Tourism Tuesdays April 9, 2019

Partner Spotlight: Sweet Home Alabama works with Brand USA to promote the state

Last call: Alabama Tourism Department’s 2019 Spring Tourism Workshop

100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama brochure being updated

More than 700 take part in April Walking Tours on Saturday

Travel + Leisure does 10-page feature article on Alabama

TripAdvisor: Travelers recommend hotels along the gulf coast for dream beach getaway

SYTA appointment books in Alabama expected to be sold out

Design200 celebrates Alabama’s bicentennial

Historic hotel in Selma, to be redeveloped into a Hilton

Monroeville launches bronze sculpture trail

New Opelika Songwriters Festival

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website


Partner Spotlight: Sweet Home Alabama works with Brand USA to promote the state
Sweet Home Alabama is working with Brand USA to inspire international visitors with all the exciting travel opportunities in the state. As the official consumer brand of the Alabama Tourism Department, Sweet Home Alabama is a Brand USA Gold Partner and has been a supporter of the nation’s destination marketing organization since 2013.

Through this partnership, Brand USA is helping Alabama and in-state partners promote its myriad tourist attractions – from natural wonders to cultural hotspots and historic landmarks of the U.S. civil rights movement.

For example, this spring, Sweet Home Alabama participated in an Expedia co-op campaign in the United Kingdom with Alabama Mountain Lakes, Birmingham, Gulf Shores & Orange Beach, and Huntsville. It was the first time the state and its partners have engaged in a co-op with one of the top global online travel agencies targeting potential international consumers as they look to book travel.

In India, Brand USA teamed up with Sweet Home Alabama and the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Alabama Mountain Lakes and Space Camp to promote the December premiere of the new Bollywood film “Zero.” The campaign, designed to build consumer and travel trade awareness of Alabama in this fast-emerging market, included an online contest to win access to a private screening and receive Alabama-branded merchandise. Other activations included promoting Alabama inside eight large movie theaters in Mumbai and New Delhi as well as a private screening for 270 media representatives along with the online contest winners. The ongoing campaign has generated 29 million media impressions thus far and is expected to grow by end of May.

Most notably, Brand USA is now working with 14 states, including Alabama, which are joining together to market the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.

This exciting new initiative is designed to bring visitors from around the world to important historic sites and promote awareness of one of the most significant periods in the history of the United States.

Brand USA recently partnered with the tourism organizations for Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia to support a tour operator campaign in the German market.  In addition to helping disseminate the four-state itinerary to tour operators, Brand USA developed two additional self-drive itineraries on Brand USA’s travel trade website for receptive tour operators to add bookable product.

The two new itineraries are:
Itinerary 1: The Civil Rights History Trail

Itinerary 2: The Southern Civil Rights Story

Lastly, Brand USA has amplified the travel trade initiative by generating earned media and creating content through Brand USA’s “United Stories” campaign. Efforts on both of these fronts will continue through the balance of FY2019, and Brand USA will continue to work with Sweet Home Alabama and the 13 destinations on the trail to identify ways to drive international visitation with these uniquely American stories.

Sweet Home Alabama is a great example of a state partner that has strategically engaged Brand USA to enhance its international marketing efforts across a variety of topics.

For the complete article please see

Last call: Alabama Tourism Department’s 2019 Spring Tourism Workshop
The Alabama Tourism Department will host its semi-annual Tourism Workshop, Thursday, April 11. The workshop will be held in Montgomery at the Alabama Center for Commerce Building, 401 Adams Ave., from 10 a.m.–3 p.m. in room 342. This workshop is designed for new tourism industry members, event organizers and anyone else interested in enhancing tourism in their area. Many of ATD’s staff members will attend this workshop and you will have an opportunity for one-on-one time with each of them. There is no registration fee.

For additional information, please contact Rosemary Judkins at 334-242-4493 or via email at rosemary.judkins@Tourism.Alabama.Gov

100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama brochure being updated
The Alabama Tourism Department’s popular “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama” brochure is in the process of being updated. If you know of a locally owned restaurant in the state that you think needs to be included, please let us know. The restaurant must have been opened for at least five years or have been started by one of Alabama’s top chefs or restaurateurs to be featured. Give us the name of the restaurant, the town where it is located and what you consider to be its signature dish. Send your suggestions to by April 12.

More than 700 take part in April Walking Tours on Saturday

More than 700 people across the state took part in the April Walking Tours on Saturday. While numbers are still being reported, so far some of the largest walking tours were Huntsville, 250; Shelby Co., 140; Fairhope, 63; Cullman, 52; Moulton, 48; Foley, 22; Mooresville, 19; Athens, 48; Sheffield, 20; Tuscumbia, 22; Decatur, 29; Florence, 29.

