Tourism Tuesdays March 6, 2018


In Montgomery, a city embedded with pain, finding progress
Early spring has flowers already in bloom at state gardens
Spring events across Alabama
Family-friendly nature activities abound on Alabama Gulf Coast
New musical festival planned for Tuscaloosa in 2019
Space & Rocket Center program draws hundreds of students worldwide
Registration open for the 2018 Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference
“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website

In Montgomery, a city embedded with pain, finding progress
From the article by Jada Yuan on by the Alabama State Capitol building in Montgomery, Michelle Browder, an African-American activist and founder of the I Am More Than… youth mentorship nonprofit, pointed out a looming bronze statue of Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy. It has a position of prominence right out front, as does a commemorative plaque on the marble steps marking the exact spot where he stood taking his oath of office in 1861. A state holiday recognizes his birthday. Farther down the Capitol lawn, Ms. Browder said, was a similar statue heralding Dr. J. Marion Sims, but I didn’t recognize the name, and she wouldn’t elaborate. “You’re going to have to do your homework on that one,” she said, “because my blood pressure goes up when I talk about him.”Ms. Browder wore red cat-eye glasses, an Army-green jacket, and a T-shirt bearing the words “Dream Destroyed” and the face of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who began leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 from the basement of a Baptist church just 440 feet from those Capitol steps. The vehicle she was careening through downtown, often parking akimbo on sidewalks or in the middle of the street, was a six-seat electric cart, from which she leads More Than Tours — explorations of a city that has been both the site of systemic oppression of her fellow African-Americans and the birthplace of the civil rights movement.

Within about 10 seconds, she’d risked that blood pressure spike to tell me about Sims. “He’s known as the father of modern gynecology,” she said. “He enslaved black women and he used them as experiments.” Specifically, he visited unimaginable tortures on 12 slave women, without anesthesia, under the belief that black people felt less than whites. “We are starting an initiative,” she said, “because we would like to see the mothers of gynecology erected beside him to give more to the story.” The “we” she refers to is a group she’s organized called Friends of Anarcha, after a woman who endured 30 of Sim’s vaginal surgeries before he declared her a success.

Montgomery was my third stop on an insane yearlong mission I’ve undertaken to visit every spot on The Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2018 list, and I was eager to find out why the city had snagged the No. 49 slot. By the end of four days, I’d come to believe it should have ranked higher. As a tourist destination, Montgomery is — how shall I put this — heavy. In the same afternoon, visitors can see the Rosa Parks Museum, built at the site of her 1955 arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white person, and the first White House of the Confederacy, a National Historic Landmark. (Ms. Browder is a descendant of Aurelia Browder, a woman who faced a similar arrest eight months before Parks, and who was the lead plaintiff in the 1956 lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, that ended the bus boycott.)

The city is also undeniably relevant right now, with a deep commitment to confronting its past (and often present) of racism, at a time when white supremacism has re-entered the national conversation in a major way. Daily, I found myself moved to tears by any number of tales of brutality or hardship, and the strength it took to tell them. Even the trees that line the streets, dripping with Spanish moss like bearded old men, seem embedded with pain.

I’d arrived in MGM, as residents call it, less than two months after national news outlets had swarmed its streets to document the contentious Senate race in which Doug Jones, a Democrat, defeated Roy S. Moore, the Republican who had been accused of harassing and assaulting teenage girls. “His office is right there!” Ms. Browder said, pointing to the windows of Mr. Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law, in a building that once housed the bank that funded the Confederacy.

What really ought to bump Montgomery up the 52 Places list is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice that the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights legal nonprofit, is scheduled to open on April 26. Inspired by the memorials that Germany, Rwanda and South Africa have built to the atrocities of their own pasts, it pays tribute to the approximately 4,400 black victims of lynching by white mobs in the United States from 1877 to 1950, and is the country’s first comprehensive memorial to racial terrorism.

The six-acre site and an accompanying museum that aims to link slavery to mass incarceration were under construction when I visited, but plans show it will consist of 800 rectangular, oxidized steel columns, each representing a particular county in the Deep South and Midwest, and bearing the names of the men, women and children killed there. While the columns will appear at first glance to touch the ground, the floor of the memorial will actually slope downward as visitors walk through it, allowing for the columns to hang over them, like bodies.

