Nearby Vacation Getaways

Emerald Coast Magazine writers have wandered around the Southeast, and they’ve found four possibilities for a day, weekend or short getaway stay.


The Georgia Aquarium Atlanta’s Aquatic Adventure

By Rosanne Dunkelberger

The brand spankin’ new, $290-million Georgia Aquarium is, by any measure, the largest in the world, with 8 million gallons of water in its habitats, and more than 100,000 animals representing 500 species.

9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

$24 for adults, $18 for children ages 3-12, and $20 for seniors ages 55 and older. To order in advance, visit or call (404) 581-4000 or (877) 434-7442.

To get there:
Travel on Interstate 10 East to Interstate 75/85, heading north toward Atlanta, and take exit 248 C (International Boulevard). Turn left onto Andrew Young International Boulevard, then right onto Spring Street and left onto Baker Street. Cross over Centennial Olympic Park and turn right onto Luckie Street. The aquarium parking garage is on the right.

Visitor Services: (404) 581-4000

On the Web:

While the shopping and entertainment often are enough to lure Emerald Coast residents to make the five-hour drive to the bright lights of Atlanta, there is a big – really big – reason to make the trip now.

Right in the heart of downtown, you will find the best thing to happen to the city since the 1996 Olympics: the Georgia Aquarium. The display spaces comprise five galleries, featuring different marine habitats from around the world. There are well-informed educators at most of the major exhibits who are happy to answer questions about what you are seeing, as well as lots of fun, interactive touch-screen educational activities. Explore the galleries in whatever order you like at your own pace; each has a particular style and appeal, such as arctic animals or a kid-friendly playground.

The most impressive, the Ocean Voyager gallery, is home to the aquarium’s biggest attraction – make that attractions – Norton, Alice and Trixie, three whale sharks who inhabit the world’s largest (6.3-million-gallon) fish tank.

The exhibit begins with a walk through a 100-foot-long tunnel that surrounds you with water and three-sided views of the whale sharks and other fish – zebra, hammerhead and wobbegong sharks, guitarfish, giant goliath groupers, cownose rays and other species – as they meander around the tank.

Another surprising favorite for me was the River Scout exhibit, highlighting the diversity of animals found in the world’s freshwater lakes and rivers. It had a rough-hewn, fish-camp feel about it and an overhead “river” that gave an interesting perspective. While it was fun to see the familiar catfish, I was most impressed by the beautiful colors of the African cichlids and just a bit creeped out by the piranhas.

Some aquarium favorites can be found in Cold Water Quest, including the fascinating and playful all-white beluga whales. It also is easy to view the antics of sea lions and sea otters in their land/water, indoor/outdoor habitats. A viewing window in the African penguin exhibit lets you go nose-to-beak with its inhabitants, who don’t seem at all fazed when a person pops up in their living room.

For an additional fee, one can enjoy Deepo’s Undersea 3D Wondershow, a delightful undersea adventure that features live action, tons of 3D movie effects and a few special effects. (You’re able to feel the jellyfish tentacles as they swim by. Ewww!)

The Georgia Aquarium participates in CityPass, a program that offers a one-price ticket ($59 for adults, $45 for children) for all of Atlanta’s must-do attractions, which include the World of Coca Cola, the High Museum of Art, the CNN studio tour, the Fernbank Museum, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Zoo Atlanta and the Atlanta History Center.


KentuckySights and Sounds

By Chuck Beard

“Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file – the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle raiser, the pioneer farmer – and the frontier has passed by.” – Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame & Museum: 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. Sunday.
The McCreary County Museum: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

Kentucky Music Hall of Fame & Museum: $7.50 adults, $7 seniors, $6 groups of 10 or more and $4.50 for children ages 6-12.
McCreary County Museum: Tickets are $3 adults, $2 children and free for children under 3.

To get there:
Travel on Interstate 10 West, towards Mobile. Take Interstate 65 North for approximately 180 miles. Take Interstate 459 North, followed by 1-59 North, I-24 East and US 27 North. Continue on TN-111 North and on to US-68, turning right on KY-208 South to arrive at the center of Kentucky. 

