Sweet Home Alabama & Hurricane Irma 11-18 Sep 2017

I65 South Rest Area and Saturn 18 Rocket!!!

Officially checking for VS103 from London Heathrow to Atlanta in about an hour. A little anxious because I will be arriving on or around the anticipated Hurricane Irma. My original itinerary was just to go to Orlando for a break because the charter air fares were really low but I used my Virgin miles and chose Atlanta instead. The weather forecast is 100% chance of rain and so I have packed by souvenir poncho from the Maid of the Mist cruise because I am sure even if I manage to park at the closest point to the entrance of a store or hotel lobby I am going to get drenched.

I even Tweeted Virgin Atlantic to see if their 103 was on schedule and they assure me that it is.

My itinerary is as follows

11 September – Marietta (20 miles north of Atlanta Hartsfield) 100% rain

12 – 14 September – Chattanooga 100% rain at least until 13 September

14 – 16 September – Nashville

16 September – Birmingham Alabama (44th State)

17 September – Choccolocco Alabama

18 – UK

Alabama will finally be visited. I really don’t know how or why this state has been circumvented in all the times we have been to the South. My husband even asked if I could lie and say that we had been to which I replied ‘it doesn’t work like that’.

I will adding to this page throughout the week and adding posts to Instagram so look me up there as well.


Monday 11 September

Up at 05.30 to discover that VS103 has been cancelled after all. Have you ever been given an extra day to fill? I haven’t been given a reason for the delay but I have been re booked on VS103 12 September. I also discovered my bargain insurance is just that and doesn’t cover any abandonment of travel. I did change the car and got a refund for a days rental which is a small success.

The weird thing is that Atlanta – Hartsfield Jackson is open and Irma is still hanging around Tampa and is currently been downgraded to a category 1 Hurricane and by the time it blows out over Georgia will be officially a tropical storm.

Tuesday 12 September

Atlanta Airport Hartfield-Jackson the day after Irma

Finally arrived in Atlanta 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Going through Homeland Security wasn’t too bad and remember if you have been into the States on an ESTA before you can use the automated machines (where available). This still has you lined up but the questions are fewer and all in all you get through a bit quicker. Luck was on my side as the Thrifty Car Rental desk was empty and the first in the long line of counters. I chose a Hyundai Accent from the economy lane and for just me it is plenty big enough. Tom Tom found it’s satellites and I was on the rainy road by 16.30. I had 123 miles to drive to Chattanooga which is largely a straight road north on the I75. There was a 15 minute traffic jam north of Atlanta which resulted in arriving at La Quinta Inn Chattanooga/Hamilton at 18.45. The room is absolutely fine with a king sized bed, office desk and plenty of storage. Breakfast is included and the Wi-Fi is excellent.

Wednesday 13 September

Cool for Chattanooga at about 64 degrees and still raining on and off. The clouds are sitting low on the mountains and you can’t appreciate the wooded hills and their natural beauty. I drove into downtown Chattanooga and parked at the South Side Parking facility that has a flat fee of $4 for the day and more importantly is the starting point of the electric free shuttle that trundles up and down Chattanooga all day and most of the evening. Go to the Chattanooga Choo Choo. It is now a hotel complex and some of the old carriages are hotel rooms. The Chattanooga Choo Choo is there and is free to visit.

I took the free shuttle bus to the end of the line and changed bus lines and went over the Tennessee River to the North Side mainly to kill some time because I was so early. Built in 1890 the world’s longest pedestrian bridge – The Walnut Street Bridge spans the river so I walked back over to the to the Tennessee Aquarium that opened at 10.00am.

Chattanooga Choo Choo
The Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge built in 1890

The Tennessee Aquarium is the centre piece of the Riverwalk area. It is split into two areas – Ocean Journey and River Journey and boasts the greatest variety of species of any other Aquarium so they told me. It wasn’t busy as it was so early but very enjoyable and easy to walk around. I touched stingrays and sturgeon and watched penguins being fed as well as a talk by a diver being surrounded by sharks.

River Journey Tennessee Aquarium

Thursday 14 September

The Tennessee Valley Railroad according their website had a journey at 09.00hrs. I had passed the entrance to the depot yesterday so headed over there this morning. There were a number of engines and carriages on sidings that you were welcome to wander around all seemed to be from Tennessee or Georgia. The station was really well presented with wooden benches in a waiting room and a small shop. The disappointing thing was that the tour didn’t happen because it had been chartered by a tour that never showed up which would of resulted in me being the only passenger. I said that I would try and make one of the other timetabled departures if I could.

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I made my way to one of the most popular attractions in Chattanooga and the most unusual. The Incline Railway to Lookout Mountain which is a mile long which makes it world breaking. My Satnav took me to the top of Lookout Mountain so staring down a mountain from the inside of a train carriage was very dramatic. The journey takes around 10 minutes and the car coming up the mountain meets at half a mile. There is a commentary that explains why the train was built and it’s different uses. The scenery  through the mountain is spectacular and I would love to see it in Autumn in full Fall colours.

