Alabamians love home cooking, and — admittedly mixing metaphors here — tour operators can take some Alabama ingredients off the pantry shelf to create broadly appealing recipes for post-pandemic itineraries.
Starting up north in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and stretching almost 400 miles south to the white sand beaches and sparking waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama offers the leisure tour equivalent of “The Joy of Cooking.”
Take a serving of science, a pinch of history, a dash of old-time religion and a cold pint of craft beer, and you quickly have the makings of several Alabama tours — and you haven’t even left the northern third of the state. You can cook up variations statewide by accepting Mother Nature’s invitation to step off the motorcoach and sample a smorgasbord of outdoor activities that can be tailored for group enjoyment.
Mapping itineraries to appeal to a post-pandemic frame of mind is easy when you examine the various ingredients Alabama possesses.
Waterfalls and Worship
“Our part of Alabama offers great accessibility to beautiful attractions and the great outdoors without big-city crowds,” said John Dersham, speaking of the 13 northern counties in the Alabama Mountain Lakes region. Dersham is president and CEO of DeKalb Tourism in Fort Payne and a noted nature and landscape photographer.
Dersham enjoys steering visitors to the region’s 14 waterfalls, all of which he has captured with camera in hand. Any one of them is an antidote to the cooped-up feeling would-be travelers have felt for the past year. Among the favorites are the 104-foot-tall DeSoto Falls in DeSoto State Park, Little River Falls in Little River Canyon National Preserve and Noccalula Falls in Gadsden.
Also in this part of the state are three of Alabama’s famous resort state parks that offer lodging, meals and special activity options. They are Joe Wheeler State Park, located directly on TVA’s Wheeler Lake; Lake Guntersville State Park, high on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River; and DeSoto State Park, in the northeast corner of the state.
When rolling though the region, consider pausing to reflect at one of the 34 locations on the Hallelujah Trail of Sacred Places. The trail is an inventory of notable houses of worship, each more than 100 years old, on its original site and still holding services. The variety is notable. They range from the ornateness of Temple B’nai Sholom in Huntsville to the simplicity of the Mentone United Methodist Church in Mentone to the log cabin rusticity of the Pine Torch Church in Moulton.
Rockets and Restaurants
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville is Alabama’s most visited attraction, and it undoubtedly will be a blast-off destination for many groups as post-pandemic travel grows.
The primary attractions include a Saturn V rocket, one of only three in the world, and an explanation of America’s space race that led to lunar expeditions and the International Space Station; Rocket Park, which includes a mock-up of the Apollo 11 lunar landing site; and Shuttle Park, which offers the nation’s most complete chronology of launch vehicles.
When you return from outer space, Huntsville offers three notable locations for unusual group dining and shopping experiences, all with plenty of open space.
Stovehouse is a mixed-use campus that occupies what originally was a manufacturing plant for stoves and heaters. Heavy industry gave way to restaurants, entertainment venues, retail stores and more, among them Bark and Barrel Barbecue, a “milkshake bar” called Oscar Moon’s and a local coffee emporium named Charlie Foster’s.
Campus 805 is perhaps the coolest use ever of a 1950s-vintage high school. In its new life as a multibusiness food and entertainment facility, its first tenants were two breweries: Straight to Ale and Yellowhammer. Both became stops on the popular Downtown Huntsville Craft Beer Trail. Just think: There’s no reason to sneak a beer under the bleachers if the brewery is in the school.
Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment is the contemporary use for a facility that opened in 1901 as a textile mill and had a second life as a shoe factory. Today’s owners say it is the largest privately owned arts facility in the South. Visitors can wander through 150 studios housing more than 200 artists working in many media and enjoy occasional concerts and several food options. One has a claim you don’t often hear: Pofta Buna International Café serves Mediterranean and Eastern European foods with a Romanian influence.
Mines and Motorsports
Birmingham, Alabama’s biggest city, is only 100 miles from Huntsville, and it has a growing list of group destinations to complement mainstays such as the Birmingham Museum of Art, the 16th Street Baptist Church and the towering statue of the Roman god Vulcan atop Red Mountain.
Birmingham rose as a steelmaking city in the 1870s, which explains why a mythological god of the forge is so prominent. Its economy now is quite diverse, and numerous opportunities exist for open-air activity.
The conspicuous example is Railroad Park right downtown. It is a 19-acre green space that celebrates Birmingham’s artistic and industrial heritage. It is a great spot for a leisurely walk after visiting baseball’s Negro Southern League Museum or having a snack at the Red Cat Café.
It’s also only a five-minute drive — or a 12-minute walk — to the Pizitz Food Hall, another opportunity to give groups free time and individual dining choices. Pizitz once was a destination department store, but it now offers more than a dozen food stalls and restaurants. Consider gourmet sandwiches at Ashley Mac’s, Israeli cuisine at Eli’s Jerusalem Grill or Indian street food at Silver Kati.
You can get more outdoor time and learn about the area’s history at Red Mountain Park and Ruffner Park.
Red Mountain Park covers 1,500 acres of the mountain that Vulcan calls home. It’s a bit west of downtown on land once owned by U.S. Steel. The last iron ore mine there closed in 1962. Today, there are 15 miles of trails and several adventures for the daring, or perhaps, just for watching others be daring. They include zip lines — one is 1,000 feet long— a treetop ropes and cable course and a 75-foot-tall climbing tower.
Smaller and more active groups can consider Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve to the east, which comprises 1,038 acres. It, too, was a mining area that now is a showcase for nature through 14 miles of trails, overlooks and an informative nature center.
Outside Birmingham is an attraction with a different focus: not nature itself, but a way to speed through nature. It is the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, which its owner proclaims is the world’s “best and biggest” motorcycle collection.
You’re not likely to doubt George Barber’s statement as you learn about his 1,600 motorcycles from around the world. More than 950 motorcycles are on display every day on multiple levels of the airy museum. Also here is a 16-turn, 2.38-mile racetrack that is home to the Porsche Driving School.
Bengals and Beaches
Sand and waves will always be the objectives of travelers headed to Alabama’s sliver of the Gulf of Mexico, but there’s an internationally famous attraction without a beach four miles inland. It’s the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, made famous through an Animal Planet TV series, “The Little Zoo That Could,” because of a hurricane-inspired evacuation from its original beachside home.
The move tripled the zoo’s size to 25 acres and created new spaces for its 325 animals that represent 110 species, including 20 endangered species. Among the endangered are three regal Bengal tigers: Rajah, Rani and Omar. The zoo staff has great fun naming the animals, including a meditative black bear named Boodah and a massive American alligator with the down-home name of Chuckie.
One of the zoo’s treats is dining at the Safari Club, a restaurant that overlooks the grounds. The African-themed interior is nicely done, and you can listen to the monkeys chatter and the tigers roar if you dine on the veranda.
Getting to the beach, of course, is mandatory, and there are two full-service hotel resorts to examine. One is the Lodge at Gulf State Park, the 2018 replacement for the park’s original lodge that Hurricane Ivan destroyed. Its 350 rooms are in the middle of a 6,150-acre preserve that also features pier fishing, bicycling and miles of nature walks.
Not seven miles down the beach and almost to Florida is the second one: the Perdido Beach Resort. This 338-room property was a popular destination until 2020’s Hurricane Sally and Hurricane Zeta temporarily put it out of commission. Owners seized the moment to reimagine everything, and as the general manager said, “We basically have a new hotel from the roof down.”
It reopens in May, cooking up new memories for Alabama tours.