Jim and Jeanette Greiner have been helping people escape the concrete ecosystems of everyday life since 1971. That's the year that they founded Wildwater, and as its name suggests, it started as a rafting outfitter that led groups down the rushing waters of the Chattooga River. Today, Wildwater's trained guides still navigate a number of rivers?the Ocoee, Nantahala, and Pigeon, in addition to the Chattanooga?but they've expanded their reach to the land as well. The company offers canopy tours with a combination of ziplines and elevated bridges, inviting guests to take a thrilling trip through the treetops. If clients prefer to stay within a few feet of the ground, they can opt for jeep tours that explore paths beyond the main roads.
Since Wildwater's team values the beauty of the natural environment, they embrace eco-friendly practices intended to help protect the areas they explore. Each of the company's locations strives to minimize its impact by using solar-powered water heaters for the showers, composting leftover food, and painting all of the outdoor equipment with chlorophyll.
Nestled in the mountains of East Tennessee, Hillside Winery presses and ferments its catalog of Italian-style and sparkling wines on site, often using fruit sourced from local farms. A rustic tasting room puts visitors in relaxation mode, while they sip sangiovese, pinot grigio, and Asti-style spumante from complimentary tasting glasses or prepare to engage the gift shop’s stuffed bear in staring contests. Behind the scenes, guests can see the polished, stainless-steel drums that press the grapes and store the wines, and observe as each bottle is capped, not corked. Butterflies captured by nature photographer Patricia Ferguson grace Hillside’s wine labels, adding a delicate note to each wine’s flavor profile.
Ripley’s has enthralled audiences for more than nine decades with its dedication to revealing odd and unexplainable rarities from around the globe. But it all began with one man: Robert Ripley, a wildly successful and eccentric character who rose to fame during the first half of the 20th century. After selling his first cartoon to Life magazine at age 14, he set out on a quick-paced career of drawing sports cartoons for the New York Globe. During a slow day at the office, he sketched nine unusual sporting events and finished his work with a title: “Believe It or Not!” It became immensely popular, allowing Ripley to travel the world in search of more bizarre stories to put into his comic strips. While visiting relatively unknown areas in locales such as India, China, and the inside of his neighbor’s chimney, he picked up a slew of unbelievable souvenirs that later became fixtures in several of Ripley’s museums, or as they’re affectionately called today, Odditoriums. Ripley’s now encompasses publications, attractions, a television show, and a blog, all of which carry Ripley’s tradition of reporting on the world’s curiosities.
Though they had stable, successful careers, Erik and Vesna Plakanis found themselves increasingly dissatisfied with their lives. Naturalists at heart, the nearby Smoky Mountains became an ever more powerful draw, enticing the couple to spend more and more time in the quiet, misty woods they loved. Things came to a head in 1998, after Erik ventured into the woods alone seeking answers. He came out convinced that his purpose was to share the wonders of the forest with others, so he and Vesna gave up their jobs and founded A Walk in the Woods to lead tours and raise environmental awareness.
Adding to their decades-long knowledge of the park's trails, the two are experts on edible plants, animal tracking, wilderness survival, and traditional storytelling, filling treks with interesting tidbits and engrossing yarns. A gaggle of fellow guides, handpicked for their love of nature and knowledge of the Great Smoky Mountains, helps lead the list of hikes and trips, which range from two hours to a full day to give patrons the chance to feel at one with nature without chaining themselves to the back of a deer.
Three Bears General Store, located at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is more than just a shop. The facade resembles a town from the Wild West, and what's inside will make you feel like you've traveled back in time. At the forefront of the 40,000-square-foot shop is myriad country-style goodies, ranging from NASCAR memorabilia to jewelry to dolls and collectibles to handcrafted sweet treats. Treasure troves of homemade fudge, caramel apples, and moonshine jelly await sweet teeth, along with funnel cakes made on the spot.
But beyond the gifts and souvenirs, the shop boasts a live bear habitat in which guests can interact with and feed five bears. And visitors can make a stuffed, plush replica of their favorite bear at the Make-UR-Bear Factory. An old-timey photo studio commemorates visits with sepia-toned portraits of family members posed in front of one of seven sets, which include costumes and props, such as stuffed possums, play rifles, and space helmets from the 1800s.
Sylva, North Carolina is nestled in the midst of the Great Smoky Mountains, a grandiose setting that has provided inspiration for many excellent works of literature. In town, the City Lights Bookstore highlights these local books to share with the community and the rest of the world. The wooden stacks inside the cozy shop are mirrored by endless rows of books online, available to community members no matter where they live. Try Timm Muth's fantasy novel, Disciple of the Flames, or Jenny Bennett's The Twelve Streams of LeConte, which takes place in Sylva and even at the bookstore. The authors often visit City Lights to read from their works and sign purchased books, so you have ample opportunity to ask them why they didn't name their big villains after you.