Chattanooga offers plenty of fun, art, nature to keep a family happy
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Growing up in St. Louis, we often drove the family truckster to Florida to visit relatives. And whenever we passed through Chattanooga, my dad belted out a few lines: “Pardon me boy … is this the Chattanooga Choo Choo?”
By the time he forgot the rest of the lyrics, Chattanooga was a glimpse in the rearview mirror. And, perhaps a few decades ago, nobody could fault us for it.
In 1969, Walter Cronkite called it “the dirtiest city in America.” A year after that, the last train left the oncebustling Terminal Station. The Choo Choo was the nickname for the Cincinnati Souther n Railroad’s wood-burning steam locomotive that traveled from Ohio to Chattanooga.
Since then, Chattanooga has transformed into a forward-looking, green-conscious place that embraces its history while chugging forward.
Its Tennessee Aquarium celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and has helped revitalize a once-neglected riverfront. In 2010, the city was the first to offer gigabit-per-second internet services to all homes and businesses. And Terminal Station became a hotel complex, with recent updates to hotel rooms, new restaurants and a new Songbirds Guitar Museum.
I recently drove the 450 miles from St. Louis to Chattanooga with our son, 9, and daughter, 7, during a spring break trip .( My husband stayed home to work and enjoy a quiet house.) I had properly educated the kids by showing them Glenn Miller performance son You Tube. With the lyrics buzzing through our brains (“Woo, woo, Chattanooga, there you are!”) we enjoyed more than enough eating, sightseeing and entertainment options to keep everyone happy.
The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel
Today, Ter minal Station, built in 1909, is the Chattanoo g a Choo Choo Hotel, which sits on the edge of downtown. While they touted the newly renovated hotel rooms, we had reserved four nights in a Pullman train car room.
“Don’ t old men live in train cars?” asked my skeptical daughter.
“No, there won’t be any hobos in our hotel room,” I reassured her.
The lobby and domed ceiling of the old station wowed us as we checked in, as well as a glimpse into the attached and newly renovated cafe, the Frothy Monkey, where we enjoyed a light dinner. While the room/car was otherwise comfortable, the carpet was a bit shabby and the bathroom floor tiles cracked and wobbly.
That first night, raindrops steadily drummed the curved metal roof, soothing us to sleep. The next morning, drop son my head jolted me out of bed. A text to the front desk got us moved to one of those newly remodeled rooms. The stay wasn’t a loss: the kids loved the indoor pool, climbing on an old steam locomotive like the original Choo Choo and play- ing giant checkers at the hotel’s Glenn Miller Gardens. Next door was a stop for the city’s free electric shuttle, which was clean, efficient and took us where we needed togo downtown. ( Chattanooga ChooChoo Hotel, choochoo.com, starting at $119 a night.)
Rock City and Ruby Falls
“See Rock City,” said the barn. “See Ruby Falls,” said the billboard. “See Rock City and Ruby Falls,” said the third bar n and fourth billboard. “FINE,” we said.
These attractions, just about five miles from Chattanooga at Lookout Mountain, have entertained tourists for so long the historical kitsch is par t of the experience. Both places still deliver.
Garnet and Frieda Carter developed Rock City among their land’s giant rock formations and opened it to the public in 1932. Tourists still shimmy through Fat Man’s Squeeze and obey the plea to “see seven states” at Lover’s Leap. We enjoyed the swinging bridge, the 100-foot fake water fall and looking for gnome statues, but we were most enchanted by the blacklighted dioramas inside Fairyland Caverns, which date from the 1940s. Snow White, the three men in the tub and Humpty Dumpty glowed like performers at a fairytale nightclub.
In 1928, cave enthusiast Leo Lambert drilled into the side of Lookout Mountain and crawled through the cave for several hours to discover the magnificent ,145- foot waterfall more than 1,100 feet below. Lambert returned with his wife, Ruby, to show her the waterfall, which he named after her.
“I don’t know about you, but if I crawled through a tunnel for hours in a dress to see a waterfall, I’d expect it to be named after me, too,” said our male guide, who had clearly run through this script before.
