My Western eyes, accustomed to rocky mountain peaks and wide-open ranges, see Alabama as a softer, gentler land.
A carpet of deciduous trees covers the rolling Appalachians where spring is a fairyland of color. Mother Nature doesn't pinch pennies on the Alabama landscape. She propagates an abundance of flowers including white mountain laurels, red rhododendrons and pink or white azaleas.The Tennessee River, rather than carving a gorge like many of the West's rushing rivers do, cuts a broad swath on its way to the mighty Mississippi.
And the beaches, perhaps the state's best-kept secret, stretch for miles along the Gulf Shores, pristine and often uncrowded. A beach is a lovely sight for a Utahn's ocean-starved eyes.
Outdoor-minded Utahns will like the campgrounds. State parks throughout Alabama offer scenic camping and lodges at reasonable prices.
April and May are good months to visit the state. But autumn, when mountains take on red and orange hues, has its merits, too.
I went there as the guest of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel. My time was well spent. Here are the reasons why.
MOUNTAIN MUNICIPALITIES: Mentone is what you'd expect a small Appalachian town to be. Its hub is a handful of shops clustered around the intersection of highways 117 and 89. A gateway to DeSoto State Park, it is also an arts and crafts center.
Log Cabin Deli sits on a hillside above the town's only intersection. The building, constructed between 1800 and 1835, was a trading post for a Sequoia Indian chief. The floor, walls and rock fireplace are original, says the deli's owner Collette Kerby. Only the roof has been updated.
The historic structure has been put to good use. Kerby's menu includes sandwiches and soups. Her homemade desserts are legendary. I opt for hot fudge-nut cake topped with vanilla ice cream. It is sinfully rich but so good it calls for seconds. After lunch I sneak back to the deli and carry my second piece of cake onto the veranda. There I sit in the sun, watching an occasional tourist walk by as I cherish the taste of melting chocolate.
Nature lovers make up a good portion of Mentone's small population. Darrell Norman, a reporter for the Gadsden Times, is an example. Three years ago he moved from Colorado to Mentone. His house is in the middle of a meadow. "I get up every morning, get my coffee, turn on my computer and look out the window at the view," he says.
"One of the locals claims that (nearby) Little River emits a spiritual music. He says people who are sensitive to it stay here and I won't argue with that."
Nature lovers enjoy nearby DeSoto State Park, famous for its rhododendron trails. In mid-May, you can hike down to Little River through a canopy of rhododendrons in full bloom.
You'll also find lovely wildflowers. Drive along the road that skirts Little River Canyon, billed as the longest canyon east of the Mississippi. Its gorge averages 500 feet in depth.
The river is a geological anomaly because it runs along the top of a mountain.
The area does not take Mother Nature's spring floral show for granted. Mentone, for instance, celebrates the colors of spring with a Rhododendron Festival in mid-May.
Lodging and campgrounds are available in DeSoto State Park.
SCENIC DRIVES. One of the most scenic drives in the state's northeast corner is Highway 68 (north of Boaz) connecting to Highway 68 near Collinsville, turning onto Highway 176 East. Talladega Scenic Drive is another legendary route. It crosses the Appalachians and ends near Cheaha State Park. Begin near Heflin at U.S. 78. March and April are the best months for spring flowers. Mid-October thru November are the best times for fall foliage.
SHOPPING: You'll find the biggest discount outlet in the South at Boaz. There are more than 150 discount stores.
They include Leslie Fay, Barbizon, Chaus, OshKosh, Jones NY, J.H. Collectibles, Royal Doulton, Anne Klein, Benetton, Evan Picone, Geoffrey Beene, London Fog and Liz Claiborne. Born-again shoppers can easily spend a day here.
For lunch, step across the street to Mill Street Deli. Its simple decor belies its exceptional food. The owner is a gracious Southern lady who guards her family recipes like gold. A New York-based food magazine begged to publish her recipe for chicken salad. She turned it down. I found the datenut bread with cream cheese spread that accompanied my fruit salad so enticing that I ordered a second helping for dessert. I, too, asked for the recipe. She turned me down.
Boaz is on U.S. 431 between Gadsden and Huntsville.
CAMPING: Alabama is great for camping. Many state parks have lodges and campgrounds. The campgrounds I saw were exceptionally scenic. The one at Lake Guntersville State Park is set amid trees along the lake shore.
Each camping spot in DeSoto State Park is set apart from others by a privacy hedge.
