This region of northwestern Alabama is a great budget destination for all ages, and ideal for multi-generational vacations.
When you think of country music, you think Nashville. When you think blues and rock n’ roll, of course Memphis comes to mind, but in the Shoals area of northwest Alabama, just two hours from either city, you get to the real roots of all three of these American musical genres. Rich musical history aside, the Shoals area markets itself as a retirement community and because of this, offers residents and visitors alike many services, events and attractions that would appeal to those over 50. This makes it an ideal destination for grandparent travel and family reunions, with plenty to keep the elders entertained.
Country, Blues, and Rock ‘N Roll History
The Shoals area encompasses four picturesque cities, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Florence. From this region came Jimmy Rogers, the pioneer of country and western music and Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records who discovered Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and the King himself, Elvis Presley.
Another famous local musician was W. C. Handy, the undisputed “Father of the Blues” and the composer of “Saint Louis Blues.” He is honoured with the annual W. C. Handy Festival, celebrating his musical legacy throughout the Shoals. The festivities run from the end of July to the beginning of August. Throughout the year, you can visit what the locals call “The Handy Home“, a log cabin in Florence, where William Christopher Handy was born in 1873. The adjacent W. C. Handy Museum (888/7FLO-TOUR) features personal documents and artifacts, including Handy’ trumpet and player piano, which talented visitors are allowed to play. When I tickled these ivories, I thought the piano needed tuning, but in reality, I’m probably solely responsible for hitting sour notes.
Visitors to The Alabama Music Hall of Fame (800/239-AMHF) in Tuscumbia will witness a wide variety of music legends that hailed from or recorded in the state, including Hank Williams, Lionel Richie, Nat “King” Cole, Tammy Wynette and the group Alabama. You can also record your own hit or star in a video. Be forewarned, they don’t record you in a sound proof booth–the entire building will echo with the sound of your voice. That’s something I unfortunately learned a little too late! Also at the Hall of Fame is a tribute to Sheffield’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studios where Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Wilson Pickett and others laid down tracks.
Tuscumbia: Hometown of Helen Keller
Attractions in the Tuscumbia area include The Ritz (256/381-8370), an old silent movie house restored in Art Deco style for community theater performances, and The Tennessee Valley Art Center (256/383-0533). The Art Center houses regional and national exhibits, prehistoric rock art and a grand piano once played by Jerry Lee Lewis.
Around the corner is a house called Ivy Green (256/383-4066), the birthplace of America’s “First Lady of Courage,” Helen Keller. Still standing behind the house is the pump where Keller learned her first word—water. The Helen Keller Festival is held at the end of every June in tribute to this much-accomplished deaf and blind woman. Also on the grounds, you can catch Alabama’s Official Outdoor Drama, “The Miracle Worker“. The season runs from mid-June to mid-July.
Downtown Tuscumbia has been revitalised over the past several years. It started with the renovation of the historic Palace Drug Store (256/386-8210) and its famous soda fountain. A newer addition to the city is Spring Park, with its trickling waterfall and a cascading fountain. A gathering place for some local flavor is Claunch CafÃ© (256/386-0222), where meatloaf and yummy desserts rule!
Fabulous Florence Attractions and Eateries
There is so much to see in Florence. The Florence Harbor overlooks the Tennessee River. If you can pull yourself away from that view, check out the “Usonian” Rosenbaum House (256/740-8899) designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts (256/760-6379) and the grounds of the University of North Alabama (800/TALK-UNA). Every April, the George Lindsey/UNA Television and Film Festival is hosted by Shakespearean-trained actor Dr. George S. Lindsey, better known to older television audiences as Goober from The Andy Griffith Show. Florence is also the scene of the Alabama Renaissance Faire (205/764-4661) in late October.
If you are spending the day with grandkids, a great place to go is Children’s Museum of the Shoals (256/765-0500), next to the 70-acre Deibert Park. Fun for all ages can be had at the giant keyboard you play with your feet, just like Tom Hanks in the movie Big. Children can also navigate a small-scale model of the Tennessee River with toy boats, explore an outdoor Native American exhibit, or spell their names in Braille, in addition to many other pint-sized activities.
Historic downtown Florence is great for antique shopping and eating. Popular eateries include Trowbridge’s (256/764-1503), a little lunch spot with basic sandwiches, hot dogs, chips and ice cream. For a heartier meal, try Ricatoni’s Italian Grill (256/718-1002) across the street.
More Ideas for Exploration
Also worth seeing is the Pettus Museum (256/757-9229) in neighbouring Killen. Local historian and memorabilia collector Ron Pettus opened this eclectic museum and gift store when his basement became too small to store his many finds. Displays include everything from Native American and American history, to military paraphernalia, to the world of politics and popular culture. Leave plenty of time to take advantage of Pettus’ personal tour.
Every third Saturday in September, motorcycle enthusiasts make their way from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Waterloo, Alabama for the Trail of Tears Commemorative Motorcycle Ride. This journey memorializes the evacuation of 1,040 Cherokees forced to walk or boat this route amidst devastating loss of life.
Accommodations around the Shoals area include reasonably priced inns, hotels and motels, RV parks and the luxury Double Head Resort (800/685-9267) on Wilson Lake, just a stone’s throw away from the new Robert Trent Jones Golf Course.
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