Springtime in the Smokies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts nearly twice as many annual visitors as any other park. There must be some darn good reasons all of those people are coming, so we did a little exploring and discovered plenty… CONTINUE READING >> 

How about a fun trivia question?

What is the most visited National Park in America?

We would have guessed Yellowstone or Yosemite, or even the Grand Canyon, but it is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Believe it or not, it attracts nearly twice as many annual visitors as any other park.

There must be some darn good reasons all of those people are coming, so we did a little exploring and discovered plenty. We also found that spring is the perfect season to take in the explosion of wildflowers and greenery while the colorful slopes and foggy valleys burst back to life.

Any good exploration needs a base camp and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is the perfect place to start.

This classic mountain village has stunning views at almost every turn or, for a full panorama, the top of the Space Needle can’t be beat. From its over four hundred feet high outdoor observation level the entire town spreads out in every direction beneath the alpine backdrop.

If that’s not quite high enough, there’s no better spot to check out the spectacle of colors than from the top of Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies, as well as the highest point in the state of Tennessee, and on the Appalachian Trail.

No need to bring the climbing gear either, since Clingmans Dome Road opens up April 1st and it is only a half mile hike from the high parking area to the 6,643 foot summit, where another even more spectacular observation tower awaits.

From up here the park’s name is no mystery. The namesake haze settles into the low-lying hollows (known as hollers in these parts) and looks for all the world like smoke.

Down below, saying goodbye to winter also ushers in the return of festivals and celebrations to the mountains.

The Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community gets back into full swing with their Easter Craft Show at the end of March, but the historic 8-mile loop Arts & Crafts Trail is open year ‘round. Local artisans have been whittling, painting, sewing, weaving, and carving original works in this neck of the woods for centuries, long before the trail was officially established back in 1937.

Nowadays guest craftspeople from all around the country join in sharing skills and ideas and giving folks a chance to take home a handmade heirloom.

April kicks off with the Annual Smoky Mountain Trout Tournament, the biggest trout tournament in the Smokies. Adults and kids can try their luck whether they’ve lived in these hills for generations or they’re a city slicker just passing through. Either way the fish tales are always flying about all of the whoppers that just barely got away.

Conceivably, some of those more cosmopolitan urbanites would rather indulge in a bit of the fruit of the vine. Perfect timing again, since the middle of the month brings Gatlinburg Wine Weekend featuring the Gatlinburg Wine Tour and the Gatlinburg Smoky Mountain Wine Fest.

The award-winning Tennessee wines offer something for everyone from connoisseurs to critics, life-long aficionados or rank amateurs. Luckily, we fit in there somewhere along that scale.

As April draws to a close, the Gatlinburg area blossoms with the Great Smoky Mountain Association’s Annual Wildflower Pilgrimage. For nearly seventy years many of the nation’s leading botanical experts and Appalachian wildlife authorities have been meeting here to provide demonstrations and lectures, along with instructional walks and guided hiking tours.

Scenic beauty may always be these mountains’ main attraction, but the music of this region most certainly gives it a run for its money and no one epitomizes that style better than Dolly Parton. In 1985 she took over Silver Dollar City Tennessee, renamed it Dollywood, and quickly turned it into the nation’s premier music oriented theme park.

The park opens in the middle of March and this is a great time of year to beat the crowds before the summer rush. April brings the Spring Mix Festival featuring a wide variety of musical genres from country to gospel to Classic Rock and R&B, with some of our favorites such as The Drifters, Firefall, Crystal Gayle, Amy Grant, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and the Marshall Tucker Band performing.

So maybe we under estimated when we said we found plenty of reasons. With so much to pack into every day, we were sure glad find Piddlin.com, and that daylight savings time had returned.

That just might be the best thing about spring.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
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A Look at Los Angeles Before It Was Tinsel Town

Lights, camera, action! We all know that phrase keeps the film rolling in Hollywood. However, long before the glitz and glamor of Tinsel Town made Southern California famous… CONTINUE READING >> 

“Lights, camera, action!”

