Hey y’all – today we are heading south but not to a Caribbean destination. Instead, we are heading to where the beaches have sugar white sand, the history is life-changing, the cuisine is top notch and there is plenty of adventure to be had. We are going to Alabama!
Sweet Home Alabama to be exact – as I recently had the pleasure of welcoming Graham Roderick, International Sales Manager for the Alabama Tourism Department also known as Sweet Home Alabama to tell us all about this hidden gem right in our own backyard! So, without further ado – let’s head to where the skies are so blue!
Where Exactly Is Alabama Anyway? Alabama is in the heart of the Deep South. Its neighbors include Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. If you choose to fly, the gateway cities that will make it easiest for you are Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans – as each of those cities are within a two-hour driving distance. Graham also pointed out that being in the heart of the South if you are doing a road trip it’s hard to avoid Alabama since you are usually somewhere in the proximity. If you are visiting say Florida or New Orleans or Atlanta – chances are you’re going to drive through Alabama. That being said – if you are driving through you are definitely going to want to spend a few nights there after hearing all it has to offer!
Tell Me About The Geography. One of the most unique things about Alabama is that it is actually one of the most geographically diverse states in the continental United States. They are second only to Alaska as far as navigable waterways which is truly unique, and you can hike from Alabama all the way into upstate New York! Starting on the Pinhoti Trail which starts at Alabama’s highest point in Cheaha State Park it connects to the Appalachian Trail which in turn takes you through the Appalachian Mountains and into New York. So picture it- starting in the northeast you’ve got the Appalachian Mountains coming down and then as you make your way towards the coast you’ve got the beautiful beaches – so everything from beautiful scenic mountain ranges all the way to a beautiful coastline and everything in between right here in the state of Alabama! And one of those in between things are the incredible cave systems throughout the state featuring the breathtaking untouched beauty of the stalagmites and stalactites formations. Alabama is also home to one of the most photographed sinkholes in the country – Neversink Pit in Fackler, Jackson County. This natural wonder drops straight down 162 feet into the earth and makes for a great Instagram spot from both the outside – and for my adventurers – from inside!
And you guys I need to take a moment here to point out to those of you who are homeschooling – or even if the kids are back in school – what great living geography and science classes Alabama offers! It gives you the opportunity to step away from the digital learning and introduce the kiddos to life as a classroom – and you don’t have to go far – it’s right here in the US. Experiences like this is where kids will learn things that will stay with them for a lifetime as there is nothing better than seeing it up close and in person. Its always going to make an impact and they will come away with not only what they learned there but it also instills in them that love and appreciation of travel.
What If I Am Into Biology? You are in luck! Not only can Alabama boast about its geographic diversity, but they also have a great deal of biological diversity. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta – where five rivers come together into Mobile Bay – is home to several thousand different species of animals from fish to amphibians to reptiles and mammals. In fact, Wikipedia refers to it as the Amazon of North America. And the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center is the place to go to start your exploration of this natural wonder where fresh water collides with salt water. There you go – a marine biology living classroom at its finest! And Graham excitedly announced that in the near future there will be a program that I can add to your itinerary that allows for a couple of days to explore the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and to continue your biology, microbiology and marine biology education!
Up in northern Alabama you’ll find the Cook Museum of Natural Science to be another fantastic educational opportunity – especially if the kiddos are into bugs and insects and the whole study of entomology. It is a beautiful state of the art facility and is highly recommended for students of all ages.
Tell Me More About Educational Opportunities. Texas has the Johnson Space Center and Florida has Kennedy Space Center, but Alabama has the US Space and Rocket Center – located in Huntsville. It’s claim to fame? It is the world’s largest space and artifact museums! It is actually one of the few places where can view an actual moon rock – how incredible to think that you can stand within a foot of something that was once on the surface of the moon! The center also offers a weeklong space camp for kids age 11 to 18 which of course I can arrange to get your child into with Graham’s assistance. It is a very immersive educational program and is perfect for those that are interested in science, technology, mathematics, robotics, cyber security and programming too! And yes – there is a space camp which is strictly tailored to training to become an astronaut and there’s actually several astronauts that have gone to space and to stay at the International Space Station who completed training here. Fun Fact: They also have aviation program where you can learn to be a fighter jet pilot. Top Gun anyone? And hey – it’s not just for kids – they have different tiered programs that they offer on weekends – programs for moms and dads to participate in with their sons and daughters. These programs make for a really an interesting family dynamic because according to Graham you really go through a flight plan to achieve whatever goal or mission that is set before you. Meaning, you can put the kids in the flight control as the supervisor and they’re telling mom and dad what to do and you get this back and forth and it really makes for an utterly unique experience. And its not only a unique experience – but it’s also a bonding experience and its teaching the children how to manage and how to function in real life – giving them an experience to help prepare them for the outside world. Plus, Graham also noted that you can fail at space camp too. You’re given goals, a mission, a list and a budget – meaning you have to strategically and critically think about exactly what you’ll need in order to accomplish your mission and sometimes you don’t accomplish it. And that’s not a bad thing – I think its so important to teach kids a young age that you’re not always going to be successful but that doesn’t mean you give up – you keep trying until you succeed. Like Graham said – failing doesn’t necessarily mean to fail it just means to try harder – as Thomas Edison said “I didn’t fail 2000 times. I tried 2000 different ways to invent a light bulb and it only took me one time to get it exactly get it right.” Well put!
