by Kathie Farnell
Chattanooga—the one with the choo-choo—is coming into its own as a premier destination for couples looking for outdoor adventure. Sandwiched between the Tennessee River and Lookout Mountain, it offers everything from hang-gliding to kayaking to climbing; and that’s just the above-ground scene. The complete Chattanooga experience mandates a trip below.
A visit to Ruby Falls begins with a 260-foot elevator descent into the belly of the mountain, followed by a guided tour past towering rock formations in the shape of everything from a donkey to a serving of bacon. The winding subterranean trail ends at a thundering 145-foot waterfall.
When you emerge into the sunlight, go right next door to the new Ruby Falls Zipstream Aerial Adventure. A partnership between Ruby Falls and The Adventure Guild, the treetop obstacle course includes ladders, nets, walkways, tunnels and of course the zipline—an experience which combines fitness and terror.
Rock City Gardens, just over the Georgia state line, has been an iconic Southern vacation destination since 1932. Located atop Lookout Mountain, its massive rock formations and panoramic views (not to mention its eerie collection of garden gnomes) form part of the region’s collective childhood memory.
For another vintage thrill, ride the Incline Railway. The world’s steepest passenger railway has trundled up and down the mountain near downtown Chattanooga for more than a century.
To get a different perspective on the city, soar above it at Lookout Mountain Flight Park. Home to the nation’s largest hang-gliding school, the Park pairs visitors with instructors for tandem glides launched from an ultra-light aircraft at 2000 feet.
Once back at sea level, take in the Tennessee Aquarium, where visitors follow the journey of a single drop of water from the Appalachian Mountains through the Tennessee River to the Gulf of Mexico. Other exhibits feature fish and wildlife from river systems around the world. In 2005, a $30 million expansion took the adventure to a new level, exploring coral reef systems under the Gulf of Mexico. Sharks, barracudas, piranhas, jellyfish, poison dart frogs—if it comes from someplace damp, they’ve got it. The watery adventure continues aboard the Aquarium’s River Gorge Explorer, a state-of-the-art high-speed catamaran which zips visitors up the scenic Tennessee River Gorge.
Chattanooga is serious about sharing its natural beauty– October, 2010, marks the inauguration of the RiverRocks festival, ten days of outdoor fun celebrating the resources of the Tennessee Valley with everything from hot air balloons to canoe jousting.
Meanwhile, the Bluff View Art District, located on the bluffs above the river, is all about the great indoors; the thriving European-flavored neighborhood is home to the Hunter Museum of American Art, the River View Gallery and sculpture garden, the Bluff View Inn and the Back Inn Restaurant, all connected to downtown via the Walnut Street Walking Bridge. Art also plays a big part in the revitalization of downtown Chattanooga; the city has launched a relocation effort, Choose Chattanooga, to induce artists to move here. The Chattanooga Arts Tour offers visitors the opportunity to meet artists at work in their downtown studios. In summer and fall, an after-hours event, Last Fridays on Main, invites residents and visitors alike to stroll through the city’s historic Southside galleries, studios and shops.
The downtown area is home to a number of innovative restaurants. 212 Market, Tennessee’s first certified green restaurant, offers a seasonal menu and grows its own herbs on the premises. St John’s Restaurant, also on Market Street, features the culinary talents of chef Daniel Lindley in a stunningly-restored historic building. Down by the river, the Boathouse Rotisserie and Raw Bar presents seafood specialties from across the Gulf region along with unique items like grilled okra. It’s good. Really.
Where to stay? For the ultimate experience, opt for the Chattanooga Choo Choo. The ornate, century-old train station has been converted to a hotel whose name honors the Glenn Miller hit. The spacious grounds include 48 rooms created from authentic passenger cars as well as shops, theaters, and the Station House Restaurant, where entertainment is provided by the servers. A trolley car rolls through the hotel’s 25 landscaped acres on the original rail tracks. For those who can’t get enough trains, the Tennessee Valley Railroad runs occasional excursions to the Choo Choo on one of its vintage steam locomotives. All aboard!
For more information on Chattanooga, visit www.chattanoogafun.com or call 1-800-322-3344.