Elk River and Tweetsie for Brian’s Birthday

20-06-2019 18:06

Going to Elk River for Brian’s birthday has become somewhat of a tradition. Fortunately, BB&T gives employees their birthdays off, and June is a wonderful time of year to go anyway. The weather is nice and cool, and the mountain community is most active in the summer.


“Day Out with Thomas” (a special event at the amusement park where “Thomas the Train” is hitched to the front of Tweetsie’s regular train) happened to coincide with Brian’s birthday this year, making it the perfect time to go.

We have learned that the boys really need their own rooms, at least right now. With only 3 bedrooms and Martha staying with us, we needed to get creative. The laundry room turned out to be the perfect place to put Christian. We could still access the kitchen after he went to sleep, since the laundry area was completely enclosed, and it was just big enough for his crib.

The 2-hour car drive to Elk River turned out to be just fine. We fed the kids an early dinner, got them in their PJ’s at home, and left around 6PM. It worked out perfectly, because Christian fell asleep in the car, and Anders was content watching his iPad. I think this is the perfect time to leave – AFTER dinner. We quickly put the kids to bed and went out to eat at “Stone Walls.” I think of “Stone Walls” as the quintessential Banner Elk restaurant. (FYI – Banner Elk is the town adjacent to the Elk River, which is a private community). While it’s undergone a renovation, the food has barely changed since my childhood, which makes it especially comforting. Even the salad bar is exactly the same. The food was excellent and perfect after a hectic evening!

Thursday morning, we started the day with breakfast. We brought our “Chicco 360” seat to use as Christian’s high chair, and it worked out perfectly. It’s a must-have for traveling with a baby!


Honey brought some train tracks and Thomas trains from her house, and they really kept Anders occupied for the time we were in the condo. The trip was a reminder that kids really don’t need a lot of toys to keep them occupied. The less toys they have, in fact, the more engaged they seem to be with them, and the more creative they are. For example, Anders was pretending that Thomas was “stuck” in the couch cushions. When he’d get him out of the cushion he’d declare, “hooray!”

We tried to break up every morning and afternoon by getting out and doing something. Elk River has a wonderful little playground, and it’s a very short stroll from the condo. The playground was empty and is once of the nicest playgrounds we’ve been to. There are slides located side by side, which made for a fun game as Anders requested daddy “race” him down the slide.


We had lunch at the Elk River Club, which is always excellent. We didn’t need to order separate meals for Anders or Christian. We’ve realized that when we’re smart about what we order (i.e., ordering a side of something that the boys will eat), we don’t need to order separate meals.

Thursday afternoon it was a little chilly and rainy, so we checked out the Banner Elk “book exchange.” It’s not a library (they don’t have a catalog of books), but very similar. They had puzzles, toys, and lots of children’s books. Anders especially loved the Lightning McQueen puzzle, and Christian was content with his blocks. It turned out to be a perfect indoor activity, although Anders got bored with it after awhile. Keep this in mind as an indoor activity when visiting Banner Elk!


Thursday evening, we had dinner reservations at “Artisinal.” It is is a restaurant that truly exceeds expectations. It is as good in every category (food, service, atmosphere) as any restaurant anywhere. I had the salmon and Brian had the brisket. It couldn’t have been better! Be sure to make reservations well in advance.


Friday was Brian’s birthday and the day we had tickets to see Thomas at Tweetsie Railroad. We wanted to go as a family (as opposed to having Martha babysit during his nap), but it was tricky with Christian’s nap. We resolved to wake him at 9:45AM and to leave at 12:30PM, giving us about 2 hours at the park. It worked out fine, but Christian was a little cranky and fell asleep in the car. When you have an 8 month old, your windows of opportunity just aren’t very long!

Tweetsie was perfect. It was just a 30 minute drive, and the lines weren’t long. Anders seemed in awe of Thomas the Train – not necessarily overtly excited, but very happy and content. After the train ride, Anders went on several of the kiddie rides. He especially loved the merry-go-round and riding in the go-cart with daddy. After the rides, we had a “lunch” of cheddar bunnies and graham crackers at the picnic tables. A very successful morning indeed!




After Tweetsie, Brian and I went for lunch at the Elk River Club just the two of us. Every time we go to the club, it is excellent. They even bring a complimentary cookie after the meal!

As if we hadn’t had enough sweets in one day, we enjoyed Brian’s birthday cake Friday around 5PM. The word “cake” was all it took to redirect Anders from his trains and into the kitchen. He then spontaneously said “birthday cake!”, and we were very proud that he recognized it as such. See picture below of Brian’s birthday this year (left) and last year (right, pregnant with Christian!).


Friday evening, Brian and I had dinner at Sorrento’s. The food at Sorrento’s is always really good. I had eggplant parmesan (one of the best I’ve had), and Brian had pizza. Brian had never tried the pizza at Sorrento’s, and while it was good, it wasn’t anything spectacular. We topped off his birthday with a couple beers at the local brewery. Brian described it as his perfect birthday.