A variety of community leaders lead the free tours through the historic districts or courthouse square areas of their hometowns on Saturday mornings in April.  The remaining tours start at 10 a.m. on April 13, 20 and 27.

Towns and starting places for the April Walking Tours are: Athens, Athens Visitor Center; Attalla, Gazebo at 4th St. and 5th Ave.; Bayou La Batre, Mariner Park; Birmingham, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; Courtland, Courtland Heritage Museum; Cullman, Cullman County Museum; Decatur, Old State Bank Building; Elba, Chamber of Commerce; Elkmont, Elkmont Depot; Enterprise, Pea River Historical Society; Eutaw, Prairie Avenue; Eufaula, Carnegie Library; Fairhope, Fairhope Welcome Center; Florence, various locations; Foley, Welcome Center.

Huntsville, Confectionary Shop at Constitution Village (April 6 & 13 only); Livingston, McConnell Field on University of West Alabama campus; Madison, Madison Roundhouse (April 20 & 27 only); Mobile, Welcome Center at The History Museum of Mobile; Monroeville, Old Courthouse Museum; Montgomery, Montgomery Area Visitor Center; Mooresville, Post Office; Moulton, Lawrence County Archives; Pell City, City Hall; Prattville, Prattaugan Museum; Selma, Selma-Dallas County Library; Sheffield, Sheffield Municipal Building; Shelby, Iron Works Park; Springville, Springville Museum; Tuscumbia, ColdWater Bookstore.

The tours are being coordinated by Brian Jones with the Alabama Tourism Department. “Alabama is the only state in the nation to hold statewide, simultaneous walking tours.  These walking tours are a great way to get out and enjoy the spring weather and find out about the history of our state.  More than 36,000 people have participated in the walking tours since the beginning of the program 16 years ago and the tours keep increasing in popularity every year,” Jones said.

More information about the April Walking Tours is available on the Alabama Tourism Department website at

Travel + Leisure does 10-page feature article on Alabama
Editor’s Note: Travel writer Kevin West and photographer Rinne Allen visited the state last August to chronicle a road trip covering the Shoals area, Birmingham, Montgomery, the Black Belt region and the Gulf Coast for Travel + Leisure magazine.

Kay Maghan with Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, Randa Hovater with Florence/Lauderdale Tourism, Vickie Ashford with the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, Meg Lewis with the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and Brian Jones with state tourism worked with West to put together an itinerary and serve as guides during his trip. What was originally planned as an article highlighting a few destinations grew into a 10-page feature story in Travel + Leisure covering West’s north to south trek through the state.

From the feature article “A Road Trip Through Alabama, Where Creatives are Grappling With the Past and Building a Brighter Future” by Kevin West in the April edition of Travel + Leisure magazine:

Alabama is a place of boundless creativity and abundant natural resources – with an unfathomably painful past. On a road trip from top to bottom, Kevin West finds the state’s residents reckoning with its legacy and coming up with entirely new definitions of what it means to be Alabaman.

The devil was beating his wife as I crossed the Alabama state line. I was driving from Nashville, in a hurry to reach Muscle Shoals, and I had gotten to the point where I-65 snakes down from middle Tennessee’s Highland Rim. When the highway levels out again and runs straight, you’re in the cotton-growing Heart of Dixie, as Alabama has been known since the 1950s.

The windshield wipers on my rental car frantically tried to keep pace with an August downpour. Then, in a clap, the sun broke through and electrified the gloom, even as the rain continued to fall — in Southern folklore, that’s the devil beating his wife. Luminous spray trembled above the road, and sunlight bounced off wet pastures on either side. Light and mist rose together, particulate gold. On the stereo, Aretha Franklin’s voice climbed through the verses of “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” shining in glory with the sun. When the clouds closed again, I was off the interstate and on a two-lane behind a car with the license plate LUV BAMA. I passed a field of King Cotton, its leaves dark as poison ivy.

Muscle Shoals was not meant to be on my itinerary, but I was in Nashville when I heard about Aretha’s death, and decided to pay my respects at FAME Studios, where the Queen of Soul laid down tracks that would eventually become her career-defining hit record, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” I bought a funeral wreath and a vintage LP of “Aretha’s Gold” to leave as tributes and drove to FAME in a car called Soul — honest to goodness, the rental agency issued me a Kia Soul. The studio would close at five.

When I got there at 4:15p.m., the nice man in the front office listened to my story and said the last tour of the day had already begun, but I was welcome to join it. I pushed open a door into the carpeted studio. A FAME sound engineer interrupted his tour to greet me. “Come in,” he said. “I’m telling some stories about Aretha Franklin.”

