Ahhhhhhhhhhh, summer. School's out, the temperature's up, and minds are wandering. It's time to get out — out of the house, the apartment, the office, the city. We looked at this picture with fluffy clouds hanging over the mountains and perfectly striped-up golf course and thought, "How can we escape?" In that spirit, what follows are some ideas on where you can get away for an afternoon, a day or a weekend.
Day trips: Get there soon
Bell Witch Cave and Canoe Rental
Who doesn’t like a little paranormal bustle with your getaway? Word is that back in the 1800s, the spirit of Kate Batts began to haunt the Robertson County home of John Bell and his family. (One story is she wanted vengeance for being cheated by Bell in a land purchase.) After a night on the property, Andrew Jackson said he’d rather fight the whole British army than spend another night with the Bell Witch. There’s a reconstructed cabin and a cave, and if you want the full effect, a candlelight tour at midnight can be set up 48 hours before a visit. Canoe rentals on the nearby Red River are available during the day. [bellwitchcave.com]
Tours of Kentucky’s 167-year-old cave system are enough to wow even non-outdoor enthusiasts. Worry not; this isn’t the kind of place where you have to crawl through mud to view natural wonders — that is, if you don’t want to. Thousands of stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone deposits fill the longest known cave system in world. Tours last anywhere from a half hour to a little more than an hour, and the caves are equipped with a lighting system, concrete trails and hand railings throughout. [nps.gov/maca]
Horace Burgess’ Tree House
If you’re looking for a quirky adventure, a minister in Crossville has built the largest tree house you’ve probably ever seen. More than 10 stories of mismatched wood constitute the oddity that the owner says is commissioned by God. Horace Burgess took 14 years to build around an 80-foot white oak. The structure is nearly 100 feet tall and supported by six other trees that work as natural pillars. From the top of the crow’s nest, the message “Jesus Saves” is mowed into the large field next to the house, and an adult-sized swing hangs from the fifth floor in the center of the house. While the minister no longer accepts visitors, his children said nighttime excursions are offered in the tree house for anyone that calls (931) 265-3988 ahead of time. [Beehive Lane, Crossville]
Loretta Lynn’s Ranch
With five museums and tons of country music memorabilia, Lynn’s ranch in Hurricane Mills is a throwback to life before modern convenience. There are more than 400 artifacts on display in the Frontier Museum, including tools, saws, saddles, cookware, clothing, horse-drawn equipment and wagons. More than 5,000 relics are stored in the Native American Artifact Museum, which was constructed to pay tribute to Lynn’s heritage and help preserve early treasures. During select weekends, the ranch is host to festivals, concerts and horseback trail rides. You might even get lucky enough to spot the Coal Miner’s Daughter herself. [lorettalynnranch.net]
Jack Daniel Distillery
OK, we admit it — this tour became intriguing again now that samples are allowed. You can walk the grounds and take a look into the making of the whiskey, and for an extra $10 try a little of one of the world’s most famous brands. Guides not only explore what it takes to make a fine barrel of whiskey, they also discuss the history and community surrounding the Jack Daniel Distillery. The tour takes less than an hour, and the grounds can be walked in less than two, but nearby Lynchburg, Tenn., is a great place to whittle away the rest of the day. Call in advance to get reservations for a seating at Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House. It’s owned by the distillery and home of some of the best Southern cuisine around. [jackdaniels.com/visit]
Overnighters: Get off the beaten path
Imbibe in the hills
Thanks to miles of rolling hills freckled with farms and several forks in the road that are only modestly marked, finding a destination like Maker’s Mark is an adventure in itself. But once you’ve arrived there, or any of the half-dozen stops along Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, it’s easy to imagine you’re in another country, another century, instead of a mere three hours from downtown Nashville.
This is bourbon country (not Bourbon County, but you knew that), and little has changed in the century or two since distilleries like the one in Loretto, Ky., were established to make a profit from the surrounding fertile land. So while your right brain is high-fiving you for plotting a road trip dedicated to booze (it’s less dangerous than it sounds), your left brain applauds the education you’ll, er, drink up along the way.
Tastings, of course, are the M.O. for visiting this part of the country. In many of these little towns, there’s not much else to do. Literally, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is an elective tourist association that includes six household names in local bourbon, whereas the geographic “trail” winds through 100 or so miles spidering west and south of Lexington. Whether you hit those officially on the trail — Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey — or the handful off — Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, scattered mom-and-pops — is up to the discretion of your home bar, but we’re partial to those that offer the most hospitality.
Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace, for instance, house extensive tasting facilities and gift shops, while Jim Beam isn’t much to look at, though a brand-new $18 million visitors center, scheduled to open this fall, is likely to change that.
Bonus round: Kurtz Restaurant’s true Kentucky fried chicken (Bardstown), scenic views en route to Loretto, and the giant bourbon barrel tasting room at Heaven Hill. Whiskey dorks, your paradise awaits. [kybourbontrail.com]
Get a case of the blues
If you’re looking for a weekend long on music history, head to the Delta. In Clarksdale, Miss., Highways 49 and 61 meet to form the crossroads made famous by Robert Johnson, “the most important blues singer that ever lived” according to Eric Clapton.
“I got out and kissed the ground,” said Ben Willey, a Nashville surgical sales associate, of his trip to the crossroads. “That place is legendary.”
And the blues are still alive and well in Clarksdale. You can tour the DeltaBluesMuseum, then walk over to Morgan Freeman’s GroundZeroBluesClub to see the music in action. (But watch out for Puddin’, a regular who chargers customers $1 to guess which cup he’s hiding a bean in. “I lost $50 bucks to him one night,” said Claire Rhodes, a professor from Memphis who visits Clarksdale once a month. “I can’t figure out how he does it, but it’s a good time.”)
As for food, skip the catfish and try the tamales. The Delta is part of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s HotTamaleTrail, where tamales are simmered and spicy, a marked difference from their steamed Latin counterparts. Get a side of them with your pulled pork at Abe’sBBQ.
To rest your head, try the ShackUpInn. Built on a plantation that remains virtually intact, most of the rooms are converted sharecropper shacks or cotton gin bins. And everything on the premises comes with a healthy dose of personality. The inn’s website warns that drunken frat boys are unwelcome and “the Peabody we ain’t,” so rest assured your front porch time will be peaceful. [deltabluesmuseum.org]
On the water in the Shoals
Jeffrey Jones was a third-grader when he convinced his unwitting parents to buy a boat, and the fact that they did still surprises him today.
“They had no interest in it, and we’ve been through seven since then, from a 45-footer to one that was 18 feet,” said Jones, who has since married and invested in a boat he shares with wife, Caroline.
For many families in the northwest corner of Alabama, boating and water sports are a way of life. Weekends are consumed with preparing for two days spent on one of the many creeks, lakes and sloughs along the Tennessee River that serve to divide Colbert and Lauderdale counties.
For those like Jones, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Caroline has had to learn some of this on the fly, but you learn quickly you have to be prepared,” Jones said. “When we have kids, this will be part of their lives. Now that I’m a banker, I find there’s no better release. I’d take a river trip over a beach trip any day.”
In addition to the pleasure seekers, the Shoals has become a hot spot for bass fishermen and recreational water enthusiasts.
Debbie Bradford, director of Florence-Lauderdale Tourism, said boating is part of the culture in northwest Alabama.
“The river speaks to every aspect of who we are,” she said. “For those who fish, there is a passion for it as a hobby and even as a career. Boaters can live on the water in the spring, fall and summer, because our climate lends itself to that. And for others, the water is a place to canoe or kayak. There really is something for everyone.” [colbertcountytourism.com]
Cool off up high
Every year, we endure the same stifling ritual. (It’s called summer in polite circles.)
Wanna get away? You don’t need an airline ticket.
I was part of a golf trip earlier this month at Beech Mountain, N.C., a ski resort in the winter, but a well-kept summer secret.
The three days we played, the high temperature reached 71 and 72. It was 95 in Nashville those days. Beech Mountain is 5,506 feet above sea level. Humidity is not a word the locals are familiar with.
An added bonus is that you can leave your cell phone and laptop at home. I couldn’t get Wi-Fi, and cell signals were sketchy at best. Sweet, huh?
For golfers, they have an interesting proposition: the Summer of ‘79. If you spend the night at one of the Beech Mountain properties on a stay-and-play package that runs through Oct. 21, and the temperature exceeds 79 degrees any day you tee it up at the private Beech Mountain Club, the club refunds all golf fees.
It is a rare occasion when the thermometer at the National Weather Service station at Fred’s General Mercantile hits the 79-degree mark. Since 1992, the official high has reached 80 degrees just seven times and topped out at 81 once.
There is a lot to do at this scenic resort. There are trails to hike and local restaurants to enjoy. The golf course is waiting. Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean we have to be hot. [beechmtnclub.org]