The walk to the falls took us by formations such as the “dragon’s foot,” the “potato chips” and the now-trendy “bacon.” We heard the falls on the approach, and saw it upon the guide’s dramatic flip of a light switch. The lights changed color as we oohed and ahhed, took pictures, walked back the way we came (Mmmm, bacon …) and took the elevator back up. (Rock City, adult general admission $19.95, child 3-12 $11.95, seerockcity.com; Ruby Falls, adult general admission $19.95, child 3 t o 1 2 $11.95, rubyfalls.com, combo tickets available.)
Creative Discover y Museum
My son claimed he was “too old” for a children’s museum, but his grumbles stopped upon our approach to the downtown building. A window wall showcases a two-story climbing and water play structure inside, where they tried out musical instruments, dug for dinosaur bones, connected circuits and dodged other kids on field trips.
A rooftop “fun factory” with machines to spin and ropes to pull didn’t keep their attention too long, but we enjoyed the view of downtown from a lookout tower, which contained information about the green building practices of the Car mike Majestic 12 Theater next door. (Creative Discovery Museum, general admission for ages 2 and up $13.95, cdmfun.org)
A quick, cheap lunch at nearby local favorite Lupi’s pizza satisfied everyone. ($2.50 per slice of cheese pizza, 75 cents extra per topping).
Walnut Street bridge, parks and ar t
The historic Walnut Street bridge was slated for demolition until community members helped raise funds for its preservation. It reopened in 1993. It connects the Riverfront Plaza around the aquarium across the Tennessee River to Coolidge Park and the funky shops of Frazier Avenue on the north shore. We walked across the wood-planked bridge one afternoon with the promise of Clumpie’s Ice Cream, a local favorite, on the other side.
We rode the park’s restored 123-year-old carousel, complete with carved Civil War soldier figures standing sentinel on the calliope. The kids climbed on carved animal sculptures (the fountains around them weren’ t yet turned on for the season) and played as nail-shaped hopscotch game permanently embedded in the sidewalk.
Chattanooga is brimming with works of public ar t, most in thanks to the growing city program Public Art Chattanooga. Many sculptures were interactive( a brick couch and boat, wooden peg“pixels” on a giant pegboard) and captivated the kids. Back on the other side of the bridge, the Hunter Museum of American Art perched atop a bluff above the river. The museum is in an Edwardian-style mansion built in 1904 with moder n additions. The terraces offer sweeping views of the city’s bridges and of kayakers and rowers on the river. (Hunter Museum of American Art, adult admission $15, children 17 and under free, hunter museum.org)
The Tivoli Theater, one of three historical theaters downtown, is an easy stop along the free shuttle line. This year’s lineup includes “The Sound of Music ,” “Kinky Boots” and “Jersey Boys.” We saw the fast-paced, foot-stomping “Riverdance,” a show we hadn’t caught back home. Before the show, we treated ourselves to dinner at Main Street Meats near our hotel. The kids ate every bite of the Lake Majestik Flat Iron steak and mashed potatoes dinner ($18) that the waiter split at no charge. I treated myself to a Rikki-Tiki-Tavi cocktail made with pineapple shrub and lime and Don Q Rum ($9.75) and Rivermeat: pan-seared trout ($21.50).
The Moon Pie, Chattanooga’s marshmallow-filled, graham and chocolate treat, turns 100 this year. The general store downtown includes a lunch counter, free Moon Pie samples and plenty of Moon Pie trinkets to help you celebrate. If Moon Pies aren’t your thing, maybe chicken and waffles-flavored taffy is, which you can bag up along with traditional kinds.
The next time my family takes a road trip in our family truckster, I’m not sure we’ll make it as far as Florida. We might see Chattanooga in the distance, start singing, and decide we need to stop again. Woo woo!
Ruby Falls in Chattanooga, Tenn., is 145 feet tall and more than 1,100 feet below ground.
Hundreds of bicycles are available for rent at more than 33 stations throughout Chattanooga, Tenn. This stop is in front of the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. In the background is The Terminal Brewhouse, located in a refurbished hotel.
The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel is inside the conver ted and refurbished Terminal Station and features an indoor pool.
Goldilocks runs away from the three bears inside Fair yland Caverns and Mother Goose Village at Rock City. The scenes, depicting several Mother Goose nurser y rhymes, date back to the 1940s.
The Coolidge Park Carousel was built in 1894 and has been restored. Rides are only $1. Statues of Civil War soldiers keep watch.
The glass-paneled Holmberg Bridge leads to the Hunter Museum of American Ar t in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn.