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When the sun goes down: Southern Nights

Courtesy Mississippi Tourism Div.

Whether the aim is a fearful night of spine-tingling ghost stories or a lively evening dancing to the blues, groups visiting the South can choose the nighttime experience to match their mood.

With so many different ways to enjoy the evening, groups should never let the sun dictate when their vacation day ends. Travelers will find plenty of ways to unwind after a long day of touring, such as colorful mountain laser shows, musical theater performances and river dinner cruises.

Ground Zero Blues Club
Clarksdale, Miss.

When actor Morgan Freeman, Bill Luckett and Howard Stovall wanted to open a blues club, they decided not on a brand-new facility but took a page from past juke joints; they found a historic 1904 building and let the structure’s age show. With exposed plumbing, mismatched chairs and Christmas lights, the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale strives for unassuming authenticity.

Up to 120 can eat an authentic Mississippi Delta meal of catfish and slow-cooked pork before listening to a live band playing the blues. Familiarization tour participants can often listen to a talk before a show about the Mississippi Delta and its influence on the blues genre.

“We have a big dance floor where we push back the tables for dancing,” said Luckett. “You can also dance on the bar. We not only permit dancing on the bar, we encourage it. Morgan Freeman and I have actually danced on the bar before.”

The owners named the laid-back club Ground Zero because Clarksdale is where the blues began. Next to the club, a monument to the music honors the city as the Crossroads, as legend has it that pioneering blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the intersection of two blues trails at U.S. highways 61 and 49.

“Blues music is the root music for everything,” said Luckett. “The British invasion bands took blues music and gave it a little bit of an upbeat sound. The blues is America’s gift to the world.”

Louisville Ghost Tours
Louisville, Ky.

A mysterious lady in blue, a hotel owner who wouldn’t leave and other creepy tales can make groups a little jumpy on a Louisville Ghost Tour. The half-mile walking tour stops at all the supernatural hotspots of downtown, such as the Old City Jail, the Seelbach Hilton Hotel, the Palace Theatre and the Brown Hotel.

Courtesy Louisville Ghost Stories

Tours, led by guides in Victorian costumes carrying lanterns for effect, start at 8 p.m. Only the thoroughly researched ghoulish stories make it onto the tour, such as the haunting of the historic Brown Hotel by J. Graham Brown, who built the hotel in 1923.

“We always try to tell a little bit about the architecture of the building, its history and particularly how that history relates to the figures involved in the ghost story,” said Frank Harris, owner and tour guide for Louisville Ghost Tours. “If you just tell the ghost stories, it doesn’t have any meaning without the history involved.”

One of the more famous Louisville ghost stories involves the Seelbach Hilton Hotel’s reappearing Lady in Blue, who researchers believe is Patricia Wilson’s phantom; tragically, Wilson fell to her death down the elevator shaft in the hotel. The guide relates the spooky story to groups in front of the same elevator, in case they smell her trademark perfume or see anything out of the ordinary.

The same company also operates in downtown Nashville, Tenn., and can accommodate any group size or provide step-on service if needed.

Theatre West Virginia
Beckley, W.Va.

Whether caused by a pig’s disputed ownership or an ill-fated love affair, the bloody Hatfield and McCoy feud lives on in the musical performance Hatfields and McCoys at Theatre West Virginia.
Performed at the Cliffside Amphitheatre, amidst the wooded mountains of the New River Gorge National River, the play joined Honey in the Rock in 1970 as the theater’s second annual outdoor drama. The original 1961 musical follows the chaotic birth of the Mountain State when West Virginia sided with the Union and against Virginia during the Civil War.

Courtesy Theatre West Virginia

“Honey in the Rock is the nation’s oldest Civil War drama,” said Kandace Clay, director of marketing for Theatre West Virginia. “Both plays have a little more of a bluegrass feel to reflect the state of West Virginia.”

Every year, on top of the summer productions of Hatfields and McCoys and Honey in the Rock, the theater presents two other Broadway musicals. In 2010, the featured plays will be Footloose and Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka.

The 70,000-acre park to which the theater is connected offers several options for those looking for something to do before the evening performance; options include white-water rafting, fishing, hiking and taking in the view from the Grandview Overlook, 1,400 feet above the New River.

Stone Mountain Laser Show

Brightly colored lights pierce the night to turn the rocky north face of Stone Mountain into a natural amphitheater. Lasers, Surround Sound and special effects make the 40-minute light show a memorable summer evening under the stars.