We all know that phrase keeps the film rolling in Hollywood. However, long before the glitz and glamor of Tinsel Town made Southern California famous, photo-worthy moments happened here. You can still capture a few of them on camera in some of Los Angeles’ best spots for photos.

Prehistoric Los Angeles

Before it was Hollywood, LA had its share of big-time actors. Today, some of the biggest are immortalized at the La Brea Tar Pits. Yes, one of the world’s most famous fossil finds is right in the heart of the city at 5801 Wilshire Boulevard. The amazingly preserved skeletons of mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and giant sloths have been waiting patiently for their photo opportunities since being trapped in the tar up to 50,000 years ago. That’s a long time to wait for their big break!

More recently, The George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries has exhibited these stars. Now we can all get a good close-up of these famed fossil celebrities.

In our imaginations, we envisioned these creatures sinking into a quicksand pool. However, our guide explained the process of their petrifaction as something more similar to being trapped on an enormous sheet of flypaper than to languishing in a lake of liquid goop. First, an animal would get stuck. Then others would arrive, thinking they had gotten a free and easy meal. Before long a whole group, sometimes dozens, would be trapped.

Over time, the oily ooze fossilized the bones, preserving the entire scene, almost as if it was caught on film. Once the ice age and the exotic headliners that starred in it were left long in the past, a settlement sprang up just a few miles to the east of the pits.

The City of Angels

Tucked in among the freeways and skyscrapers of downtown and right across from the Union Station train depot, the tiny pedestrian lane of Olvera Street is known as the Birthplace of Los Angeles. More precisely, Don Fernando Rivera y Moncada and 44 Spanish settlers arrived from Mexico and established El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de la Porciúncula in 1781.

As a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the cobblestone block known as Olvera Street includes several of the oldest surviving structures in LA, including the Avila Adobe and Sepúlveda House. These landmarks are nestled in among quaint little shops overflowing with every kind of colorful keepsake imaginable. Flamboyant flowers, dresses, guitars, dolls, piñatas, ponchos, rugs, sombreros, and glitzy wrestling masks make a fantastic backdrop for one-of-a-kind photos.

Then, when all of that shutter snapping helps you work up an appetite, nothing tops the original taquitos sold at Cielito Lindo on the end of Olvera Street. Since this shop opened in 1934, it has spanned the timeline between old Los Angeles and new Hollywood, so it’s possible that a few movie stars have stopped by.

Could taquitos be the unknown key to Tinsel Town’s fame?

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Help! There’s No One to Eat the Leftovers!

Pretty much everything about life changes when that last kid walks out the door. Veronica and I think we should make the most of these adjustments, that’s why we started GypsyNester.com, to celebrate life after kids. Most of the changes were easily anticipated but, as always, some things are unforeseen.

Over the past few years, we have had to relearn how to shop and cook for just the two of us. That fell into the unexpected for me. I don’t know why, but it was not something that I thought of before the clearing out of the nest… CONTINUE READING >>

The GypsyNesters

Pretty much everything about life changes when that last kid walks out the door.

Veronica and I think we should make the most of these adjustments, that’s why we started GypsyNester.com, to celebrate life after kids. Most of the changes were easily anticipated but as always, some things are unforeseen.

Over the past few years, we have had to relearn how to shop and cook for just the two of us. That fell into the unexpected for me. I don’t know why, but it was not something that I thought of before the clearing out of the nest.

Throughout our over three decades of marriage I have been the primary cook in the house. One of the kids calls me about once a week to ask things like “how long do you cook a chicken?” or “what’s in that stroganoff you make?” or ” what was that stuff you made that one time that was so good?” About two hours, cream of mushroom soup and carbonara.

I like to eat, so early in life I figured out how to cook the things that I wanted to consume. A natural offshoot of cooking is shopping, so I learned to do that too. I’m such a hunter-gatherer. With three kids, I had to be!

Usually, a trip to the grocery store involved multiple shopping carts and severe wallet damage. By the time the three bottomless pits were teenagers it required a small truck and a second mortgage. Should The Spawn choose to come along, only perfect weather, no traffic, fast driving and sheer luck could get half of the provisions home before ingestion.

