"All aboarrrrd! This train's a'movin'!" That's what you'll hear if you visit Knoxville, and take a scenic journey from Volunteer Landing to the forks of the Tennessee River aboard the Three Rivers Rambler, a historic steam engine, passenger and open-air rail car.
The train rolls past downtown and the river, and then it begins to slink under bridges and past parks and into a countryside resplendent with gently rolling hills, wildflower-laden pastures, farmlands, steep cliffs, tranquil waterways, marble quarries, and heart-stopping views of the nearby Smoky Mountains.
That's just one fun thing to do in Knoxville. There are only about a million other fun things to do in this little city near the junction of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina.
"The best thing about Knoxville is that there is so much to do in the entire region," says local resident LaDonna Pettis. "You can stay in town and do all the wonderful things like visit museums and historical sites, and then in just a few minutes, you can be hiking in the mountains or whitewater rafting."
Knoxville is very cool - and not climatically speaking - in that it's pretty much laid back, a little bit funky, and a whole lot clean and friendly. It draws you in slowly, almost like a snake charmer; its beat is quiet and alluring, not loud and brash like its close Southern cousins, Nashville and Atlanta.
I discovered Knoxville on a trip there several years ago. On a return journey this past spring, I fell in love with it and all that it has to offer all over again: the people whose roots stem deeply from the mountains, the quality of life that seems so different from anywhere else, and the surrounding natural beauty that has itself become a vital part of Knoxville.
Most growing cities will bulldoze away a hill, haul away oversized boulders, even change the course of a river to make room for a new hotel or office building. Not Knoxville. Somehow it has managed to incorporate its natural beauty into everything that it has built.
One good example is the river walk at Volunteer Landing, a promenade that includes restaurants, shops and other activities. The walk is draped not only by the silhouettes of the University of Tennessee and other buildings of downtown, but also trees and rock formations combined with briars, brambles, and wildflowers for a country feel in the heart of the city.
But the true experience of Knoxville lies in its remoteness. Since it is so far away from any city of any size, it has had to rely on its scrappiness to survive.
In its early days, it wasn't much more than a frontier town wedged into a valley between the Great Smoky Mountains to the southeast and Kentucky's Cumberland Mountains to the northwest. But the area's overwhelming natural beauty was a haven for the Cherokee Indians and the early settlers, who traded everything from "white lightnin'" to furs.
Even the highly unique twang of Appalachian music sprang forth and flourished from the remoteness of East Tennessee, and some of the earliest, twangiest stars in country music launched their careers here in this so-called "cradle of country music," including Dolly Parton, Hank Williams and Roy Acuff.
From its earliest days until now, Knoxville has transformed itself from a country bumpkin into a world-class city worthy enough to be selected as the home of the World's Fair in 1982, an event that drew 11 million visitors. The World's Fair gave the city instant international recognition, something that few Southern cities of similar size have.
Knoxville is terrific to visit during any season, but the best times are fall and spring. Autumn brings with it the razzle-dazzle of the mountains burning with color and fairs and festivals galore, including the Tennessee Valley Fair, the Country Market and the Tennessee Fall Homecoming.
But perhaps its most famous event is the Dogwood Arts Festival held each April. Somehow the sky is different then; it takes on an incredible hue of lapis and then is smeared with the eternal haze of the Smokies. Underneath this glorious spring sky, the branches of the dogwoods lazily droop with white and pink blossoms and yards are clogged with their color.
The Dogwood Trail, covering more than 60 miles of blossoms and passing by more than dozens of open gardens, sets the stage for the festival, which commemorates these pretty blossoms with arts, crafts, great food, and lots of good ol' Appalachian-style entertainment.
For a city that grew from pioneers, mountain men, and country singers, you will also find a deep appreciation of culture here with the Knoxville Opera (yes, it has its own "opry!"), Knoxville Symphony, and lots of art museums, including the Knoxville Museum of Art, the Ewing Gallery on the University of Tennessee campus, and the Frank H. McClung Museum that tells the story of Tennessee's history through artifacts and exhibits.
Besides culture, country music, and nature, here's a sampling of other things you'll discover in Knoxville:
Haley Heritage Square, containing a bronze statue of "Roots" author Alex Haley, who adopted Knoxville as his home in later years.
The Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Knoxville Zoo, including Black Bear Falls, which is a re- creation of a Smoky Mountains black bear habitat.
Ijams Nature Center, containing 150 acres of wildlife, meadows, ponds, forests and gardens.
The Museum of Appalachia, where you experience firsthand the farm and village life of Appalachia.
Crescent Bend, an 1834 home furnished with antiques, art and silver. It contains formal Italian gardens with more than 5,000 tulips and roses that, in bloom, are a riot of color.
The Gateway Regional Visitor Center, a great orientation for your Knoxville vacation that includes cultural, technological, and natural resources available in the region.