By Tim Leffel
What is lying just down the road from where you live? What unexplored places are just a few gallons of gas away but you’ve never set foot in them?
For me, the main one has been Huntsville, Alabama, a nearby enigma on my personal map. It’s my daughter’s spring break, though, and I’ve got the itch to explore. The three of us pack up the car with only vague ideas of what we’ll be doing there, but we have four days to figure it out.
Huntsville’s marquee draw is the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. It took a lot of coordinated NASA brainpower to land a spacecraft on the moon and the blast-off part of the process was developed in this city.
Huntsville was where all the eggheads worked out how to get a monkey and then a man off the ground and into space, from the Mercury orbital missions to the modern-day Space Shuttle. What they do around here really is rocket science.
Geeky and Awe
The museum complex is designed to appeal to all ages, with a nice mix of geeky science exhibits, awe-inspiring rockets, and amusement-park-type rides to keep the children engaged. There’s a reasonably priced cafeteria on site too so you can make a day of it.
The largest hall has a huge Saturn V rocket — the kind that took the first crew to the moon — but it is mounted horizontally, split into stages. The original Mercury and Gemini capsule trainers are on display, as is the Apollo 16 capsule.
Outside is a replica of the space shuttle, along with a wide variety of other rockets, propulsion systems, and rides. Inside the displays move back and forth from informative to fun, including a huge rock-climbing wall in the Mars area, an IMAX theater, and a 3D movie theater.
The rocket center’s Space Camp is for those who want a deeper immersion. Kids in fourth grade and up can attend a two-day introduction camp or six-day training mission, each taking advantage of the center’s simulator equipment in an area off-limits to regular attendees.
There are also adult and corporate programs. In February of 2010, a Space Camp graduate will go from theory to practice: Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger will become a real astronaut aboard a space shuttle mission.
Big Bugs and Gardens
Spring is just getting started when we visit the Huntsville Botanical Garden, but an attraction that officially swears “There’s always something going on” doesn’t let us down.
We arrive at the right time of year to catch a big bug sculpture event, with giant insects scattered around the grounds. Three ants look as if they are walking across a field and a praying mantis looks like he could have us for lunch.
My daughter approaches one exhibit with a mix of fascination and instinctive fear. Perched on a web strung between two trees is a giant wooden spider, looking all too real from a distance.
The daffodils we see will give way to bursting of color later in the year, but we enjoy the koi pond and the peaceful walk through a forest, emerging to catch another special event at the end. Two bird shop owners are giving a raptor demonstration in front of theater seating built into the hillside.
Travel is a great educator and as parents, we’re thrilled to add in a lesson about owls, falcons, and hawks as they fly past our heads. I learn a few things I didn’t know myself, including some vulture habits that are too nasty to repeat here.
Strolling Through 200 Years Downtown
Huntsville is a good town for strolling, with a compact downtown and a string of attractions situated close to each other. The area collectively continues the trend of combining fun and education.
At the age of eight, my daughter has reached a key maturation point: she actually enjoys the Constitution Village historic center instead of whining about being bored.
The village is a well-done reenactment of life in the early 1800s, with a cabinet shop, blacksmith shop, and printing press, plus an outhouse and family home.
Again I learn a few things myself, including the origins of “dead as a doornail,” “a dead ringer,” and why we call capital letters “upper case.” (For the last one, it’s all about how the metal letters were stored.)
A $15 combo ticket covers Constitution Village and EarlyWorks, “the South’s largest hands-on history museum.”
I’m into the 46-foot riverboat reproduction, but my daughter is more into the make-believe: dressing up in 1800s outfits and playing clerk to her mom the shopper at the general store.
After grabbing lunch at Papou’s Greek restaurant downtown, we stroll around the Twickenham Historic District, admiring homes built as early as 1814 and grand mansions constructed by cotton kings before and after the Civil War.
It’s all within a few blocks of the center, as is the lake across from our hotel, filled with colorful carp that get more than their fill of bread tossed in the water.
Unclaimed Baggage and Underground Cathedrals
After exploring the city it is time to spend our last day hitting a unique shopping place: the Unclaimed Baggage Center. This store pulls in visitors from as far and wide as the origin of its goods.
Located in tiny Scottsboro, Alabama, it’s about an hour from Huntsville and a little further from Chattanooga. If you or someone you know lost a suitcase while traveling and never got it back, there’s a good chance the goods will be in stock here at some point.
If items aren’t claimed within 90 days of the airline losing them, they end up for sale on a rack at this store.
It’s like a giant Goodwill outlet but filled with things you’d actually want to take home. After all, when most people go on vacation or a business trip, they’re packing nice stuff, not items they don’t want anymore.
“It’s kind of sad. These were all somebody’s favorite jeans,” my wife says and she eyes a long rack of denim. There’s even a rack of wedding gowns — hopefully, lost after the wedding and not before.
The golf clubs and cameras are pretty picked-over, but an almost unlimited supply of other items must stream in regularly: small MP3 players, headphones, snorkels, bathing suits, wide-brimmed hats, and naturally lots of suitcases.
My daughter ends up enjoying it because she gets some sparkly jewelry and a grab bag of stationery and notebooks. We walk out with a good supply of loot for $75.
Besides her items there are four nice shirts (two with original tags still on them), a new coffee grinder, a kid’s sling backpack, a mini mouse for a laptop, a portable digital picture frame, two books, and a sealed bottle of face moisturizer that is normally $25 — going here for $10.
Our last stop is Cathedral Caverns, an impressive cave complex that’s part of the Alabama state park system. At only $10 for adults and $5 for kids (under 6 are free), admission is a great value.
We walk for a mile and a half underground, but the formations commence almost immediately, starting with the giant Goliath stalagmite formation and continuing to stunningly beautiful cathedral-like rooms that gave the caverns their name.
We see tiny bats up high on one wall, still hibernating, and our guide points to a shark’s tooth embedded in the ceiling.
As I’ve found many times on these long weekend family trips that are within driving distance of my home, Huntsville has a lot more to offer than I had expected and it’s a great value for families.
I’m embarrassed that it has taken me so long to get here when I have lived a decade in a city just two hours away. In a time of pinched travel budgets and economic woes, it’s exciting to find such a treasure nearby.
Huntsville has its own airport, served by six major airlines, and is less than a two-hour drive from Nashville, Birmingham, or Chattanooga. It is 195 miles from Atlanta.
The most convenient hotel for the Space Center is the Huntsville Marriott, which is right next door. The Holiday Inn downtown has been there so long it once hosted Elvis so it’s in a prime spot by a picturesque park and walking distance to the downtown center.
Rates at these two generally run $90 to $150 and there are plenty of inexpensive motels on the outskirts of town, including some only a mile or two from the Space Center.
The Huntsville bus system includes a $2 tourist loop trolley that hits all the main tourist attractions, including the Space Center and the Botanical Gardens.
In your own vehicle, it seldom takes more than 10 minutes of driving to reach anywhere in the city from a hotel.