Big South Fork Scenic Railway, Stearns: (606) 376-5330
Kentucky Music Hall of Fame & Museum: (877) 356-3263
McCreary County Museum: (606) 376-5730
Southern & Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association: (877) TOUR-SEKY (877-868-7735)

On the Web:

There’s blue grass, and then there’s bluegrass – and no one does bluegrass better than Kentuckians. The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame at Renfro Valley traces the fascinating evolution of local music traditions from its humble beginnings in the Appalachians to today’s glitzy country rock. The museum begins its story in the 1700s, when handmade instruments were passed along and the biggest stage probably was a front porch. Slave traditions infused an African color into the music, and the slaves’ banjer became the hills people’s banjo.

Famous sons and daughters of Kentucky are honored at the Hall of Fame, including Loretta Lynn, Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, The Judds, The Osborne Brothers, Red Foley, Rosemary Clooney and the father of bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe. The museum has a strong educational program with music workshops, and you can even record your own CD in the Hall of Fame Studio.

Renfro Valley is celebrating 65 years of traditional country music and family comedy, and its claim to be Kentucky’s “country music capital” is disputed by none.

“This is what Branson (Mo.) should be like,” said one guest at the Friday-night Barn Dance after a dizzying 90-minute show featuring the most talented singers, players and

comedians Kentucky has to offer. You’ll feel like you just saw a show at the Grand Ole Opry, but without the traffic or the hucksterism.
All the big names pass through, and the coming months’ roster of performers includes such stellar names as Lynn, Loveless, Randy Travis, Larry Gatlin, Charley Pride, Ray Price, Exile, Ronnie McDowell, The Oak Ridge Boys, Merle Haggard and George Jones.

But it’s the in-house stable of performers that will wow you day in, day out. Regular shows include Front Porch Pickin’, Classic Country, Mountain Gospel Jubilee, Renfro Valley Gatherin’, Barn Dance and Jamboree, and are not to be missed. (And hearing Susan Tomes Laws belt out “Cattle Call” at the Friday-night Jamboree was worth the whole trip.)

The Renfro Valley experience also includes great meals, the BitterSweet Cabin Museum, shops, a full-service RV park and outside entertainment.

The discovery of coal at the turn of the 20th century led to boom times for southeastern Kentucky. The Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. built the town of Stearns to serve as the hub of a logging and mining empire that, in its 1920s heydays, controlled more than 200 square miles of land. The Stearns company built the Kentucky and Tennessee Railway as well as the world’s first all-electric sawmill, and employed more than 2,200 people in its 18 coal camps. The company town included a freight depot, office building, pool hall, theater, hotel and a company store, where residents could purchase items with company-issued scrip.

By the 1950s, the coal mines played out one by one and soon were abandoned. By 1976, the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. sold most of its buildings to the Blue Diamond Coal Co., and in 1987 the last railcar of coal left the Blue Diamond mines.

The McCreary County Museum, housed in a 1907 Stearns Coal & Lumber office building, is a window into the area’s often wild past. (A favorite with guests is the whiskey-still exhibit.) A lot of history is packed into this small, charming museum, dedicated to the memories of the lives of coal miners and their families.

The restored Big South Fork Scenic Railway whisks visitors through the gorge of the Big South Fork, a tributary of the Cumberland River, to the Blue Heron Mining Camp, hugging the cliffline, passing through one tunnel and descending more than 600 feet over five miles.

Considered by residents to be one of the best Stearns coal mines to live and work at, the Blue Heron Mining Camp was built in 1937 and then abandoned in 1962. In 1989, the National Park Service restored the camp with “ghost structures” and oral-history exhibits as part of the Big South Fork River and Recreation Area.

Take the time to visit the ghost structures and listen to recordings of past residents who spent their lives at the camp; the voices seem in turn wistful, thankful and proud. A short hike up the hill leads to the abandoned mine opening. 


ChattanoogaMother Nature’s Gift

By Jason Dehart

So many Chattanoogas. So little time. You’ll have to plan a long weekend if you want to really see this Tennessee city, which in recent years has shaken off the dust of its industrial past and put on a new shine.

