The Good Life: Huntsville, Alabama

Rocket City on A Roll!

Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography courtesy of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

There is a new energy in Huntsville, Alabama (City Population: 180,000). I was last in this lovely Southern city in 2008. Much has happened there since then. Huntsville, Madison and all of Madison County, Alabama is buzzing with activity. New construction like the City Centre project in downtown Huntsville, to be completed in 2017, will add retail, dining and accommodations to the core of the city. AC Hotels, a Marriott property, has been announced as the hotel in the project with the first phase slated for completion in 2017. Construction will begin immediately on Garage at Clinton Row, which will be an adaptive reuse development utilizing a small section of the first floor of a garage and transforming it into retail space.

Several adjectives come to mind when I visit Huntsville—friendly, hospitable, progressive and professional.

“Huntsville is becoming a destination city,” said Charles Winters, Executive Vice President of the Huntsville /Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, who graciously served as my guide for several days.

What sets Huntsville apart from other cities, I asked Winters. “Our community benefits from a rather unique combination of history and high tech. Work is being done here on the next generation of rocket propulsion, which will eventually take us into interplanetary travel just a few miles from where the constitutional convention was held to petition for statehood in 1819. Southern hospitality abounds where most of the population hails from other parts of the country and even from around the globe. The sciences and arts both thrive here. There’s so much to do and see, and yet it’s so easy to navigate throughout the community. We are truly blessed with diversity and an outstanding quality of life.”

HUNTSVILLE CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU
I highly recommend that you begin your visit at the attractive and welcoming Huntsville Convention & Visitors Bureau. There a friendly staff tends to your every need from offering bottled water to visitors to gathering brochures and maps of the area and recommending things to see and do in Huntsville.

We began our tour of Huntsville at the lovely Museum of Art located in beautiful Big Spring International Park in downtown Huntsville. Lunch was delightful at Pane e Vino Cafe, a favorite Huntsville Italian eatery situated on the Plaza Level of the Huntsville Museum of Art with exquisite views of Big Spring Park and the lake. The restaurant offers delicious made-to-order pizzas, salads (I ordered the Caprese salad), calzones (yummy appetizer), desserts (tiramisu for me) and drinks.

A tour of the Museum of Art, which has expanded since my visit in 2008, was delightful and informative.  Fourteen galleries are filled with regional and national works plus there are two interactive galleries and a museum store. The Sellars Collection: Art by American Women offers an opportunity to discover contributions of female artists from 1850-1940. With over 250 paintings, it is the largest known collection of its kind in the U.S.

On continuous view are outstanding collections of Buccellati Silver Animals and American Studio Glass. (hsvmuseum.org)

DRIVING TOUR OF DOWNTOWN HUNTSVILLE
A redefined center city is emerging in downtown Huntsville! A thriving downtown area is brimming with sights, sounds and tastes for you to experience. Downtown Main Street is where Main Street meets high tech! Grab a craft beer at Below the Radar Brewhouse, Huntsville’s first brewhouse featuring good eats and a vast array of beer; experience City Center nightlife and world class art and performances at the Von Braun Center (VBC), the go-to entertainment venue; explore Big Spring International Park; tour historic (and sometimes haunted) homes; discover Park Place Plaza and A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard, Huntsville’s coolest shopping destination and event venue. Explore downtown public art. Go back in time at Alabama Constitution Village and head over to the EarlyWorks Children’s Museum. (www.downtownhuntsville.org)

HISTORIC DISTRICTS
The Twickenham Historic District features homes in the Federal and Greek Revival architectural styles introduced to the city by Virginia-born architect George Steele. It contains the highest concentration of antebellum homes in Alabama. In addition, there are arts and crafts bungalows, Italianate and one with hints of English Cotswold. Many of these old homes were host to the families who poured in to support the space program in the 1950s and 60s.

Huntsville’s additional historic districts include Old Town and Five Points. The Old Town Historic District contains a variety of styles (Federal, Greek Revival, Queen Anne, and even California cottages) with homes dating from the late 1820s through the early 1900s. Five Points, the newest historic district, consists predominately of bungalows built around the turn of the 20th century, by which time Huntsville was becoming a mill town.

LOWE MILL ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT: A Thriving Creative Community
Lowe Mill is the largest independent arts facility in America with more than 200 working artists, makers, and creative entrepreneurs filling the walls of this beautiful three-story space. Located within the historic district in Huntsville, this massive former textile mill has been rescued from neglect to be restored into what it stands as today: an expansive collection of visual, performance, and culinary arts that continues to expand.

I visited Tangled Strings Studios and Concert Venue, where I stopped long enough to play a baby grand piano; and Mill Village Woolery, among other shops in the mill located at 2231 Seminole Drive (www.lowmill.net)

VILLAGE OF PROVIDENCE
A bit weary, I was happy to sink into a cushy sofa at the Homewood Suites by Hilton in the Village of Providence, a lovely mixed use development consisting of hotels, restaurants, both fine dining and casual; retail shops; and residential .

My Homewood suite was perfect for my needs after a long, busy day of touring. The staff was welcoming and accommodating and my suite was spotlessly clean and offered every amenity I needed.  The complimentary breakfast buffet is quite good and bountiful (www.huntsvilleprovidence.homewoodsuites.com)

GRILLE 29 in the Village of Providence
Chef Steve Bunner greeted and welcomed me warmly. It was a rather chilly evening so we opted not to dine on the patio. My dinner was excellent and the ambiance comfortable, yet elegant. The service was perfect!