He was in the middle of a famous one: how Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler had brought Franklin to FAME to record with the Swampers, the house band that would go on to back the Rolling Stones, Etta James, and Paul Simon, earning the group — and FAME itself — music immortality. The session lasted just one day because of a drunken fight between Aretha’s husband and a musician. The Swampers later flew to New York to finish the album’s title track as well as “Respect,” Aretha’s first number one hit. The Queen had arrived, and her reign began on a single day in this very room, the sound engineer said.

The visitors glanced around, shook their heads, made little noises. One spoke: “It was a….” he said, before words buckled under the weight of his awe. The engineer finished the thought for him — for all of us. “It was a milestone.”

A week of milestones: that’s how I’d describe my road trip through Alabama. My home state is Tennessee, but I’d never been to Alabama apart from one drunken New Year’s Eve in Opelika. Most of what little I knew about the state boiled down to the civil rights era and college football. And the music, from the Blind Boys of Alabama to the Alabama Shakes. If pressed, I could have come up with Truman Capote and Harper Lee whispering childhood secrets in Monroeville, white barbecue sauce, and something about the space program in Huntsville. The Alabama of my mind was hung with faded garlands, and the thought of it made me uneasy, like a family member who sometimes lets slip a racist word.

It had nothing to do, in other words, with what I’d been hearing from trusted friends about the vibrant, progressive Alabama they knew: The flourishing fashion and music scenes around Florence, across the river from Muscle Shoals. The sophisticated food culture in Birmingham. The experimental architecture and agriculture out in the Black Belt, a region named for its rich, dark soil. Rebirth, returns, accolades. Last year, a new monument, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opened in Montgomery. (Its colloquial handle, “the lynching memorial,” is more painfully descriptive.) Then there was the grand reopening of the Grand Hotel on Mobile Bay and, down at Gulf Shores, a new generation of oyster farmers, fishermen, and chefs who, post–Deepwater Horizon, have been rebranding the stretch of shoreline sardonically called the Redneck Riviera. Even Alabama politics has held surprises. In 2017, Democrat Doug Jones, an attorney who successfully prosecuted two of the Klansmen who bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, was elected to the U.S. Senate. That same year, Randall Woodfin, a charismatic 37-year-old African-American political novice, won the Birmingham mayoral race. On the eve of its 200th anniversary of statehood, there was a new Alabama to discover.

I was apprehensive all the same. Alabama is not uniquely burdened with America’s racial history, I know. The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, has documented hate groups in every one of these United States. But somehow the buried mass of injustice seemed closer to the surface in the state where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy. To prepare, I reread Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and clicked through pictures of marchers under attack by police dogs and officers wielding fire hoses.

“Are you Alabama Houses?”

I had just sat down for dinner at Odette, a farm-to-table restaurant in Florence. The man speaking to me was a silver fox: a sweep of hair, natty dress, gentry accent. I wasn’t sure I heard him right. “Are you Alabama Houses?” he repeated, explaining that he and his wife thought I resembled the amateur architectural historian behind the Instagram account @alabamahouses. The man introduced himself as Fennel Mauldin and insisted I join them for dinner.

Fennel and Evie Mauldin grew up in the area and knew everybody. Their stories came like hors d’oeuvres — artful and tasty. Like how the hotel where I was staying, the GunRunner, used to be a Cadillac dealership, its lobby bar a Cadillac-size freight elevator. How fashion designer Billy Reid turned his annual food/music/ideas festival, the Shindig, into something like a homegrown South by Southwest. And how Florence’s other big designer, Natalie Chanin, runs a café at the factory of her Alabama Chanin label that serves the best brunch for miles.

“This has happened in the past five years,” Fennel said. “My generation left. They all moved to Atlanta. What’s different now is the younger generations are staying.”

The next morning at Alabama Chanin, I tried out Fennel’s thesis on Natalie Chanin, unmissable with her Emmylou Harris–white hair. She didn’t disagree, but placed Florence’s renaissance within a longer historical context. “There’s always been a creative bent to the area,” Chanin said in her honeysuckle accent, name-checking musicians and Pulitzer-winning novelists. Creativity is part of Alabama’s “legacy,” she said, and then stopped and stepped back from a word that can stink of Confederate nostalgia.

How, I asked, did she remain sensitive to Alabama’s past without becoming dismayed by it? Natalie told me about an oral-history project she had launched, Project Threadways, to collect textile workers’ stories, giving voice to people who had long been ignored. Before that, Alabama Chanin had once planted a field of cotton and invited volunteers to help handpick the crop; some were joyful, others overcome with grief. Natalie’s point, Southern in its indirection, seemed to be that Alabama’s legacy of creativity gave her the means to respond to that other legacy. “There’s a lot of blood in this earth,” she said. “Maybe this is one step toward healing.”

