad enjoyed the peace and quiet of cabin life.

Local beers and hot tubbing for the win. Now THIS is what I call a vacation!

We made breakfast at the cabin the next morning, then hit the road to Cades Cove. Cades Cove is a historic valley in the the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The valley was home to numerous settlers before the formation of the national park. There’s an 11-mile, one-way loop road that circles the cove and allows tourists to explore at a leisurely pace. It takes about two to four hours to tour Cades Cove, longer if you walk some of the area’s trails. If you go, I highly recommend paying $1 for the auto-tour guide at the entrance. Cell-reception is spotty at best (I ended up just putting mine on airplane mode to save battery) and it gave some great facts along the way.

The scenic drive is gorgeous and educational, but can be a bit much for an energetic toddler who is bored of their car seat. We ended up making a few stops along the way to explore and let her run off a lot of energy. There were actually a lot of great open areas Annalynn could run crazy around.

And we had a bear sighting. You just have to squint your eyes to see it.

We stopped at a cute little café called Elvira’s after the tour and enjoyed Green Fried Tomato BLTs (yum!) and some chocolate pie.

After that we headed out to hike Laurel Falls.

So, funny story, I had read beforehand that this trail was a “paved path” and “popular with strollers.” We took the Bob and figured it could be an easy stroll up. Ummm… wrong.

I saw this sign right before we started making our way up.

Hmmm… should we turn around? Nah – how bad could it be? Let’s keep going. Famous last words, right?

Derek ended up pushing the stroller the whole way up and down. God bless him. It was a rough and bumpy right for Annalynn, the path was crowded and narrow, and I’m pretty sure everyone passing us thought we were crazy with this massive stroller on the path. I mean, I thought we were crazy.  We eventually saw a few other families with strollers that made me feel a little better.

Eventually we made it to the top (yay!). We parked the stroller next to another stroller (see – not the only ones!) and I put Annalynn in the Tula on my back.

Annalynn is obsessed with splashing water and was so pissed I wasn’t letting her down to explore. It’s how when you become a mom everything starts screaming “danger” and being at the top of a waterfall with a one-year old was one of those situation. Sorry, kid. There’s no way in hell I’m letting your feet hit the ground here.

We started our descend and it occurred to be that the stroller might be a little easier to push if I locked the front tire. Umm… too bad I didn’t have that thought on the way up. Turns out the lock tire was key, so if you ever decide to be crazy and take your jogging stroller to Laurel Falls, don’t forget to lock the tire!

The walk down actually wasn’t bad. In fact, Annalynn fell sleep! Whoa.

Oh, well. I’m not sure I would take the stroller up that path again, but if you’re considering it, I will say it is doable.

We picked up BBQ on the way home and called it a night. Annalynn had another great night on the cot and Derek and I fell asleep watching Shark Tank. Vacations are a lot different as an adult.

Saturday morning we toured Tuckaleechee Caverns. It was also Derek’s 33rd birthday. Happy Birthday, Derek!

There are a few other caverns you can tour in the area, but Tuckaleechee at the best reviews and I can definitely see why. If you’re afraid of heights or tight spaces, I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you’re up for a little adventure then it’s definitely worth it.

Also, if you bring your one-year old I would definitely recommend wearing then in a carrier. There are several tights spots and stairs that was just easier to have her on my back for. However, I would also recommend snacks. We forgot to bring any and Annalynn was seriously hangry by the end of the 1.5 hr tour. We were the family with a screaming baby stuck 100 ft underground. Our sincere apologies to everyone in our group.

We headed back into the park to see a few waterfalls.

Then had picnic lunch by the water.

We headed into Gatlinburg for the rest of the afternoon, which was a huge mistake. The cute little town I remembered from my youth has changed so much in recent years and is now a crowded, tourist trap. So many people. So not our scene. Annalynn was also refusing to nap in the stroller, which was turning into a toddler meltdown. We headed back to the car and ended up driving in circles so Annalynn could get a decent nap in. An hour later she was a completely different person. Never underestimate the importance of a good nap!

We had an early dinner at the Old Mill Restaurant in Pigeon Forge.  I had never been before, but my mom had recommended it as a great place for Derek’s birthday dinner. She was right, it was another great restaurant featuring delicious southern comfort food.

Man, the southern food on this trip was good, but I was really craving a salad and steamed vegetables when we returned home.

We took our time packing up on Sunday morning and then said goodbye to our cabin at the last possible minute before checkout. I think Annalynn enjoyed her first cabin experience.

We headed into Knoxville and killed some time exploring the Ijams Nature Center, which was a pretty cool place if you’re looking for something fun to do in the area.

Finally, we had an amazing lunch at SoKno Taco Cantina (thank you, Yelp!) before heading to the airport.

Luckily the flight home was just as easy as the flight out. Annalynn and I had a window seat again, but this time the whole row was full. The people next to us were nice and even offered up some snacks to Annalynn. She watched Mickey Mouse Clubhouse pretty much the whole flight, only falling asleep for the last 20 minutes or so.


I wore her off the plane and that was that. Vacation time was over. Booo….

It really was a great trip and both Derek and I look forward to returning as a family in the future. We can’t wait until Annalynn (and future siblings) are old enough to go white water rafting, ziplining, horseback riding, and more. The fun has only just begun!



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