Story and photographs by Melanie Votaw
EVEN WHEN ALABAMA ISN’T HOME, IT’S SWEET
When I told friends I was planning to tour Alabama, some of them said, “Really? Why?” The belief that the state has little to offer the traveler could not be further from the truth. I found out what the song, “Sweet Home Alabama,” really means.
Besides music history and civil rights history, the burgeoning culinary scene is vibrant and up to international standards – even in the smaller towns I visited. To take advantage of several of the best locales, though, I recommend a road trip.
Alabama was central in the civil rights movement, largely because of its leaders’ tenacious fight against the rights of African Americans. In Montgomery, the state capitol sits in the near distance from the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King used to preach. Just a block away is the Civil Rights Memorial and the Southern Poverty Law Center with a wealth of civil rights history and a tribute to 40 people who died in the struggle.
At the site where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that fateful bus, there is now a museum dedicated to her. A moving tribute, the museum includes an ingenious video reenactment behind a bus façade. You see images of Rosa and her fellow riders through the “windows” and listen to the conversations and arguments that ended in her arrest.
In Birmingham, a visit to the Civil Rights Institute is a must. I spent hours in this museum dedicated to not just the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s but human rights in general in both the U.S. and the world. A recent exhibit includes photos of people who identify as transgender.
The exhibits that depict the struggle in the 50s and 60s are impressive, including timelines, photographs, videos, and audio interviews with people who were there. Just across the street from the Institute is the 16th Street Baptist Church where four little girls died when Ku Klux Klan members set a bomb there in 1963. You can go inside and learn more about the bombing and the decades it took to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Across the street from the church is Kelly Ingram Park, which includes monuments honoring the movement, including a statue of Martin Luther King, a statue depicting the dogs that were used to fight against the child protesters, and another statue showing the water cannons that were unleashed on those who marched. Throughout the city and the park are markers showing where King’s march took place as he and his followers moved through on their way from Selma to Montgomery. Each marker contains a paragraph explaining more about the march.
Besides civil rights history, the always free Museum of Alabama in Montgomery has a wealth of information about the state’s Native American and Civil War histories, including an original Andrew Jackson portrait, the third largest collection of Confederate war flags in the country, and the jacket worn by the first Alabama casualty in the Civil War at the time of his death, including a photograph of him wearing the same jacket.
In Tuscumbia farther north, you will find the birthplace of Helen Keller. It’s a fascinating museum that contains many of the family’s original furnishings and some of Helen’s dresses. The spigot where Helen learned her first word – water – also remains on the grounds.
Alabama has an unprecedented music legacy as well. In Muscle Shoals, the FAME Recording Studios stand nearly unchanged from the 1960s when the likes of Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding recorded some of their biggest hits. The “Muscle Shoals sound” became so well-known that the Rolling Stones and many others traveled there to record. Founder Rick Hall, now 82, is still working at the studio, and if you’re lucky, you might get to say hello to him during your tour of the small facility. A recent documentary about Hall and the studio, simply called “Muscle Shoals,” will give you a full history of the place.
Nearby in Tuscumbia is the Alabama Music Hall of Fame with an authentic Alabama band tour bus and loads of other memorabilia that belonged to Alabama musicians. All inductees were born in the state and include Nat King Cole, Sam Phillips, Dinah Washington, Percy Sledge, Tammy Wynette, Martha Reeves, Lionel Ritchie, the Temptations, Jim Nabors, and Emmylou Harris.
In Florence, you can visit the birthplace of “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy, and in Montgomery, there is a museum dedicated to country music icon Hank Williams. It contains his blue Cadillac and the suit he was wearing when he died of heart failure at age 29.
Also in Florence is some interesting Native American history, including the Florence Indian Mound and Museum and “Tomﾒs Wall,” a stone wall that Tom Hendrix built in honor of his great great grandmother who walked the Trail of Tears from Alabama to Oklahoma and took five years to make the trip back on foot. Now 85, Tom has spent more than 30 years building the wall with 8.5 million pounds of stones. It’s quite a moving site, and he’s a wonderful and passionate storyteller.
But what about the food in Alabama? While much of the cuisine pays tribute to its southern roots, you can indeed eat healthy in the state, largely due to the dedication of restaurateurs to the farm-to-table movement. Urban farms are in development, and I visited a small farm that grows produce, as well as maintains chickens and cattle. The cattle are not just grass-fed, but also grass-finished in every season but winter when grass is too scarce.
I was very impressed with the chefs whose cuisine I experienced. Chef John Melton at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa likes to put a gourmet spin on traditional southern dishes. He smoked chicken with Alabama’s signature sweet tea and paired it with root vegetables and sweet potato purée. He also made local goat cheese ice cream with fresh fruit and cornbread cakes.
I was especially impressed with Chef Leonardo Maurelli of Central Restaurant in Montgomery, who combines southern fare with flavors from his native Panama. My favorite dish was halibut in pork broth with sweet corn that had been sautéed with rosemary and charred greens on top. I can’t begin to convey in words the blend of these delicate flavors, but it was unique and unforgettable.
For some more basic down home cooking, check out the Rattlesnake Saloon in Tuscumbia. This unique place was built under a cave wall, and horses will be tied near your outdoor table. The adjacent lodge was holding a chuck wagon race the day we were there.
While the hotels aren’t “ultra” luxurious, there are 4-star properties that will provide everything you want (except perhaps a bathrobe). Besides the creative chef, the Renaissance in Montgomery has a spa, great service, and large meeting areas. The Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa in Florence has received awards for its customer service, and again, while you won’t find a bathrobe or minibar in your room, those are the only missing ingredients in an otherwise luxury experience. There is a great restaurant and spa, and the rooms are spacious. The Westin in Birmingham provided me with an excellent stay (including a bathrobe), and there are also luxury Hyatt properties in Birmingham.
Of course, you’ll especially enjoy the southern hospitality in Alabama, where you can expect to hear “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” repeatedly. Sweet tea, sweet blackberry cobbler, and sweet people – Alabama is sweet in all sorts of ways.
© June 2014 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.