Not far from Alabama Chanin, I saw another project that, like a field of cotton, was more complex than it appeared. It contained some 8.5 million pounds of stone stacked over the course of 30 years by Tom Hendrix, who died in 2017. The low, wandering wall looked like a labyrinth that had been unfolded. It memorializes Hendrix’s great-great-grandmother, Te-lah-nay, a Yuchi tribe member who was forced onto the Trail of Tears, then later braved great danger to come back from Oklahoma, alone and on foot. The artist’s son, Trace, explained that one side of the wall, a straight path away from a central circle, represented Te-lah-nay’s removal. The other side, which he called “the dark path,” was her return. “It twists and turns,” he said, “because your journey through life is never easy.”

Te-lah-nay’s long walk resonated with history’s other perilous journeys, from Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt to John Lewis and the foot soldiers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their freedom march from Selma to Montgomery.

Toward the end of dinner that night at Highlands Bar & Grill, in Birmingham, Red Dog set the table for dessert. Holding a silver spoon by the end of its handle, he lowered it into its proper place, just so, on the white tablecloth. Born Goren Avery, Red Dog has waited tables at chef-owner Frank Stitt’s flagship restaurant since it opened in 1982, ascending the ranks of his profession to the status of living landmark. Highlands pastry chef Dolester Miles — Miss Dol to her juniors — has also been with Stitt since the start. Her win at the James Beard Awards last year mattered on several levels: she was the first African American to claim the honor, and the first self-taught pastry chef.

“My aunt and my mom, we used to make desserts together when I was coming up,” Miles told me when I sat down with her, Stitt, and Stitt’s wife and business partner, Pardis, for coffee and a slice of Miss Dol’s signature coconut cake. “You know, I loved it when I was little, and it all came back. I was like, “This is what I really want to do.” So Frank gave me my opportunity.”

The night Miles won, Highlands did as well, winning outstanding restaurant of the year after nine times as a finalist. What the Stitts have accomplished over 37 years goes beyond intelligent cooking, fabulous staff, and a dining room that flatters traditionalist ideas about Southern hospitality. Highlands essentially founded Alabama’s progressive food scene with the revolutionary idea that Southern cuisine could be elevated with prime ingredients, meticulous technique, and unstuffy service. Generations of chefs have emerged from Stitt’s kitchen as disciples of that gospel. When I asked for the secret to Highlands’ longevity, his response was quick: “Respect for one another.”

“We insisted on people having a sense of…character,” he continued, with a half-moment’s pause to locate the precisely weighted word. “We insisted that people not be racist, that people not be rude, that they not be homophobic. When we have our full meeting, 170 people, there is very much a sense that we’re working for a good cause. Don’t you think, Dol?

“Mm-hmm,” said Miles. “I always felt like I was a part of this family. I never felt any different. That’s why I stayed so long.”

Birmingham is a relatively new city, founded in 1871. Its early iron and steel industries transformed the raw red-clay landscape so quickly that Birmingham earned the nickname Magic City. Suburban Mountain Brook sprouted mansions, and downtown leaped with skyscrapers, hotels, theaters, and department stores. That was white Birmingham.

Black Birmingham also prospered: the business community around the current Civil Rights Institute downtown included the offices of Oscar Adams Jr., the first African American admitted to the bar in Birmingham, and A. G. Gaston, a businessman who, when he died in 1996, left an estate worth tens of millions. But for Birmingham’s black citizens, daily life was defined by Jim Crow. Segregated schools, theaters, restaurants, and parks were typical of the era. Less typical was Birmingham’s eventual notoriety. Charles Moore’s photographs of the 1963 Good Friday march, the ones I had seen online of Bull Connor’s men attacking the marchers, were published by Life and spread like airborne ash from a distant wildfire. That September, the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four teenage girls and offended common decency everywhere. The events of 1963 cemented Birmingham’s place in American history.

“Birmingham is unique in that we reckoned with our differences on the world stage,” said Mayor Woodfin the morning I met him in his office. “It happened in other cities, but here you saw it.”

Woodfin, who jokes that he grew a beard to appear more mayoral, came home to Alabama after law school to make a difference. With charisma, big ideas, and almost no prior political experience, he rallied voters with the campaign message We deserve better. Birmingham long ago ceased to be an economic powerhouse; two generations of postindustrial decline had hollowed it out. Woodfin’s agenda since gaining office, he told me, has focused on three key items, each of which is “neighborhood revitalization.”

Neighborhood revitalization was, in fact, exactly what I had seen the previous day. The gentrifying neighborhoods I drove through had everything today’s tourist or transplant might want. Beaux Arts skyscrapers have been transformed into boutique hotels. The Pizitz department store has new life as a mixed-use development with apartments above a food hall. Commercial districts have gentrified wholesale with farmers’ markets, craft breweries, and self-aware restaurants — a new Magic City. In the historic enclave of Avondale, I had lunch at Saw’s BBQ, then went next door to Post Office Pies for a wood-fired pizza to go. Aretha was playing at both — as well as at the Pizitz and in a gallery of the Civil Rights Institute — part of a citywide show of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” for a life that included singing at Dr. King’s funeral and, further along the arc of the moral universe, at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

I mentioned Avondale to the mayor and asked if that’s the kind of revitalization he had in mind. Yes, he said, but his goal is to improve all 99 city neighborhoods, including the 88, many predominantly black, that have not flourished anew. I asked him the same question I’d asked Chanin, about how to reckon with the past without being defeated by it.

