Exploring 'Sweet Home Alabama'
Recently, I was on a flight next to a woman with whom I struck up a friendly conversation. I could tell from her accent that she was Southern, but couldn’t quite place her. Turned out she was an Engineer for NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, as were many of her family members. In fact, the town is known for scientists and engineers working for the space program. Who knew? You learn something different every day, as I have driving through Birmingham (where Southern Living and Food & Wine Magazines are now based), Montgomery, Mobile and more. I drove through on a Southern road trip a few years ago and was intrigued by what I saw – flipping between movie & cultural references I had vs modern day.
Alabama certainly has a complicated history (and present), mainly when it comes to matters of race, equality, poverty and education. Yet it also holds an abundance of American culture, music and adventure from beaches to mountains. Music legends Nat King Cole, W.C. Handy and Hank Williams were born in Alabama, and artists including Aretha Franklin and The Rolling Stones came to Alabama to cement their careers. Here, Gospel is sung in churches and folks dance, while Blues, Country and Jazz set the mood in local bars. Locally owned restaurants dish up meals of mouth-watering barbecue and fresh seafood from Alabama’s fishing villages, and museums cover everything from Civil Rights and music history to fast cars and faster spacecraft. Significant landmarks from the American Civil Rights Movement, and the city of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, now a museum, was a protest headquarters in the 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church and the Rosa Parks Museum, dedicated to the activist, can be found in the capital of Montgomery.
Founded in 1871 at the junction of railroad lines, Alabama’s largest city is used to moving forward. Part stone-ground grits and part steely grit, Birmingham flourished so quickly that it earned the name “Magic City” during the heyday of its iron trade. But this melting pot has also been a pressure cooker of racial tensions, overshadowed by a violent history of segregation and brutality against African-Americans. Today, as you retrace the steps of demonstrators who changed the course of American history on the Civil Rights Heritage Trail, you’ll find a city experiencing an electrifying revival. Creative entrepreneurs are returning home, airy lofts breathe new life into downtown and Southern cooking gets global makeovers. Home of the nation’s first bike-share program that incorporates electric pedal-assisted bikes, Birmingham is ready to surprise you. EAT at Highlands Bar & Grill or Hot & Hot Fish Club, STAY at Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa, SEE the Civil Rights Museum
In Alabama’s capital, you’ll find deep-fried bacon, stylish bars and revitalized neighborhoods. But the city’s real draw is its museums and other sites that focus on the evolution of civil rights. EAT at Martin’s Restaurant, Central or Martha’s Place, STAY atThe Renaissance Hotel & Spa,, SEE Rosa Parks Library & Museum & Civil Rights Memorial
A small town undergoing change, I stopped in on my way to New Orleans and found some new business had moved in. I recommend staying at the historic Battle House Renaissance Hotel and eating some shrimp & grits at the Noble South.