Cades Cove

The hunting grounds of the Cherokee people once, Cades Cove is an isolated valley of supreme beauty within the Great Smoky Mountains. The Cherokees called it Tsiya’hi. Translated, it means Otter Place, hinting at the fact that otters did abound here before European settlers arrived in the 1800s to dispossess the tribes of their land. They say that Cades Cove was named for the wife of a Cherokee chief, but no one really knows how it came about.

The road to the cove was straight out of my dreams. I have a weakness for those that curve through old forests, where the trees tower and look like they have a trove of stories, of the way the landscape has been moulded by the passage of time, of the generations of men that have come and gone. Limestone cliffs, creeks riddled with rocks, and from a sudden spell of shower, the roads gleaming green beneath the shadow of the trees. This had to be the naturalist’s definition of paradise.

At Cades Cove, the humidity was unbearable. We could not brook the thought of a hike despite the lure of seeing a bear. There are so many black bears in the area, roughly above 1,600, that you apparently could not, would not, miss a sighting. But here’s the thing, we did (no surprises). There are cherry trees and fields of blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries in the meadows. Plus there are people landing up with picnic hampers. Irresistible enough for bears to turn up from time to time.

As a result of this promise, every driver turns into an oaf on the 11-mile scenic loop that gently winds through the valley. It is a one-way paved road that follows an old logging railroad track. The traffic here crawls. We spent not less than 3 hours on the loop, well-stewed apples by the end of it if you will, wondering when we would be done with the sight of the driver ahead sticking his feet out of the window, and generally, behaving like a certified jackass.

The only way to let off steam was to take these off-road trails that led us into log cabins of the first settlers and ‘primitive’ churches as they called them in the 19th century. The white log frames of the churches with austere, dark wooden interiors suggesting that they existed to serve the basic purpose of disseminating faith among the few families who lived in and around them. They must have had dirt floors and fire pits inside to begin with.

Within an interval of a few minutes there were three Methodist and Baptist churches, emphasising that life in this Southern Appalachian community must have been harsh. A world where men and women would have needed the crutch of faith to carry on in the wilds. Their reality would have been made up of temperance societies and Sunday schools, of gatherings at general stores and swapping stories. Books have been written by the children and grandchildren of these settlers — they tell of a time when spotting a red ear of corn in a pile of husks was a prize for a young fella, a sign that he could kiss the woman he had been eyeing for some time; they talk of the mettle of children who kept themselves entertained by inventing their own toys, such as fashioning balloons from pig’s bladders. Not to distill (and dismiss) it in the matter of a sentence, but it seemed to me then that those folks paid the price for simplicity as much as we city folks pay the price for modernity.

When we finally left behind the last of those homesteads beneath its canopy of thick vegetation, I could not shake off the image that rose in my mind. Of a lachrymose man upon its porch, in his overalls of faded grey, a pipe stuck in his mouth, strumming a banjo that must have seen better days.

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Snippets From Wears Valley

The road below the cabin dipped alarmingly. So sudden was this drop that it felt like rolling down a playground slide in tar. This road then led us on a serpentine drive up and down the mountains, past burnt-out trees, skeletal and stripped enough that it was a surprise they were standing at all. Half-built cabins too. A reminder that all it takes is a wildfire for every effort of man to be laid to waste (but here we are, creatures of toil and industry). The green was so very green, the hills with their stubbles of bluish-green startling, the sky thick with batches of clouds who could not make up their mind if they wanted to stay or go. Some settled atop the peaks to catch a breath before they dissolved into tears. The fancy of the clouds. In the Smoky Mountains, you will find that there is no guarantee. The rain clouds, they gather upon your heads in a jiffy. Before you think of the shortest swear, they let loose, and when they do, you’d better find a roof of some sort.

Before I get ahead of myself, we found ourselves in Wears Valley that runs parallel to the Smoky Mountains. Once a theater of squabbles between the Cherokee tribes and the first European settlers, and named for a Revolutionary War veteran, Samuel Wear.

It was an idyllic place. Isolated farms composed of old log houses and barns and sheds, mom-and-pop groceries with old biddies behind the till pointing out to basic tuck shops for tasty sandwiches and local fare, modest chapels and churches, mountain stores where they sell local concoctions of jams and jellies. Just an outpost of the old Appalachian culture with autumnal hoards of pumpkins and squashes as harbingers of this ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ that is finally upon us.

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A Cliffhanger of a Cabin on Old Smokey (Beloved of a Mamma Bear)

A band of cicadas serenaded us as we got off our Outback Subaru. Their singing seemed to intensify as we hopped off the car, me casting nervous glances at the cliffs and trees around us, the thought running through my mind that a welcome committee of bears might be awaiting us in the dark.

The drive from North Carolina to this chalet in Tennessee, built into the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, had been one of unimaginable beauty. The sky, riddled with billowing clouds earlier on in the afternoon in Winston-Salem, was suffused now with a crimson glow that continued to intensify till it dissipated in pastel hues. The hills loomed large in front of us in the gathering gloom, clouds rushing in to envelop us at intervals. At others, they rose from the silhouettes of trees in wraiths of wispy white.

And then the spell was broken. We had reached Gatlinburg. Rows of flashy souvenir shops, ‘wine-tasting’ kiosks that doled out free fruity wines guaranteed to give one an unbearable insulin rush, barbecue diners, the crowds …I wanted to think, but I could not. Adi helpfully supplied the words, ‘It’s like Skegness on steroids?’ Skegness is a seaside resort town on the east coast of England – the lesser said about it, the better.