Alabama is not uniquely burdened with America’s racial history, I know. But somehow the buried mass of injustice seemed closer to the surface in the state where Jefferson Davis was sworn in.

“I tell people this,” the mayor said. “From a historical perspective, Birmingham has shown the world once how to pivot away from hatred. There was resistance to change, and we were also the poster child for how to make change. When those forces met, change won out.”

Knowingly or not, the mayor’s take on Birmingham — a telling that honors the moral heroism of the civil rights era and also acknowledges the injustices that made it necessary — aligns with recent efforts at the state level to change how people think about Alabama. To replace the image of Bull Connor’s police force, for instance, with something inspiring. One part of those efforts is the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which spans 100 sites across 15 states — 26 in Alabama alone. Launched last year, it’s currently under review for UNESCO World Heritage designation. The campaign’s tagline explains why: “What happened here changed the world.”

A few days later, the Civil Rights Trail led me to Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue. It runs uphill from Court Square, site of the former slave market, to the Alabama Capitol, where George Wallace gave his infamous “segregation forever” speech on the steps where Jefferson Davis was sworn in. Standing sentinel between the two is Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, built in 1889 of red brick and named in memory of the pastor who served there from 1954 to 1960. Tour director Wanda Battle hugged me when I entered. “We love on everybody who comes in here,” she said. “That is a part of what this legacy is all about.” That word again, but here glinting with hope 50 years after King’s assassination.

Battle was luminous. I felt improved by her presence. She showed me the office in which King organized the bus boycott and told me about the 16 elderly members who still remembered him. She sang “This Little Light of Mine” to demonstrate the church’s acoustics and insisted I visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, twin projects from Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative. “I cried so hard when I visited,” she said. “They made me more convinced of the importance of my taking responsibility to love people every day.”

I hugged Battle and went where she sent me. Both visits require time. Each is heavy. The museum is dense with text. The memorial has little apart from the names engraved in 800 monuments, one for each county in the U.S. where a lynching occurred. Visitors appear raw and unguarded.

Later, I realized the genius of the memorial is that it makes us grieve in broad daylight. Hidden shame and rage are brought out to be aired in full view of companions and strangers alike. Private emotions are transformed into public monument. It makes no sense to say my experience there was beautiful, but, on levels both personal and historical, it felt essential to our national journey.

“I’ve never made the same biscuits twice,” said chef Scott Peacock, perhaps the most skilled caretaker of the Southern home-cooking tradition, as his hands coaxed flour and buttermilk into a salutary alliance, “and I have tried.” It was before breakfast at Reverie, a white-columned mansion in Marion, in the Black Belt, and Peacock had already laid out honey, jam, and “enough butter to float a battleship.” He was giving me a preview of his new project: small-group workshops on the art of Southern biscuits. “It’s a practice,” he said. “It definitely is. I marvel at it every time.”

Alabama’s Black Belt is a 19-county swath of rich topsoil at the heart of the broader southern Black Belt. It was once the state’s wealthiest region: the throne room of King Cotton, the Saudi Arabia of agriculture. Before the Civil War, its landed aristocrats outdid one another in feudal lavishness, throwing parties with actual jousting tournaments. Peacock quoted a resident of the era who said, “There are two places in this world where it is possible to live a civilized life: Paris, France, and Unionville, Alabama.” The luxurious way of life, dependent upon the inhumane economics of slavery, grew shabby without it, and the Black Belt declined. What remained was antebellum architecture and poverty.

An hour deeper into the Black Belt, the hamlet of Boykin dozes in a bend of the Alabama River. Peacock took me there to meet Mary Lee Bendolph, who sat on her porch, dressed and ready, studying the Bible as she waited for us to arrive. (I asked: the 23rd Psalm.) Bendolph belongs to a community of slave descendants known as the Gee’s Bend Quilters, whose creations rise to the level of great American art. She welcomed us with hugs and a throaty laugh, then took us inside to see pictures of her grandchildren and the quilt she sewed for the Obamas in 2009. Bendolph, who no longer sews, accompanied us to the Gee’s Bend Welcome Center, where the public can meet quilters who continue the tradition.