One red light and there would be nothing left but empty wrappers, paper products and canned goods… but that’s only because they didn’t like to eat paper and I had learned to check them for can openers before we left.

On one of these homeward sprints, I’m pretty sure they were trying to start a fire in the back of the van. Luckily I pulled into the driveway right as I started to smell smoke and they were tearing open the meat. After that, I learned to check for matches, lighters, flint, sticks, charcoal, grills, skewers, and long-handled forks… even if we were just going to the Kwik Sack for gas.

So there’s been a bit of an adjustment from shopping for a ravenous pack of teenaged wolves to supplying two middle-aged wandering gypsies. Even more so when the eating habits of said gypsies are completely different.

I like meat. Almost any meat. If it squeals, moos, gobbles, baaas, swims, pinches or clucks, I’m all over it. Skin it, pluck it or scale it and lob it on the fire. Veronica calls herself “a meat avoider,” not a vegetarian, an avoider. As near as I can tell, that means “Let me try a bite of that pork chop, it looks way better than this salad.” She claims that it’s my fault that I never get a carnivorous dish to myself because I make things look so good while I’m eating them. I can’t help it, I like food.

But back to the point, it’s hard to find foods sized for just one or two people. We are now punished for not buying the “family pack” of half a cow. I used to celebrate finding 27lbs of grade A beef on sale for pennies a pound. Now I get to buy the one strip steak for tonight’s dinner at $27.00 a pound, what a deal!

Yes, I could break up the giant bargain packs and freeze the portions but how long will it take for me to go through a side of beef all by myself (and of course Veronica’s bites as she avoids the stuff)? The answer is…. longer than it takes frozen meat to turn into that strange crystallized cardboard space-food product it becomes in your freezer. The bargains may not be available, but these days the final bill is certainly less of a shock. Dozens of dollars instead of hundreds, I’ll take that and like it.

Still, my transition from vats of spaghetti, cauldrons of soup and Fred Flintstone slabs of meat to dinner for two is far from complete. I know there are only two of us and I know that Veronica hardly eats any of the same things that I do (sneak attacks from her fork notwithstanding) but sometimes I can’t help myself. I must have burritos.

Then I have to buy the whole can of green chiles, tortillas come by the dozen, there is only one sized can of refried beans and nobody sells less than a pound of meat or cheese for one or half heads of lettuce… so… I either eat burritos for three days straight or we get a really cool science project going in the back of the fridge.

I’ve found that there are some things can help. First, cook different things. No more big pots and whole chickens, now it’s grilled or broiled meat and a smaller side dish. No more striving to fill bottomless bellies with massive amounts of starches.

I bake a couple potatoes instead of mashing several dozen. I cook a small pan of rice, not a washtub full, a small bowl of pasta with tuna instead of literally pounds of the stuff with gallons of red sauce. Pasta and rice are great because I can cook just the amount needed for today and the rest keeps almost indefinitely.

Tuna is one of the few things that actually comes in a can the right size for one or two people. Not so much with the crushed tomatoes.

It also helps to plan ahead a bit. I try to think about a second meal when I’m shopping. A small roast makes great sandwiches the following day. Fish goes into a salad. That extra steak or pork chop is mighty good with eggs the next morning. Most anything can be tossed into a can of soup to dress it up or mixed together with other leftovers to form a new meal. To me cooking is all about experimenting anyway.

Oh, and by the way, there are a lot of fates worse than eating burritos for three days straight… no doubt I’ll do it again soon.

David, GypsyNester.com

YOUR TURN: Do you find it hard to cook for two? Do you miss cooking for ravenous teenagers? Do you have any tips for us?

