Alabama beckons travelers with its variety of attractions. From white-sand beaches to wind-swept Appalachian peaks, visitors can explore history, get in touch with nature, take in a race, a concert or rounds of golf at these enticing spots.
W.C Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” was born in Florence, Alabama, in 1873. He penned what is widely regarded as the first popular blues tune, “Saint Louis Blues,” released in 1914. The W.C. Handy Music Festival honors the musician’s legacy each summer with a 10-day event featuring national, regional and local acts playing at a variety of venues. The festival stages are spread throughout an area known as the Shoals in northwest Alabama, a collection of side-by-side cities along the Tennessee River that include Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals. The musical history is rich here beyond Handy. A handful of recording studios in the area — FAME at 603 Avalon Ave. in Muscle Shoals and Cypress Moon at 1000 Alabama Ave. in Sheffield — are where the likes of Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, Cher, and Bob Dylan recorded hit songs. The studios are open for tours, a good way to complement your festival visit, as is a trip to the W.C. Handy Birthplace and Museum. (W.C. Handy Music Festival. July 17-26, various venues. Free-$35. 256-766-7642, www.wchandymusicfestival.org.)
The Alabama Theatre is to Birmingham what the Fox Theatre is to Atlanta — an opulent, ornate and historic showplace that features movies, concerts and plays in grandiose environs from a bygone era. Opened as a “movie palace” by Paramount Pictures in 1927, the Alabama has been a favorite venue for locals since long before downtown Birmingham’s 21st-century renaissance. Like the Fox, it has a popular summer movie series screening classic films and a Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ. Across the street, the Lyric Theatre is older than the Alabama, having opened as a vaudeville house in 1914. It sat abandoned for decades until a multi-million dollar restoration and re-opening in 2016. The Lyric is every bit as beautiful as its across-the-street neighbor, but on a smaller scale. The more intimate setting provides superior acoustics for concerts and stage performances. Both theaters are owned and operated by the nonprofit Birmingham Landmarks Inc. and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Alabama Theatre, 1817 Third Ave. N., Birmingham. 205-252-2262, alabamatheatre.com. Lyric Theatre, 1800 Third Ave. N., Birmingham. 205-252-2262, lyricbham.com.)
The Westside neighborhood of Huntsville has transformed itself in recent years by re-purposing an old factory, a textile mill, and a school into mixed-use developments. Places where people once labored and studied are now leisure destinations. The latest of these developments is Stovehouse. Housed in an old stove factory, it’s an outdoor-centric concept with the buildings centered around courtyards with multiple food options and activities. Dine on Italian, Mediterranean, Japanese and American fare while listening to live music on the outdoor stage. Play cornhole, ping pong, bocce ball and foot billiards while sipping craft cocktails. Two blocks away is Campus No. 805 with its craft breweries and more dining options. Also nearby is Lowe Mill where the focus is more on the arts in an array of working studios offering workshops and gallery showings, as well as eats and drinks. Lowe Mill is home to a popular concert series that takes place on the mill’s old loading dock. (Stovehouse, 3414 Governors Drive, Huntsville. 256-801-2424, www.stovehouse.com. Campus No. 805, 2620 Clinton Ave., Huntsville. 256-519-6212, campus805.com. Lowe Mill, 221 Seminole Drive, Huntsville. 256-533-0399, lowemill.art.)
Alabama’s highest point is closer to Atlanta than many popular North Georgia destinations. Surrounded by the Talladega National Forest and within a few miles of Interstate 20, Cheaha State Park in Delta sits atop 2,407-foot Cheaha Mountain, 88 miles from downtown Atlanta. Most of the drive is a straight shot on I-20 before exiting onto a scenic byway leading up the mountain. Once there, you won’t need to get back in your car since the park has a hotel, a restaurant, chalets, cabins, a swimming pool, museums, a country store and even a dog park. Miles of hiking and biking trails cover the mountain and connect to larger trail systems outside the park. The picture postcard-worthy stone cabins were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. Bunker Tower contains an observation deck and the CCC Museum. There’s also a Native American relic museum across from the park store. Don’t miss the sunset views from the dining room at the Vista Cliffside Restaurant while sipping wine from one of the nearby vineyards. (Cheaha State Park, accommodations $73 and up, camping $15 and up. 19644 Hwy. 281, Delta. 256-488-5111, www.alapark.com/parks/cheaha-state-park.)
