Huntsville, Alabama: The Rocket City

Shady and Laurie’s Alabama Getaway, Part One

Welcome to Huntsville where America's space program was born. Photos courtesy Huntsville/Madison CountyConvention & Visitors Bureau.
Welcome to Huntsville where America’s space program was born. Photos courtesy Huntsville/Madison CountyConvention & Visitors Bureau.

Huntsville: The Rocket City

It all started when we had the idea of going to a AA Baseball game in each of the four major cities in Alabama: Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile.

More and more Major League Baseball players are making the jump directly from AA to the big leagues and you can see these future stars in intimate stadiums at reasonable prices.

We thought we’d see a few sights in Alabama, eat some grits and biscuits & gravy, pig out on barbeque and drink a lot of sweet tea, but what we experienced in Alabama really knocked our socks off. Tremendous food and gorgeous scenery.

There were civil rights memorials that brought tears to our eyes, underground caverns that took our breath away and throughout the state we found a friendly, welcoming atmosphere that left us planning our next visit at the soonest possible opportunity.

We highly recommend “Off the Beaten Path: Alabama” by Gay N. Martin (published by Insiders Guideâ) and we also brought John Sickels’ Prospect Guide so we could read up on all the great baseball players we’d be seeing.

Birthplace of the Space Program

We started our road trip in Huntsville, the Rocket City. It got that name when German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun moved there in 1950 to work on the American space program.

He eventually created the Saturn V rocket that took Americans to the moon, and Huntsville has been a central part of NASA’s space exploration ever since. Many defense and aerospace technology companies have offices here and the city boasts more PhDs per capita than any other American city.

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is the most popular attraction in Alabama and it combines life-sized models of rockets, a space shuttle and other NASA equipment, with rides, informational displays and an IMAX® theater.

Kids can get a hands-on learning experience at one of the many Space Camps.
Kids can get a hands-on learning experience at one of the many Space Camps.

You’ll find all the history of Wernher von Braun and his team from their early experiments as a group of amateur hobbyists to the building of the Nazi V-2 rocket that terrorized Britain during WWII.

Other exhibits show what life was like on Skylab and the International Space Station and there’s a whole section devoted to the use of rockets and space technology in the US Military. The Space Shot ride lets you experience four Gs of force as it takes you 140 feet up in 2.5 seconds. Then you’ll feel a moment of actual weightlessness before plunging down in a one-G free fall.

In the Davidson Center you’ll find a full scale replica of a Saturn V rocket and you might get a chance to eavesdrop on one of the Space Camp groups that get special guided tours of the facility. There are a number of Space Camp programs for future astronauts and scientists (kids aged 9-18) and they also have Parent/Child programs.

Star Wars in the South

The summer of 2010 will be a big one for Star Wars fans, because the traveling exhibit, “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination” – a 12,000 square foot collection of props, costumes and models from all six of the Star Wars movies – will take over the main building from June through August.

The Huntsville Botanical Garden has the nation's largest seasonal butterfly house.
The Huntsville Botanical Garden has the nation’s largest seasonal butterfly house.

Full-sized replicas of Luke Skywalker’s land speeder, the Millenium Falcon, X and Y-wing starfighters and more will be on display. Interactive exhibits will let you experience the jump to hyperspace, learn about robotics and magnetic levitation in hands-on design labs, and see how special effects artists create the visual and audio effects that have made the Star Wars series so popular.

The exhibit is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Huntsville area so if you want to go, you should start making plans now.

Huntsville Botanical Garden

Huntsville’s Botanical Garden has five acres of flowers, trees and aquatic plants laid out along beautifully manicured walking trails and there are always special exhibits for kids of all ages.

The Butterfly Garden is the largest of its kind in the nation featuring a waterfall and pond area with frogs and turtles. You can dab a drop of butterfly food on your hand if you’d like to try to get one of the little creatures to pay you a visit.

There are a number of specialty gardens on the grounds and we especially liked the Garden of Hope which was designed by and for cancer patients and their families to help them express their feelings through flowers and to send a message to others who pass through.

Each plot of the garden features a plaque with a picture of the person who designed it and the special meaning they hope to convey with it. It’s an emotional experience to read the words of these courageous people as you wander through the beautifully laid out arrangements.

Kids get a hands-on science experience at Sci-Quest.
Kids get a hands-on science experience at Sci-Quest.

Just next to the Garden of Hope is the Herb Garden, which features edible plants of all kinds. Kids might want to sniff the leaves of the Peanut Butter Plant or the Chocolate Fern. One flower can be used to detect leaks at nuclear power plants because its flowers turn from blue to pink when exposed to radiation.

In-Town Activities

Almost all of Huntsville’s attractions are great places for kids to learn and have fun. EarlyWorks Children’s Museum, Alabama Constitution Village and the Historic Huntsville Depot make up the South’s largest hands-on history museum complex, and Sci-Quest in the Cummings Research Park has over 100 interactive exhibits designed to inspire kids to learn more about science, mathematics and technology. They also offer weekend workshops, day camps and home-school programs.

To see some Alabama history and get a nice view of the city, head up Monte Sano to Burritt on the Mountain, Huntsville’s first museum. Historic interpreters display blacksmithing, cooking and spinning among the lovingly restored 19th century buildings. The site also features theater and musical performances including the City Lights and Stars Concert Series.

A truly awesome cave! 75,000 people visit Cathedral Caverns each year.
A truly awesome cave! 75,000 people visit Cathedral Caverns each year.

