Huntsville, Alabama may not be the first destination on the top of your mind, or even on your bucket list at all, but after reading this post it will likely move up more than a few notches.
We all conjure impressions of various destinations around the world based on the information we’ve gathered and absorbed over time. Some destinations are easier than others to form an impression as there is much more information and history to draw from. It’s important to note that impressions are not only often wrong, but often skewed based on the information we’ve absorbed.
Take Paris for example, most people think of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, street-side cafés, fine French cuisine, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and perhaps, Moulin Rouge. For the most part, what you expect is what you get.
However, that’s not always the case. I’ll never forget my first trip to New Orleans; I had little to no interest in the city because my ignorant impression was that of a party scene wrapped around Mardi Gras. Boy, was I wrong! When I visited a couple years ago I discovered a world-class destination not only rich in history, but culinary, music and hospitality mastery.
I mention the above to illustrate a point, that all too often our impressions of a destination are wrong due to our own individual level of ignorance.
I recently visited Huntsville, Alabama for a travel conference and got but a glimpse of what I believe is an up-and-coming travel destination. While my knowledge and expectations of Huntsville were limited, those expectations were far exceeded. I truly hope to visit Huntsville again one day to further explore the city that could be compared to an onion as it has many layers to discover.
While I was in Huntsville, this is what I learned. For starters, southern hospitality is alive and well. I remember one day standing at the front desk of my hotel when a local standing nearby asked if I was in town for the travel conference? When I replied, “Yes,” he extended his hand and said, “Welcome! This is my hometown and I’ve very proud of Huntsville and sure hope you’ve enjoyed your stay so far.” I thought that was so incredibly kind. Everyone I ran across was gracious and welcoming.
While I was quite busy participating in activities at the travel conference, I did have a couple of days on my own to explore. Here is a snapshot of what I saw and experienced.
Big Spring Park – Located right in the heart of downtown Huntsville is an urban oasis, a large green space with an expansive fish/koi pond, waterways, paths and pedestrian access points (to cross the water). The park is flanked by hotels, restaurants and other venues.
Historic District – One day I went on a two-mile historic walking tour through Huntsville’s beautiful Twickenham District, an area with stunning antebellum homes, where tales of scandalous intrigue could make a good southern belle clutch her pearls. Along the tour we even met a few fine friends dressed in period attire playing historic roles. It was like stepping back in time, if only for a moment.
Huntsville Botanical Garden – Situated on a 120-acre site, this botanical garden has stunning floral collections, grassy meadows, inviting woodland paths, an aquatic area, herb and vegetable gardens, a children’s center and a whole lot more. During my visit, I ate at the on-site restaurant and dined on the patio overlooking the gardens. It was a delightful experience on a glorious spring day.
Huntsville Entertainment Venues – Each evening during the travel conference, we experienced a different venue. Each completely different from the next, and each a destination unto itself.
- Lowe Mill Arts Center – This place is a former textile mill providing a backdrop for a cultural complex with myriad artists and performers. With over 200 artists, art galleries and restaurants, this venue is the largest privately owned studio in the country. Since this was a private event, we basically had the place to ourselves and only scratched the surface of the number of nooks and crannies. One of many highlights was the guitar-making studio with intimate musical venue.
- AM Booth’s Lumberyard – This is a large indoor/outdoor social eatery with Southern-inspired fare, cocktails and live music. The 120-year-old site has an expansive and eclectic layout with a relaxed vibe rooted in southern hospitality. There are four stages, large patios and beautiful plant life. One of the many attractions is the 1920s Pullman train car resting in the central courtyard, surrounded by a fanciful collection of unique treasures. This was a really memorable place to spend the evening eating, socializing and being entertained.
- U.S. Space & Rocket Center – Just when we didn’t think organizers could top the previous two venue events, they shuttled us to the impressive U.S. Space and Rocket Center. We arrived to a large brass band playing 30s and 40s style music while we stood under the engineering marvel of a Saturn 5 rocket that spans 363 feet. The facility is absolutely an inspiring look at what mankind has been able to achieve.
- Campus No. 805 – For our last evening in town we visited Campus No. 805, an old school repurposed into an entertainment campus, complete with breweries, restaurants, retail and entertainment venues nestled around a park. From its landmark location in the heart of the city, Campus No. 805 has become the connecting point for the resurging West Huntsville neighborhoods and treasured historic districts.
Restaurants – While most of my food was provided at the conference, I did get to try a few restaurants during my free time. The highlight was without question Cotton Row Restaurant. The elegant open-air space in a beautiful 1820s brick building blends harmoniously with its downtown location, which is surpassed only by the exceptional food coming out of Chef James Boyce’s kitchen. The cuisine is refined American influenced by its southern heritage.
Lodging – I stayed at the SpringHill Suits by Marriott for the duration of my stay, which was quite nice. My room was spacious with a separate seating area and desk, which made it very comfortable to work at night. Some of the TBEX conference attendees stayed at the Embassy Suites, which is a half star higher-class hotel and closer to downtown venues. Both are great choices if you wish to stay near the downtown convention center.
After five whirlwind days in Huntsville, my only disappointment was that my time had come to an end. I felt like I had just begun to scratch the surface of this exceptional city to the north in Sweet Home Alabama.
If you’ve ever been to Huntsville, or a city that exceeded your expectations, please leave a comment below and share your experience.