The Initiative’s project is in many ways a companion piece to the work that the Southern Poverty Law Center, the nation’s top legal advocate for victims of hate crimes, began in Montgomery with the Civil Rights Memorial in 1989. The memorial, designed by Maya Lin, consists of a stone table overflowing with water, bearing the names of 40 people who were murdered while doing things as simple as registering black people to vote. (A Civil Rights Memorial Center was added in 2005.)

Upon first impression, even with a county population of 230,000, Montgomery seems far too quaint and conservative to be home to two of the country’s most influential, progressive nonprofits fighting racial bias. Its airport has a single baggage claim and the rental car area is dotted with wooden rocking chairs, for an extra dose of Southern charm. I spent 20 minutes answering emails before walking outside and found myself the only person left on the premises, other than three bored-seeming policemen trading stories on the sidewalk.

“You need a taxi, ma’am?” one of them asked. “He just left, so it’s going to be 15 or 20 minutes.” “Now, where’s my taxi driver?” the officer mumbled to himself, then got on the radio: “Nick, there’s a lady waiting for you.” It took me a minute to absorb what I was hearing, but yes, apparently there was only one taxi driver working in Montgomery on Super Bowl Sunday.

I’d encountered a similar peculiarity earlier that morning, when I’d made a last minute online reservation at a lovely bed-and-breakfast, Red Bluff Cottage, only to receive a distressed call from the owner, Bonnie Ponstein, wondering what time, exactly, I was planning to arrive. She, her husband and their usual housekeeper would all be at church.

That evening, I went to the city’s historic downtown for an informal tour with an enterprising Lyft driver, Marcus McNeal. We stood talking in the middle of those cobblestone streets for what must have been 30 minutes before another car, or even another person, came by. “You could shoot a cannon down Dexter Avenue” — downtown’s main drag — “and not hit a person on a Sunday,” Barry Ponstein, Bonnie’s husband told me later. “Everyone’s at church.”

The one person we did meet out and about, actually, was Brother Ricky Segers, whom we found deep into a nightly ritual he’s kept up for three years, of kneeling in front of a tiny souvenir American flag he’s planted on the Capitol grounds to ask Jesus for more “godly” leaders in this country. He feels as though Roy Moore was “mistreated” and Robert E. Lee was a hero. Still, he and Mr. McNeal, the Lyft driver, who is black and at least half his age, have known each other for a while now and seem to get along great.

“It’s interesting to me, too,” said Mr. McNeal of their friendliness. He’s 24, hopes to open a chain of 24-hour coffee shops for workaholics, and comes from what he described as abject poverty. The car he drove me in belongs to his mother, who has been pulling double shifts as a nurse’s assistant to pay for their heating bill that had gone from $80 to $480 during a cold spell that preceded my visit.

“My mom is 62 years old and she makes $8 an hour, and that’s the most she’s ever made,” he said. Their all-wood house has too much dry rot for them to install insulation, and they haven’t been able to afford replacing the bathroom sink that fell out of their wall. “It’s O.K.,” he said. “Poverty is a mind-set. If you change your mind-set, you’re going to come out of it eventually.” Later, he declared, “Come back and see me when I have my Bentley.”

The ad hoc tour Mr. McNeal took me on had been refreshingly frank. He drove straight to a historical placard describing the bustling slave markets that had been held at Court Square, the city’s central roundabout. I asked Mr. McNeal why it didn’t have more central placement in the square and he just laughed: “What else are they going to do? It’s not like they can build an auction platform here. That would really piss some people off!”

When I mentioned to him that multiple people had suggested I eat at Central, an upscale Southern food restaurant in downtown’s tiny revitalized commercial district, he joked, “Central is so expensive, you’d be better off buying a restaurant and opening and stocking the kitchen yourself.” We went to Applebee’s instead, and gorged on spinach and artichoke dip.

