How to have a great summer vacation without leaving home
My wife and I had been to the First Tennessee Pavilion before when we walked up to the Chattanooga Market spilling out onto the street a few weeks ago. It seemed like as good a place as any to start taking in the energy of the city. We entered the crowd that was wearing Chaco sandals, sundresses and rolled up sleeves. The market is always a tactile experience, filled with lavender-smelling soaps and the riot of colors from artists finding yet another interpretation of the Walnut Street Bridge.
And while the large-bladed fans turned, pushing air to fight heat, the whole of the Chattanooga Market on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. is best enjoyed with something near frozen in your hand. Thank goodness for iced strawberry lemonade.
My editor here at The Pulse had asked my Hannah, my wife, and I to play tourist in the city. Take a staycation, see what we could find.
Chattanoogans with vacation on the mind most often leave this place, to head south for some beach time along the Gulf Coast or head for the mountains. You know where to go to show the out-of-town friends a good time. But to stay here to find rest, entertainment and thrills?
The word “staycation” didn’t burst into popularity until the summer of 2008, that summer when the Great Recession hit. That’s according to Google Trends. The number of Americans typing “staycation” into their search bars peaks around July, and their numbers are slowly growing every year. For comparison sake, “vacation” reaches its popularity in June.
This suggests two things. First, staycations were born out of necessity, people cutting back leisure expenditures. Second, staycations are also used by people who see the end of summer weeks away and want to do something special without leaving town.
This area has a lot to offer, according to Bob Doak, president and CEO of Chattanooga’s Visitor Bureau. Over the last few years, Chattanooga’s food scene took off and there’s a plethora of “true, locally owned, non-franchised restaurants” that provide an authentic experience. Chatty’s music scene is also growing, Doak said. Live music is performed in locations across the city and the area around the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel is becoming “a gateway into the entertainment district.”
An estimated $1 billion is spent in Chattanooga every year on tourism. “We’ve seen steady growth year after year after year,” Doak said.
But as for the percentage of that $1 billion spent on staycations, there’s no way to estimate how much of that is spent by people staying in the area, according to Doak, although the percentage would be fairly small.
Explore Chattanooga and you’ll find everything from the Hunter Museum, Rock City to Chattanooga Market and zip lines at Ruby Falls.
“We have that very rare blend of God-given and man-made resources,” Doak said. As one friend pointed out on Facebook, this city offers both scuba and sky diving.
When we were driving out for our first tourist excursion, Hannah and I agreed: This staycation would be a success if we experienced something we had not experienced before, had a relaxing time, and understood the city in a new way.
And as a nod to a staycation’s frugal elements, we budgeted about $50 per our three outings.
After leaving Chattanooga Market, we checked out what Doak called “the new kid on the block”, the High Point Climbing Gym in the downtown.
We bought two day passes for $15 each to climb at the facility that overhangs Broad Street. Together, equipment rental cost us an additional $10.
After filling out a waiver, my wife and I received a harness each and climbing shoes. Then we were set loose to climb along the multi-dimensional walls peppered with a rainbow of handholds.
To get the most out of the visit, we should have come in the morning, climbed until we were hungry, ate lunch and returned to climb into the evening.
We could go anywhere there was an automatic belay—the Kid Zone, up and outside where you could hang over the downtown.
Our forearms stiffened and our hands grew sore. Still we climbed, the balance of the joy of climbing tempered with—darn it—both our...er...healthy respect for heights.
The next weekend, we wanted to dig deeper. Hannah and I decided to visit the Bessie Smith Cultural Center along Martin Luther King Boulevard to learn more about the history of this city. By chance, we walked through the doors just when the center was holding one of its free days, so no $7 admission fee.
The cultural center sits on the old site of the Martin Hotel, a former hub for the city’s black music scene. And while the center has a performance hall, the sound of the air conditioner was the only noise that Saturday we studied the faces in the photos of Chattanooga residents past.
“The purpose is to highlight African Americans in our community and show how they impacted the world,” said Dionne Jennings, cultural center president.
As patrons of pop culture, we knew musician Usher Raymond and actor Samuel Jackson both hailed from the Scenic City. But did you know Martin Luther King Jr. applied and didn’t get a job at First Baptist Church? At the time, they thought he was too young.
The goal of cultural center is to bring all cultures together, Jennings said. For example, it is hosting “Rock The Block”, a free concert series the first Friday of every month this summer right before (and just up the road) from the popular (and also free) Nightfall concert series at Miller Plaza.