I’m Outdoorsy – Will I Have Outdoorsy Things To Do In Alabama? Will you ever! Into adventure? You can find some pretty unique whitewater rafting on the border of Georgia and Alabama – which is on the East side of Alabama making it easy to get to from Interstate 85 coming South from Atlanta or going north from Montgomery. It is referred to as urban whitewater rafting and it is on a manmade river in the middle of this little town. You’ve got Phenix City on the Alabama side and Columbus on the Georgia side and the manmade Chattahoochee River that splits them. There are several different levels of whitewater rafting available depending on your level of comfort. In the morning you can do class one and two rapids and then in the afternoon you can do class four and five rapids – should you be a thrill seeker – unlike myself who will stick with class one and two thank you very much! A session typically lasts 45 to 50 minutes so, like riding a roller coaster at the end of the day at the park – you ride then jump back in line and do it again! This is a great opportunity for you to do a
day excursion while driving through or we can even set you up with an overnight stay so you you can start off slow and work your way up to the higher intensity rapids.
You Mentioned Sugar White Sand? Much to my surprise and delight – was the beauty of Alabama’s beaches. Bonus – no passport needed to access these beaches folks! Not only will you have your choice of where to lay your blanket thanks to a coastline that stretches 32 miles but thanks to the fact that the beachfront is quite large, social distancing is not an issue as there’s plenty of space to spread out and claim your own stake of beachfront property. Doesn’t much better than that my friends! Per Graham Alabama’s beaches are probably one of their most sought-after attractions and they account for a lot of their visitors and feel blessed to have such a beautiful coastline.
I Got The Music In Me! Let’s discuss the music scene in Alabama. Yes, you read that correctly- Alabama actually has an incredible music history! Its best to start in the city of Muscle Shoals which is one of four little, tiny towns in the northwest corner of Alabama that as Graham explained are right up against each other so much so that you would never actually know you’re going from one town to the other. Now you may be familiar with a little band called Lynyrd Skynyrd and possibly even with one of their more popular tunes – Sweet Home Alabama. One of the lines in this song is “Now Muscle Shoals has got the swampers and they’ve been known to pick a song or two.” Well, those “swampers” were actually the studio musicians at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio who they actually started at another studio that was made famous by a gentleman named Rick Hall. Now not a lot of people know him, but he rose to a little bit more fame and became more recognizable in 2013 when Jimmy Iovine and Doctor Dre from Beats Electronics gave a million-dollar donation to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to help restore it. This ultimately became part of a 2013 documentary called – Muscle Shoals which tells its history. And that history includes Aretha Franklin signing with Jerry Wexler and becoming the Queen of Soul after going to Muscle Shoals and recording with The Swampers, Al Bell of Stax Records in Memphis getting a phone call from Paul Simon requesting the same musicians that played on the Staple Singers I’ll Take You There – which were of courser The Swampers and The Rolling Stones coming to Muscle Shoals for three days where they went on to record Wild Horses and Brown Sugar and another one of their big hits from their Sticky Fingers album. Fun Fact: If you look at the album you won’t see any credit to the studio in Muscle Shoals and that’s because believe it or not The Stones didn’t actually have a proper work permit to be recording music in the United States. Jerry Wexler, however, being a very smart man decided to send them down to Muscle Shoals where no one would even know they were there. Then of course Brown Sugar became one of their biggest hits and Wild Horses became one of their big ballads and as they say the rest is history!
What’s This About A Guinness Book Of World Records Museum? Ahhh yes – the Barber Museum is – according to the Guinness Book of World Records – the world’s largest motorcycle museum showcasing around 1200 bikes on display at any given time. They change out the bikes monthly so each time you go you will see some different bikes on display. This 25,000 square foot of museum and exhibit space can almost be described as a living art museum because every bike that you see there – save for a few pre-20th century bikes – can be gassed up, oiled up and taken out on the track behind museum. Speaking of the track behind the museum – for my thrill seekers – Barber Motorsports also has a Porsche driving experience – as this is where Porsche does a lot of their road testing for some of their off road and all terrain type vehicles.
There’s Obviously A Lot Of History In The State… And much of it can be found along the US Civil Rights Trail which debuted in 2018 as an effort of the Alabama Tourism Department along with the National Park Service and the United States government as an effort to catalog all of the different sites throughout the southeast that played pivotal roles in the modern civil rights movement. Included is the Edmund Pettus Bridge made famous when the late John Lewis walked across the bridge with President Barack Obama on the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March that put into the public view the atrocities that were happening in the South during the Jim Crow era. In today’s societal climate instead of trying to hide it and not talk about it – we want to talk about it and we want to have those conversations that are difficult so that we can learn from that history. So now we add history to the list of subjects in this state that are living classrooms for students and adults as well.