Before we left Reverie, Peacock finished rolling out his biscuit dough and got a pan into the hot oven. He grew up close to the Florida state line but is now a Black Belt stalwart. His antique house, maintained in a state of splendid disrepair, sits on Marion’s main drag, and his backyard garden is a one-man agricultural experiment station that honors the spirit of George Washington Carver, the African-American botanist and environmentalist who championed alternatives to soil-depleting cotton. In a twist, Peacock’s principal crop, unlike Carver’s favored peanuts, is inedible. He plants indigo and processes it for pigment. “I grew that blue,” he said of his sky-colored T-shirt, a suitable companion for his cloudlike hair.

Near the end of my trip, I was at a marina in Orange Beach, about to eat some Alabama-grown oysters at Fisher’s restaurant. Owner Johnny Fisher, a Mobile native, had just brought them from the kitchen, where chef Bill Briand, a two-time Beard semifinalist for best chef in the South, had disappeared for the start of dinner service. I was mid-reach when someone at the table proposed, with winking solemnity, that we raise a glass to Ed King, who had died that day. Who? King, I was told, played guitar for Lynyrd Skynyrd and cowrote “Sweet Home Alabama.” I was struck by the symmetry, a second passing to bookend my trip, although this one wasn’t much noticed, even on the Redneck Riviera.

As far as I could tell, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach didn’t really live up to the nickname. The mind-set of the Alabama beachfront seemed open to change, at least around food. Fisher champions sustainable fisheries — his version of the culinary good morals practiced by Frank Stitt in Birmingham. Another local chef, Chris Sherrill, founded a group to promote consumption of abundant Gulf species considered “trash fish.” He explained his idea over tacos made from bluewing searobin, an ugly big-headed slimeball that tasted great with salsa and kudzu-lime crema. Likewise, a new generation of oyster farmers, producers like Lew Childress of Shellbank Selects, raise small, sculpted oysters that bring a premium over typical Gulf oysters grown out to the size of a tourist’s sweaty palm.

Credit the oil spill and oldsters. The Deepwater Horizon disaster initially led to a ruinous moratorium on Gulf seafood sales, but a multibillion-dollar restitution fund has since helped Alabama’s shore communities rebuild. Affluent retirees arrived like horseshoe crabs on the spring tide, and snowbirds now flock to the upscale eateries.

“Disaster won’t create your change,” explained one longtime resident the next day over lunch, “but it will accelerate your rate of change. We’ve seen that after each storm, and we’ve seen it after the oil spill.”

The group at the table, which included the mayors of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, wanted to talk about shiny new ideas: the eco-lodge at Gulf State Park and programs to protect endangered sea turtles. What I brought up was, perhaps, a nuisance. I asked what they thought about the region’s reputation as the Redneck Riviera. People waved hands as if shooing flies at a church supper. The consensus was that stereotypes linger among people who haven’t actually been to Alabama. The cure for ignorance is travel.

“If we get “em here, we’ll change their minds,” said the longtime resident. “You rarely hear someone say they’re gonna retire and move up north.”

For the complete article with photos please see:

TripAdvisor: Travelers recommend hotels along the gulf coast for dream beach getaway

Editor’s note: Two Alabama hotels make the list of Trip Advisor’s eight best on the Gulf Coast.

While the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts get much of the acclaim in the U.S., savvy travelers know that the Gulf Coast is well worth a visit. With coastline stretching across five different states, it can be hard to choose where to plan your Gulf getaway. Fortunately, we’re doing some of the legwork for you! Our traveler community raves about these eight hotels, which boast stunning beachfront locations ranging from Florida to Texas. You may just find the site of your next beach getaway below!

The Lodge at Gulf State Park, Gulf Shores, AL
Average Traveler Rating: 4.5/5
Travelers Say: “This was my first stay at a Hilton property, the amenities are amazing. The staff is mostly a friendly and helpful group. The location … amazing. The design and decor … amazing. There was a pretty good walk from the lobby/restaurants to the rooms, but after indulging in such great food … the walk was much needed. I’m planning my next visit and referring everyone I know.” — TripAdvisor Reviewer

Perdido Beach Resort, Orange Beach, AL
Average Traveler Rating: 4.5/5
Travelers Say: “Great for families. Never leave the resort. Close to beach and great restaurant options for every budget. Upscale but comfortable feel. Amazing views from room. Everything you need is right here. Loved our stay!” — TripAdvisor Reviewer

For the complete article please see

SYTA appointment books in Alabama expected to be sold out
SYTA’s (Student Youth Travel Association) Annual Conference is the premier event for the student and youth travel industry. Their Youth Foundation event will be held in Huntsville August 7-9 and the SYTA annual conference in Birmingham August 9-13.

The SYTA conference is a trade show with passionate, educated, and engaged members, committed to promoting, selling, and providing travel experiences for students.

Student travel fulfills the role of providing practical learning. The majority of teachers organize student trips because they want their students to become more culturally aware. Many trips, once organized, return year after year with the same teachers but different students.