I did end up at Central on another night, and it was indeed quite good — part of a growing culinary scene that will include gourmet offerings at the renovated Kress on Dexter building downtown, which opens in April. The former block-wide department store, built in 1929, will host rotating pop-up markets devoted to local artists — and has been engaged in incredibly responsible historical preservation, which has included donating bricks made by enslaved people to EJI — as well as keep its old “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs on display for posterity. I’m also a fan of the coffee shops Prevail Union and Cafe Louisa, as well as bar standouts like Leroy Lounge, a dive with a terrific selection of wines and craft beers, and Aviator Bar, covered in airplane-themed kitsch — inspired by the Wright Brothers, who started the country’s first civilian flight school outside Montgomery.

I met a group of black culinary students there one night who not only knew the city’s history but said it fueled their ambitions. “We’re in a bar on the road that was used to bring people to be auctioned off,” said Steven McIntyre, who interns as a line cook at the highly regarded restaurant Vintage Year, “and the fact that we are here today, just hanging out, enjoying life, it’s incredible. Not super long ago, we would not be chilling here. This would not be chill.”

My best culinary experiences, though, came by way of cabdrivers I’d met. Nick Alloway, that lone Sunday driver, sent me to Mrs. B’s Home Cooking, a yellow-painted soul food restaurant a few minutes west of downtown that serves up a different featured meat every day. Blocks north of the Capitol building is Davis Cafe, an even older family-run soul food joint that’s the haunt of Hillard Wright, a King’s Airport shuttle driver with a salt-and-pepper mustache, a gruff baritone voice and a leather rancher’s hat that never left his head. He spent a whole afternoon showing me his version of the city he’s lived in all of his 66 years. State senators were crowded into every vinyl booth. My plate overflowing with collard greens, creamed corn, peas and okra, turkey, dressing, yams and cornbread cost around $6.

Following the spirit of the locals I had met, I tried to absorb as much history as I could in four days: The Dexter Parsonage Museum, where Dr. King lived in the 1950s; the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in the home where their marriage dissolved; Hank Williams’s grave in the Oakwood Annex Cemetery. What stuck with me more than any of those, though, were the three hours I spent with Mr. Wright, engaging in his favorite pastime of driving around and looking at old houses. He’d introduce each neighborhood with factoids about its legal, and later, de facto, segregation status. Entering the “old money” neighborhood of Old Cloverdale, for example, he pointed out, “if you’ll notice, you don’t see any black folks living in there.” I did notice.

Mr. Wright, though, is not bitter. He has built for himself a quiet life of hunting and fishing, driving around for money and minding his own business. “Even through the segregation and hatred,” he said, “Montgomery, I wouldn’t trade it. I’ve been here my whole life and I’ve enjoyed every day.”

This year, the city will erect its first statue to Dr. King, in front of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where he used to preach near the Capitol. The statues of J. Marion Sims and Jefferson Davis, erected in 1939 and 1940, will be in view, too. Alabama will remain one of two states that celebrate the King and Lee birthdays in a combined holiday. This is how change seems to come in Montgomery: messy and long overdue. Still, how wonderful to see progress in action.

For the complete article please see

Early spring has flowers already in bloom at state gardens
An early spring has moved the blooming season up by several weeks at the state’s gardens. Because of the range of climates and soil conditions in Alabama, visitors can experience a variety of garden foliage and settings throughout the state.

Seven botanical gardens across the state are featured in the “Alabama Garden Trail” brochure produced by the Alabama Tourism Department and on the companion website The website features “don’t miss” highlights for each of the gardens, upcoming events and a collection of road trip guides to nearby attractions.

“Alabama is blessed to have so many spectacular gardens for visitors to enjoy. Spring is the perfect time to get out and experience these wonderful natural attractions,” said state tourism director Lee Sentell.

The Alabama Garden Trail brochure is available at the eight state welcome centers, the garden trail site locations, local tourism bureaus and online at

Huntsville Botanical Garden- Huntsville
The Huntsville Botanical Garden covers 112 acres. It is open year-round and boasts an aquatic garden, a spectacular wildflower and nature trail and numerous specialty gardens and plant collections. The Children’s Garden and Nature Center contain the nation’s largest seasonal butterfly house and eight specialized gardens aimed toward the younger set. Children and adults alike will enjoy a stroll through the dinosaur garden, the space garden, storybook garden and more. The Huntsville Botanical Garden opened a new $16 million venue last year. The new 30,000-square foot facility includes a welcome center, cafe, restaurant and three event

Birmingham Botanical Gardens
Birmingham Botanical Gardens is Alabama’s largest living museum with more than 12,000 different plants in its living collections. The garden’s 67.5 acres contain more than 25 unique gardens, more than 30 works of original outdoor sculpture and miles of serene paths. The gardens feature Gardens of Culture, Gardens of Nature and Gardens of Collections. The Conservatory, renovated in 2013, is one of Birmingham’s most iconic landmarks and is home to the Tropical House, Arid House and Camelia House. The Library at the gardens is the largest public horticultural library in the Southeast.

