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Honeymoon On A Budget: Camping In The Great Smoky Mountains

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11/2/2012 - Honeymoon On A Budget: Camping In The Great Smoky Mountains
by Matthew Sturdevant - The Hartford Courant

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK-- My first doubts about tenting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for half of our honeymoon came drifting in with the rain and fog that shrouded everything like a gauze curtain.

"I never worked so hard in my life to see fog," one elderly hiker said to me at the top of Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the Smokies.

The second doubt was realizing the nearest shower was several miles away from our campsite, outside the national park -- at a trailer park on the Cherokee reservation. (And try not to mind the scruffy character across the footpath exciting his feisty dogs, or the errant wasps flying inside the shower stall.)

Both doubts were minor in a two-week vacation that was adventurous, romantic --- and affordable. My wife, Susan, and I wanted to make the most of our money during our honeymoon. Holding down the cost of lodging and food freed us to do activities that we might otherwise skip. We also tailored our wedding registry to include an account for honeymoon meals and outings that guests purchased as gifts.

After camping the first week in the Smokies, we spent a second week in Asheville, N.C. Rather than sleep at a hotel, we rented a private bungalow affiliated with one of the many hostels in town. It was our own, very tiny house for a week -- at $60 a night.

Below are some highlights on how we saved in order to: careen down mountains on zip-lines, float away in a hot-air balloon, trot on horseback across the former estate of George W. Vanderbilt III, and relax to a full-body massage at a local spa.

TIMING

As newlyweds without children, we were able to take our vacation during a lull in tourist season between summer and fall foliage. We were gone the first two weeks of September, arriving on Labor Day weekend to midtown-Manhattan-like crowds and traffic in Gatlinburg, Tenn., which is the northern gateway to the national park. By Tuesday, our campground had only a few tents. During the following week in Asheville, shopkeepers and restaurant staff noted the slow pace, which meant good service for us. I've been told prices are lower in the off season, but we weren't able to pin that down exactly.

LODGING

Camping. OK, it's a tough sell for a lot of people: bugs, sleeping on the ground, cooking over a campfire or a stove. On the upside, the great outdoors has all the cliché ambience for romance -- starry nights, the moon, a babbling brook nearby. Not good enough? How about seven nights for $140? To reserve a site, visit: http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm

While planning the week in Asheville, we looked at different hotels, and it's certainly possible to get one for less than $100 a night -- even less than $80. However, Susan read some positive reviews of hostels. We decided on the Asheville Hostel & Guest House, just a few blocks from downtown. While we were in a private bungalow at $360 for six nights, the bedrooms inside the hostel itself cost about half of that. It's a nice home, which, while we were there, was occupied by couples, international travelers and twenty-somethings. The house was surprisingly quiet, which I noticed while occasionally using the hostel's shared computer. Hostels.com is a useful website to compare prices -- and you can change the automatic price setting from Euros to U.S. dollars.

FOOD

At the campsite, our dinners included a Thai rice-and-vegetable dish with peanut sauce, Katmandu curry-vegetables-and-rice, and a number of other exotic entrees. Complicated? Nope. We had a few recipes of our own, but many of the evening meals were add-water mixtures made for backpacking that range in price from $6.50 to $10 for two people. Check local camping stores, Wal-Mart, Campmor.com or any other outfitter. I was surprised by the selection and the quality -- a big improvement from the dehydrated shepherd's pie I ate in Boy Scouts.

In Asheville, we allowed ourselves to eat out daily, supplementing our restaurant meals with what we bought at the French Broad F ood Co-op: http://frenchbroadfood.coop

Among the many restaurants in Asheville, I'll summarize quickly a few favorites: 12 Bones Smokehouse has spectacular ribs; Asheville Brewing Company has good pub fare and a fun atmosphere with local brews like the Ninja Porter; Early Girl Eatery serves up a delicious breakfast; Jack of the Wood is hearty Irish pub fare served with their own Green Man Brewery beer; Over Easy Café had an incredible trout omelet and grits; Tupelo Honey Café is a must Southern cuisine.

BIG TICKET TRIPS

Here are some activities we put on our registry, and guests were invited to contribute to them if they chose to do so.

More than anything else, I recommend the Asheville Hot Air Balloons tour. It's a family operation run by pilot Rick Bowers. Flights are $235 per person for a group of six or $600 for a couple. http://www.ashevillehotairballoons.com/

Navitat canopy adventures is a thrilling zip-line tour for $89 per adult. I'm told they will have a 3,000-foot line up by 2013. http://www.navitat.com.

The architecture, art and history of Biltmore, the sprawling Vanderbilt retreat, is worth $44 per person admission. To fully appreciate the tour, spend $10 extra for a daytime audio guide, which is essentially headphones and podcasts. Also worth considering: horseback rides and wine tasting. (www.biltmore.com)

Susan planned our visit to Sensibilities Day Spa to be the first day after a week of hiking. Our sore legs, backs and feet were rejuvenated after an hour-long massage at $80-$90 per person. (http://www.sensibilities-spa.com/)

FREE ACTIVITIES

Hiking in the Smoky Mountains is free, and it's gorgeous. (http://www.nps.gov/grsm/)

Check out the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, http://www.southernhighlandguild.org/.

See an annual competition of the world's best freestyle kayakers spin, flip and dazzle the crowd at the Nantahala Outdoor Center about 1.5 hours west of Asheville and 40 minutes outside the Smokies south entrance. http://www.freestylekayaking2013.com/.

For a complete calendar of events, pick up the weekly Mountain Xpress, or visit the website: http://www.mountainx.com/.

In hindsight, Susan and I agreed the week spent camping was the best part of our trip. Being unplugged made the experience seem more exotic. We watched elk grazing in a pasture, hiked out to rocky escarpments and splashed around in streams that tumble over boulders in one cascade after another. More than that, the strenuous day hikes were invigorating. When we did catch a view through clouds and fog, it was all the more exciting.

It's relaxing and romantic to honeymoon in nature without the bother of computers, televisions and cell phones. Well, I used my phone to post some photos on Facebook. OK, a lot of photos. And videos. But it was too exciting to not share.

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