Right downtown, Big Spring International Park is located on the site where the city’s founder, John Hunt, built his cabin in 1805. It’s a beautiful place to relax and smell the magnolias and it hosts two of Huntsville’s biggest festivals.

The Panoply Arts Festival in April is a three-day outdoor event that offers interactive arts and theater presentations along with the Alabama State Fiddling Championship. The Big Spring Jam in September is Huntsville’s biggest music festival – five stages of live acts covering the whole spectrum of modern popular music.

Across from Big Spring International Park, the Von Braun Center has a 10,000 seat Arena, a 2,153 seat Concert Hall and a 502 seat Playhouse Theater with performances all year round.

One-Tank Trips

The area around Huntsville features lots of great attractions that can be reached on just one tank of gas. After a delicious breakfast at the Blue Plate Café at 3210 Governor’s Drive (our favorite breakfast place!) you can jump right on the interstate and get to a wide variety of family-friendly attractions.

We had a blast exploring Cathedral Caverns with its spooky collection of stalactites (they hang down) and stalagmites (they grow up) including “Goliath.” At 45 feet, it’s said to be the largest stalagmite in a commercial cave.

They also have the largest flowstone waterfall among their four world records. There’s a prehistoric shark’s tooth embedded in the ceiling from the time when Alabama was at the bottom of a giant ocean, and kids will love being plunged into total darkness at the bottom of the cave – don’t worry, they turn the lights back on!

Where lost luggage gets found
Where lost luggage gets found

Golfers will want to head for Hampton Cove, the northernmost site on the famous Alabama Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.

These courses were designed by the master to be challenging, but also a feast for the senses. The New York Times called it, “some of the best public golf on earth.” and the Wall Street Journal said it could be “the best bargain in the country.”

None of the 11 sites is more than 15 minutes from an interstate highway and most feature top-tier resorts on the premises, so you are never far from the first tee. Hampton Cove has three courses including the Highlands Course – a true Scottish course with long grass and rolling fairways – and the River Course with a 250-year-old oak behind the 18th green.

Unclaimed Baggage

Our favorite excursion took us to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro just 40 miles east of Huntsville. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to those suitcases that get lost in transit, then wonder no more!

Of course the airlines conduct an intensive search for the owners, but after 90 days, if no one has claimed the bag, it ends up here.

Interpreters at Burritt on the Mountain bring the 19th century to life.
Interpreters at Burritt on the Mountain bring the 19th century to life.

Founders Dale and Sue Owens started the business in 1970 (their son Bryan bought it in 1995) and it’s turned it into a phenomenon that has been featured on the Today Show and CNN. Over one million items pass through the store each year – 20,000 square feet of clothing, electronics, cameras, golf clubs, ski equipment and whatever else somebody thought they just HAD to bring along on their journey.

Unlike a thrift store, which is full of stuff people want to get rid of, everything here was somebody’s FAVORITE thing.

The prices are great, but of course you run the risk that someone will walk up to you on the street and say, “Hey! Those are my shoes! I’ve been looking all over for them!”

A Working Landmark

Other attractions around Huntsville include Guntersville State Park which has a new lodge overlooking the 69,000-acre Guntersville Reservoir, the Helen Keller Birthplace in Tuscumbia – about 1.5 hours away – and the Jesse Owens Museum – just over 45 miles south.

Back in Huntsville, you’ll definitely want to visit Harrison Brothers Hardware. This 19th century landmark is right downtown and still functions as a store, selling old-fashioned penny candy and toys. (Slinky Dog!) They also sell artwork from local and regional artists and craftspeople.

Harrison Brothers still uses their 19th century cash register.
Harrison Brothers still uses their 19th century cash register.

If you’re lucky, you might get a tour of the place from manager Ginger Cobl. She’ll show you the old safe, the elevator that carried furniture and of course the still-functioning cash register from 1897.

For some upscale southern-style dining, or maybe just a refreshing beverage after a long day of sightseeing, check out Cotton Row just a few buildings over from Harrison Brothers.

Be sure to get a tour of the Cedar Pipe Cellar where they have a private dining room among the wine collection. The cellar got its name from the cedar pipes that were used in the 1800s when Huntsville was the first city in Alabama with a municipal water system.

We had great fajitas and tamales at Rosie’s Mexican Cantina at 7540 Memorial Parkway before heading out to see the Stars!

And Finally, Baseball!

We’ve just scratched the surface of all the great things you can do in Huntsville and we’ve finally gotten to the original purpose of our trip, AA Southern League Baseball.

The Huntsville Stars play in Joe Davis stadium, affectionately called, "The Joe."
The Huntsville Stars play in Joe Davis stadium, affectionately called “The Joe.”

The team from Rocket City is appropriately named the Stars and their General Manager, Buck Rogers, (we are NOT making this up) keeps everything lively with his ultra-creative promotional ideas like the World’s Largest First Pitch Ceremony.

They started throwing out first pitches at midnight the night before the game and kept on throwing them until the 7:00pm game time – that’s 11,689 first pitches over 19 hours.

Buck told us about the Meatloaf Cook-off, the Gorgeous Grandma Contest and his special plan for the Southern League All-Star Game that will be played in Huntsville in 2010. He’s going to sponsor a special game for handicapped kids with the Huntsville Stars players as coaches.

We got to see a great game – the Stars won it with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth.

We were sad to leave Huntsville because we felt there was so much more to see and do, but we were eager to get to the next stop on our Alabama Road Trip Adventure: Birmingham, The Magic City.

Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis

Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis live in Arlington, Massachusetts. Shady is a video editor and Laurie is a massage therapist.

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