In her classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee immortalized a hot Alabama summer where neighborhood kids roam the streets in packs while town folks fan themselves under covered porches sipping pink lemonade. It's heaven until hell breaks loose disrupting the idyllic calm. With a coastline down South, cool mountain air up north, a ton of history, and bucolic country roads connecting small towns, Alabama is still a slice of heaven. Whether you like to hit golf balls, meander through small towns with big history that look like movie sets, learn about rocket launches and battleships, shop, or just waste the day away on big beaches, Alabama is a surprisingly active summer destination.
Up in Northern Alabama (tel. 800/648-5381; www.northalabama.org), characterized by state parks and forests that rise in small mountains, the air is cool and crisp, and in addition to the fishing, camping, and horseback riding, there's a huge scientific twist. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center (tel. 256/837-3400; www.spacecamp.com) is headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, the unofficial capital of Alabama's northern region. Billed as the "Earth's largest space museum" with hands-on exhibits, a full-size space shuttle, a Saturn V-rocket, the Apollo 16 capsule, a moon rock, and a Space Walk simulator, the museum is considered the place to learn about the science of space travel. Geared towards children and adults, the center also has a 67-foot IMAX Theater and a 4-G Space Shot experience. The Center is open everyday except major holidays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A combination admission to the museum, rocket park, and a movie costs $18.95 per adult and $12.95 for children from six to 12. Children under six years old get in for free. For the space camp program where children spend a week in a camp-type setting learning about space travel with quality instructors and astronauts, tuition starts at $899 for six day programs for the nine to 11 year old set. There's also a parent-child program for kids from seven to 12 where parents and children learn together costing $349 for the week.
The Space Camp site has a travel section for booking hotels and airfare to the Space Center. Local hotels include the Lake Guntersville Bed and Breakfast (tel. 256/505-0133; www.lakeguntersvillebedandbreakfast.com), an award winning lodge with nightly rates ranging from $75 to $129. Full breakfast is served for guests (and included in the price of the room) each day on the veranda. The rooms are all named and furnished in Victorian period fashion. Guests can even arrive via boat across Alabama's largest lake with 950 miles of shoreline, some of which are adjacent to the foothills of the Appalachians which cross over into Georgia and Tennessee. It's Alabama at its best, with changing scenic landscape, lakes, rivers and woods. The hotel is a 45-minute ride to the Space Center.
Northern Alabama is also known for its antiques and small quirky shops. The quirkiest shop of all might be the home of lost luggage, or more aptly, the Unclaimed Baggage Center (tel. 256/259-1525; www.unclaimedbaggage.com). Located in Scottsboro, Alabama, a short ride from Lake Guntersville and Huntsville, the Unclaimed Baggage Center is just what you think it is. When a piece of luggage goes unclaimed, it ends up here, for sale. With over 7,000 items available at any given time in a large retail space as big as a city block, this might be the biggest bargain center, upscale "thrift-store" in the world.
Not to be outdone by the folks up North, Southern Alabama is characterized by the historic town of Mobile and the beaches of the Gulf Shores. Located along the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf Shores (tel. 800/745-7263; www.gulfshores.com) is coastal area known for seafood, golfing, beach living, shopping, and fun in the sun. There are fourteen public golf courses (http://golf.gulfshores.com) located in the basic vicinity, each playable all year round and often less crowded on hot summer afternoons. Of course, no mention of Alabama golf would be complete without writing about the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (tel. 800/949-4444; www.rtjgolf.com). Founded by the Retirement Systems of Alabama as an investment for Alabamians with pensions, the golf trail was designed by Jones, one of the world's leading golf course architects. With more than ten courses scattered about the state, playing the trail is also an easy way to learn more about Alabama. Greens fees run from $40 to $70 per round. The Magnolia Grove course in Mobile located near Gulf Shores has 36 championship holes and a short 18-hole course with greens fees starting at $40.
For accommodations on the beach in Gulf Shores, the Best Western on the Beach (tel. 800/788-4557; www.bestwesternonthebeach.com) has rooms starting at $69 and going all the way up to $399 per night. The hotel gets booked fast, especially in the summertime, so call up to reserve your room soon, as Gulf Shores has become a premiere travel destination to people all over the South. Located directly on the beach, the Best Western has a friendly staff who knows the area, an on-site Island Pancake House, and a beachside pool. The large Island House Hotel (tel. 800/264-2642; www.islandhousehotel.com) has rates starting at $125 in the spring, $165 in the summer high season, and $116 in the fall when the water is still warm and the people slightly less prevalent. Located on Orange Beach, the hotel is seven miles east of Gulf Shores. All rooms have private terraces with views of the Gulf of Mexico.
One Gulf Shores-area attraction worth hitting is the USS Alabama (tel. 800/426-4929; www.ussalabama.com), a military park with a battleship, submarine, aircrafts, a Vietnam river patrol boat, a B-52 bomber, and other examples of U.S. military might, technology and ingenuity spanning decades of war and peace. Entrance costs $12 for adults and children 12 and up, $6 for kids six to 11, and free for kids five and under. For shoppers, the Tanger Outlet Center (tel. 251/943-9303; www.tangeroutlet.com) has enough shopping (Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, Dansk) to keep you busy on any rainy or sunny day. For nature lovers, there's a host of deep sea fishing options available along the coast, a Gulf Shores Zoo, and plenty of bird watching along the coastline.
These packages available through Alabama's official tourism website should help. Tour Alabama (tel. 800/252-2262; www.touralabama.org/yooa/packages) lists several different types of tour providers offering adventure tours of Alabama's different regions. We found an overnight horseback riding trip in the Huntsville area focusing on the flora and history of the mountainous region. Costing $125 per day, the trip includes meals, horse rental, private tent and professional tour guide. You can extend the trip a day for the same $125. Tour Alabama has even put together a "Covered Bridge Trail" (www.touralabama.org/tours-trails/covered-bridge) for your driving and sightseeing pleasure. Listing 12 covered bridges in all, the site provides a map, descriptions of each, directions, and a link to other sites giving more bridge information. Using the "Accommodations" link from the website home page, you can easily find a bed and breakfast under $100 in the bridge's vicinity. In addition to the Covered Bridge Trail, there is also a Civil Rights Trail, a Birding Trail, Native American Trail, and Civil War Trail.
As far as small towns go, Greensboro, Alabama, is one where the food is good, the accommodations are inexpensive, and the history and current culture can keep you busy for at least a quiet weekend. Located in Hale County, a 45-minute ride to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Greensboro is a quiet town with an ante-bellum mansion at the center and a Main Street with Southern restaurants and a big courthouse. With no building codes in Hale County hand-cuffing architects or builders from fire or electricity codes, Hale County has become a testing ground for a new age in home design. The Auburn Rural Studio (tel. 334/624-4483; www.ruralstudio.com) set up shop in Hale County near Greensboro to take advantage of those "limits" on codes, establishing the country's foremost architectural program dedicated to building homes for the rural poor and experimenting with new forms, materials and technology to improve home design for the underprivileged. Featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Auburn Rural Studio has built homes all over Hale County for a diverse group of rural recipients. Alabama is so friendly, touring these home sites and modern structures, some of which are made completely from discarded materials, is as easy as walking up to the front door and saying hello. As far as eats is concerned, the Magnolia Steak and Seafood Restaurant (tel. 334/624-0777) in Greensboro serves up local fare like catfish, wild shrimp, and okra.
Have you been to this area? Post your tips and trip reports on our freeAlabama Message Boards.