Aldridge Gardens- Hoover
Tucked away in the middle of Hoover adjacent to Birmingham, Aldridge Gardens is a 30-acre public garden with a five-acre lake surrounded by walking trails and lush plantings. Aldridge Gardens opened in 2002. The former residence of legendary horticulturist Eddie Aldridge and his wife Kay showcases a variety of hydrangeas, including the Snowflake Hydrangea, which was discovered and patented by Mr. Aldridge. It is the official flower of the City of Hoover. The Kay and Eddie Aldridge Art and Historical Museum and the Pavilion features local artists’ exhibits and the Frank Fleming bronze sculpture collection.

Jasmine Hill Gardens- Wetumpka
One of the oldest gardens in Alabama, Jasmine Hill has matured at 75 years. Filled with camellias, azaleas, flowering Japanese cherries and an abundance of other southern trees and shrubs.  Known as “Alabama’s Little Corner of Greece” the 20-acre gardens also feature reproductions of Greek statuary and beautiful pools throughout. Native stone walks crafted during the 1930s by workmen from President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. meander through secluded combinations of plants and statuary with views of the Appalachian foothills.

Dothan Area Botanical Gardens- Dothan
The Dothan Area Botanical Gardens consists of 50 acres of cultivated gardens, nature trails and undeveloped, wooded landscape and features sixteen fully established gardens. Tucked away throughout the gardens are wonderful treasures such as the Wilson Windmill (listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage) and Four Muses. The gardens feature a wide array and assortment of plants and trees including 37 of the 100 trees indigenous to Alabama. There is also an antique 50-foot greenhouse where plant specimens are seeded and grown.

Mobile Botanical Gardens- Mobile
Mobile Botanical Gardens, established in 1974, is in the Spring Hill area of Mobile and features 100 acres including a 35-acre Longleaf Forest conservation area and the McConnell Rhododendron and Azalea Garden featuring the largest collection of Satsuki azaleas in the U.S. The gardens feature unusual Gulf Coast ‘heritage’ plants such as the famous Southern Indica and native azaleas, camellias, citrus trees, natives, perennials and regional annuals that have become scarce or absent from most retail centers. The gardens also host two major plant sales each year and operates the Market Place which is open to the public on Saturdays during the spring and fall months.

Bellingrath Gardens and Home- Theodore
Visitors are already enjoying the blooms of more than 250,000 azaleas in an explosion of color throughout the 65-acre estate. The annual Azalea Bloom Out goes back to Bellingrath’s earliest beginnings in 1918, when Walter Bellingrath purchased a rustic fishing camp on Fowl River. His wife, Bessie, who loved gardening, wanted to beautify the property and relied on old-growth azaleas as a starting point. Ever since, Bellingrath Gardens has been synonymous with the Gulf Coast’s beautiful azalea season. The gardens contain more than 2,000 plants representing 75 varieties including azaleas, hydrangeas, petunias and chrysanthemums. Bellingrath Gardens has twice won the honor as America’s most outstanding rose garden.

Spring events across Alabama
Family fun and live entertainment highlight some of the many spring events across Alabama. Events include everything from one of the Southeast’s largest hot air balloon festivals in Foley to races at Barber Motorsports and Talladega.

Festivals this spring include the Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival, the Panoply Arts Festival in Huntsville and the Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores. Families can also enjoy live music and great barbecue and the Bob Sykes BBQ and Blues Festival in Bessemer or meet award-winning authors at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery.

The Alabama Tourism Department suggests the following spring events. For a complete calendar of events listing

Fairhope- Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival
March 16-18 in Fairhope. Held in beautiful downtown Fairhope by Mobile Bay each March, this award-winning art show attracts more than 200 exhibitors and more than 250,000 visitors. Free admission.