Cheaha State Park offers wonderful vistas of the Appalachians. It, too, has a lodge and campgrounds.
A list of campgrounds is available from the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel.
RUSSELL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT: The drive from Mentone to Russell Cave takes you through Alabama's rolling countryside. You pass through a handful of small towns and cross the broad Tennessee River Valley. The drive itself is worth the trip.
Russell Cave is a lesson in ancient history. Archaic Period Indians first occupied the cave some time between 6550 and 6145 B.C.- nearly 9,000 years ago. In 1953, amateur archaeologists discovered a few relics. They enlisted the help of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society and gradually unearthed the cave's history. They discovered chipped flint points, burial mounds, bones of animals the Indians ate and broken pottery. The Indians spent autumns and winters in the cave, hunting game and gathering plants in the forest. A stream that runs through the cave provided water. Successive bands of Indians used the cave until 1,000 A.D. Russell Cave became a national monument in 1961.
ANNISTON MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY: This is best known for a bird collection of over 500 species and its African Hall, where you'll find dioramas of African plains animals. The museum also rehabilitates injured animals and birds. Residents of its "live animal" building include possums, ferrets, owls, and a boa constrictor. All are either unwanted, sick or injured. One of the ferrets, for example, has cancer. Three owls live in a shaded enclosure. One is blind, one has clipped wings, and one has only one wing. Closed Mondays; $3 admission fee.
NOCCALULA FALLS: Located in Gadsden, this will be of particular interest if you're traveling with children. Noccalula Falls park and campground has picnic tables and a playground for kids. It also has a botanical garden and historic buildings. The focal point, however, is Noccalula Falls. According to legend, Noccalula, the daughter of an Indian chief, jumped to her death from the top of the falls the day she was supposed to marry a rich chief of a neighboring tribe she didn't love. Despite the lore, the falls are lovely.
A couple of places I didn't get to but heard wonderful things about:
GULF SHORES: Some of America's best, sugar-white beaches are along the Gulf Shores. Swimming, sunning and fishing are among the most popular pastimes. The area has plenty of things for families to do. Zooland Animal Park; Waterville U.S.A., a 15-acre theme park with 9 waterslides, wave pool and children's activities pool; Fort Morgan, built between 1819-1834, was one of the last Confederate forts to fall.
BELLINGRATH GARDENS AND HOME: Located 20 miles s outh of Mobile off I-10 west. Take exit 15-A to Theodore and Bellingrath Highway. There are 800 acres of flowers, sculptures, reflecting pools and waterfowl. Once the home of industrialist Walter D. Bellingrath who bought the property in 1917 as a hunting preserve, it is now a major tourist attraction.
Azaleas will begin blooming in about a week, according to a spokeswoman. "Spring is by far the most popular time of year here," she says. "The azaleas are in full bloom in March and every weekend high school girls dressed in antebellum dresses grace the garden."
November, when chrysanthemums are in bloom, is the second most-popular month to visit Bellingrath. Admission fee is $6.50 for adults. Open daily from 7 a.m. to dusk.
Important Alabama phone numbers
Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel: 1-800-ALABAMA
Alabama State Parks: 1-800-ALA-PARK for motel and cabin reservations
Bellingrath Home and Gardens: (205) 973-2217
Boaz Shopping Outlets: (205) 593-8154
Cheaha State Park: (205) 488-5115
DeSoto State Park Campground: (205) 845-5075
Lake Guntersville State Park: (205) 582-2061 (lodge), (205) 582-8418 (campground)
Russell Cave National Monument: (205) 495-2672
Upcoming Alabama events
June Jam: June 3-13 in Ft. Payne. Started by the musical group ALABAMA, it includes gospel singing in the park; golf, bass fishing and soccer tournaments; parade; band competition. The big event is an all-day concert June 12 featuring the elite of country music including ALABAMA. Gates open at 7 a.m.
City Stages: A music festival in downtown Birmingham June 18-20. Outdoor celebration includes food, arts and crafts, and jazz, pop, country, blues, classical and bluegrass performances on eight states. Free admission.
Panoply. June 7-9 in Huntsville. Visual and performing arts festival held in Big Spring Park. Non-stop entertainment and juried visual arts show. Children's area with hands-on activities. One of the top 20 events in the Southeast.
W.C. Handy Music Festival: Aug. 1-7, in Florence and nearby towns. Jazz festival and arts and crafts.