I admit, I was skeptical when I was prodded into going on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. It had all the appeal of a four and a half hour train ride because, yes, that’s what it is. I’ve ridden trains before and despite the nostalgic experience of thinking of times when the most heavily used transportation in the country was railways, it’s just a way to get from point A to point B and back again. But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” and my journey was a four and a half hour excursion that I was determined to enjoy.
When first thinking of going on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, you have several choices depending on what time of year you want to take the train ride. A popular one, according to the lovely lady who sold my tickets, is the Polar Express that runs in December. That is their most kid-friendly attraction and includes a pajama party, hot chocolate, and the reenactment of the childhood classic, Polar Express. Being as it was neither December and I’m not eight, I didn’t feel the need to wait for December to roll around to jump aboard the train.
I chose the more adult-friendly Nantahala Gorge Excursion. Prices for this excursion range from $50 dollars in the open air car to $110 for the first class Carolina Shine Experience. If you’re into beautiful scenery, photography, nature gazing, and a kid friendly experience, the open air car is just fine this time of year and you’ll get nature in abundance. If you like viewing nature from the comfort of an air conditioned car with the pleasure of sipping on a plethora of local moonshines while reading up on the history of moonshining in the Carolinas, you’ll do as I did and upgrade to the Carolina Shine Experience.
Sweet drunken excursion, batman! Yes, please! The train left the station at 10:30 sharp and it wasn’t long before we were off through the rolling green hills, soaking up the history and, for me at least, anxiously awaiting for the moonshine tasting to begin. When most people think moonshine, they think battery acid disguising itself as liquor. Modernity has its benefits. Sipping on Apple Pie, Blackberry, Blueberry, Cherry, Cranberry and Strawberry infused moonshine is a delicious experience and provided by a friendly set of knowledgeable attendants who know the make and composition with every sip they serve up to passengers.
If the tasting is only enough to wet your palate, they have a full service bar with fun drinks like the Moonshiner’s Mimosa available for purchase. Lunch is served on this excursion, pulled pork that is rubbed in Cajun spices and a whole host of southern comfort foods to wet any appetite. They even include your very own refillable mason jar which your attendant will fill free with soda or tea throughout the day.
I was really blown away by the experience of the Carolina Shine. Totally worth the upgrade to first class and definitely worth the long afternoon spent on a train with beautiful surroundings, delicious food, great drinks, and lots of laughter. Emerson was absolutely right. The journey really is the whole point.