Rock City is open 8:30 a.m.
Ruby Falls is open 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

Ruby Falls adult tickets, ages 13 years and over, are $14.95 and children’s tickets, ages 3-12, are $6.95. Rock City adult tickets, ages 13 and over, are $14.95 and children’s tickets, ages 3-12, are $7.95. Ruby Falls and Rock City adult tickets, ages 13 years and over, are $28.00 and children’s tickets, ages 3-12, are $14.00.

To get there:
Travel on Interstate 10 West, heading towards Mobile. Take Interstate 65 North for approximately 180 miles. Take Interstate 459 North, followed by Interstate 24 East. Take Exit 178 onto US-27 North.

Ruby Falls: (423) 821-2544
Rock City: (800) 854-0675

On the Web:

This “Gateway to the Deep South,” has evolved into a modern, steel-and-glass tableau of art, culture, science and discovery – while its most cherished landmarks continue to attract thousands of visitors every year.

The $120-million worth of waterfront renovations are notable for their celebration of history and culture. Along Ross’s Landing Park where the Trail of Tears began, an underground passageway called “The Passage” features huge Cherokee Indian symbols and leads visitors down to the Tennessee River and the waterfront park. New walkways along the waterfront direct pedestrians to various destinations, and a glass-bottom pedestrian bridge links the Bluff View Arts District to downtown. There also is a new pier, new restaurants and mooring facilities for boaters.

The new Chattanooga goes beyond sprucing up the downtown waterfront, Davis said.

The Ocean Journey wing of the Tennessee Aquarium, along with its predecessor and sister facility River Journey, is the focal point and inspiration of the city’s rebirth.

 “When Chattanoogans envisioned a renaissance for their city 20 years ago, they returned to their river, said spokeswoman Katrina Craven. “Now, the banks of the river flourish with an aquarium, children’s museum, carousel, theaters, walking paths, pedestrian bridge, pier and other amenities that helped revitalize what had become a dirty, dying downtown.”

If kids could design the ultimate in hands-on kids’ museums, the result might look something like the Creative Discovery Museum, one of the largest children’s museums in the United States.

Don’t be surprised if you find your kids climbing the rafters once inside the huge RiverPlay climbing playground, an adventuresome climbing maze of nets, ladders, slides and tubes that culminates in a  “riverboat” and crow’s nest at the top of the two-and-a-half-story-tall structure. Down below, a series of water tables engage children’s messy fascination with water while celebrating the dynamics of the Tennessee River. 

The Hunter Museum of American Art perches like a natural outcropping of rocks on top of a dramatic 80-foot bluff overlooking the Tennessee River. The new, modern building complete with bluff-view terraces, has an exceptional collection, with the art of American greats such as Winslow Homer decorating the galleries on a regular basis.

Like the rest of Chattanooga, several grand old ladies of Southern roadside tourism are undergoing renovations and upgrades that will help them connect with the downtown revitalization efforts.

At 145 feet tall, Ruby Falls – located 1,120 feet under the mountain – is the largest underground waterfall in the country that is available to the public. Guided tours include an elevator ride (260 feet down through solid rock in 30 seconds) into a cavern filled with fascinating rock formations.

Once you’ve seen the underside of Lookout Mountain, go on top for breathtaking views of Chattanooga from Rock City, which has been an American tourist icon since 1932.

“Rock City is a piece of Americana that delights families today just as much as it did 70 years ago,” said Bill Chapin, president of See Rock City Inc. The attraction boasts an amazing waterfall, rocky outcroppings, narrow passages, beautiful gardens and mythical “gnomes.” Along Rock City’s Enchanted Trail, visitors can explore the Grand Corridor,

Needle’s Eye and a 200-foot swinging bridge. Lover’s Leap is the climax of the tour, and it’s said you can see seven states from this 1,700-foot vantage point.

