The South is full of unique destinations that are not familiar to many people but are well worth a visit. From animal sanctuaries and museums to spectacular natural wonders, here are a handful of hidden Southern gems that should be at the top of any group travel planner’s itinerary.
Old Friends Farm
Fans of Thoroughbred racing will want to tour Old Friends Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky. The Thoroughbred retirement facility, which was founded in 2003 by former Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen, is home to some big names in racing as well as lesser known horses that didn’t quite make it in the big leagues. The farm provides sanctuary and aftercare for horses whose racing and breeding days are over.
Since its founding, Old Friends Farm has grown from a leased paddock with one horse to a 236-acre farm with a herd of 140 rescued and retired racing horses. Blowen founded the facility because he thought horses past their prime could still be valuable. The farm is now a living history museum of horse racing that attracts nearly 20,000 visitors a year.
Groups visiting the facility can take a 90-minute guided walking tour of the farm, seeing about 15 of the farm’s most famous residents, paddock to paddock, including 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm. Tour guides share racing stats, background stories and personality tales about each of the horses, and visitors can even feed the horses treats. After the tour, groups can visit the gift shop.
The Founder’s Tour takes place on Fridays and is a personal tour of the farm with Michael Blowen as the guide. Private tours for larger groups are also available.
Biedenharn Museum and Gardens
Biedenharn Museum and Gardens in Monroe, Louisiana, was built by Joe Biedenharn, the first person to bottle Coca-Cola.
“He did not invent the bottle, and he didn’t invent Coke. He just married the two together,” said Ralph Calhoun, executive director of the museum complex. “It is a big deal in the history of Coca-Cola and the history of marketing.”
Visitors can tour the original house, built by the Biedenharns in 1914, and a small estate garden. Initially, the home had a modest vegetable garden, but Joe’s daughter, who toured Europe as a singer before World War II, decided to build a formal garden like the ones she had seen overseas. The garden is known for its azaleas, thousands of tulips and crepe myrtle bushes. It also has a small conservatory full of tropical and semitropical plants.
Also on-site is a Coca-Cola museum, the Bible Museum and a museum store. The Coca-Cola museum has a wonderful collection of Coke bottles, old signs, a Model-T Coca-Cola delivery truck and an old-fashioned soda fountain serving Coke. Visitors can get a small, bottled Coke out of the museum’s 25-cent soda machine and listen to a soda jerk tell the history of the beverage. The Bible Museum holds a collection of bibles, many of them from the 1500s and 1600s, including a leaf from a Gutenberg Bible, as well as rotating exhibits that feature biblical art. It has a permanent exhibit of 14 Stations of the Cross sculpted out of bronze by Gib Singleton.
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
The Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge got its start as a big-cat sanctuary 30 years ago. Founded by Don and Hilda Jackson in 1992 as a home for abandoned, abused or neglected lions, tigers, cougars and leopards, the facility has since expanded to care for other animals that need support, including bears and ligers, which are lion/tiger mixes. On 459 acres in the Ozark Mountains, Turpentine Creek has become a haven for animals that have been exploited in roadside zoos or attractions.
The refuge rescued 13 big cats from Jeff and Lauren Lowe’s Tiger King Park in May 2021. In total, 68 big cats were rescued from the facility and dispersed to accredited sanctuaries across the country. Visitors to the refuge can learn about the various residents and how they came to live in Eureka Springs. The facility emphasizes that it doesn’t buy, sell, trade or breed animals. It only cares for animals that have come from rough situations, including private homes where their owners thought they could safely raise these wild animals.
Group visitors can take a covered tram tour of the facility, stopping at each habitat to learn about the animals’ backstories. The tram can hold up to 70 people at a time. If groups want to stay on-property, there are several lodging units available, including glamping tents and a family-friendly treehouse. Groups can take one tram tour of the refuge daily as part of their stay.
Phil Campbell, Alabama
Dismals Canyon in Phil Campbell, Alabama, is one of the only places in the world where visitors can see thousands of bioluminescent creatures light up the night with a bright blue-green glow. Called dismalites, these glowworms are fungal gnat larvae that glow to attract other flying insects for food. Dismals Canyon is a great home for these small creatures, as the humidity prevents them from drying out and there are plenty of places to attach their sticky webs to help them trap their food. They also need a nice supply of insects to feast upon and enough darkness so their prey can see them light up.
Dismals Canyon is full of big, beautiful rock formations covered in green moss. There are 74 steps to get down into the canyon, then a short walk into the formations where the larvae put on their colorful display. The area also is home to a fungus called foxfire that grows on dead wood and that illuminates as it consumes the wood. Tour guides like to bring different types of light with them on the walk, including an ultraviolet light, to help visitors see other usually toxic creatures that will glow in the dark, such as centipedes that glow green.
The best times to view the dismalites are from April to the second week of June and from September to October. The site recommends that visitors bring red flashlights instead of traditional white light flashlights to help their eyes adapt better to the darkness so they can better see the dismalites in action.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temple outside of Atlanta opened in August 2007. In traditional Hindu, Mandir is a Sanskrit word with “man,” meaning “mind,” and “dir,” meaning “peace” or “still.” It is a traditional place of worship where the mind attains peace.
The structure, which took a year and a half to build, is made of granite, Turkish limestone, Italian Carrara marble and Indian pink sandstone. The structure is built of 34,671 pieces of stone in traditional Hindu fashion, without metal, and it took over 1.3 million man-hours to complete.
The campus encompasses 35 acres and comprises traditional brick- and-mortar buildings that are used as an assembly hall, a gymnasium, meeting rooms and classrooms. Before the temple was built, the congregation worshiped in a converted skating rink in a suburb of Atlanta. The congregation outgrew its space, so members decided to move to this piece of property close to major highways to make it easier to attend. The BAPS is one of many mandirs across the country. Each is unique and beautiful in its own way. Groups larger than 10 people can sign up for a free guided tour of the temple or take the audio tour, which details various aspects of the mandir, which include religion, music, architecture and culture.
A food court on campus serves vegetarian Indian and American food.