Backstage Pass: Model Victoria Henley seeks out the hidden gems of the Smokies


There are the tried-and-true attractions and destinations of the Smoky Mountains, such as the natural wonder of Cades Cove as well as the world famous shows peppering the Pigeon Forge Parkway.

However, a trove of hidden gems in the forms of nature attractions, lodging options, entertainment destinations and top notch eateries are abundant within the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and surrounding areas.

I scoped out the best of the best “Hidden Gems” as well as mainstream vacation destinations which you absolutely must experience on your next Smoky Mountain vacation.



Since its inception in 1946, the Best Western brand has become synonymous with quality, affordability, convenience and second-to-none customer service.

Throughout the timeline of the hotel’s meteoric success with the general public, Best Western Plus was introduced as an upper- midscale counterpart to standard Best Western Hotels, whose flexible spaces, stylish design and brand signature elements come together to create an enriching extended stay experience.

The Best Western Plus Knoxville Cedar Bluff in Knoxville, Tenn. is my go-to hotel during my many visits to East Tennessee due to the consistent, top-notch quality accommodations and friendly service that I always know that I can expect.

I am not the only fan the Best Western Plus Cedar Bluff Knoxville has acquired over the years, as both the hotel and the employees have garnered an impressive array of some of the most prestigious awards within the hotel industry.

Debbie Sidon, a beloved Best Western employee, who has been with the brand for decades, won the 2015 Lodging Employee of the Year Award, which recognizes employee excellence and exemplary work ethic within the hotel industry.

Among the hotel’s ample accolades is the 2017 Champion Green Award, which honors outstanding HHS employees and Native American tribal members involved in sustainability projects throughout the Department of Health and Human Services. Best Western Plus Knoxville Cedar Bluff was also recently awarded the highly coveted 2021 Triple A’s (AAA) Three Diamond Award, which represents optimal hotel comfort, cleanliness, and safety. The Best Western Plus Knoxville Cedar Bluff is also pleased to have been awarded the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence Badge, the direct result of glowing TripAdvisor reviews and authentic guest feedback.

Here are a few of just the many accommodations and amenities guests enjoy.


The Best Western Plus Knoxville Cedar Bluff offers a wide variety of lodging options to accommodate your unique and individual needs, offering extremely comfortable (safety wrapped) double queen and king bed options, on which I have experienced some of the best sleep I have ever gotten during my work travels. You can expect a flat-screen TV with cable service, free Wi-Fi, an alarm clock, data ports, a coffee maker, hair dryer, microwave, refrigerator and other little touches to make your stay as pleasant as possible.

Should your travel group require a bit more room space, you may want to consider booking an Executive or Presidential Suite (the Presidential Suite includes a divider panel for added privacy), which both offer more of condo-esque experience, each boasting approximately 900 square feet, and a mini kitchen , complete with ample counter and cabinet space.


Although many chain hotels discontinued hot breakfast options following the 2020 pandemic, the Best Western Plus Knoxville Cedar Bluff takes great pride in offering a hearty cafeteria style hot breakfast (available daily from 6-9 a.m.) including a rotating line up of savory bacon, sausage links and patties, scrambled eggs, freshly baked biscuits, sausage gravy and Belgian waffles. Also available are assortments of fruit yogurt, fresh mini fruit cups (with diced passion fruit, peaches, pineapple, and more), almond and dairy milk options, varieties of cereal and oatmeal, as well as Svedhard Swedish Bakery Pastries and Danishes in flavors ranging from Berry Horns and Raisin Snails, to my personal favorites: Cheese Pastries and Bear Claws. Blueberry and chocolate muffins and well as a wide array of bread options (including bagels, white bread, English muffins, etc.) with accompanying fruit jams, peanut butter and syrups are also made available each morning. An apple and orange juice machine is also at your service during breakfast hours, and a highly convenient coffee station with fresh brewed caffeinated and decaf options is accessible to guests 24/7.


Located in the heart of the industrious Knoxville, Best Western Plus Knoxville Cedar Bluff is a favorite destination of corporations and small businesses alike looking to hold a conference, meeting, or special function for their team. Featuring spacious and convenient meeting spaces, The Ambassador and Envoy Meeting Rooms are conveniently located on the third floor across the hall from one another, each offering different perks and benefits, including drop down screens (ideal for power point presentations), a bar area for more festive occasions, adjustable lighting to suit your desired ambiance and a capacity suited to accommodate 82 people. Also highly popular for wedding receptions and family gatherings (during our December stay, a regular customer booked out of the spaces to host her annual Christmas dinner. Although we have opted to stay on the third floor during each visit, with numerous functions and gatherings occurring during both of our stays, we have not once been disturbed by noise as the acoustics in the hotel are great and eliminate any potential sound disturbance.

