words: Marla Cantrell
images: Marla Cantrell; courtesy Tennessee Department of Tourist Development; Main Photo courtesy Bluff View Art District
I have come to love Tennessee with its mountains and rivers, valleys and glens, and the voice of its people that sounds like a Sunday afternoon spent on the porch with a glass of lemonade in hand. When I traveled to Chattanooga as the guest of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, my feelings only deepened.
This city, on the border of Georgia, sits on the banks of the Tennessee River and is guarded by the Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain, and Signal Mountain. Atlanta is just 118 miles away, the Smoky Mountains 130. In September, the average high temperature is eighty-three degrees. That number drops to seventy-three in October.
I couldn’t wait to explore Chattanooga and the surrounding areas. First, I checked into the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. The lobby is a former train station, and there are even old sleeping cars for overnight stays if you choose. I tried a Havana latte at the Frothy Monkey, the onsite coffee shop/bakery/diner. And I checked out Songbird Guitars Museum with its collection of more than 500 rare vintage instruments. A bit farther away, you can even take a tour on a Segway with Chattanooga Segway and Bike Tours. For everyone else, a free shuttle and trolley make navigating easy.
After getting my bearings, I ventured out.
Easy Bistro and Bar
203 Broad Street, Chattanooga
Don’t leave Chattanooga without trying Easy Bistro and Bar. Chef Eric Niel serves contemporary Southern Cuisine sourcing as much as he can from surrounding farmlands. I had the Brisket with Crushed Potatoes, but only after I tried the Crawfish and Artichoke Dip. Perfect!
850 Market Street, Chattanooga
When nothing but pizza will do, head to Community Pie for their Neapolitan style pizza made with flour from Naples, San Marzano tomatoes from the Campania region of Italy, and baked in an Italian wood-fired oven at 900 degrees.
Dutch Maid Bakery and Café
109 Main Street, Tracy City
Off the beaten path and worth every mile! Owner Cindy Day keeps this bakery, opened more than one hundred years ago, on target, using some of the original recipes. The lunch I had included Famous Fran’s Chicken Salad and a perfect creampuff for dessert, and I left with a Tennessee Whiskey Cake. Tip: You can order the whiskey cake online. Go do that now!
2390 Spring Creek Boulevard, Cleveland
Such good food from the chicken salad wrap to the fried pickles, but nothing was as good as the Hot Slaw, a version of mustard-based coleslaw with a kick!
220 North Ocoee Street, Cleveland
While in Cleveland, take the walking tour of the grand old buildings, then make plans to eat at Café Roma. Try the Bruschetta Café Roma and the Tortellini Roma with cheese-filled pasta, artichokes, peas, mushrooms, and pink cream sauce.
201 Chestnut Street, Chattanooga
The Tennessee Aquarium, located on the downtown riverfront, opened in 1992, and since then more than 750,000 visitors have come through its doors. Children will especially love the exhibits which include penguins, touchable stingrays, a butterfly habitat, and sharks. The American River Otters were spectacular, as were the lemurs. And they have more turtles than any other zoo or aquarium in North America. Budget at least two hours here.
1720 South Scenic Highway, Chattanooga
Ruby Falls is the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public in the U.S. An elevator takes you down twenty-six stories (1,120 feet) to the cave’s floor. You’ll see stalactites and stalagmites, hear the story of Leo Lambert who named the falls after his wife, Ruby. Changing colored lights flood the waterfall, making it a one-of-a-kind experience. Ruby Falls also has ZIPStream Aerial Adventure, including zip lines, climbing tower, and obstacle courses in the treetops surrounded by spectacular views. Tip: Buy tickets ahead of time.
Bluff View Art District
412 East Second Street, Chattanooga
This piece of paradise located on the banks of the Tennessee River is a must-see for foodies and art lovers alike, and feels a bit like a European village. Watch chefs working, see a chocolatier creating, see coffee being roasted, bread being baked, pasta being pulled. Then visit the River Gallery Sculpture Garden, the surrounding art galleries, and end your tour either at Tony’s Pasta Shop and Trattoria or Back Inn Café with its extensive wine list and global cuisine.
Rock City Gardens
1400 Patten Road, Lookout Mountain, Georgia
All these years you’ve passed the tourist signs, “See Rock City.” Visit, and you’ll know why. Just six miles from downtown Chattanooga, across the border in Georgia, is this wonder of a place. Walk the trails, see the 400-plus native plants, cross the swinging bridge, explore the caves, and be sure to stand on the spot where on a clear day you can see seven states. Dining and shopping are great here, and you can bring your dog along for the adventure.
Savage Gulf State Natural Area
1183 Stone Door Road, Beersheba Springs
I hiked Savage Gulf wearing hiking boots I hadn’t yet broken in. Each step was a tornado of pain on my right foot, but even that didn’t keep me from loving this place. Savage Gulf is carved into the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau. The biggest attraction is Stone Door, a ten-by-one-hundred-foot crack that stretches from the top of the escarpment into the into the gorge.
The most sobering leg of my journey was my trip outside Chattanooga to Charleston, Cleveland, and Birchwood. Here, there are parks and monuments devoted to the story of the Cherokee and their forced removal from Tennessee to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) on the Trail of Tears. From 1838 to 1839, the Cherokee traveled many routes to get to Oklahoma, but nearly all of them began in Tennessee. Detachments left Fort Cass in what is now Charleston, which served as the military headquarters for the Trail of Tears. When they left, the 800-mile journey took nearly seven months, and many died along the way.
James F. Corn Interpretive Facility and Red Clay State Historic Park
1140 Red Clay Park, Cleveland
Red Clay served as the last seat of the Cherokee national government before they were forced out, and is called the site where the Trail of Tears began. At that time, approximately 2,500 Cherokee, many of whom were tribal leaders, had homes in Southeast Tennessee. At Red Clay, the Cherokee eternal flame burns, and Blue Hole Spring, sacred to the tribe, ripples along. Chief John Ross’s Farm Site, now privately owned, is only four miles away.
Cherokee Removal Memorial Park
6800 Blythe Ferry Road, Birchwood
Set at the convergence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers, this park was built as a memorial of the Cherokee people. The monument, which lists the names of 2,535 heads of households and the number of people in each family, is haunting. The names were taken from the 1835 census, and descendants come year-round to honor their ancestors. A short walk away is the former launching site for Blythe Ferry, which transported 10,000 Cherokee people across the river on the Trail of Tears route.
Hiwassee River Heritage Center
8746 Hiwassee Street, Charleston
This center on the banks of the Hiwassee River offers guided tours by appointment. Discover the stories of the Cherokee people in the interpretive center.
Southeast Tennessee is a beautiful place, with a storied past that it is working hard to preserve. Anytime is a good time to go, but consider a trip in the fall when the mountains start to show-off, parading their jewel-like colors. Festivals abound at this time of year, and Chattanooga hosts a month of events in October. To learn more, visit tnvacation.com.