Chattanooga: I am sorry. Chattanooga: I was wrong. Chattanooga (to borrow a word from our 43rd Commander and Chief): I misunderestimated you. The good news is that I am man enough to admit it and I only hope I can make it up to you. You see, I have always been a traveler who likes collecting passport stamps, hearing foreign tongues and tasting exotic foods. I like the challenge of being out of my element. And Chattanooga, a manageable 7 hour drive from New Orleans, has always seemed to me, shall we say, a teensy bit provincial.
But as my wife and I just traded in our DINK (dual income no kids) status for a SIWK (single income with kid) life, we decided it was time to put the passports into the safe deposit box and search for travel that was close, easy and kid-friendly. Hello Chattanooga!
Tale of Two Cities
Like present day New Orleans, Chattanooga finds itself in a search for its identity, vacillating between old south tradition and a progressive spirit. And like New Orleans, when the two influences meld, the result is quite pleasing.
Starting with our hotel, The Read House Historic Inn and Suites, you get a glimpse of the new-meets-old allure. Sitting on downtown’s main artery, Broad Street, John T. Read built the historic property just after the Civil War and it remains the oldest hotel in the city. The rooms have been upgraded to offer modern ammenties, but the lobby still harkens back to a time when the Chattanooga Choo Choo would come rumbling down the line.
But perhaps the most startling contrast of old-meets-new is on the banks of the Tennessee River. Sitting up on an 80-foot bluff is the Hunter Museum of American Art which houses an impressive collection of American art. Sitting side by side, like an architectural odd couple, are the museum’s two houses—one, a traditional Victorian mansion replete with 20-foot splendid white columns and the other, a Frank Gehry-esque modern glass and steel spectacle—the two could not possibly contrast each other any more. Yet somehow it works, like many of the old and new integrations in Chattanooga, in a kitschy sort of way.
The Attraction’s Only Natural
Chattanooga’s tourism slogan does well to promote its unique natural resources both indigenous and transplanted. Underwater, underground and up over it all, there are quite a few ways to enjoy the city’s unique gifts.
More than 15 years after opening, The Tennessee Aquarium is still argued by many to be the gold standard of indoor aquatic habitats. Adjacent buildings offer separate exhibits--salted or unsalted. One, a multi-level freshwater odyssey with 100-pound catfish, prehistoric sturgeon and American alligators; the other, an oceanic journey (which opened in 1995) with sharks, barracuda and chilly little (adorable) penguins.
A few minutes drive from downtown looms Lookout Mountain, above ground home to Rock City and below ground home to Ruby Falls. Walk through Rock City’s 4100 foot trail of granite boulevards and corridors, suspended bridges and narrow passages culminating at “Lover’s Leap,” a perch where on a clear day, you can look out onto seven states. On the other side of the mountain one may descend 26 stories into the rock to begin your Ruby Falls experience. Deep inside, navigate the narrow passageway leading to the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public. A multi-colored lightshow illuminates the 14 story indoor downpour while a piped-in, soaring score provides an inspiring backdrop. Warning: not an ideal for the tall or claustrophobic!
Chattanooga Chew Chew
And, yes, I had it all wrong on the food. I expected legions of corporate chains, predictable and staid, with the occasional mediocre local joint - but I was wrong. The Blue Water Grille, a stylish space just a swim from the aquarium churns out top-notch fresh seafood from Florida. Blue Plate sounds like a diner but comes off as a hip, sophisticated joint which reinterprets comfort food staples with a zest and originality. Across the river lies Aretha Frankenstein’s, perhaps the most eclectic, most creative and most delicious breakfast place you have ever tasted. The pancakes and biscuits are simply unequaled in the breakfast universe. Bar-B-Q cravings meet their match at the Sticky Fingers Rib House where monster, fall off the bone portions of tender chipped pork and beef ribs interact with a variety of sauces. And the Big River Grille and Brewing Works downtown rounded out the bonanza—again, surprising us with the quality and portions.
This article originally appeared in Season Magazine.