If you go to Chattanooga, don’t forget that there are other great sites to see and things to do. The Chickamauga Battlefield is one of the largest and oldest national battlefield parks; it has a modern visitor’s center, firearms collection and a multimedia history presentation. The Lookout Mountain Incline Railway continues to be “America’s Most Amazing Mile,” and the Wilderness Outdoor Movie Theater is touted as “the world’s largest drive-in theater,” with a screen 100 feet long and 50 feet high. There is whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River and, at the end of the day, you can walk up the hill to BellSouth Park to catch the Chattanooga Lookouts minor-league ball team in action.


New OrleansCity of Dreams

By Virginia Newman

Believe it! Although still haunted by media reports of soaked houses and saturated residents, that unsinkable grande dame the city of New Orleans wants you to know that everything which laissez les bon temps rouler (“let the good times roll”) in The Big Easy is back, and she’s strutting her stuff as sassy as ever.

To get there:
Travel on Interstate 10, heading west for approximately 200 miles, Take Exit 235 A/Orleans Avenue toward Vieux Carre’.

New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau: (800) 672-6124

On the Web:

While some outlying areas still are recovering from Hurricane Katrina, visitors will find the New Orleans tourist spots, including the French Quarter, the Garden District, the Riverfront, most museums, the aquarium, the Audubon Park Zoo, blues clubs and famous restaurants as deliciously divine as they ever were. The jazz is jumping, the food is fabulous, and tourists visiting the most popular spots would be surprised how much the city has bounced back from that infamous storm.

But don’t eat for a week before you go – save yourself for that cuisine! They say that dining is a passionate art form in New Orleans. Whether your tastes run from being served Creole gumbo by the tuxedoed wait staff at Arnaud’s to grabbing that streetside Crescent City delight, a po-boy sandwich, a unique and succulent culinary experience awaits.

When you come, start your day in the Vieux Carré (Old Square), better known as the French Quarter. From here, you can walk to many of the most popular and visited areas of the city. Settle down in the shade at one of Café Du Monde’s sidewalk tables and savor its famous beignets, a sweet sugary pastry so light it melts in your mouth, served with steaming cups of café au lait.

Or, if you’re in a more upscale mood, lavish breakfasts of elaborate poached-egg dishes are what first put the renowned “breakfast at Brennan’s” on the map. In a 17th-century building, the best seats include views of the lush courtyard. Eye-opening cocktails flow freely, followed by the poached eggs sandwiched between such ingredients as hollandaise, creamed spinach, artichoke bottoms and Canadian bacon. Top it off with Bananas Foster, another local creation.

Throughout the French Quarter, shop the antique stores, galleries and quaint boutiques. You’ll find everything from gorgeous furniture to juju beads – but don’t pass up the candy shops. You can’t leave New Orleans without tasting pralines (please pronounce it “PRAH-leens”), a confection made from pecans (“pee-CONS”) and sugar syrup that is one of the foods most associated with New Orleans.

The old-line favorites – Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Brennan’s, Court of Two Sisters, Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace – are up and running with panache. K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen; Dickie Brennan’s newest restaurant, Bourbon House Seafood & Oyster Bar; and Emeril Lagasse’s three restaurants – Emeril’s, NOLA, and Emeril’s Delmonico – are just a few of the favorites back in business. One of the best-kept secrets in town is the gourmet cuisine at Besh Steakhouse at Harrah’s Casino, which offers the renowned chef’s nouveau steakhouse fare and one of the finest wine cellars in the city at high-roller prices – all just steps from the casino floor.

Down on Bourbon Street, get with the non-stop party atmosphere and cruise bustling bars, charming bistros, hotels, restaurants and boutiques. The fun is flowing with jazz, blues and rock ’n’ roll all over the place. Of course, everybody has to go to Pat O’Brien’s and drink one of its potent Hurricane drinks. Don’t miss the free noontime concerts at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park on the Riverfront. And, after Katrina, Tipitina’s opened a community music center where, every weekday afternoon, musicians gather to play and socialize.

This is just a taste of the offerings. Call your travel agent or check out the Internet for affordable travel arrangements. Airlines and hotels have incentive programs. If you want a colorful and affordable vacation, where everyone holds out a welcoming hand for you with a package deal, look into going “way down yonder in New Orleans.”