You can register for the SYTA Conference up to the last moment, but this doesn’t guarantee that you will have appointments. Only those people registering before the appointment books have sold out receive pre-scheduled appointments at the show, warns Alabama Tourism Department Deputy Director Grey Brennan, “SYTA issues appointment books  on a 4-to-1 ratio of tour operators attending the show. Once the limited number of appointment books are sold out, there are no more.”

There is no set date when sales of the appointment books are over. “In my last talks with SYTA officials, they warned they could sell out at any point in time and expected the supply to last for only another 4 or 5 weeks,” said Brennan.

The Alabama Tourism Department and North Alabama Tourism are offering fam trips for SYTA tour operators after the show. Special events in Huntsville and Birmingham are also planned.

To register for the SYTA conference, contact Becky Armely at 703-610-9028 or via email at

Design200 celebrates Alabama’s bicentennial
In celebration of Alabama’s Bicentennial year, DesignAlabama has launched Design200 to commemorate the state’s rich heritage of great design. The project was curated in partnership with Alabama Power, Alabama Tourism, Alabama Center for Architecture, and the Alabama Bicentennial Commission.

Cathy Gerachis, board member emeritus of DesignAlabama, came up with the idea for the project. “Our state is known worldwide for its role in history,” Gerachis said. “We wanted to make sure that knowledge included the many, many design achievements of Alabamians, who’ve made significant artistic contributions to utility, place and craft.”

Design200 features stunning examples of Alabama architecture, landscape architecture, graphic design, industrial design and handcrafters, along with engineering and organizations devoted to design.

To showcase these achievements, a specially created microsite was developed: Presented in a beautiful and easily navigable format, the site includes a photo and short article about each of the 200 selections chosen across various design disciplines.

The first 50 selections are viewable now, with 50 new entries to be added each quarter of 2019.

Historic hotel in Selma, to be redeveloped into a Hilton
From the article by Candace Carlisle on

In the center of Selma, Alabama, a town with a declining population and strong roots to the civil rights movement and the Civil War, sits one of the last antebellum riverfront hotels atop the banks of the Alabama River. Now the historic structure may play a role in the city’s future.

Even as Selma’s population has fallen 11.5% since 2010, thousands of tourists each year flock to the 198-year-old city — one of the oldest surviving cities in Alabama — but those visitors tend to head 50 miles east down U.S. 80 to spend the night in Montgomery, Alabama.

In the case of Selma, it houses the largest historic district in Alabama, with 1,250 historic structures. The buildings include the Selma Interpretative Center along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which had more than 25,000 visitors in 2017. Last month, Selma commemorated the 54th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” which occurred on March 7, 1965, when nearly 600 civil rights activists were attacked by law enforcement during a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery on the Edmond Pettus Bridge.

The bridge and interpretative center is across the street from the St. James Hotel, built in 1837 but no longer in operation. The 42-room hotel at 1200 Water Ave. has recently been acquired by a Birmingham developer with plans to redevelop it into a Hilton-branded Tapestry Collection hotel. It would be the only full-service hotel in Selma and Dallas County.

While Selma is a very small city and its tourism is relatively tiny, it joins much larger municipalities around the United States, such as Disneyland’s hometown of Anaheim, California, and SeaWorld’s host city of San Diego, where hotels are planned near attractions with an eye toward keeping tourists nearby overnight, a move that can boost local spending.

“With this redevelopment, we will give people in Selma the ability to witness and experience the history,” said Tyler Epps, a senior associate at American South Real Estate Fund, which helped underwrite the project.

American South Real Estate Fund, which recently funded a project in South Dallas for E Smith Communities, funded the $3.4 million acquisition loan for the hotel. The St. James Hotel LLC, an entity led by managing partner and Birmingham, Alabama-based developer Jim Lewis, purchased the hotel from the city of Selma. Lewis is chief executive officer of Birmingham-based Rhaglan Hospitality, which is the manager of the hotel and redevelopment project.

The deal, which the developer told CoStar News was completed Monday with a wire transfer, also puts one of Selma’s vacant properties back into action after sitting closed for more than a year and will employ more than 40 full-time workers. The $5 million redevelopment is slated to be complete by the end of the year.

The St. James Hotel deal marks the beginning of more acquisitions for the developer in Selma, said Lewis.

“Selma very quickly got under our skin. What I envisioned would happen a few years ago has transpired,” Lewis said. “The more time I spend in Selma, the more endearing it is to me.”

The redevelopment of the St. James Hotel will be Lewis’ third such renovation of a historic hotel in Alabama. The others are The Redmont Hotel, a 120-room boutique hotel from the 1920s that is Alabama’s oldest operating hotel, and the former Protective Life and Commerce Center building. The Redmont Hotel was transformed into a Curio Collection by Hilton hotel and Lewis has already started work on plans to transform the 14-story Protective Life and Commerce Center building into a luxury hotel in downtown Birmingham.