Statewide- April Walking Tours
Some 30 towns across Alabama will be on display during Saturday mornings in April as part of the Alabama Tourism Department’s April Walking Tours. A variety of community leaders will lead the free tours through the historic districts or courthouse square areas of their hometowns. The hour-long tours will start at 10 a.m. on April 7, 14, 21 and 28. For a list of the participating cities Free admission.

Anniston- Noble Street Festival
April 7 in Anniston. Noble Street becomes cyclists and pedestrians-only for a day at the Noble Street Festival and Sunny King Criterium. Pro bike races, food, music and art. Free admission.

Fort Deposit- Calico Fort Arts & Crafts Fair
April 14-15 at Calico Fort. One of the largest and most popular arts and crafts fairs in the South with 200 exhibitors and 20,000 attendees in the natural amphitheater setting, a children’s area with rides and a petting zoo. Admission charged.

Birmingham- Honda Indy Grand Prix
April 20-22 at Barber Motorsports Park. This is a signature event in the INDYCAR circuit. The 2.38-mile road course, with 17 flowing turns and 80 feet of elevation change, challenge drivers and engineers unlike any other track in the circuit. This year’s grand marshal is actor and Alabama native Channing Tatum. Admission charged.

Montgomery- Alabama Book Festival
April 21 at Old Alabama Town. This is the state’s premier book festival, with more than 4,000 people from around the state converging in the capital to meet with and hear from their favorite authors and discover new favorites. Free admission.

Huntsville- Panoply Arts Festival
April 27-29 at Big Spring Park. Featuring games, food and Moon Pie eating contest. Admission charged.

LincolnGeico 500 Weekend
April 27-29 at the Talladega Superspeedway. A weekend of racing including the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500, NASCAR XFINITY Series Sparks Energy 300 and the ARCA Racing Series. Talladega is NASCAR’s Most Competitive Track (record 88 changes in 188 laps), most banked (33 degrees), and longest (2.66 miles). Admission charged.

Bessemer- Bob Sykes BBQ & Blues Festival
April 28 at DeBardeleben Park. Live performances from award-winning local and national blues musicians, great barbecue, an art and vendor area, and a variety of booths including arts and crafts, outdoor exhibits, and a diverse selection of vendors. There is a large kids corner with activities and games. Admission charged.

Troy- Troyfest
April 28-29 in downtown Troy. TroyFest is the premier fine art & craft festival for the central Alabama region. The weekend long show draws upwards of 10,000 people to downtown Troy to celebrate the arts. A wonderful selection of art, food, entertainment and activities will be offered for all ages. Free admission.

Foley- Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival
May 4-5 at the Foley Soccer Complex. Pilots from across the U.S participate in the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival. The festival will include balloon glows Friday and Saturday night, the Disc-Connected K-9’s Frisbee Dog Show, carnival rides, arts and crafts vendors, food vendors and entertainment. Free admission.

Gulf Shores- Hangout Music Festival
May 19-20 at the Gulf Shores Public Beach. The Hangout Music Festival has been recognized as one of the premiere live music events in the United States. The festival is located on the white sandy beaches of Gulf Shores. Each year at the Hangout Festival, fans are treated to some of the biggest names in music alongside new emerging acts. Admission charged.

Family-friendly nature activities abound on Alabama Gulf Coast
From the article by Cynthia J. Drake on

“OK, y’all, I’m about to bring out the owl,” says Kelly Reetz, a naturalist with Alabama’s Gulf State Park, pulling on a tough brown leather glove from a box marked “owl encounters.”

A group of excited kids encircles Reetz in the park’s nature center, quiet for just this moment, while she introduces them to the resident screech owl, the glassy-eyed bird now perched on her arm. Soon, its raucous flapping wings will cause commotion in the room as the naturalist tries to restore peace. “This owl can hear all of your heartbeats,” Reetz tells them.

Gulf State Park is an appropriate location to begin an entrée to Alabama’s Gulf region. Situated across the freeway from the area’s famous white-sand beaches, the wide-eyed wonder of nature begins to unfold here through dozens of nature programs for campers and day visitors, a theme that continues throughout the area with dolphin cruises, a surprisingly intimate zoo and brag-worthy fish caught from the 1,500-foot pier here, among other nature-based activities.

