enduring a cold, snowy winter in crowded New York City, I decided to head south
to Alabama. I wanted to stretch my arms out without whacking someone in the head
and look up and see sky and not skyscrapers.
I'd never been to Alabama. All I knew about it was the song "Sweet Home Alabama"
by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the movie of the same name (that was filmed mostly in Georgia),
and the country fried rock band Alabama. I admit, I was curious. Alabama is a
big state, so I stuck to the north and checked out the bed and breakfast inns.
didn't know what it would be like in Alabama. The worst case scenario I imagined
would be stepping back into a pre-Civil Rights world. Fortunately, although I
saw few people of color while I was there, I did see mixed race couples and in
general, everyone was friendly. In fact, most people seemed thrilled to have visitors.
On the other hand, I'd heard Alabama was the self-proclaimed buckle of the Bible
Belt and indeed that is true. The Christian community is strong here. The bed
and breakfasts I went to were all owned by religious folk - former reverends and
preachers' daughters. It's not the place to go for wild nightlife or even a well-chilled
martini. But for a woman traveling alone, I felt very safe everywhere I went.
are a lot of bed and breakfasts in Alabama, even in northern Alabama, so here
are a handful that I checked out during my visit.
flew into the Huntsville International Airport. Many people
who vacation in this area drive from nearby towns, but if
you fly, this is the most convenient airport for north Alabama.
Although I was in a hurry to see everything, I did manage
to spend a few minutes at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center
in Huntsville. Okay, it's kind of for kids, but anyone at
all interested in space would be impressed by the rocket that
was designed here to take astronauts to the moon, and an actual-sized
Space Shuttle. This is also where they have the world famous
The rooftop pool at secret B&B.
There are plenty of places to stay in Huntsville, but I drove about two hours from Huntsville to the Secret Bed and Breakfast (yes, with a lower case "s"). This B&B is tucked away from the road on the top of Lookout Mountain and overlooks the Tennessee Valley and Weiss Lake. At night the town of Centre sparkles in the distance.
There are four rooms in the main house, with names like Tranquility and Serenity, and a few quirky cabins-a tree house, a jail cell, a "chapel" and a condo. I stayed in a room in the main house but I peeked in the cabins-the jail theme cabin had handcuffs and iron bars, and the tree house was perched in a tree. Seemed like an excellent place for local honeymooners and other romantically inclined people.
I went in April, where the bad weather followed me from New York, so it was too cold to enjoy the rooftop swimming pool with a view. Instead, I curled up with a video from the in-house library and relaxed in my room. In the morning, I woke up early to take a walk and enjoy the quiet, and watch shy miniature deer hide while a peacock strutted around arrogantly in the pen outside the main lodge.
The Satterfield Room at the Lodge at Gorham's Bluff.
The next day I headed to the Lodge at Gorham's Bluff. This elegant inn is the highlight of this community-to-be. Gorham's Bluff is a traditional neighborhood in the making. Another famous traditional neighborhood is Seaside, Florida, where The Truman Show was filmed. Instead of the ocean being the highlight, here the focus is on the sweeping view of the bluff that overlooks the Tennessee River and surrounding valley. Houses are being built and bought here, with plenty of room for artists. The arts are a vital part of this community, with the Gorham's Bluff Institute presenting ballet, storytelling, chamber music and other festivals throughout the year.
The Lodge has six guest rooms in the main house. Every room has a balcony with a view and a rocking chair or two. These rooms are delux; fireplaces that turn on with the flick of a switch, surround-sound radios, giant comfortable beds, and Jacuzzi bathtubs with silky bath salts. It was so comfortable in my room, with the rain falling outside and the fire roaring in the fireplace, I relaxed for hours.
Breakfast is, of course, included, but there is a resident chef who cooks up gourmet dinners. My favorite touch was the piano player who plays during dinner. While I was there, the other guests included a women's church group who go there every year. They were obviously having a great time, and I got some funny stories about finds from the Unclaimed Baggage Center from them while we were all sipping coffee on the couch after breakfast.
The Unclaimed Baggage Center is in nearby Scottsboro. I still regret not buying that perfect summer dress - a brand new $300 dress for $30. I had just been enjoying too many fabulous breakfasts and the dress was a little snug. I also found the craziest shoes but not in my size - bright pink mules with a green suede butterfly on the toe, and orange wooden heels. You never know what wacky treasures you'll find there.
Finally, the sun came out and I was able explore the outside a bit. I drove to the Fort Payne area and went for a hike in DeSoto State Park. This park is on Lookout Mountain in the Appalachian foothills. Early May, when the wildflowers bloom, is the best time to come here but it was pretty great in April, too. I was so happy to be outside walking, after all the sweet tea, grits, and biscuits that make up southern meals! There are cabins and rooms to stay in here, but I just stopped by for the afternoon.