Staking a claim as the world’s largest fishing tournament, the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo has been an annual tradition on Dauphin Island since 1929. It now draws more than 300 anglers and 75,000 spectators each year. The anglers compete in a three-day, multi-species Captain’s Choice tournament focusing on the size of the catch. Since much of the action takes place at sea, the tournament also provides plenty of on-shore entertainment, mostly in the form of live music throughout the weekend. Beyond the tournament, Dauphin Island is a laid-back, low-rise alternative to the more well-known Gulf Coast destinations further east in the Florida Panhandle. You won’t find chain hotels, mega condo resorts or beachside nightclubs here, just a small-town vibe on a beach island that likes to call itself the Sunset Capital of Alabama for good reason. (Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, July 16-19, $5 and up for event tickets. 531 Lemoyne Drive, Dauphin Island. 251-277-7079, adsfr.com.)
One of Alabama’s biggest tourism draws is the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a series of award-winning public golf courses spread throughout the state, some with hotel resorts attached. Each fall the Grand National site on the trail in Opelika hosts the Couples Classic, held Oct. 30-Nov. 1 this year. Couples compete over two rounds during the weekend. The entry fee includes a practice round on Friday before tournament play begins on Saturday. It also includes two nights accommodations at the Marriott at Grand National resort, as well as lunch during the tournament rounds, a Friday night reception and the Saturday night tournament dinner. Outside the grounds of Grand National, Opelika has a charming and historic downtown containing two craft breweries, a distillery and plenty of dining options for your post-golf excursions. (Grand National, $1,190 per couple for the Couples Classic. 3000 Robert Trent Jones Trail, Opelika. 334-749-9042, www.rtjgolf.com/couplesclassic.)
The Lodge at Gulf State Park re-opened in 2018, 14 years after it was left in ruins by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The new lodge is a big step up from the old, literally. It’s built on top of a reinforced platform so another storm surge can’t take it out. Being inside a state park means there’s little other development in the immediate vicinity. The only adjacent structure is the park’s pier jutting 1,540 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. Wildlife is abundant here and the Lodge goes to great lengths to remain an eco-conscious property built for sustainable tourism. Green initiatives include permeable parking lots so rainwater is absorbed with no runoff, landscaping is done with native species that can survive without chemicals or fertilizers, and filtered condensation from HVAC units is used to refill the pool. Besides the main attraction of the beach, miles of hiking and biking trails are accessible from the hotel, as well as paddling excursions on Lake Shelby just across the road. After your daily excursions, the Lodge offers an array of dining and drinking options ranging from refined and upscale to casual beachside al fresco. (The Lodge at Gulf State Park. $149 and up. 21196 E. Beach Blvd., Gulf Shores. 251-540-4000, https://lodgeatgulfstatepark.com.)
Talladega might be the first thing that springs to mind for most racing fans when it comes to Alabama. But if you keep driving west past that famous NASCAR speedway visible from I-20, you’ll discover a different racing world at Barber Motorsports Park and Museum in Birmingham. At Barber, the track is a winding, 17-turn road course, not an oval. Indy-style Grand Prix and motorcycle racing take place here throughout the year. Spectators have ample and unique viewing opportunities from grassy embankments, wooded hillsides and temporary grandstands located along the track. The adjacent museum contains the world’s largest collection of vintage motorcycles and plenty of vintage race cars. One of the more popular annual events at the 880-acre park is the Barber Vintage Festival each fall, three days of races and other activities centered around vintage motorcycles. The next festival takes place October 9-11. (Barber Motorsports Park and Museum, $15. 6030 Barber Motorsports Pkwy., Birmingham. 205-699-7275, www.barbermuseum.org.)
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