Captivating Museums and Galleries in Wales

The dramatic landscape of Wales has been inspiring people for hundreds of years. All over the country you will discover captivating museums and galleries filled to the brim with original and imaginative pieces of art… CONTINUE READING >> 

The dramatic landscape of Wales has been inspiring people for hundreds of years, the breath-taking scenery and fascinating history encourages creativity and expression. All over the country you will discover captivating museums which are home to glimpses of years gone by, as well as galleries filled to the brim with original and imaginative pieces of art. Here are some of my favourites from this stunning part of the UK:

Oriel Ynys Môn, Anglesey’s Centre for Art and History

Anglesey has a rich and diverse history, with evidence of humans on the isle since 7000BC. Gain an insight and enjoy the journey through the past at the Oriel Môn during your stay at your Anglesey holiday cottages, admiring the treasures and exhibits on show. The diverse collection delves deep into the islands maritime history from ancient shipwrecks which are now thriving underwater habitats to the visitors who arrived on Anglesey after travelling unimaginable distances across the open ocean. The heritage of this stunning part of Wales is fascinating, with an affluent copper mine during the 17th and 18th century, the world-famous Menai Bridge, 17th-century windmills, historical ports and harbours and much, much more.

The art exhibitions at the Oriel Môn frequently change throughout the year, yet many of them share the same inspiration. People, culture, and landscapes are at the heart of several of the collections. The range of mediums, styles, and subjects ensures there is something to suit all tastes and interests.

Free admission and open daily, excluding the Christmas period.

St Fagans National Museum of History

The open-air museum in Cardiff is one of the leading of its kind in the whole of Europe. There are over 40 ancient buildings, which have been cautiously restored, using traditional methods and materials and re-erected within the stunning setting of the grounds of the St Fagans Castle. Within each captivating building, visitors are transported back in time, as inside you will discover artifacts which provide visitors with a tangible insight into life during that period, as well as in-depth information displays and enlightening staff on hand to answer your queries and illustrate that period of history.

The buildings have a huge variety, and an abundance of fascinations are held within each one. From a 20th-century bakehouse, a 19th-century workmen’s Institute and a tailor’s workshop to a 17th-century woolen mill and an 18th-century pigsty – the diversity of the exhibition buildings ensure a fantastic and memorable day out for all.

Free admission (£5.00 charge for the carpark) and open daily, excluding the Christmas period.

National Wool Museum

As one of the most prosperous industries in Wales, wool production is an integral and intertwined part of the country’s history. Nestled within the stunning Cambrian hills, the ancient and sensitively restored mill remains open for visitors interested in uncovering and learning the processes involved to get the freshly shaven sheep’s wool and turn it into various items of clothing, carpets, and bedsheets, amongst other textiles.  Throughout the tour, visitors can see the historical machinery, much of which is still operational today, to gain an understanding of how the beautiful items were made.

If after your trip you are interested in giving some of these ancient and often forgotten skills a go, there is a range of regular workshops that take place at the mill. Examples of these include the Natural Dyeing Workshop, Welsh Basket Making, Knitting Club and the Spinner and Weavers Group. All are welcome (some have age restrictions), and many of them are free to attend.

Free admission. Open daily from April-September. Open Tuesday-Saturday from October-March.

Mostyn Contemporary Gallery

The collection at the Mostyn Gallery presents work from a diverse pool of artists from Wales and further afield, each one ranging in technique and the mediums used. With six spaces enclosed inside the Edwardian building, each turn during your journey brings more visual delights of contemporary art.

There are frequent talks and seminars as well as a range of interesting and fun craft and art workshops such as life drawing, graffiti tags and comic book sketching.

Free admission. Open Tuesday-Sunday.

Which museum or gallery will you be visiting during your stay in Wales? I would love to hear your recommendations, let me know via my social media channels!

Written by: Quality Cottages
Quality Cottages have an extensive range of superb self-catered holiday cottages all over Wales, in some of the most stunning locations in the area. From popular seaside historical towns, secluded and rural locations offering peace and tranquillity, to cottages surrounded by the picturesque rolling hills of the Welsh countryside and much, much more! Your stay in a Quality Cottage in Wales will be a holiday that you’ll cherish for many years to come.

We are happy to present this collaborative post to offer valuable information to our readers.

