When you think of a vacation dream destination, Alabama is probably doesn’t make the list. However, about 3 years ago my sisters and I planned a trip to Alabama with some excitement. The idea was that our sister stationed at the Navy base in Pensacola, FL could join us easily and we could all cross another state off our list to visit. We had mapped out tons of places we wanted to visit, but the trip fell through at the last minute.
Fast-forward to 2019, it was apparently a busy year for all of us as we approached Fall realizing we hadn’t even started to plan our annual Sister Trip. Someone suggested we dust off our prior Alabama plans and before I knew it we had a couple of Airbnbs booked. I can’t say I had high expectations…after all, Alabama isn’t known for a lot of positive things.
I hadn’t told my oldest sister and brother-in-law that I’d be taking the same flight down and was able to surprise them in the airport. I don’t think I’ll ever get too old for creeping up behind my siblings and shouting BOO!
What to Do
When we landed we picked up the big-ol rental van and decided to visit Sloss Furnaces. With free admission what’s not to loose? As we wandered through the industrial site, we saw tons of artwork created by both man and nature. It was the perfect place to stretch our legs and stimulate our minds after the flight.
After that we were able to get the rest of us from the airport and head to our Airbnb. We had planned all of our trip out so long ago I had forgotten what most of the destinations were, including Moundville. My brother-in-law had added this one to the list and I had only briefly looked at the website. What an amazing place though! We had fantastic weather and there weren’t too man people so we could explore the museum and site like VIPs.
This group of Native Americans had an incredible society and we were essentially at the hub of all southern trade. Growing up near the Seneca Nation, we had mostly learned about how they lived pre-colonization and then how they started relationships with traders that arrived here. I was completely ignorant to the vastly different societies that had formed at the base of the Mississippi River. The mounds were impressive to behold and it was truly mind-blowing to realize they were built without any machinery.
The Unclaimed Baggage Center was one of my picks. I had read about this place years ago and was fascinated by the idea that all the unclaimed baggage ends up sorted and sold in a small town in Alabama. Most importantly though, one of the Hoggle puppets created by the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop for the movie The Labyrinth was on display! Like a handful of other unique treasures, the puppet had been lost in checked baggage somewhere and ended up in Alabama. As a side note, if you’re someone who likes to buy luxury goods at a discount this is a great place to shop. Quality watches, coats, electronics, and everything else was discounted considerably.
A couple of other picks from the atlas obscura were the Ave Maria Grotto and Orr Park. Both were incredibly fun walks to take with beautiful art. Ave Maria Grotto reminded me a bit of The House on the Rock with nearly manic levels of creativity and resourcefulness. Things you or I might see as “junk” were repurposed to create beautifully detailed landscapes. Similarly, Orr Park has created an awareness for the trees by creating art out of some of them. I understand this can be damaging to the tree, however I recognize the value in getting kids and adults excited about nature.
Of course, it was a bit somber, but you can’t visit Alabama without going to the Civil Rights Monument. It was scary to realize how many people had been murdered because of their race. Even more upsetting is that it wasn’t isolated to the southern states as is often portrayed. There wasn’t a single state that wasn’t represented and it gave some perspective to today’s discord.
Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective was one of our more upbeat stops. The quilts created by these wonderful women were works of art all their own. These aren’t your traditional stars and triangles, each piece had creativity built into each stitch, pattern, and cloth selection. It’s hard to imagine using them for everyday activities, but of course, you can always hang them on a wall!
The last stop I’ll mention is the NASA Space Center. PBS did a fantastic 3-part special on the moon landing and why Huntsville was selected for the launch site so it was magical to move through the actual location. I had always wanted to go to space camp as a kid, and was able to see a handful of students going through the program. Even as an adult, it looked pretty amazing.
What to Eat
I’m going to summarize all of the amazing food stops we made into one section. I was truly shocked by the variety of amazing places we found. One of the most memorable was near our first AirBnB. Satellite had an amazing atmosphere for pretending you were a kid in the 90’s. There were neon colors everywhere, sugary sweets, fantastic drinks, and no shortage of fun games to play with friends and strangers.
We also went to a speak-easy styled bar called The Marble Ring which was fun and classy. Best part about it was that you could order vegetarian sausages from the business front. They were truly comparable to some of the best street meats in NYC.
We did stop at a fun restaurant in the hometown of Mitch McConnell, but I sadly can’t recall the name. It had a store section as well as a cafeteria style restaurant and a large dining area. It was all decked out for Christmas and stood as sort of a center piece to the small town’s charm.
The most memorable stop we made might have been Piper & Leaf Tea. It wasn’t really close to where we were staying, but we made multiple trips to the location in the hip art collective to get tea. On one of our stops, we happened to run into one of the owners. He gave us a tour of their tea testing area and let us try some of the variants they were working on for a new flavor. It was amazing to see how much research and development went into each tea. Not only that, but he explained that the whole project was built out of changes forced on his family in The Great Recession. Talk about inspiring!
So, if you’re ever near Alabama and someone tries to convince you there’s nothing to do, don’t let them sway you from an amazing time.