The Adventure Begins…
Time for me to get into road trip mode again! If you read my first Trek America post, then you’ll know that I did an eight day Deep South BLT tour earlier last month. The addition of those three letters basically means budget lodging, which was music to my ears after reading a couple of Hannah Gale’s posts about her trip and freaking out that I’d have to do a wet-wipe-wash inside a tent. It’s also a part of America I’d always been curious and at times apprehensive about seeing. I knew that visiting plantations and hearing about the racial injustices would be a bit weird for me but thought it best to form my own experiences. I’m no historical expert now, but I feel like my picture of the States is getting a little clearer.
8 Bloggers, 8 Days
We had a slightly modified version of the Deep South BLT tour, partnering with local tourist boards who showed us the best of each destination, so I’d recommend reading up on the logistics carefully if you’re thinking of booking. Our days were action packed and it’s worth noting that there are a lot of early starts and you’ll spend most of your mornings on the road to keep up the pace. This can be handy, as you can either continue your slumber on the coach or try to take advantage of the free wifi. I used the time to catch up on emails (and whatever blogger drama was going on) whilst occasionally playing DJ with my 90s R&B playlist.
If feel like I always have to add the Alabama bit when talking about this former industrial city, just in case you think I popped up the M40. We arrived in Birmingham after a 5 hour drive (plus plenty of singing along to the likes of Blue) and were immediately introduced to the joy that is American portions by way of a seemingly never-ending salad.
Why You Should Visit
The most important thing about Birmingham is that it’s the birthplace of Civil Rights movement. You may have watched the film Selma, which documents the voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King and the 16th Street Baptist Church is where members would meet. We started off there and took a bike tour around some of the key locations, learning more about the impact of segregation and the logistics of the movement. I knew about separate water fountains and seats on public transport, but there actually used to be a line down the middle at concerts (and sometimes later showings for black audiences).
It was a lot to take in, going from feelings of frustration to just trying to stay on the bike in 30 degree heat but it was heartwarming to learn about the prosperous black-owned businesses that are still thriving in the Fourth Avenue area. During times of segregation, it was the only place where black businesses could operate and places like Nelson’s bakery would offer free food to protesters. If you’d like to learn more, there’s a Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park nearby, filled with sculptures representing protesters and a fountain of hope.
Where To Eat & Drink
Bottega – Head here for a slap up Italian meal, plus waiter Chris reads the menu as if it’s Shakespeare.
The Marble Ring – A hidden speakeasy that you can only reach via a hot dog counter.
Green Acres – I didn’t get a chance to visit, but this cafe has been open since 1958 and is famous for the fried chicken with hot sauce.
Now here’s a place that I knew absolutely nothing about. When I spotted The Great Smoky Mountains on my itinerary, I assumed that we’d have a few nature-filled days at the National Park that would be somewhat challenging. My last hike in Vietnam did involve me sliding down a hill, after all. I didn’t expect to see an upside-down museum, giant cruise ship and Dollywood on the way to Gatlinburg (the town nearest the park) and you soon realise that it’s a bit like an Alton Towers town geared towards tourists. There were shops dedicated to hot sauce, rumours about haunted hotel rooms and pancakes the size of Victoria sponges at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp.
What To Do
Unfortunately the 80mph winds thwarted our plans, so ideally you’d do a bit of hiking, zip-wiring and screaming on the mountain rollercoaster. There’s plenty of rainy day alternatives though and Gatlinburg is a great place to indulge your inner child. We freaked ourselves out in the mirror maze, took go karting really seriously and posed for one of those Western photoshoots, just because.
There was also a lot of moonshine tasting. This high-proof spirit is one of the area’s most famous exports, it’s made from corn mash and used to be pretty illegal for tax and safety reasons. Now everything’s above board thanks to those Tennessee licensing laws, so if sampling wines isn’t your thing, you can while away an afternoon trying all the different flavours at Sugarlands or Ole Smokey. Fortunately the shot glasses are tiny, there’s anything from salted caramel to maple bacon, though my personal favourite had to be the dark chocolate coffee cream.
Gatlinburg was devastated by a fire just over six months ago and although you can see charred trees in the distance, a lot of places are back on their feet and open for business. Just be aware that there is a lot of confederate flag merchandise, a real contrast to New Orleans where some of the monuments were about to be taken down.
Ah Nashville! This was probably the place I’d built up the most in my mind, especially after doing all of the Instagram research (Elsie Of A Beautiful Mess has a great guide) and reading up on all the vintage shops. You can drink fancy coffees and browse quirky notebooks pretty much anywhere though and since our time here was short, the tourist board allowed us to experience things in a very unique way. Who else can say that they had a country song written about them in Music City?!
What we did
This is the place where music legends are born and we received a bit of a crash course in all things country in just under 24 hours. It’s not necessarily a genre I tend to listen to (apart from the odd bit of Johnny Cash), but I’ve always been curious after hearing that its roots came from the work music of African slaves.
There was only a tiny bit of info about that at the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum however, which mainly focuses on the 133 inductees (incidentally a National Museum of African American Music is due to open in 2019, so it could be a good time to visit). I did feel a little bit like a fish out of water, until I spotted Shania Twain’s leopard-print catsuit and remembered that I still know the lyrics to ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ after almost 20 years. A tour of Studio B is another option if you like locations with a bit of history, since it’s where Elvis recorded over two hundred songs. You can even have a go yourself, we recorded our version of Can’t Help Falling In Love and didn’t let a tiny thing like not knowing the tune stop us. It’s also worth having a night out on Broadway. There’s live music in every bar and I now know what a Rihanna song sounds like with a country twist.
The most memorable activity however, was heading to a production studio and actually creating our own song with Billy Montana, a songwriter with a few number ones under his belt. He shared the process of making a hit and even revealed how much money you get when a song is streamed 25 million times (basically all those $0.00002s add up to $500). Somehow yours truly managed to make herself the subject of the song, since I was prone to getting lost at random points throughout the trip. We told Billy the specifics and he came up with the tune, verse and chorus in less than half an hour resulting in ‘Where’s Kristabel?’ Have a listen here for yourself and apologies if it sticks in your head for the next 48 hours.
What to Eat
Bajo Sexto Taco – It probably wasn’t the best idea to come here for a quite bite on Cinco de Mayo but the pork burrito was well worth the wait.
Party Fowl – You can adjust the spiciness level of your fried chicken here, but the intensity makes Nandos Extra Hot seem like ketchup. Do not try the Poultrygeist sauce, unless you want to be short of breath for several minutes afterwards.
Crema – OK, so I did get my fancy coffee in the end. Crema has a strong branding game and they even sell their own seriously cute recycled mugs, which have been hand-painted and adorned with their logo.
So what was my verdict on the first half? Well I was bowled over by the friendliness of everyone we met and found myself slipping in a few y’alls within the first few days. You also realise how much you can pack into a few hours and even though we only got a taste of some locations, these are some experiences that will stay with me for the rest of my life. If you haven’t seen me abseiling down a 80ft cliff in my vlog, then you can see how my high-maintenance self deals with it all…