Huntsville, Ala. (Huntsville/Madison County CVB, Huntsville.org)
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Huntsville, Ala., may not have the glitz of L.A. or the glamour of New York City, but it does have one thing those cities lack: rockets. The city has played a pivotal role in the U.S. space program since the 1950s — and local industry shows it, with space, technology and defense all occupying central places. The Army's Redstone Arsenal, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and Cummings Research Park all help perpetuate the long tradition of exploration in this self-styled Rocket City.
For visitors, the explosive experience begins in the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, home of U.S. Space Camp, Aviation Challenge and The Davidson Center for Space Exploration.
The space center is one of the foremost institutions dedicated to humanity's celestial accomplishments, as evidenced by the 476-foot long, 90-foot wide, 63-foot high Saturn V, suspended 10 feet above the floor.
Some 12 million visitors have passed through the center, whose highlights include Space Camp, a five-day program for kids interested in learning about space exploration. Exhibits at the center include an Apollo cockpit trainer — a simulated experience that offers the illusion of blasting 140 feet skyward in 2.5 seconds under four Gs of force, then cruising in two to three seconds of weightlessness on the way down.
The Mars Mission and Mars Climbing Wall introduce visitors to the terrain of the red planet, giving them the experience of scaling a part of Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the solar system.
The space theme pervades the city: Even the athletes get in on the action, with local fans rooting for the semiprofessional Rocket City Titans football team and Rocket City United soccer club. To take in these and other teams, visitors can pick up the All-Star Sports Pass. Buy one ticket and get another free to see the Dixie Derby Girls roller derby, Huntsville Havoc hockey and Huntsville Stars baseball teams in action.
Located in the heart of Madison County, the state's third most populated county, Huntsville is always eager to share its history with visitors.
Take, for instance, the EarlyWorks Museum Complex, which is actually three museums in one. The Alabama Constitution Village re-creates local life circa 1819, complete with cabinetmaker's shop, print shop, law office and other facets of daily life, all in working order.
Also on the grounds, at the Huntsville Historic Depot, Andy the robotic ticket taker tells of Alabama's locomotive history, in a recreation of mid-1800s railway life.
A Children's History Museum offers a construction zone, a replica general store and a touch-and-learn space for preschoolers, complete with garden, grocery store and historically dubious karaoke feature.
Another popular stop for the kids is Sci-Quest, a hands-on center with exhibits that run the gamut from earthquakes to electricity to the mysteries of the human body.
Huntsville also has its fair share of arts and entertainment. Among the more notable attractions is the North Alabama "Down Home" Blues Festival. It's held in late May, this year on May 28, if you happen to be in town. Top artists in new and old-school blues take the stage in the open air at the Huntsville Jaycees Fairground.
On a further cultural note, the extensive collections of the Huntsville Museum of Art offer a broad spectrum of creative expression. The permanent collection of 2,300 pieces is augmented by frequent visiting exhibits, including recent shows of Impressionist women, Boston printmakers and artists responding to abstract expressionism.
For those seeking a break from the cloistered space, the Huntsville Botanical Garden offers a literal breath of fresh air: With 112 acres, it is one of the state's top tourist attractions. A fern glade offers cool and soothing greenery, and an herb garden offers 14 themed spaces and a nature trail.
As per the brochure: "Spring finds the trail awash with the soft, billowing lavender of wild sweet William ... the fuzzy, bottlebrush inflorescences of foamflower."
From the really pretty to the pretty surreal, take a jaunt over to the Ave Maria Grotto, known to all as "Jerusalem in Miniature." This four-acre park 50 miles south of Huntsville in Cullman offers 125 miniature reproductions of historic buildings and shrines from around the world.
The work of Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk of St. Bernard Abbey, the grotto incorporates a wealth of adornments from donated materials, from bits of colored glass to cold cream jars and broken bathroom tiles.
After a full day of rockets and gardens and grottoes, it's time to check out the local nightlife. Nothing fancy here — just a simple, sturdy southern good time.
The Bench Warmer bar speaks to the sporty crowd, with NASCAR playing Sundays on all seven big screens. If there's no game on, play darts, listen to the DJ or sing karaoke. But probably there's a game on.
A beer shrine, The Nook offers about 350 varieties, including 40 on tap. Events include frequent beer tastings, German food night and classic country nights.
Welcome to my city
Tips for federal travelers visiting Huntsville, Ala., from Sherri Stroud, community relations specialist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center:
What I love most about Huntsville:
Huntsville's best-kept secrets:
• Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment, an old textile mill built around 1900 that has been turned into an art center. Free concerts in the summer, artist markets on Saturdays.
• Monte Sano State Park. Beautiful hiking trails and picnic area, just minutes from downtown.
• Kaffeeklatsch. Coffee bean roaster by day, eclectic bar at night.
Whatever you do, be sure to:
• Visit Bridge Street Town Centre. Good shopping and restaurants right outside Redstone Arsenal's gate.
• Eat barbeque pork at any hole-in-the-wall restaurant in town.
My 3 favorite restaurants:
• 801 Franklin: A great atmosphere for fine dining. Patio. Best gourmet happy hour, with quiet live music, great wine selection.
• Sam & Greg's Pizzeria Gelateria: Quaint, on the Courthouse Square — yummy!
• Rosie's: Tex-Mex at three locations.
Any finally I would add:
If you visit over the weekend, there are plenty of beautiful parks, the Tennessee River, Guntersville Lake, golf courses and other attractions within an hour's drive.