Halfway Point: Knoxville - April 9th

Several of our trips have led us through Knoxville and although it has been a "stopover" night for us, the term truly doesn't serve Knoxville justly - it really is a great little gem of a city.

We arrived at our hotel around 4:30pm, checked in, and took a much needed nap. After the refresher we headed downtown.

Our hotel was actually on the outskirts of Knoxville and we could have easily just hopped back on the highway to go downtown, but Larry and I always like to take the back roads in - you never know what you'll discover. Knoxville has some wonderful rolling hills and all the vegetation seemed so plush. And of course, house-obsessed that I am, I was focusing on all the cute and normal-sized houses along the way - maybe, hopefully, Knoxville hasn't been touched by the McMansion trend?

We made it downtown within 15 minutes and as you come into the city, you can see that, perhaps areas of the city have been struggling and personally I'm not a big fan of the Sunsphere (looks a little too dated for my tastes), but in general, I get the sense that this has a very artsy/sophisticated vibe to it - you can feel the "current." The downtown has great stores, Yee Haw for example (www.yeehawindustries.com), restaurants, and a push to redevelop areas of the downtown with lofts/condos etc. Plus, there's of course the University of Tennessee - and right there, having a university in your city - you can't go wrong; college students provide such a nice buzz of life in a city.

We headed to the Market Square District (right in the downtown) to figure out where we were going to eat.

The "problem", we soon discovered, was for the 2nd year in a row, we arrived in Knoxville on Thursday, and Thursday evenings April - June, Knoxville has its Sundown in the city - a free music festival with music, food and crafts. So basically that translates to lots of people and cars. We didn't mind because we love seeing the buzz of people walking around and sitting out al fresco at the restaurants,

We managed to find a parking lot in front of the Mast General Store (www.maststoreonline.com). It looked right up my alley, so the shopper that I am, I persuaded Larry to make a detour.

Well this place said "Jill" all over it! Gourmet food stuffs, clothes, candy etc. If you remember the general stores/ 5 & dimes of yesteryear, this was pretty much the same thing (minus the soda fountain counter) with a more up-to-date approach - quite the place!

We were headed to the Old City District to go to The Crown and Goose (www.thecrownandgoose.com), an authentic English gastropub that we went to the list time we were in Knoxville, which was great, but then we decided to ask someone at Mast General if they could recommend some good restaurants in the area. They actually recommended The Crown and Goose, plus a Cuban restaurant they said was excellent. Well, all we needed to hear was "Cuban" and we were there!

So we went to Little Havana (www.lhknox.com) on Gay Street. Let me tell you, this place was fabulous!!! The restaurant itself with warm and cozy decor: warm colors, cool bar, hardwood floors - you pretty much felt that you were in Cuba.

Larry and I just made it in under the wire for the appetizer and beer special (Larry's eyes lit up!), so we ordered cervechi - very good and a decent portion size.

But it was our main meals that took the cake: I had Pollo Al Ajillo (grilled chicken with garlic sauteed in olive oil and white wine) with sides of black beans, saffron rice and maduros (sweet plantains). Larry had Lechon Asado (roasted pork marinated and roasted with white mojo sauce).

At first we thought maybe we were just tired from the long drive when we deliriously declared (yes, out loud, and maybe even slurping) "this has got to be one of the best meals we've ever had!" But honestly, I think it was one of the best meals we've ever had and that's saying a lot since we love to travel and go to a lot of restaurants and Mom V. is hands down one of the best gourmet cooks I know - so we've experienced a lot of wonderful food - so the compliment is worthy!

Then we realized that Crystal Lake doesn't have a Cuban restaurant and we'd have to trek to Chicago to find a hopefully, a relatively comparable one; not that that's bad, but is it asking to much to have fabulous restaurants within a 10 mile radius? (Actually there are in fact great restaurants around the area - I'll post on them later)

After we scarfed down our food, we pretty much were useless for the night. So we took our full bellies back to the hotel to hibernate.

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