A Board Room is also available to meet the needs of more intimate gatherings and business meetings, complete with a full set up of chairs, tables, and a coffee station.

I was most inspired by the energized and motivated attitude displayed by the top-notch staff (some members who have been with the hotel for decades) and the measures taken by management to incentivize the staff for their great attitudes.

During our visit, the employees displayed their beautifully built gingerbread houses, which they decorated as a part of a contest in which they competed to win a variety of prizes.

The Best Western Knoxville Cedar Bluff is also conveniently located to The University of Tennessee, Neyland Stadium and The Knoxville Zoo.

Special thanks to Candace Moneymaker for her wonderful help and hospitality throughout our visit.


PHONE: 1-865-539-0058.

Social Media:

CHRISTMAS IN THE CAVE (at the Historic Cherokee Caverns)

The Historic Cherokee Caverns boasts a long, intriguing history under the leadership of a wide variety of owners. However, the most industrious and innovative leaders of the caverns are arguably its current caretakers: Mike and Dana Whidby, who have spearheaded an impressive variety of live events at the cave including movie nights, standup comedy performances and vendor events/ festivals. Perhaps one of the most popular events at the caverns is Christmas in the Cave, a multi-weekend holiday extravaganza featuring hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights, playful inflatable characters, guest appearances by the Grinch, Santa Claus, etc., which has quickly become a beloved holiday tradition for families in East Tennessee and beyond.

Following my 2020 IHeart Radio interview with Mike Whidby (which you can listen to by searching “Backstage Pass with Victoria” wherever you get your podcasts), we established a connection with Whidby and his lovely wife, Dana, and subsequently returned as vendors for the October 2021 “Trick or Treat in the Cave” event, which featured a “spook-tacular” array of Halloween- themed decor and thousands of tots and tykes dressed in their best costumes as they “Trick or Treated” among the onsite vendors.

Our experience at the fall event was so enjoyable that we returned with our booth, Vicki Lynn Pecans, a simple and no frills set up, featuring our USDA/AG certified Elliot variety pecans, grown with love and care on our farms in Southwest Georgia. Promoting the vast health and wellness benefits of our super-nuts to the thousands of attendees was a real treat, and we look forward to returning to many future events produced by the visionary Historic Cherokee Caverns Team.


PHONE NUMBER : (865) 275-5196


Ancient Lore Village, a magical destination with a fairytale aesthetic, is one of Knoxville Tennessee’s newest and most enthralling attractions, featuring overnight accommodations, archery and axe throwing, and a revolving line up of creative and innovative events and activities.

Created by founder and president, Tom Boyd (who is also a well-established Knoxville entrepreneur), every single element of Ancient Lore Village celebrates and reflects Boyd’s mission statement: To create a world where people of different backgrounds could live together in perfect peace and harmony, where only genuine goodness exists.

Boyd- who toured across the state of Tennessee with his son Randy on a political campaign trail- was motivated by all the hatred and intolerance he noticed along the way to pen his own book: “Bokee’s Trek: Outcasts to the Inner Earth.” The fairytale follows the protagonist as he embarks on an epic journey, encountering a large array of different creatures and discovering how they can all co- exist and not only accept, but also celebrate, their many differences.

Following the success of his children’s book, the visionary entrepreneur knew that he must create such a utopia for people to enjoy in real life, and thus, the idea for Ancient Lore Village was born.

Unlike any destination you have ever- or probably will ever- visit, Ancient Lore Village offers an indescribably unique style and a palpable sense of excitement throughout the village grounds. Journey up the cobblestone walkways and take in the beauty of the architecture, which appears to be straight from the pages of a storybook, and absorb every single detail, which has been carefully curated by highly skilled artists, designers, and architects.

SpecializIng in parties, weddings, corporate functions, and live events, Ancient Lore Village offers a variety of packages and plans to suit the unique needs of any type of function. Wedding packages allow guests to simplify their weddings with all-inclusive wedding packages, a wide array of on-property venue options, and a team of wedding specialists to provide guidance for your special day.

Ancient Lore Village is also perfectly built to accommodate corporate events with options to book out the entire village, offering covered meeting spaces, eight overnight dwellings (which can accommodate up to 22 people) lounging areas, relaxation grottos and some of the most captivating views you’ll find in the Smokies, sure to leave your entire team feeling motivated and energized.

Eight dwellings, each featuring their own mystical theme and character, are available onsite, for a completely one-of-a-kind and unforgettable lodging experience. (Pair your overnight stay with any add-on activity to create your own micro event.)