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Little over 2 miles away is a very surreal experience at a place called Rock City. The parking is free and the first thing that greets you is a Starbucks. A beautiful stone building but a Starbucks non the less. Rock City was a trail through rock formations that had been themed into different areas. There were gnomes and fairytale themes as well as swing bridges and the gem has to be Lovers Leap perched on the side of the mountain looking over the valley below. It is possible to see 7 different states from the patio which was stunning. Another trail takes you further down the mountain so that you can see the waterfall that appears from behind Lovers Leap. You need your walking shoes as there some areas that are permanently wet and slippy.

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Then it was onto Nashville a journey of 127 miles through the Tennessee Valley and the clouds finally dispersed and the heavily forested hills were in full view. There were a couple of areas on the I24 that were very steep and one area that crossed the Tennessee River was absolutely stunning….shame I couldn’t take a picture though.

I am staying south of the city and headed for Opryland and the Opryland Mills. The Grand Ole Opry dominates the area and this is where the famous Country and Western Radio Show started. There are shows that still go out live and a behind the scenes tour so check for times and prices. I didn’t do either but a little research for your favourites and you can plan ahead. If you have time go and visit the Gaylord Resort which is an amazing hotel with walks and shops in a massive glass atrium. Rooms face into the atrium and it really is an experience to see it.


Friday 15 September

I wanted to go into Downtown Nashville and researched the best places to park. I chose a lot that cost $5 before 12.00 noon and arrived by 5th Avenue at 07.50. I didn’t like the look of the unmade patch of ground so drove around the block and found a space on the street. There was a payment machine that didn’t appear to be working so I wandered back to the car when a workman told me that it was free  before 09.00. Great stuff. I was parked between the Bridgetown Arena and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Everything is so closely packed together it was easy to see most of everything that Music City Nashville offers. I saw Capitol Hill, The Nissan Stadium where the Tennessee Titans play, the Riverfront Park, The District and the Walk of Fame where only the day before two stars were unveiled. I got back to the car by 08.55 and felt like I had a small victory. The weather was glorious and as I left the downtown area I saw that Virgin are building a hotel in Nashville. Watch this space…will they start offering flights into BNA like BA have just announced?

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The afternoon was spent at the Hermitage the plantation home of General Andrew Jackson the 7th President of the United States. I don’t normally go into these exhibits but treated myself to the history of the face on the $20 bill. Apparently he was 6ft 1in and had size 4 (US 7) feet. His slippers are on display in one of the mansion rooms. There are guides in costumes to explain the contents of the house but photography is not allowed. The grounds were beautiful and there is a range of native trees and plants to see. Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel are buried in the garden and is a sombre but tasteful setting. A handheld audio guide is included and you can listen to stories and history of the Hermitage.

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Saturday 16 September

Sweet Home Alabama State 44 on my quest to set foot in all 50 States of America. A largely scenic drive through valleys and forests and finally pass a sign welcoming travellers to Sweet Home Alabama. I did do a double take though as I approached the Welcome and Rest Area on the I65 South. There poking into the sky was a rocket…how random. Researching it later on it is a Saturn 18 given to the state by NASA and at some point in the past you were able to stand underneath it but not now.

I was headed for Gardendale which is about 6 miles north of Birmingham. It was a forested town and all my favourites were within a short walk of the Microtel. The hotel was great with a welcoming lobby and the room was massive with microwave, fridge, two queen beds and a lovely window seat with views over the pool.

I asked for visitor information about Birmingham and received a map with highlights marked on it. I drove into the city towards the Civil Rights Institute and was really taken back by the desolation of the city. It was almost abandoned and so I didn’t stop for multiple photo opportunities as in the other cities. So here are a couple that I took.

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Sunday 17 September

I didn’t even find anywhere that had an Alabama magnet that I could get although I added to my Starbucks Mug collection with the Alabama mug. I left Alabama’s Capital towards Talladega and the Super Speedway track for a tour. Talk about being in the middle of nowhere. Talladega Speedway owns over 3000 acres of land and holds the NASCAR race in October so it was just starting to set everything up for the 2017 race.

The photos don’t do justice to the enormity of this track. The seating for the expected 230,000 visitors is one and half miles from one end to the other. The incline of the corners is 33 degrees and cars must be doing at least 85 mph to navigate them. The inner circle has camping for RV’s as well as trackside camping. The circuit is 2 and half miles. The tour was in a mini bus that will accommodate wheel chair users and the driver guide knew his stuff and stopped in a couple of places so we could get off to get pictures.

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The tour runs daily from 09.00 and costs $8 there is also a combi ticket with a museum visit if you want.

My last night was in Oxford/Anniston near a place called Choccolocco and about 100 miles short of Atlanta. People I spoke to were of the opinion that I would be glad to be going back home and surprised that anyone stop off in their town. It definitely wasn’t a tourist town and in IHOP Everyone seemed to know each other which made it feel a very community driven society.

Monday 18 September

It was 90 degrees and the humidity rising as I approached Atlanta airport. I was shopped out and there was nothing else I needed to do so I dropped the car back at 14.45. It was a very quick process but I did learn one valuable thing on this trip. Check your paperwork when you collect your car. I discovered to my horror that I had signed for a breakdown cover that added nearly £50 to my rental fee. I was told that there was nothing that could be done because I had already signed the agreement. I think that something got lost in translation between me and the Thrifty agent. I contacted customer services and at first they apologised for the inconvenience but when I replied to their comments another person has agreed to credit the card with $62 so I am grateful for their gesture of good will. Buyer Beware!!

This is invaluable