Gatlinburg’s flashiness evaporated as we drove higher and higher up into the mountains. How impenetrable the darkness seems in the hills. It presses in upon the mind. The desolate hairpin bends brought us at the foot of a road that shot up at a 35° incline, and lo and behold, there stood our rented chalet. No curtains inside to draw across the bay windows in the  living room? I was unsettled. But there was nothing to do but stash my paranoia away.

The chalet was a two-bedroom affair built in wood — to withstand the winds that sweep through these mountains. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had rhapsodised about ‘the winds that blow through the wide sky in these mountains, the winds that sweep from Canada to Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic’ to ‘have always blown on free men’ at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that he declared open for the public in 1940.

Where Nature gives, she takes too. And man, he survives despite the odds. The cabin being proof of this indomitable spirit. The previous chalet had been gutted in wildfires towards the end of 2016. Yet here it stood, well-stocked and utterly homey with its rocking chair, hot tub and wraparound porch, rebuilt after the fires. There were pots and pans and everything we could hope for if we wanted to rustle up our own meals (how cosy it must be to hunker down within its warmth during the cold months).

In the morning, we woke up to views. The windows, which in the dark hours had given me the heebie jeebies, in the early morning hours opened up to a vision of smoky blue mountains and clouds rolling off their peaks (there are photos below to confirm that I do not exaggerate).

We did what any sane person would do — tuck into a huge breakfast and sit staring at the drama of the clouds and the mountains, wondering if mamma bear (previous visitors to the cabin had mentioned her repeated visits in the logbook) would eventually turn up with her cubs. But were we to be so lucky? Naturally, we decided to do what could be done next. We headed out, chasing bears and clouds in the Great Smoky Mountains.

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Into a Norwegian Artist’s Retreat

Here was an artist who did the Charleston jig, all in a bid to tell us how her Pointer got his name. The Pointer is a dog, a hunting hound that gets its name from its inclination to point its muzzle towards the game. Now imagine if you will, this beloved mistress of Charleston the Pointer, a grown-up woman lifting her chin up, arms pointed into the air as if she was about to release an invisible arrow off an equally invisible bow.

On this note of welcome into her home, we knew that we had landed a prize of sorts here — Els and her beloved Pointer, Charleston. I don’t know how well Charleston does the Charleston but he has a name to live up to. He also has a mistress who is quite capable of making him dance.

Now we had Els’ cottage to ourselves for four days. That red cottage with Homlagarden painted on its entrance, as you see in the lead photo, is perched strategically by the fjords of western Norway in a village called Norheimsund.

This was our big Norwegian holiday after our weekend stint in Stavanger when we had hiked our way to Pulpit Rock. My aim was to get our behinds to Trolltunga and sit on the troll’s tongue, legs dangling above the fjords. But that was not to be because just as in Stavanger we struck lucky with the weather even though the forecast had promised thunder and showers, our second Norwegian break was made up of enough mist and clouds, drizzle and downpour to make our hiking shoes hang their heads in shame.

What is life if our best-laid plans are not to be laid aside?

We reached Bergen on a fine day in August last year. Fleecy armies of clouds invaded bright blue skies, and when we got out of the airport to be greeted by this sight, we were injected with fair reserves of delight, natch. Could there be a better natural elixir than blue skies and billowing clouds on any given day?

Soon, in a rented hatchback, we were puttering down tunnels that ruptured lush hills for miles and miles, passed herds of sheep serenely trotting down roads, possibly out for their morning stroll. You will see in this post that the Norwegian sheep exude remarkable self-confidence unlike their English counterparts. We left behind the occasional church nestled in valleys along with a roll-call of black, red and yellow cottages. Some perched upon hills, others tucked in surreptitiously alongside placid lakes.

It made me rather musical. To trill out ‘My Day in the Hills’ ala Julie Andrews and trill I did till Adi asked me to switch to the phone playlist please. There was some harumphing on my part, but how difficult it is to hold on to a sulk in the face of such pristine charm, the lakes glowing emerald in the shadow of the hills and putting me in mind of a mysterious mermaid about to emerge from the waters.

This is how we found ourselves in Norheimsund, bleary-eyed after our early morning flight, but then there was that view of the fjord from our cottage. It drove our cares away in the batting of the eyelid.

We were in a quintessential Norwegian cottage on an organic farm. Chubby hen and monstrously plump turkeys strutted around in a red coop of their own, mini tractors stood like picture-perfect props with the blue hues of the fjord and hills merging into the background, patches of snow gleaming in the distance upon the hills. Inside our red cottage, we found the entrance decorated by Els’ paintings and a bay windows that opened up to the fjords. The ground level of this cottage housed her workshop and a carpentry shop.

Warm wooden interiors, a well-kitted kitchen with all manners of pots and pans that would make a gourmet cook smile like a shark, windows that looked out into the fjords and made us sigh. This was the idyllic start to a Norwegian fjord-hopping holiday, along with the presence of Els, Charleston and his mother, Kaisa.

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Bergen
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Hordaland county

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Sheep out on a morning stroll

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Entering Norheimsund

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Els’ farm and cottage

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Inside our cottage
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Charleston and Els
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Undivided adoration 

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The view we woke up to every morning from the bed

To Book the Cottage: Get onto Airbnb and key in Hordaland and Els. However, Els does not always let out her cottage (because it is not quite commercial), so essentially you could take a chance.

How to Get There: Bag tickets for as less as £39 on BA and Norwegian Airlines to Bergen. From the airport, it is best to hire a car for your stay because it is easier and economic to drive around the county of Hordaland.