Luxury on a budget

I’m a PANK–and you might be, too–a Professional Aunt, No Kids. Think fun, fashionable, well-traveled, and always eager to visit. Because we live on opposite sides of the country, like many PANKs I don’t get to see my nieces and nephews nearly enough.

They’re Southerners through and through, so I decide to take my nieces Emily, 23, and Madison, 21, to Tennessee over their spring break. They’ve been to the Smoky Mountains before and liked the area, so we zero in on Sevierville, a central base from which to explore the valley. It’s a destination with lots of attractions to suit each of us.

I’ve asked the girls to get online and pick a few activities they want to experience over our long weekend. During our Skype call, they talk over each other in that way that siblings do. Emily is all about Dollywood, Madison wants to relax at a spa, and I can’t wait to do some serious shopping.

I book us a cozy two-room cabin with hot tub and high thread count sheets. After all, we want to make this visit a splurge for all of us!

Girls just wanna have fun

It’s hugs and kisses as we reunite at the Knoxville airport. They both look so grown-up, and I can’t wait for our trip to get underway.

“Can we get a convertible?” they implore in unison as we head out–they’ve already ganged up on me. “Please?”

I couldn’t resist their pleas, and since this trip is all about affordable luxury, I decide to go for it.

Sevierville is located between Asheville, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee, in a beautiful, lush valley created by the Pigeon River. This is deep Appalachia, where the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains cede to the Tennessee Valley, with a rich history and culture.

Our first stop is Dollywood. Dolly Parton was born here and is beloved in these parts. The girls grew up on Dolly’s music, so we had to take photos with the Dolly Parton statue–a first-time visitor must!

Next we decide to indulge in a spa day at the Spa at Oak Haven. Since we want to make the most of our time together, we splurge on the Relax & Be Well package, treating ourselves to body detox wraps, massages, and reflexology treatments. Fluffy, oversized towels, and soft music added to our sense of luxury.

“Aunt Suzanne, this is amazing”, said Madison with a hugely contented grin when our massages were complete. “I have never felt so relaxed!”

“Neither have I.” added Emily. “I’ve never had the deep tissue massage before, and it was incredible! Can we make this a tradition?”

That’s exactly what an aunt wants to hear from her beloved nieces.

After our afternoon of pampering, we were all ready for dinner. I had heard amazing things about The Chophouse, so I steered our convertible there. Once we pulled into the parking lot, my mouth started watering–I could already smell the cooking steaks and I could hardly wait to taste mine.

We started by splitting some appetizers–mozzarella wedges with marinara and the sesame-crusted ahi tuna. The crunchy surface of the tuna was phenomenal and we were eager for our main dishes to arrive.

Everything I had heard proved true. Madison’s center-cut lamb chops were tender, perfectly paired with mint sauce and a side of parmesan creamed spinach. Emily chose the prime rib, slow-roasted for 12 hours and served with au jus, while I sprung for the filet mignon. The juices seeped out as my knife cut bite after scrumptious bite.

Even though we were satisfied after our main dishes, we decided that we should really have some dessert. A round of caramel fudge cake all around, and we knew that we had made the right choice.

We stop at the Tanger Outlet Center for some shopping fun. Stylish Emily loves her Coach handbags, Madison finds a few special pieces at the Ann Taylor Factory Store, and I can’t resist picking up some earrings at Swarovski. We end our day pleased with our purchases and our time together.

A birds-eye view

I wanted to plan something really special that the girls would remember forever, and considering how beautiful the mountain landscape is, a helicopter tour was the obvious choice. The girls are both adventurers, so we head to Scenic Helicopter Tours for a birds-eye view of the area.

For more than two hours we fly over breathtaking scenery, marveling at the high mountain valleys, pristine estuaries, and the foothills of the Smoky Mountain National Park. The girls are rosy-cheeked and ravenous, and I’m a little jelly-legged when it’s over, so I suggest lunch at Applewood Farmhouse Grill. This is delicious, down-home food: catfish, meatloaf, country-fried steak, sugar-cured ham, and all the fixins.’

At the adjacent Apple Barn Winery, I skip the winemaking tour, but pick up a bottle of apple-strawberry wine to enjoy later in the hot tub. The girls grab apple cider. There’s a five-stop Wine Trail and a moonshine distillery that would be fantastic fun another time with a designated driver. Maybe our next trip will include that!

Back at the cabin, we slip into PJs and ponder how to spend our last day. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies? Flea marketing? At the Smoky Mountain Opry? Putt-putt? Forbidden Caverns? Exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited in the U.S.?

So much to do, so little time.

Emily took advantage of a lull in our conversation to cue up a romantic comedy and we all settled into the bed, surrounded by pillows to enjoy our last cozy night together. We finished our plans the following morning, but at that moment, it was more important to just relax together. An aunt and her two nieces never had a more wonderful trip.

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