By Kathie Farnell
Number one spot for weddings in the U.S. is-surprise-Las Vegas. But little Gatlinburg, Tennessee (www.gatlinburg-tn.com), population 3500, is number two. Gatlinburg is easily accessible, located in the beautiful Smoky Mountains, and has elevated the roadside wedding chapel to something of an art form. Factor in a relaxed regulatory atmosphere-no blood test, physical or waiting period, licenses from any Tennessee County accepted-and you’ve got the Wedding Capital of the South. Six hundred thousand people come to the Smokies each year to get married or attend a wedding.
Gatlinburg’s more than twenty wedding chapels and services range from the modest to the ornate. Chapel in the Glen (www.chapelwedding.com), a rustic log chapel located right next door to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, seats sixty people and nestles amid landscaped grounds including a gazebo, garden and reflecting pond. The chapel has seen 5200 weddings in the past six years, according to minister-in-residence Mike Simpson. A videographer and photographer are available on-site, and the chapel will arrange receptions in Gatlinburg. Honeymoon packages include lodging in The Honeymoon Resort, a community of log cottages with kitchens and wood-burning fireplaces.
The Victorian Gardens Wedding Chapel (www.victorianweddingchapel.com) in downtown Gatlinburg, built in 1997 as a replica of a historic church in nearby Sevierville, has been featured on British television. The inside of the chapel is decorated in a garden theme with elaborate arbors of silk flowers, towering white candelabras and a two story stained glass window. Receptions are arranged offsite at a private facility with a master chef, and may also be held at local hotels. The chapel holds 75 guests, and, for the fresh-air types, outdoor weddings on the mountainside are also available.
Sugarland Wedding Chapel (www.sugarlandweddings.com), in the heart of town, offers wedding packages including a candlelight ceremony in the decorated chapel, which will hold 120 guests and includes a balcony area. Wedding coordinators are available, as is a photographer. Receptions are scheduled at nearby hotels or other facilities. The chapel is affiliated with Mountain Lake Cabin Resort, which features fifteen cabins, all with fireplaces, around a mountain lake bordering Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The two coolest places in town to get married are not wedding chapels at all. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies (which despite its name is a world-class facility, not a repository of three-headed mummified fish) in downtown Gatlinburg (www.ripleysaquariumofthesmokies.com), offers the Jules Verne Room, with a solid wall of glass behind which sting rays lazily disport themselves, occasionally interacting with a passing diver. Complete banquet and catering services are available.
Meanwhile, for those in the grip of a Rock’n’Roll Fantasy, the local Hard Rock Café (www.hardrock.com; 1-866-235-7625) is the only one in the world with its own wedding chapel.
Many couples come to Gatlinburg for their honeymoon. The big draw here is the gorgeous Smoky Mountain scenery. Things can get crowded; nine million people a year visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park (www.nps.gov/grsm), with July and October the most jammed months.
The Park provides plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Kayaking the 700 miles of streams or hiking the 800 miles of trails are popular diversions, and so is wildlife watching. Black bears, deer, and turkeys are abundant here, and the forests contain more species of tree than any other national park. Park rangers offer nature programs and guided walks are available from Gatlinburg business “A Walk in the Woods” (www.awalkinthewoods.com) whose guides have an intimate knowledge of the park’s history and wildlife.
Even outdoorsy types may opt for poshness in their honeymoon accommodations. Some of the most elegant places to stay in Gatlinburg are up the hill from the downtown area. The Highlands Condominiums (www.highlandscondos.com) feature fireplaces, whirlpool baths, fully equipped kitchens, and balconies with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and downtown Gatlinburg. Eight Gables Inn, a AAA Four Diamond property, (www.eightgables.com) offers nineteen guest rooms. The Garden Suites, located in the gardens behind the main house, feature fireplaces, whirlpool tubs, king-sized feather beds and private patios. Breakfast, afternoon tea and evening desserts are included in the room rates. The Inn’s Magnolia Café is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday.
The Lodge at Buckberry Creek, (www.buckberrylodge.com) nestled amid 26 wooded acres on a hilltop overlooking Mt. LeConte, offers rustic luxury. Rooms have fireplaces, large soaking tubs, private decks and breathtaking views. Guests dine in the elegant Adirondack-styled lodge or, in summer, at the airy creekside Pavilion-which is also the setting for picturesque weddings.
Gatlinburg is within a day’s drive of half the U.S. population; the closest interstates are I-40 and I-75. U.S. Airways offers daily flights into Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson airport, approximately ninety minutes away.