The focus on animals and nature makes Gulf Shores and Orange Beach an ideal family destination, especially during the spring.

Going wild
Here in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, money has gone toward dune restoration and beach and park enhancements, including a new beach boardwalk slated to open this spring and 27 miles of paved hiking and biking trails.

Visitors can also rent a Segway like I did and zip through these trails at a top speed of 12.5 miles per hour, stopping at various points of interest. On one stop, our tour group saw a wild alligator named Lefty (so named because of a missing eye and front paw due to a fight with another gator) and her new hatchlings.

Scores of volunteers through Share the Beach work every year to ensure sea turtles during the May-October nesting season make their way back to the Gulf. And an endangered creature called the Alabama beach mouse is free to make its home among the sandy dunes.

Even the zoo here is a little different. It may be small, but the opportunities for animal encounters at Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo abound, allowing visitors to pet and hold lemurs, kangaroos and sloths.

Out on the water, the dolphins seem to follow you everywhere in April and May. One day, I bravely climbed aboard a wave runner, following tentatively in the wake of my wetsuited instructor until opening the throttle wide and giggling at the rolling choppiness of the water. As I looked over to the banks, two dolphins took turns surfacing and diving gracefully, nature’s true wave runners.

Another day, I went with a group on a chartered shrimping boat with John Beebee, aka Captain Skip, an interesting character whose pre-launch safety lecture turned inadvertently comical. (“If someone falls in, we need a pointer. We need someone to dive in, someone to hold a rope, someone to act as captain if the captain falls in, someone to cut someone out of the shrimp net if they get caught in the net, someone to call 911…”).

First we “tickled the shrimp” with chains, and as we cast our net, dolphins were our constant companions (baiting dolphins is illegal, but they are smart enough to know to follow shrimpers and nose a few snacks). Seeing their smooth gray heads emerge so close to our vessel was a constant source of delight among the group — most of us depleted our cellphone batteries capturing videos and photos.

Fresh off the hook
The dolphins have the right idea: the food here on the Gulf redefines freshness. Straight-off-the-boat seafood like royal red shrimp (a slightly sweeter, meatier relative of garden variety shrimp), trigger fish, snapper and oysters is widely available on menus throughout the area.

Look for a Fishtrax notation on the menu, which allows you to scan your seafood entree and look up where and when it was caught. It’s all part of an effort to bring awareness to the local fishing industry. About 90 percent of the fish Americans consume is from overseas, and about half the fish we eat is farm-raised.

One of many kid-friendly restaurants that offers a taste of that Gulf-fresh seafood is Lulu’s at Homeport Marina, owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister, Lucy. In addition to waterfront seating on the marina, Lulu’s includes an on-site fountain for kids and a three-story ropes course. Grab a dessert from Matt’s Homemade Alabama Ice Cream, the only homemade ice cream shop in the area. Parents may want to partake in the area’s famously potent Bushwhackers, a coconutty variation of a Mudslide, widely available.

What’s fresher than fresh? Consider casting your line off the Gulf State Park Pier — you can purchase your license and bait and rent your gear right here — and see what you can catch. By the way, be mindful that sharks can, and do, visit this area. Fishers are allowed to clean their fish and throw scraps off the pier, which attracts sharks. Greedy pelicans try to intercept the food, which makes a pier walk entertaining even for people who don’t fish. The state park also leads a pier walk for those interested in learning more about the fish that live here.

Several area restaurants, including Shipp’s Harbor Grill, Fisher’s Dockside and the Flora-Bama Yacht Club, offer “hook and cook” options for preparing your prized catch.

Where to stay
Accommodation options in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are plentiful for a range of budgets. With all the amenities that Gulf State Park offers to visitors, snagging a site at the campground would be an ideal adventure for a family. The park offers nearly 500 campsites, primitive and full-hookup sites, with a swimming pool and other amenities — plus the daily slate of activities offered at the nature center.

Several of the beachfront resorts are condo-style rentals operated by a central management company. For example, I stayed at the Beach Club Gulf Shores managed by Spectrum Resorts and enjoyed a private bedroom, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, dining room and balcony. My closet was retrofitted into a hideaway bunk bed, ideal for little ones. In addition to enjoying morning walks on the beach, guests have access to several pools, hot tubs and an on-site workout facility.