It’s No Sacrifice, Visiting the Volcano Goddess of Hawaii

The best place to see incredible geologic activity in action is Volcanoes National Park, where Kīlauea has eruptions so often that the name means spewing in Hawaiian… CONTINUE READING >> 

We have all seen the scenes of virgins being ceremoniously thrown into the gaping maw of an active volcano in some Late, Late Show Cinematic masterpiece. The gruesome ritual usually seems to involve grass skirts and coconut shell bras, indicating a Polynesian paradise gone awry.

Hawaii would be a perfect setting for this since the archipelago was formed by a string of volcanoes that have grown out of the sea. While it looks as though the source of these islands has moved southeast along the bottom of the sea, in reality, the opposite has occurred.

The ocean floor, which is part of the Pacific Plate in geology 101 tectonics lingo, has slowly slid over a stationary hotspot in the earth’s mantle at a rate of about thirty miles every million years which forms new land as it moves.

Over the past 85 million years this motion has created a chain of volcanic islands some 3,600 mi long.

The long extinct older ones have eroded away, disappearing under the surface of the sea as they pull away from the hotspot. This is why Hawai’i (the local spelling), the biggest and southernmost of the islands, is the only one with active volcanoes.

This process has created the largest mountain on earth. So high in fact, that even in the heart of the tropics we saw the peak covered in snow as we flew in for our landing at the Kona airport.

Wait, what about Everest? Well, when Mauna Kea’s altitude of 13,796 feet above sea level is added to the 20,000 feet that it rises from the ocean floor below the water’s surface, it is easily the world’s biggest mount.

The best place to see this incredible geologic activity in action is Volcanoes National Park. Oddly enough, although this is the newest state in the union, the park is one of the nation’s oldest, having been established in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson.

Our initial focus was on getting to the summit of Kīlauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. The eruptions are so common that the name means spewing in the Hawaiian language, and lava has been flowing non-stop since 1983.

From the observation deck at the Jaggar Museum we could see the Halema’uma’u Crater, which is basically a lake of liquid rock. The glowing, red-hot magma bubbled up into view through the smoke and we thought; this would be the perfect spot for an offering to Pele.

The goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes was believed to live in the caldera, but she must not have desired martyred maidens because by all accounts no one was ever tossed over the edge. That is a figment of some movie maker’s imagination.

That’s not to say that human sacrifices never happened, it was likely quite common in various places around the world, maybe even here in Hawaii, just that the method did not involve lobbing ladies into lava lakes.

Anyway, Pele’s wrath seems to have been pacified because the last time there was a violent, explosive eruption was more than two centuries ago. Maybe she’s happy that there are no sacrifices.

From our perch atop Kīlauea, we got a clear view of the crater and caught glimpses of luminous lava as it bubbled up over the edge from time to time. There is also a museum with explanations of the geologic processes and history of the volcano.

It was here that we got to meet Pele in person, or at least a few artist’s renditions.

After exploring the exhibits and taking another look out at the eruption, we moved across to the other side of the crater. The observation area here may not be as close, but it is much more comfortable and comes with a hotel and restaurant.

We were content with snacks and cocktails, so we settled in to watch the sunset through the giant windows facing the crater.

The combination of darkening skies with the clouds illuminated by the glow of the molten rock was nothing short of spectacular. The fiery radiance of the red-hot magma lit the low hanging clouds in an eerie light show that rivaled any 70s rock concert.

We stayed put until total darkness, and then correctly supposed that the view from our previous post would be even more fantastic at night.

We could hardly tear ourselves away from the scene, but knew we had to return to our earlier observation spot at the Jaggar Museum in hopes of seeing some spectacular nighttime live lava action in the crater.

Our thinking was spot-on and the display did not disappoint. The pitch dark backdrop behind the molten pool made for much better viewing than our daylight visit and we, along with the several dozen other spectators, were completely mesmerized.

The incredible power that lies deep within our planet was on display only a few hundred yards away and yet we felt perfectly safe.

Must mean that Pele was peacefully appeased… even without a sacrifice.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com