Courtesy Stone Mountain Park

“People can come out here and eat before the show, or grab something to eat for a picnic and make an evening of it,” said Jeanine Jones, public relations manager for Stone Mountain Park. “It’s become quite the Atlanta tradition.”

The laser canopy effect creates a ceiling of light over the audience’s heads for one of the most impressive special effects of the night. Another section of the show presents the theme “Our Music is Georgia Music,” which highlights the state’s diverse musical background, from Ray Charles to Outkast.

For a grand finale, patriotic themes honor the military with graphic designs and songs to end the show a flourish and fireworks. One of the world’s largest laser light shows, the production runs on various schedules during the year, including nightly in the summer; a festive 15-minute Christmas laser show set to Christmas carols is scheduled for November and December.

The park’s nearby marketplace satisfies any food cravings the audience has while waiting for the show to begin. With options such as the Stone Mountain Museum, a scenic train ride, the Skyride cable ride and 3,200 acres of natural beauty, groups never want for activities at the park.

Harriott II Riverboat
Montgomery, Ala.

In October 2008, an elegant 19th-century riverboat pulled into the harbor of Montgomery. The city’s first riverboat in many years, the Harriott II Riverboat has offered night cruises on the Alabama River since March.

Courtesy Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce CVB

Themed evening cruises aboard the 400-passenger Harriott II feature a variety of music and live bands — from praise bands to blues and rock ’n’ roll — designed to get the passengers dancing.

“Coming back on the night cruise, the skyline of Montgomery is just incredible,” said Branch Kloess, director of riverfront activities for Montgomery. “The city has several large buildings, like the Renaissance Hotel that changes color at night. We also have the Riverwalk Amphitheater that lights up. It doesn’t look like Montgomery; it looks like a big city at night. The cruise really produces dramatic views.”

The two-hour, five-mile dinner cruises can accommodate 180 passengers with a five-course meal and a bar on each of the three levels, including the sun deck, where a lot of the dancing takes place. While dancing on the sun deck, guests can watch the city lights play on the water as the riverboat rolls on.

During the day, the boat offers narrated cruises that relate the history of the river, the town’s role in the industrial revolution and points of interest along the river, such as Cypress Creek and Maxwell Air Force Base.

Grand Ole Opry
Nashville, Tenn.

Just five years after commercial radio started in the United States, the Grand Ole Opry music show was born in 1925 as a way to advertise the National Life and Accident Insurance Co. The show’s ability to draw the big stars of country music quickly singled it out, and legends like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash performed on the Opry’s stage regularly.

Courtesy Grand Ole Opry

“We do the show the same way now as they did in 1925, with live performances on the radio,” said Jessie Schmidt, publicist for the Grand Ole Opry. “It can be heard around the world on the radio because of the Internet. It is an 84-year-old tradition.”

Today’s shows feature a wide variety of music, with bluegrass, gospel, country classics and contemporary hits played at every performance. Different casts each night and always-changing songs keep the show fresh despite its long history.

Other than listening to its broadcast on the Internet, radio and Country Music Television stations, visitors can see the show live at the 4,371-seat Grand Old Opry House or at the 2,362-seat Ryman Auditorium during the winter months. Country fans can bask in the abundance of past performers’ memorabilia in the free Opry Museum, adjacent to the Grand Old Opry House.

After looking through the costumes, musical instruments and other personal effects of country music stars, part of the joy of the Opry is searching for familiar faces like Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton or Brad Paisley, who could stop by on any night.

Let’s go Zydeco!

Photo courtesy Prejean’s Restaurant

To make sure that diners know they are entering Louisiana’s Cajun country, a 13-foot alligator named Big Al greets all who enter Prejean’s in Lafayette with a very toothy smile. The atmosphere continues with live Cajun music and other mounted swamp creatures hanging on the walls, such as fish, an alligator gar and a turtle shell.

“It’s all Cajun-themed,” said Mary Primeaux, reservations and catering coordinator for Prejean’s. “We have a lot of unique artwork from the area, with pictures of shrimp boats, egrets and moss hanging from trees.”

The award-winning cuisine backs up the Cajun theme with the shrimp sassafras, eggplant Abbeville and chicken and sausage gumbo.

Another staple authentic Acadiana restaurant in Lafayette is Randol’s. Live Cajun and Zydeco music plays nearly every night with fiddlers encouraging dancers to come up to the front dance floor.

Randol’s menu also boasts awards attached to some of the dishes, including the 2006 Gold Medal Lafayette for the White Lake Dreaming appetizer of cream crab cake and the 2007 World Champion crawfish etouffee.