Hearing that we were going to eat afterwards, Jennings suggested we travel less than a half-mile down Martin Luther King Boulevard to eat at Uncle Larry’s Restaurant, an establishment serving fried fish in the building on which is painted the Martin Luther King mural. “It’s amazing,” she said. Jennings suggested we top the sandwich off the way locals do: mustard, hot sauce and cole slaw.
A TripAdvisor certificate of excellence hung on the wall at Uncle Larry’s, as did oversized fishing lures for decoration and sayings like, “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.”
When the fish came out, the cornmeal-breaded fillet dwarfed the sliced bread on which it sat. The creaminess of the slaw mixed with the bite of the hot sauce.
With only seven tables in the place, Uncle Larry’s seemed to cater to the community, serving up fried fish in such a way that even TripAdvisor took notice.
Sometimes, it’s enough to explore
It seems strange that the Medal of Honor Museum exists in Chattanooga, especially because another, larger one exists in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Our claim to fame is our heritage. We have the hallowed ground,” Jim Wade, executive director for the Chattanooga museum, told us when we visited the museum the next weekend.
The first Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers fighting around Chattanooga. The first few were given to members of Andrews’ Raiders, who stole a train and started the Great Locomotive Chase in 1862. Today, some of those men are interred in Chattanooga National Cemetery.
It’s not the easiest location to find. The museum in the Northgate Mall is wedged between one of the entrances, a records store and the bathrooms. Not only does the museum tell a story of Chattanooga and military history, it’s also free.
Weapons on display ranged from a Ka-Bar knife carried by U.S. Marines to a Maxim machine gun used by Germany during World War I. But the focus of the museum, according to Wade, is on the individual valor of the recipients. The walls were lined with their photos and citations.
And there, sitting in shadow boxes were real Medals of Honor, such as the one borne by Desmond Doss, the only conscientious objector in World War II to win the award.
Pulling out of Northgate Mall, Hannah and I decided to finally try Champy’s, as we’ve been told the place serves up Chattanooga’s best fried chicken.
We had driven by the week before and the license-plate studded structure looked like an experience. Going with the honky-tonk theme, $1 bills were stapled and taped to the walls, windows and doorframes. The radio pumped out the blues and an ad for Logan’s steakhouse came on.
The food came, and we tore into the greasy goodness stacked on Styrofoam plates. The roll of paper towels sitting on the table came in handy.
“Geoff was right,” Hannah said. “This is probably the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.” The thick breading had a crunch, and what was in the back of the flavor palate? A nip of heat?
As Champy’s sits along of Martin Luther King Boulevard, it seems like the place out-of-towners go to get an authentic southern experience. After all, there are five Champy’s locations across the South, and licensing opportunities exist.
Afterwards, we drove to the base of Lookout Mountain to hike Guild Trail, the old rail bed for a train that took a roundabout climb up Chattanooga’s most prominent landmark. The path was wide, great for bikes.
We walked in part way, taking time to scramble up one boulder on the side of the path (rock climbing weeks before helped) and paused to look upon the trees draped with Kudzu.
As we turned back, it was still early. We asked each other, what else did we want to do? We could go to Clumpies to get some ice cream. There was a location in St. Elmo—parking could be rough—or there was the location on Lookout Mountain in the neighborhood of Point Park. We could head downtown to some Ben and Jerry’s, because downtown. We eventually decided against all of those.
We pointed our car east, and we ended up in Ringgold at Legendairy Ice Cream & Coffee. When we visited, it offered three variations of coffee ice cream, a carrot cake flavor and Mayfly coffee, roasted on Signal Mountain.
But a 30-minute drive for ice cream? We had heard about the shop. When would be another time to try it? We were on vacation. You don’t need to travel far to find experiences that delight, inform and entertain. You must only look for them.
Bottom line: we barely scratched the surface of the vacation options in and around Chattanooga. Everything from the expected: The Tennessee Aquarium, Creative Discovery Museum, and the mountain combination of Rock City and Ruby Falls, to the “off the beaten path” places like the International Towing & Recovery Museum, Chattanooga Skydiving, the Tennessee Valley Railroad, and downtown Chattanooga Ghost Tours, just to name a few.
No matter where you go, though, it’s obvious why so many visitors come to town: it’s a great place to visit. We’re just blessed to call Chattanooga home.