I piled the wife, kid, and luggage in the car for a four-day weekend to the unexplored lands of…Huntsville, Alabama?
I get interviewed a lot in the media about how families can take a vacation without spending a fortune. It doesn’t matter for them how dirt cheap Guatemala or Thailand is right now because they don’t have the money to buy airplane tickets for the whole crew. So my main advice is to go some lesser-known location nearby that is a bargain. Almost everyone has a conscious or subconscious list of nearby places they would like to visit for a long weekend, but they just haven’t gotten around to it. Turn this budget crunch into an opportunity and go on a good old-fashioned road trip.
I follow this angle quite a bit when my daughter is on school breaks and time is tight. I’ve taken family road trips north (Lexington, KY) west (a cabin in Natchez Trace State Park), and East (Chattanooga, TN and Asheville, NC). So this time we went south a shade less than two hours to Huntsville, Alabama.
Yes, I can get there in about two CDs time on the car stereo, but I’ve never been there. So I finally took it off the to-do list. We spent four nights there through yesterday and my wife—always skeptical of any southern town outside New Orleans and Florida—said, “That was a lot more fun than I expected.”
That’s the thing about these close by vacations. Not exotic, not shockingly different maybe, but you’re almost always surprised at how much there is to do and see in these smaller cities. First of all, Huntsville has one of the south’s best genuine places to spend a day: the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Even my girly-girl daughter really enjoyed it. While NASA’s other locations are better known, Huntsville was where all the rocket and propulsion technology was developed that has taken man (and monkey) into space, from the Apollo missions to the Space Shuttle. It’s a museum, a rocket display, and an activity center rolled into one. Even a few amusement park type rides with a G-force angle. If your little one wants to be an astronaut when she/he grows up, there’s a space camp you can put them into for a day or a week.
Huntsville has an impressive historic downtown area full of restored houses from the 1800s and early 1900s that are truly grand. If you want to get an idea of what life was like around the time Alabama became a state—in 1819—you can visit Constitution Village, where everything looks pretty much as it did back then. An interesting tour explains it all, including the origins of “dead as a doornail,” “a dead ringer,” and why we call capital letters “upper case.” All things I didn’t know and more proof that travel is a great educator.
We also hit the Huntsville Botanical Gardens and learned some more. The flowers were limited to the early spring varieties, but to make up for it there was a cool exhibit of giant bugs sculptured in wood scattered around the grounds. That’s up through mid-July. We also lucked out and caught a raptor demonstration, complete with a falcon, hawks, a bald eagle, a vulture, and a few owls. We got to see a few of them in flight, including the almost-silent barn owl. We also learned lots of disgusting facts about vultures that I don’t even want to repeat here because you might be about to have lunch.
Then we made a side trip to the Unclaimed Baggage Center to score some deals on your items that the airlines lost. More on that later in another post.
As I mentioned in the last one though, none of this is going to sock your wallet too hard, especially when hotels are reasonable and you’d be hard-pressed to spend big bucks on dinner. I spent a total of 50 cents on parking while I was there…
More stuff for people who think I need to act my age:
Family travel in Guatemala
Western Canada Through the Eyes of a Child
Reservations About Making Reservations
Bourbon, Betting, and Breeding in Kentucky (a family travel piece—really!)