Funding Change
The St. James Hotel had once been owned by the city as local leaders, the community and Selma’s Redevelopment Authority sought to preserve buildings in downtown Selma’s historic district. Now its re-opening has the ability to alter Selma’s current trajectory, said Deborah La Franchi, who is the managing partner for American South Real Estate Fund and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Strategic Development Solutions, which launched the fund with Shreveport, Louisiana-based Vintage Realty Group in 2017.

“This is a catalytic investment that can spur tourists to stay there,” La Franchi said. “In the past, the city owned the hotel, which is a challenge, because running a hotel is not central to what city government does. But if you look at Jim Lewis’ track record, along with his partners, we were impressed.”

Like developer Lewis, Epps has spent a large amount of time touring historic properties in the southern United States looking for potential acquisition opportunities on behalf of American South Real Estate Fund.

Usually, he tours aging office buildings or historic textile mills that have been vacant for decades and require a bit of imagination to see its potential, but Selma’s St. James Hotel has remained relatively operational.

“There are signs of lack of maintenance over the past few years, but overall it looks like someone up and left it,” Epps said, adding historic furniture and artwork remain in the closed hotel. “You can easily imagine what this hotel looked like in the 1800s.”

American South Real Estate Fund also saw an opportunity to make a difference. The impact fund targets communities with a declining population and low- to moderate-incomes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Selma’s median household income in 2017 was $24,223.

Those demographics of residents were some of Selma’s hurdles in recruiting a major brand to its borders, Epps said. But they also didn’t accurately reflect the tourism attracted to Selma’s piece in U.S. history, with visitors from 27 countries visiting Selma during the 2018 calendar year, according to the city’s tourism data.

“We are hoping the revitalization of the St. James Hotel will help redevelop Selma itself,” he said. “This project is important not only to Selma, but the entire region.”

For the complete article please see

Monroeville launches bronze sculpture trail
Monroeville Main Street in partnership with the City of Monroeville is launching a new bronze sculpture trail to celebrate the 10 writers who made the city famous for being Alabama’s Literary Capital. Artist Craig Wedderspoon’s Bronze Sculpture Class at the University of Alabama has created 14 works of art which will form a permanent exhibit throughout Monroeville’s historic downtown area. The sculpture trail will be unveiled on Friday, April 26 at 2:30 p.m.  Wedderspoon will lead visitors through the trail describing the inspiration for each piece. Writers being honored include Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Cynthia Tucker, Mark Childress, Marva Collins, Rheta Grimsley Johnson, Riley Kelly, Mike Stewart, William Barrett Travis and Hank Williams.

For more information on Monroeville’s bronze sculpture trail please see

New Opelika Songwriters Festival
From the article by Mary Colurso on

The 30A Songwriters Festival probably rules supreme, but there’s a new way to get your singer-songwriter fix this year — and it’s happening in a small city in Alabama.

The Opelika Songwriters Festival will make its debut over Memorial Day weekend, offering a lineup of more than 30 acts at downtown venues such as Eighth & Rail, Sneak & Dawdle, John Emerald Distillery and Irish Bred Pub. All of the venues will be within walking distance — up to about four blocks apart — and most are located on North and South Railroad Avenue. An outdoor stage is planned for the green near the Opelika train depot, 1032 S. Railroad Ave.

The festival, founded by Rob and Jen Slocumb of the folk-rock band Martha’s Trouble, is set for Friday through Sunday, May 24-26. A full schedule hasn’t been released yet, but 21 artists have been confirmed for the event, including Kim Richey, kate Campbell, Grayson Capps, Jeff Black, Dan Navarro, Harpeth Rising, Ryanhood, Cliff Eberhardt and Rock Killough. More names will be announced soon, according to the festival’s website.

Martha’s Trouble will perform at the festival, as well. Jen Slocumb, from Ontario, Canada, and Rob Slocumb, from Nashville, live in nearby Auburn. They’re the owners of The Sound Wall in Opelika, a historic house that’s been transformed into a recording studio.

“We expect the Opelika Songwriters Festival to be a destination event for fans of singer-songwriters,” Rob said via a press release.

Advance tickets for the festival are $75 for a day pass, May 24 or 25; $120 for a two-day pass May 24-25; $175 for a three-day VIP pass, May 24-26. On April 26, prices will increase to $90 for a day pass, $150 for a two-day pass, $225 for a three-day VIP pass. VIP passes include brunch on Sunday with an in-the-round concert featuring festival headliners. (Specific acts for that haven’t been announced.)

The festival is a co-production of The Sound Wall and the Arts Association of East Alabama. Proceeds from ticket sales will benefit the arts association.

For the complete article please see

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