You could say that Huntsville, Alabama is full of surprises. As someone new to the South, I had no idea that it was home to one of the most important sites of our nation’s space program, along with botanical gardens as beautiful as Cheekwood’s. But on a day trip to this Alabama town, you get to see all of this and more.
Our first stop of the day was to the Huntsville Botanical Garden, sister to Nashville’s beloved Cheekwood. The entry door leads you out to the Teledyne Terrace, where we stumbled upon an adorable hobbit house (which is part of the Garden’s current Houses, Huts & Habitats exhibit) that for a split second will make you think you’ve stepped out of Alabama and into New Zealand. After passing some gorgeous crepe myrtles, we wound our way along the Dogwood Trail, which is home to a variety of dogwood, along with beautiful azaleas, camellias, hostas and other plantlife. But my personal favorite has to be the Damson Aquatic Garden, which is comprised of a gorgeous pool that’s surrounded by colorful blooms like water lilies, water lotus and several other floral arrangements, making for a thoughtful and tranquil spot.
But perhaps it is the Garden of Hope that offers the most peace inside this lovely establishment. Coming to life with hydrangeas, holly, butterfly bushes, roses and much more, the Garden of Hope serves as a sanctuary for cancer patients and their families to not only provide therapeutic benefits of planting their own blooms, but also act as a place of solitude where they can express their hopes and dreams for the future. Along with the plants, the garden also features photos of the patients with notes of encouragement and wisdom beside them. Another can’t miss spot is that of the Butterfly House, which is home to many different beautiful butterflies, turtles, buttonquail, waterfalls and more that make it a highlight of the visit.
After working up an appetite at the gardens, we headed to lunch at the Main Street Café in nearby Madison, which is absolutely worth the detour. Ironically, our initial plan was to visit the café in downtown Huntsville, but construction, and a recommendation from one of the kind workers at the Botanical Garden, led us to its sister location – and we’re glad it did.
This local eatery was once home to the town’s city hall and mayor’s office, in addition to the local jail, and was resourcefully converted into the humble restaurant it is today. The remnants of the former jailhouse are present in the two dining rooms toward the back of the café that still feature the metal bars on the windows and a pair of handcuffs to match. Our sweet waitress was both cheerful and helpful, informing us of the menu’s best items. While it was a toss up between the chicken salad platter and the Georgia Chicken, I went with the latter, as the description of sweet Georgia peaches and garlic potatoes sounded too tempting to pass up. The meal certainly did not disappoint, as the chicken was cooked to perfection and my Northern palette was swooned by the tasty fruit that the Peach State is famous for.
And after seeing the dessert menu that consisted of a variety of unique options, we had to divulge our watering taste buds. Between the three of us, we sampled the lemon icebox bake, orange cake and strawberry pretzel salad, each more scrumptious than the other. As a new Southern transplant, I’ve recently discovered the popularity of the strawberry pretzel salad and after tasting it, I understand why it’s such a treasured treat. The succulent strawberry gelatin mixed with the salty pretzels and cream cheese filling make for a surprisingly delicious combination. The orange cake was just as scrumptious with its citrus-meets-creamy taste, while the lemon icebox served as another delectable fruity dessert that was really brought to life by its icy temperature.
No trip to Huntsville would be complete without a visit to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC), which serves as the site of several of our space exploration accomplishments, where everything from power for space shuttles was developed to sending a man to the moon. The museum is a day trip in and of itself, offering guests insight into our nation’s space program that you won’t find anywhere else. Our first excursion took us through a model space shuttle, showcasing the realities of life in space. It was fascinating to see the tight quarters these astronauts sleep in and common food items transformed into space food, along with other intricate elements of shuttle operation.
Just some of the once-in-a-lifetime artifacts on display include the first orbiter ever constructed, the rocket that served as a model for NASA’s rocket engineering, the A-12 Oxcart, an aircraft that traveled from New York to London in an hour, and more. One of the greatest artifacts in the USSRC is the massive Saturn V Rocket that was once used for moon exploration and whose awe-inspiring size is longer than a football field. The experience continues outside the museum with attractions like the Space Shot, which launches riders 140 foot in the air in less than three seconds, giving them an idea of what a space launch actually feels like, and other thrilling rides for kids that’ll make them feel they’re just as experienced astronauts as the ones honored inside the museum.
Huntsville is a perfect day trip for families, as it offers plenty of activities that will keep children and adults alike entertained all day long. Whether exploring the gardens or being enamored by our country’s journeys through space, Huntsville offers so much more that meets the eye.