Other options include Caribe Resort, which offers lazy rivers, kayak and boat rentals on-site. Guests at Perdido Beach Resort enjoy private beach access and several on-site restaurants. A new Hilton property will open in late 2018.

Regardless of how you fill your itinerary, a spring break getaway to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach should include plenty of beach time and a toes-in-the-sand view of nature’s diverse bounty.

“If we can educate kids to care for and respect nature as it is — or be fascinated by it — then nature will continue as it is,” says Reetz.

It’s almost a guarantee you’ll come away from your trip with a sense of that fascination.

For the complete article please see

New musical festival planned for Tuscaloosa in 2019
From the article by Mark Hughes Cobb on

The 2019 Druid City Music Festival, a two-day multivenue event projected as an annual draw, sprawling across downtown Tuscaloosa and environs, is studying successes and failures.

Most large-scale festivals have both, of course. Trips to Franklin, Tennesee’s Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival and Gulf Shores’ Hangout Music Festival, along with memories of Tuscaloosa’s own late CityFest, provided examples of what to do and not to do.

But it was the Christmas Jam at Asheville, North Carolina, that proved just the right spark for the first Druid City Music Festival, now in the planning stages for Aug. 23-24, 2019.

Roughly 10 variously sized Asheville venues book various genres of music throughout the day, then the evening Jam concludes with a concert running late into the morning, led by Warren Haynes with a variety of guests. The 2017 Jam, 29th of its kind, featured the Avett Brothers, Ann Wilson of Heart, Trey Anastasio and Classic Tab, Blackberry Smoke, Kevn Kinney and others joining Asheville native Haynes at the U.S. Cellular Center. The arena seats about 7,654, roughly the same as the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. With a 2016 population of 89,121, the western N.C. city is comparable in size to Tuscaloosa, counted at 99,543 in 2016.

“It had just snowed; in fact Friday’s night was canceled, roads were so bad,” said Don Staley, president and CEO of Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports, which has been guiding the music festival process. “But Saturday, you’d have thought they’d won an national championship, the bounce in people’s steps, the electricity, the movement all over downtown.

“Then the epiphany hits: We could do this.”

Brainstorming sessions
Staley, with the help of co-workers such as Director of Development Bill Buchanan, organized brainstorming sessions beginning last fall, inviting local musicians such as Randy “Frog” Palmer, who’s booked the annual Kentuck Festival’s music lineup for years, and formerly worked with Birmingham’s City Stages in a similar capacity; merchants such as Jim Harrison III, and Gene “Poodgie” Poole, a musician himself and one of the forces behind CityFest; along with other interested parties. Back when he joined the tourism department in 2015, Buchanan talked with Mayor Walt Maddox about the need for a music festival. Staley picked up the ball when he came on in 2017.

Staley, first head soccer coach for the University of Alabama, helped form the Tuscaloosa Sports Foundation about a decade back, with Chuck Sittason, a member of the TTS board. After leaving for three years working similar promotion and tourism jobs in Foley, Staley returned for the top job at tourism last summer.

The third group meeting was held in January at Cypress Inn Pavilion, where Staley announced 17 venues and locations had so far signed on to the concept, with others being sought. Among those are the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center, the Bama Theatre, Harrison Gallery, Hotel Indigo, Loosa Brews, Alcove International Tavern, Bistro 301, Band of Brothers, Druid City Brewing, The Bridge (contemporary worship service at First United Methodist Church), Innisfree, Copper Top, Black Warrior Brewing, Glory Bound, Wheelhouse and Government Plaza. Still to come are commitments from the city-operated River Market and Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, though as Mayor Maddox helped stimulate the festival idea, hopes are high.

As with Asheville, Tuscaloosa’s seeking a hometown hero as curator. Mutual friends introduced Staley to Chuck Leavell, keyboardist extraordinaire for the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers Band, John Mayer and numerous others. Leavell lives in Macon, Georgi., but grew up in Tuscaloosa, starting his first band here, and retains close ties with the Druid City. He loved the idea, and would like to be involved if possible, Staley said.

“Is he signed on absolutely? No. But he said if the Rolling Stones are not out on tour, he’s supportive of this event,” Staley said.

Of course Mick, Keith and the boys would be welcome to stop by, too, should Leavell sign up.

“They can play backup,” Buchanan said.

Looking back at CityFest
Rainy days swamped the former CityFest, which began in 1984 as a street party celebrating downtown renovations, but grew into a two-day ticketed event with multiple stages and headliners such as Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, B.B. King, Wilson Pickett, the O’Jays and others.

When talks began for what is now the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, back around the time CityFest’s clock was running out, often batted around was the thought that a new outdoor venue would be a perfect fit for a revamped version of CityFest.

“CityFest was a really great, fun event,” Buchanan said. “They suffered some bad weather, but that’s the risk of all-outdoor events.”

The great indoors
That’s one reason the first Druid City Music Festival will be spread largely throughout indoor venues. In case of inclement weather, patrons should still be able to comfortably enjoy music.

Another benefit of multiple venues: “Lots of skin in the game,” Staley said.

“We’re going to be promoting this, but every venue will be promoting, too,” Buchanan said. “They’ll all be reaching out to their Facebook friends, their customers, using their social media.” Bands and musicians, in an era where the only money to be made comes from live performances, have also grown far more savvy about building and keeping audiences.

“We won’t be having to close any streets, or bring in more police,” Staley said. “We want it to be just an open environment.

″(The chosen 2019 date) will be the weekend before the first (UA) football game, there’ll be a lot of excitement with students coming back. … Yeah, there’ll be a couple of outdoor venues, but most will be inside, with AC.”

Downtown merchant and arts patron Harrison thinks the Druid City Music Festival could be a great addition to downtown’s already-strong music scene. After his family’s Harco drug store chain sold to RiteAid, Harrison opened Harrison Galleries — Fine Art & Photography. In addition to local ventures, Harrison has served as chairman of the Alabama State Council on the Arts for 2012-2013.

“This in my mind creates a new opportunity for the community to enjoy downtown in a festival atmosphere,” Harrison said. “It seems to me a lot like the W.C. Handy (Festival, in the Shoals area), the way it spreads out.

“I would hope that the entertainment district will be passed, and we’ll be able to take advantage of that.”

Initial thoughts were to launch the festival for 2018, but Staley listened and learned: That’d be too much too soon.

“We’re going to dip our toe in the water, just gently,” he said. “Let’s get this thing up and running, and see where it goes. Who knows where we’re gonna go in the future?”

For the complete article please see

Space & Rocket Center program draws hundreds of students worldwide
From the article on (WAFF-48)

The annual Honeywell Leadership Challenge Academy has kicked off at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

This year’s event brought in 325 students from 35 countries and 25 states and territories.

These students worked on activities like building, coding and testing rockets.

“It is a one in a lifetime opportunity. Being accepted to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center was absolutely amazing. This is probably the best experience of my life, and building my own component for my rocket teaches me about steady handwork and teamwork,” said Chade Basson, a student from South Africa.

Since 2010, Honeywell and the Space & Rocket Center have given out more than 2,000 scholarships for students to attend the academy.

For the complete article please see

Registration open for the 2018 Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference
Registration is now open for the 2018 Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference, which will be hosted at the historic Pitman Theatre in downtown Gadsden on Oct. 22-24. The Pitman Theatre will be the site of all educational sessions and host hotel is the Holiday Inn Express and Suites. Speakers will share their experience and expertise on a range of topics including social media training, agritourism and wineries, marketing to millenials, and tourism and the digital movement. Conference events will also be held at Noccalula Falls Park, Back Forty Beer Company and Gadsden Museum of Art.

An early bird rate of $95 per person is available until Oct. 5. Registration is $150 per person after October 5. To register for the Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference, visit

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website
FORE! Pack your clubs, we’re going on a road trip. Sweet Home Alabama’s best golf courses are waiting for you. Smell the freshly cut putting green as you watch your birdie roll into the hole. Feel the coastline breeze as you play a relaxing 18-holes and taste the feeling of victory.

Sweet Home Alabama is a golf lover’s paradise with over 150 courses and now is your chance to hit the links. Enter now at to win the chance to stay and play golf around Alabama, including the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Pursell Farms and Alabama’s Gulf Coast on June 3-8.


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