The largest dwelling, it features two bedrooms each with one queen beds, four bunk beds and three full bathrooms and sleeps eight.

Bokee’s Bungalow was the first dwelling built at the Ancient Lore Village. It was built 19 feet underground.


A peaceful oasis. It was built with the vision of a larger family’s stay. It features one king bed and one queen sofa sleeper. It can sleep four.

The Waterfall Villa was built with the vision of a larger family’s stay… or a couple looking for a more spacious option. The Waterfall Villa sits beside, well, a beautiful waterfall in the woods


A fantastic hideaway of 400 square feet will leave you in awe…of the floors. It features one king bed and sleeps two.

The unique, hand-crafted floors are designed with a puzzle-themed inlay.  make these light and airy rooms truly stand out.


(The most delicate and graceful dwelling…perfect for any visiting princesses)

1 King Bed | Sleeps 2

As anyone would guess upon approach, with the lovely purple entryway and awning, our Fairy Cottage is most delicate and graceful inside. Shimmers of pinks, creams, golds, and purples embellish the elegant fireplace and walls.

This ~400 sq. ft. dwelling’s bathroom shower walls were crafted with bold and exquisite tiles creating a flower pattern that beautifully matches the overall theme of the dwelling.


The 400 square foot lair features a charming king size bed and full-size bathroom. It sleeps two.

Between the stunning jewels that adorn the walls and the gold that is embedded into the hypnotizing wall colors, you will feel lucky to have stayed here.


Filled to the brim with luxurious details, the 400 square foot space features one king sized bed and sleeps two.

Just as the Orc is larger than life in Bokee’s Trek, the Orc Home contains oversized furniture and decor. This dwelling is full of luxurious details, including a hand-crafted, breathtaking, oversized stone fireplace; the highest ceilings on the property; and adornments suited for a spacious stay.

Ancient Lore Village regularly hosts and produces an exciting variety of public events, including “Dinner and Movie” packages, perfectly suited for the entire family. We visited for a special showing of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” movie, a two-part special, nestled under the comfort of the heaters, while sipping red wine (which is available at the cash bar, along with a variety of signature cocktails, including Igor Spiced Whiskey, Gremlin’s Grin and Bokee’s Punch, just to name a few concoctions.

A light meal of pork sandwiches and chili was provided as we enjoyed the films with our headphones, which were made available to eliminate any potential disturbance to the neighbors or other guests.


PHONE NUMBER: (865)200-2434


Highly creative, immersive, and challenging, the escape games at Escape Game Knoxville are sure to give even the most seasoned player a run for their money with head scratching puzzles, smartly curated rooms and an obtuse and illusive , yet very well done, set of clues that must be solved before you can boast, “I Escaped.”

Upon entry to Escape Game Knoxville, we were greeted by Morgan- one of the extremely personable and accommodating owners-  as well as Dante, the impossibly charming and handsome “office cat”, a six toed Hemingway feline.

A total of three different games are available, including the “Wild West Jail Break” (consistently voted as one of the most challenging games), “Once Upon a Time: The Enchanted Forest” (a mythical, fairy tale themed experience, perfect for the kids), and “The Villain’s Lair” (our game of choice).

Once escorted into the Villain’s Lair, the timer was set for precisely one hour, marking the time frame that we were given to escape and save the world from the clutches of the disaster hungry Joker.

My team of three (myself, Lynn and Russ) joined in with Best Western Plus Knoxville Cedar Bluff Director of Sales, Candace Moneymaker and her fiancé to rapidly search for and solve clues with the assistance of carefully placed locks and keys, hidden notes that could only be viewed in black light, audio/visual cues and the option to receive real-time help from an official Escape Room Knoxville Professional via an electronic screen.

While my personal group could certainly not claim to be “ Escape Room Aficionados,” Candace and Company impressively, and swiftly, solved the extremely challenging clues, cracked codes and opened safes- even shooting “guns” (complete with light up targets and various sound effects- all to the sound of the Joker’s villainous “Evil Laugh” when our clock hit the 30 minute mark.

Although we missed the opportunity to brag that we “Escaped” by just over one minute, we all had a fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping great time.

Morgan was kind enough to allow us all to pose with the “I Escaped” sign following our participation.

Escape Game Knoxville is a perfect destination for your next party or just a special outing with family and friends, so be sure to get your crew together and try to earn some serious bragging rights as you attempt the escape the incomparably challenging and outrageously fun games.


PHONE NUMBER: (865) 279-6181

Victoria Henley of Backstage Pass, a former contestant on “America’s Next Top Model,” is a regular contributor to iHeart Radio/ FCB Radio Network and