Nearby, also on Lookout Mountain, is Little River Canyon. Kayakers and rock climbers test their skills in this area but I only had time for a drive-by. When I stopped to look at the waterfall, I met up with a group of boy scouts who had just been rock climbing and were on to more adventures. I tried, but they wouldn't take me with them. Oh well.
North Alabama Tourism
Bed and Breakfast Info:
Secret Bed and Breakfast
2356 Hwy 68
Leesburg, AL 35983
Phone (256) 523-3825
The Lodge at Gorham's Bluff
101 Gorham Drive
Pisgah, AL 35765
Phone (256) 451-VIEW (8439)
Highway 117, Box 290
Mentone, AL 35984
Phone (256) 634-4836
Wood Avenue Inn
658 North Wood Avenue
Florence, AL 35630
Phone (256) 766-8441
U.S. Space & Rocket Center
One Tranquility Base
Huntsville, AL 35805
Phone (256) 837-3400
Hours: 9am to 5pm daily
Cathedral Caverns State Park
PO Box 473
Grant, AL 35747
Phone (256) 728-8193
Unclaimed Baggage Center
509 Willow Street
Scottsboro, AL 35768
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 9am to 6pm; Sat. 8am to 6pm. Closed Sunday.
DeSoto State Park
13883 Country Road 89
Fort Payne, AL 35967
Phone (800) 760-4089
6080 Hwy 117
Mentone, AL 35984
Phone (256) 634-4560
PO Box 200
Mentone, AL 35984
Phone (256) 634-4677
After that, I was off to nearby Mentone. This is a small, quaint mountain town that comes alive in the summer. I enjoyed being there in the spring, when things were still quiet. I had lunch at the Log Cabin, in an old rustic cabin, where friendly locals encouraged me to try the homemade fudge cake.
Across the street, I checked into the Mentone Inn. Glenda, the owner of this inn, makes everyone feel welcome and special right away. She used to run a house for HIV positive children, and her face is on the cover of Al and Tipper Gore's book about family. She brings a healing spirit to the inn. The twelve rooms are modest, with no TV or radio. The best part is sitting on the front porch, or on the couch in front of a fire in the living room, or just walking around. The breakfast here was to die for - cheese garlic grits, the flakiest biscuits, blueberry French toast and delicious, rich coffee. There were fruit cups with star fruit and freshly picked tulips on the table. Glenda wore her white chef shirt. The small town of Mentone with antiques and craft shops are all right outside the front door.
A short drive up the mountain is the Cragsmere Manna, a cozy restaurant run by Ronnie and Bonnie Barnett. On weekend nights, Russell sits on a stool in the main dining room and serenades diners with an acoustic guitar. Bonnie came and sat with me for awhile - she grew up swimming in the creeks and climbing trees in this neck of the woods and has great tales to tell. This is a place for regulars. Some people come every weekend, others come once a month, everyone is welcome. It's a dry county, so if you'd like a glass of wine with dinner, brown bag it.
The Blue Room at Wood Avenue Inn.
With one night left, I headed to Florence to stay at the Wood Avenue Inn. I arrived when the sun was out and the air was warm, so I took advantage of it and went for a run. The inn is in the Historical District, and I enjoyed looking at the colorful houses that lined the street. The University of North Alabama is across the street and was a great safe place to run through. Back at the inn, I was greeted by hot tea and homemade cookies in my room. I stayed in the Blue Room, that has a beautiful bathroom with a claw foot bathtub and an old fashioned dressing table. The decorations here are Victorian, lavish and decadent. In the morning, breakfast was sublime-mandarin orange crepes with strawberries and cream, quiche, and fruit. Other people staying here brought their bikes for adventures, and another couple from Georgia were just passing through.
After breakfast, I left Florence and headed back towards the airport. I saved the best for last - Cathedral Caverns State Park, between Huntsville and Scottsboro. There are lots of caves in Alabama, but I only had time to check this one out. I got there in time to go on a tour led by Danny Lewis. If you're not from the South, you may need an interpreter. Danny says, "Mon," and you're supposed to know that means "Follow me."
I'd never been into a cave like this before. Anyone can go; there's a wheelchair accessible path all the way through. We walked in through the huge opening and into the limestone rock cave. I saw tiny bats sleeping on the cave walls. The highlight was the stalagmite forest - the largest stalagmite forest and stalagmite in the world. This was definitely the coolest natural thing I had seen in a long time, so after that, I felt like I could leave. Besides, I had no choice. I had to get back to Huntsville and on the plane back to chilly New York.