The Grouper Oscar, which I ordered, has been featured in the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die” and the Jumbo Scallops stuffed with Lump Crab, Filet “29,” and Sesame Seared Tuna Mignon are crowd favorites!  My friends and I shared the Firecracker Shrimp appetizer, and I sampled the decadent Chocolate Souffle. (www.grille29.com)

Day two of my Huntsville trip began at the U.S. SPACE & ROCKET CENTER at One Tranquility Base. My visit there brought back memories of several years ago when I graduated from Media Space Camp. (I have a blue jump suit to prove it plus a photograph of me receiving my diploma and dining with astronauts!)

The Center is a Smithsonian Affiliate and the Official Marshall Space Flight Center. Visitors relive the dramatic Space Race, NASA’s greatest achievement of putting mankind on the moon, with a Saturn V rocket—one of only three on display in the world! Guests learn about the development and evolution of the Space Shuttle program and International Space Station as well as NASA’s latest missions. From incredible artifacts of our nation’s space program to hands-on interactive exhibits and space travel simulators, visitors discover the enduring dream of life in space.

There is a museum admission ticket, a movie ticket and a combination admission. Group discounts are offered. Space camps are quite popular.

I was fascinated by the “Celestial Dreams: The Art of Space Jewelry” exhibit that featured precious gems, minerals and metals in jewelry. Artist Kathy Chan interprets the genuine awe of the cosmos and its vibrant oasis, Earth, in her jewelry. She has earned numerous accolades including 14 international awards.

In the gift shop I purchased the book entitled “Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun” by Bob Ward and a CD entitled “The Rocket Man” The Man Who Took America to the Moon: His Weekly Notes: 1961-1969.”

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is the number one paid tourist attraction in the state. Each year over 600,000 people visit the largest space museum in the world to appreciate the past and take a peek into the future of space exploration and travel. (www.rocketcenter.com)

After spending about two hours in the Space Center it was time for lunch at the popular BLUE PLATE CAFÉ located at 32310 Governor’s Drive SW. I ordered chicken and dressing, the special of the day at this meat-and-three café. The restaurant is always packed and now has two locations. (www.blueplatecafe.com)

STRAIGHT TO ALE BREWERY
The craft brew scene is thriving in Huntsville. In fact, Huntsville has the highest concentration of craft breweries in the South. Home to 8 breweries countywide and growing, Straight to Ale Brewery is arguably among the most unique. It is known for its local brews that pay homage to Huntsville’s role in America’s space program. Brews like Monkeynaut IPA pay “tribute to those simian heroes of yesteryear” who paved the way for humans to explore space.

Straight to Ale is home to a taproom open seven days a week and partners with several local food trucks for beer and food pairings.

It was recently announced that Straight to Ale will join Rocket City brewery Yellowhammer at a soon-to-be renovated former middle school in West Huntsville that will feature an amphitheater, tap rooms and beer gardens. The much-anticipated Campus 805 development is set to be completed in 2016. (www.straighttoale.com)

HUNTSVILLE BOTANICAL GARDEN
The Garden, which opened in 1988, celebrates every season with a festival for the entire family. It is one of my favorite attractions in Huntsville.

A charming male volunteer toodled a friend and me around on a golf cart in a light, chilly rain. The Garden is not only a great horticultural display for human and canine visitors; it also attracts large numbers and many species of birds, which I enjoy.

In the spring the Garden comes alive with thousands of spring flowers. Huntsville Blooms celebrates the coming of spring with Garden Chats, floral displays and the region’s largest plant sale. Visitors enjoy tulips, daffodils, trillium, azaleas and dogwoods as they tour the Garden’s 112 acres.

The Garden has a café and a charming gift shop.

Ground has broken on a new Guest Welcome Center at the Garden, which is slated to open in the spring of 2017. It will be the new public entrance to the Garden. (www.hsbg.org)

DINNER AT 1892 EAST RESTAURANT & TAVERN
In a driving rain, my party and I drove to 1892 East Restaurant & Tavern , a popular eatery located at 720 Pratt Avenue NE in historic Five Points. The restaurant attracts locals and out-of- towners like the couple who sat next to me. They had driven 100 miles round trip to dine there. We had excellent service and the restaurant was busy. In addition to a variety of specials, cheese plates, desserts like bread pudding, coffees and teas are served there (www.1892east.com)

HISTORY OF HUNTSVILLE: From Big Spring to Big Dreams
Huntsville’s namesake, John Hunt, was a frontier settler who is believed to have fought in the American Revolution.  The rumor of a freshwater spring lured Hunt from his home to explore the North Alabama wilderness.

FAMOUS FACES
A few of the famous folks from the Huntsville area include the following: Dr. Wernher von Braun led the team of rocket scientists who put the first American satellite in orbit, designed rocket propulsion systems for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo manned space flight programs, which culminated in mankind landing on the moon; Jimmy Wells, co-founder of Wikipedia and American internet entrepreneur; John S. Hendricks, founder and chairman of Discovery Communications; singer Little Richard attended Oakwood College in Huntsville;  and Tallulah Brockman Bankhead, an American actress, talk show host and bon vivant.

LIGHTS. CAMERA. ACTION!
Among the movies filmed in Huntsville are “Constellation in 2006 and “Like Moles, Like Rats” in 2006 and “Space Camp” in 1986. After “Space Camp” was released, the Space Camp attendance skyrocketed.

LEADING ALABAMA INTO THE FUTURE
Thanks in part to the aerospace and defense industries, Huntsville has one of the most diverse cultures, per capita in the country. The area has been recognized by “Forbes” magazine as one of the ten smartest cities in the world. It has been named one of “Fortune Small Business’s” top midsize cities to launch and grow a business.

Our community benefits from a rather unique combination of history and high tech….We are truly blessed with diversity and an outstanding quality of life.
— Charles Winter, Executive Vice President, Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau

WHAT TO KNOW
Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau
500 Church Street NW, Suite One
Huntsville, Alabama 35801
800.843.0468 or 256.551.2230
www.huntsville.org