“My home’s in Alabama, no matter where I lay my head.”
That’s the primary line in a sentimental song by the award-winning country group Alabama, and your group could get just as sentimental about this wildly diverse state, even with just a sampler tour.
Alabama has mountains and lakes in the north, white-sand beaches in the south and history all over, especially civil rights history. It offers waterfalls and rockets, pork barbecue and fried catfish, and songs you know by heart, especially because of the incredible recording heritage in Muscle Shoals — think Aretha Franklin, Cher, Linda Ronstadt, Wilson Pickett, Cat Stevens and that British group called the Rolling Stones.
The state is long and lean, more than 360 miles from north to south, and there are discoveries beyond every curve in the mountains, every intersection in the cities and every bend in a rural highway.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville blasts off every year as Alabama’s most visited attraction. It is the world’s largest space museum and comes complete with a Saturn V rocket, which is a National Historic Landmark and one of only three in the world. Tips: Retain a docent for added depth of explanation and budget time to visit the Marshall Space Flight Center.
The USS Alabama is the centerpiece of Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile. The massive ship started World War II in the North Atlantic and at war’s end led the American fleet into Tokyo Bay. The ship was once bound for the scrap heap, but Alabamians saved her for a park that also includes the submarine the USS Drum and a Red-Tail P-51 Mustang, the plane of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Tip: Check on group meals in the wardroom, on the fantail or in the aircraft pavilion.
Mountains and Waterfalls
Many people outside the South don’t realize that northeast Alabama claims the tail end of the Appalachian Mountains. Get an eyeful at Little River Canyon National Preserve — a region of thick forests, sandstone cliffs and powerful waterfalls, such as DeSoto Falls, all 104 feet of it — and Little River Falls. They are two of 14 spread across North Alabama. One exploration route is the three-state Lookout Mountain Parkway, with 93 miles in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
Up and Coming
National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Perhaps the starkest example of our nation’s ugly racial history is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, often called simply the Lynching Museum. This chilling six-acre outdoor site is testament to almost 5,000 racial terror lynchings in the U.S. from 1887 to 1950. There are 800 monuments, one for every county where a lynching occurred.
Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo
This Gulf Shores zoo, made famous when 2004’s Hurricane Ivan forced evacuation of all the animals, reopened this spring in a safer and bigger location. It moved four miles inland from the coast and tripled in size to 25 acres to display 600 animals from 199 species. A special element is the Safari Club Restaurant that overlooks the zoo. Your group can listen to monkeys howl and lions roar while enjoying a meal on the veranda.
Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
This Birmingham-area museum, part of a much larger motorsports facility, was created to preserve the history of motorcycles. New this year is “Adventure Rider,” a permanent exhibit about motorcycles and their owners who take the big challenges, such as rolling from Alaska to Patagonia. More than 900 of the collection’s 1,600 motorcycles are displayed every day.
Lodge at Gulf State Park
It was 14 years between Hurricane Ivan’s destruction of the first Lodge at Gulf State Park and the opening of its sparkling low-rise replacement in 2018. It was worth waiting for the 350-room property, a Hilton Hotel affiliate with two miles of beachfront in the middle of a 6,150-acre park. Enjoy the lodge and the beach, and check out the park for pier fishing, bicycling, kayaking and nature walks.
Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa
This 199-room property overlooking the Tennessee River in Florence captures the spirit of the amazing variety of music created at the Fame Recording Studios and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The studios and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame are major group attractions. All music you hear in the hotel has connections to Muscle Shoals, and Swampers Bar and Grille is a minimuseum itself, as well as a performance venue. Get a great view of the Tennessee River from the revolving 360 Grille.
Pizitz Food Hall
Birmingham old-timers knew Pizitz as a classic department store; younger folks know it as a vibrant food hall occupying a major portion of a downtown landmark. Turn your group loose to explore the 14 food stalls for a culinary trip around the world. Choices include Eli’s Jerusalem Grill, which serves shawarma, falafel and kabobs; Pho Pho Vietnamese; Mo:Mo:, which serves Nepalese dumplings and more; and Ono Poke and Silver Kati, which serve Indian street food. The Birmingham Candy Company has carryout goodies for the coach.
Campus 805 in Huntsville may be the ultimate in adaptive-use restoration. What better fate for a 1950s-vintage high school than to become two breweries, a ballroom, music venues, a pinball joint, a participatory art studio, an axe-throwing club and a collection of restaurants, including a sushi place and a coffee “studio.” There’s even a nondenominational church service on Sundays. It’s always recess at Campus 805.