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Best of Alabama

Alabama might not look all that big on a roadmap, but it’s long and lean and full of reasons to wander into its corners. Traveling Interstate 65, it’s 364 miles from Ardmore on the Tennessee line to the shores of Mobile Bay. You can roll a bit farther to the Gulf of Mexico’s sugar-white beaches.

Here is an Alabama itinerary that will provide your groups with connections to entertainers of world renown, contemplative sites in civil rights history and some well-traveled exotic animals. Bring an appetite for pork barbecue and fresh seafood, and enjoy Alabama.

Music History Muscle Shoals

When Alabamians mention the Shoals area, they mean a four-city region in northwest Alabama divided by the Tennessee River: Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia and Sheffield. Even if the term is unfamiliar, you’ve heard music recorded here, assuming you’ve ever listened to Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Paul McCartney, Mavis Staples, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Cher — we could continue, but you get the idea.

Get a total immersion in this musical magic at two recording studios and a lyrical museum. Start with Fame Recording Studios: Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and others who created 350 million recorded or published cuts here. Like many studios, it’s nondescript, with a CVS, a Walgreens and an AutoZone for neighbors. Just as architecturally unimpressive is Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, often just called 3614 Jackson Highway. Inside is the grand piano you hear on Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” and Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll,” and it, of course, is home to the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, also called the Swampers.

The museum to visit is the out-on-a-lonesome-highway Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Despite its isolation, it is full of amazing Alabama trivia and great music. Two displays are particularly fun. Step inside a giant jukebox and listen to songs by Alabamians Lionel Richie, Dr. Hook, Nat “King” Cole and two dozen others, and just a few feet away, you walk into a towering guitar to listen to Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris and many others.

While you’re there: Absorb some Native American heritage by hiking up the Florence Indian Mound, built between 100 B.C. and A.D. 400, and enjoying its small museum. You could also visit Tom’s Wall along the Natchez Trace Parkway, a true labor of love honoring a woman of the Yuchi people forced onto the Trail of Tears. One stone at a time, Tom Hendrix, her great-great grandson, built the largest unmortared rock wall in America and the largest memorial to a Native American woman.

See Rocket City in Huntsville

Navigate east from the Shoals to Huntsville, an Appalachian foothills city that looks to the stars and earned the nickname “Rocket City” because of the Marshall Space Flight Center and a passel of rocket scientists who helped take us to the moon and beyond. Learn all about it — and marvel at the scale of the rockets that flung humans into space — at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020 and home of Space Camp, Alabama’s No. 1 visitor attraction. There’s a special in-depth tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center every day at 12:30 p.m.

Back on earth, Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment has become a major destination. Housed in a massive textile mill building, it is America’s largest independent arts center. It is open Wednesday through Saturday, with more than 150 studios for 200 artists and makers, six fine-art galleries, restaurants, a 400-seat theater and other performance venues. Time your visit just right to enjoy a poetry slam, a swing dance night or an outdoor concert.

Downtown Huntsville has a special treat, the Lucky Duck Scavenger Hunt. You get a clue sheet to help you find 14 bronze ducks, sculpted by a Lowe Mill artist by the way, while exploring downtown and learning about Alabama’s first capital city. Another activity is a driving tour of the Spaces Sculpture Trail, which features 30 large-scale sculptures throughout the city.

While you’re there: Go just a bit farther east for a full mountain experience in DeKalb County, and enjoy the Little River Canyon National Preserve, a region of forested highlands, canyon rims, sandstone cliffs, brilliant fall foliage, and rhododendrons and mountain laurel in spring. A sure-to-please stop is DeSoto Falls, all 104 feet of it.

History and Revival in Birmingham

Many people are surprised to learn that Birmingham, 100 miles south, wasn’t founded until 1871. It is the site of one of the saddest episodes in American history: the murder of four young black girls in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The church long ago memorialized the girls and, in late 2019, enhanced their story with a new museum-caliber display called “The Experience.” Groups are welcome to inspect timelines of city history and the darkest days of the 1960s. A touching stained-glass window of a crucified black Christ donated by the citizens of Wales overlooks the impressive sanctuary, and Kelly Ingram Park across the street contains numerous thought-provoking statues.

There’s a respite from the heaviness of 1960s history just a few blocks away at Railroad Park, a 19-acre greenspace in the heart of downtown. It’s a place for walks, concerts and outdoor activities that is adjacent to one of minor league baseball’s most impressive stadiums, Regions Field. A lake, ponds and streams add extra accents, and the highest point on the Rail Trail affords you impressive views. High-rise offices are in one direction, and the iconic statue of Vulcan is in the other direction atop Red Mountain.

Railroad Park was reclaimed industrial space, and similar efforts produced the Pepper Place district. Starting in the 1980s, various businesses began popping up in a factory and warehouse district anchored by an old Dr Pepper plant that once produced all the Dr Pepper syrup used east of the Mississippi River. Today, there are 350,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and offices. Saturdays from mid-April through mid-December are effervescent, with a bustling outdoor market for farmers, makers and food vendors.

While you’re there: Get inspiration for sprucing up your own yard at two free gardens. On the south side of Red Mountain is the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, 67.5 acres designed to impress. Calling itself Alabama’s largest living museum, it has 25 interpretative and themed gardens, including a Japanese garden and a wildflower garden, and more than 3,000 plant varieties. Slightly farther south in Hoover is Aldridge Gardens, 30 acres especially famous for its hydrangea displays.

Justice on Display in Montgomery

Confronting the legacy of slavery, lynching and segregation is the goal of two sites the Equal Justice Initiative opened in downtown Montgomery in 2018. They are stark and somber, and they provoke deep thought and conversation. The New York Times said, “There’s nothing like this in the country.”

One is the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, built on the site of a warehouse where enslaved people were held. It explains the history of racial inequality and its relationship to contemporary issues. Less than a mile away is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a powerful six-acre outdoor reminder of almost 5,000 racial terror lynchings in the U.S. between 1887 and 1950. Eight hundred monuments, each six feet tall, tell a painful story: That’s one monument for every county where a lynching occurred.

While you’re there: The three-deck Harriott II riverboat gives you a water-level view of Montgomery with cruises on the Alabama River, which flows through the heart of the city. It docks beside the Riverfront Amphitheater and offers midday and evening excursions.

Visit a Moving Zoo in Gulf Shores

Alabama is known for its beautiful 60 miles of Gulf of Mexico coastline, but an attraction unrelated to sand and surf has brought the area international publicity. It’s the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo in Gulf Shores, made famous in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan forced the first wholesale evacuation of a U.S. zoo because of a natural disaster. The almost incredible feat led to the “Little Zoo That Could” TV series, and that led to the donation of a bigger and safer parcel of land.

You could rename the zoo again as the “Little Zoo That Moved” because it is to reopen in February 2020 four miles inland after expanding from seven acres to 25 acres. A novel element is the Safari Club Restaurant, a public restaurant open beyond zoo hours that overlooks the zoo. That means your group can hear the monkeys howl and the lions roar while having dinner on the veranda. The zoo has 600 animals, 199 species and a staff that enjoys a good laugh. That’s why there is a crane named Frazier and a sloth named Sonic.

While you’re there: Some of the region’s lodging and dining buzz comes from Gulf State Park and its 350-room lodge, a Hilton hotel, that opened in late 2018. When Hurricane Ivan whacked the zoo, it also destroyed the previous lodge, built in the 1970s. The multifaceted park has two miles of beachfront, and the lodge offers accommodations and dining for groups.