Saturday marked our last full day in Elk River, and fortunately, it was also the warmest (low 70s). We enjoyed an early lunch at the “Banner Elk Lodge.” Within the last year they have undergone a massive expansion, and it looks great. “The Lodge” is one part of a big restaurant that includes a cafe and pizzeria in addition to “The Lodge” (it’s basically 3 restaurants in one building). While Brian wasn’t impressed with it in years past, he said it’s really grown on him. I’ve always liked it, and it’s especially child-friendly. Christian couldn’t get enough of the hash browns. After lunch, we made a stop at the Banner Elk playground behind the historic school. It is an excellent playground, with a “little kid” area and another, bigger-kid playground. Anders enjoyed both parts!

After quiet time, we were finally ready to enjoy the pool. It had been too cold all weekend, so we looked forward to it. The pool was absolutely perfect for Anders, and Martha lent an extra hand. The pool has a little beach-like area and is very shallow. Anders could just roam around in it, playing with his toys. He especially liked getting in the hot tub (which was really just warm). Christian loved the turkey on our sandwiches!


We went out again Saturday night. This trip, we really did the full Banner Elk food tour! We went to the “Bayou Smokehouse,” which has also undergone a remodel. Brian noticed that a lot of renovation and remodeling has been done in Banner Elk just in the last year, which is interesting to note. I didn’t think the Bayou seemed any nicer, though – in fact, it seemed like they just tried to make it more open and did a sloppy job. The booths were slanted! The food, however, was superb (as usual). It’s a Louisiana/creole-style restaurant with awesome cajun food. Brian and I find it interesting that basically all the restaurants in Banner Elk are really good. I guess only the good ones survive!

Sunday morning, I took Anders out for the playground and a golf cart ride while Brian packed up. We finished up our trip with an early lunch at the lodge before heading out. The boys napped in the car, but Christian broke down 10 minutes before we got home. Why is it that kids always break down in the last 10 minutes of the car ride?! It’s like they can sense it.


As it always is when we get back from a trip, it was chaos at home. Between unloading the car, laundry, taking showers, and getting groceries, Brian and I could barely catch our breaths. By bedtime, though, we were all done and ready to relax!

This trip coincided with my reading “The Zero Waste Home” by Bea Johnson. In an effort to become more environmentally conscious, I started looking into this idea of “zero waste.” Essentially, it means that you don’t throw anything away – because you don’t have anything to throw away. It’s all reused, recycled, or composted. Instead of using shampoo out of a plastic bottle, for example, you use a bar of shampoo, or you have a refillable bottle (you can do this with Plaine Products – look it up). Rather than buy food at the store out of plastic packaging, you bring your own container and buy from the bulk section. The author of this book, Bea, has all the trash she’s collected over a long period of time in a small jar. I have adopted some aspects of zero waste already with the help of the Package Free Shop (packagefreeshop.com).

zero waste

Travel is a time when we are often the most wasteful. It’s more difficult to recycle away from home, so we throw it all in the trash. We buy coffee out, not bringing our reusable cups. We get takeout with styrofoam containers (styrofoam is really difficult to recycle). We bring single-serving snacks wrapped in plastic packaging. We buy bottled water. We forget things at home and buy new things at our destination, which may not get used up. You get the picture.

I also discovered that Banner Elk only recycles aluminum. Imagine all the plastic that is thrown away in Banner Elk! I assume just a few very dedicated residents drop off their recycling in nearby towns. So, I made an effort to bring all our recycling home with us, and it really wasn’t too hard. I brought my reusable coffee cup, and I brought containers in case we needed takeout or had leftovers. We declined the styrofoam box for pizza leftovers at Sorrento’s. Overall, I think we did pretty well.

The book also had me reflect on travel and the environmental impact of flying. The author is not against travel – in fact, her whole philosophy is about prioritizing experiences (like travel) over STUFF. I agree with that philosophy. She does acknowledge, however, that flying (and driving) do come with a significant ecological impact.

One obvious suggestion she has for reducing the environmental impact of travel is to consider places you can go that are closer. Another idea she has is to engage in more “sharing” behaviors (like Air BnB instead of a hotel). The added benefit of traveling closer to home (and using Air BnB) is that it is cheaper! Furthermore, flying is a PAIN, especially with kids. With the security lines, the risk of missing your flight, etc – flying is not the most appealing option nowadays.

So, Brian and I started thinking about all the places we could travel by car with the kids. We came up with a pretty good list!

  1. Abingdon, VA (and the tri-city area of Tennessee, including Bristol and Big Stone Gap)
  2. Chattanooga, TN
  3. The Greenbrier
  4. Myrtle Beach, SC
  5. Gatlinburg, TN
  6. Asheville, NC
  7. The Homestead
  8. Washington D.C.
  9. The Asheboro Zoo
  10. Spencer, NC for the NC Museum of Transportation
  11. Outer Banks
  12. Atlanta, GA

Just to name a few. Some we have been to before, and some we haven’t. Still, it is a reminder that there are so many places we can go with the kids without flying.

What a great trip to Elk River and Banner Elk! It’s truly a special place, and so family-friendly. We definitely hope to be back in not too long!