Also on the trail is Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery – the capital of Alabama – which is the only church that Dr. Martin Luther King ever pastored at. He arrived there in 1954 as a 24-year-old young man preaching about the good Lord and the word of the bible. Some of the leaders in Montgomery at the time recognized his charisma and tapped him to lead the civil rights movement and the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott – which began right after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person – which then led to the Browder versus Gayle decision that made interstate bus travel segregation illegal. And here is a bit of great advice from Graham. Wanda Battle is the museum curator at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and Graham recommends that if you’re driving from New Orleans to Atlanta or somewhere through Montgomery – take an hour out of your time and stop and get a tour from her and you will not be disappointed. She gives one-of-a-kind experiences and she was there back in the day so she knows all the history there is to know. The last piece is the 16th Street Baptist Church located in Birmingham. It was in this church where four young girls tragically lost their lives to a Ku Klux Klan bombing that happened therein 1963.
All three of theses sites – the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and the 16th Street Baptist Church are all tentative UNESCO World Heritage Sites which is a huge honor just to be considered. And I’m blown away by the fact that the state not only recognizes all of the injustices but is doing it in a way to say look it happened we’re not going to stop talking about it – we’re going to teach the history, so we don’t repeat it. I think that’s important especially in today’s climate when we have so many things that are being repeated because people aren’t educated about the past atrocities.
With So Much To See, Do And Learn I’m Sure To Work Up An Appetite! The south is known for its incredible cuisine like soul food and that sort of thing, but Graham highlighted the fine dining aspect for us. The fine dining cuisine here transitioned to more of a farm to table concept – sourcing local ingredients to help out local farmers and producing incredible almost works of art that you can eat. For example, the fabulous crab claws from the award-winning Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham. Executive Chef Frank Stitt, who is the proprietor, won the James Beard award for Outstanding Restaurant in 2018 and as a bonus – or as Graham aptly put it – a cherry on top – his Pastry Chef Dolester Miles also won Best Pastry Chef in America that year as well – giving you a one two punch of incredible fine dining with a delectable dessert! Per Graham, Birmingham is the main destination for fine dining although all of the other cities we’ve mentioned during this presentation have their own unique skill sets. But it’s Frank Stitt who really changed the game of food in Alabama when he traveled as a young man after college to France, where he worked in Michelin starred restaurants throughout the country, came back home to Alabama and took what he learned over there and added his own southern flavor to it and came up with Highlands Bar and Grill. Which by the way is a truly a unique experience from the moment you walk in, are seated and greeted by your waiter or waitress – the whole experience is truly one of a kind and is top notch. And one great thing is that the skill set he brought back, he has now passed on to his own sous chefs who eventually branched off and opened their own restaurants in Birmingham. Meaning in reality you could almost just throw a dart and hit some delectable fine dining establishment in Birmingham!
From fine dining to barbecue – because well we can’t be in Alabama without mentioning some barbecue! Now each state from Kansas City to Texas to the Carolinas – they’ve got their own twist on barbecue. What makes Alabama unique is smoked chicken. Yup – Pitmaster Chris Lilly from Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q in Decatur – which is just west of Huntsville – came up with the Alabama White Sauce. And what is Alabama White Sauce? It is this tangy, vinegar-based sauce that’s not spicy just tangy – and it’s truly mouthwatering. He takes his tongs and he dips the whole bird in this bucket of white sauce. And Graham added – if you have smoked wings, smoked turkey, smoked chicken or any kind of white meat he highly recommends getting some Alabama white sauce to go with it!
What About Us Party Animals? One of the things that I absolutely loved in regard to learning something new today was that Mardi Gras actually started in Alabama. And now you can impress your friends when they say hey let’s go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and you can say hey let’s go to Mobile where Mardi Gras originated! And what’s the history behind that? Mobile was actually the first settlement of the French Louisiana territory. When French settlers sailed to the new world they sailed into the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay and established their first colony in what is now Mobile in 1703 – before moving their capital to present day New Orleans in 1708. And just like in NOLA, Marcia Gras here is a monthlong celebration with parades every day of the week and beads and moon pies and music pouring out of the local bars!
And Because It Is The New Normal – Here is the Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing there were no statewide travel restrictions in Alabama.
Bet you didn’t know that Alabama had so much to offer – and right here in the good old USA! For those of you who want to just stay local this is a great opportunity to look at. After going through the entire state with Graham – top to bottom and left to right – I absolutely love it and I feel like I need to go on a road trip myself! Per Graham 2021 is going to be a year of highlighting outdoor adventures such as white-water rafting, kayaking, spelunking down into the incredible cave system and more. And there is no better time than now to let me know how I can help you plan this amazing trip so that you can take it all in piece by fascinating piece.
For more details on things to see and do in Alabama, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!