Alabama: an essential itinerary for your next road trip
"Sweet home Alabama / Where the skies are so blue..."
Think of the Yellowhammer State and you'll probably be picturing the famous blue skies, food slowly roasting on the BBQ, lively music joints playing Deep South classics and the 20th-century struggles of the civil rights movement. But there's even more in Alabama to uncover, from the state's contributions to the national space programme to French influences, and the white-sand beaches of the Gulf Coast you didn't even know existed.
Songs of the South
The Deep South's music credentials are undisputed -- it's the birthplace of blues, jazz, country, rock 'n' roll, soul, gospel and more. But it's amazing how many familiar faces and their toe-tapping hits are associated with Alabama state, including the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Otis Redding and Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, who had a string of number ones out of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, putting the city firmly on the music industry's map.
For a truly immersive experience, be sure to check out the intimitable Gip's Place on a Saturday evening -- it's one of the last remaining juke joints in the USA and has been run out of Henry Gipson's tin-roof garage in Bessemer since 1953 -- or find one of the many summer beach festivals along the Gulf Coast.
Load your plate
From soul-food favourites to high-end restaurants, Alabama's dining scene is booming, with the state's largest city, Birmingham, leading the way. The city's famous Highlands Bar and Grill scooped the prestigious Outstanding Restaurant in the James Beard Foundation Awards 2018, and there are plenty of other foodie hotspots in the city vying for the spotlight.
Alabama is in the heart of BBQ country -- think succulent ribs, pull-apart pork shoulder, sweet sauces, tangy pickles and heaps of coleslaw piled high on your plate. It's often a centrepiece of a social Saturday afternoon, and you'll find huge cookouts taking place on game days, fundraisers and impromptu backyard parties.
Head to the south coast's shores and you'll find beach restaurants aplenty serving freshly caught seafood. Tuck into juicy boiled crayfish (known locally as crawfish), crispy fried catfish and daily specials straight from Gulf, while enjoying stunning ocean views and an ice-cold beer.
Alabama is famous for its sweet tooth, so if you still have space for dessert, you'll be thrilled to find slabs of pecan pie and the state's legendary lane cake (layers of white sponge cake filled with bourbon-soaked raisins and coconut) on the menu. For an authentic taste of summer, opt for an old-fashioned peach cobbler topped with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.
An American story
The US civil rights movement for African-Americans spanned multiple US states across many decades, with Alabama a focal point for many of the events that took place. The state has more locations associated with the civil rights movement than any other, such as the Montgomery street corner where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and the site of the attacks on Freedom Riders by the Klu Klux Klan in Birmingham.
As depicted in the Oscar-winning film "Selma", one of the most famous was the 1965 black voter registration campaign led by Martin Lurthur King. Known as the Selma-to-Montgomery March, the peaceful protest culminated in violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but also contributed to the advancement of social equality on a global scale. You can now walk this 54-mile-long National Historic Trail yourself and learn more about this important chapter of modern American history.
When the mercury rises, follow the Alabama locals out of the city and into the rolling countryside, where there are plenty of places to escape the heat. Upstate, you'll find Little River Canyon National Reserve and DeSoto State Park, where you can hike sun-dappled trails and dive into the cool blue pools of DeSoto and Martha Falls -- just don't forget to call in at the charming mountain city of Fort Payne while there. Or hit the waters of Lake Tuscaloosa, an hour from Birmingham, which is a great spot for fishing and boating.
Further south, you'll find the sprawling wetlands of the Mobile Bay Delta, where five rivers converge to create a paradise for pelicans, alligators and blooming American lotus flowers. It's also here that you'll find Alabama's extrodinary Gulf Coast, home to miles of sugar-white sandy beaches lapped by the turquoise waters. Make a base for yourself in the beach cities of Gulf Shores or Orange Beach, both lively communities.
Join the space race
With 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, now is the perfect time to visit the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. Alabama's contributions to the space race were fundamental and include the Saturn V rocket that launched the successful Apollo 11 lunar landing. The museum has a huge range of artefacts from this inspiring era, with Space Shuttle Pathfinder, a lunar rock sample from Apollo 12 and the Saturn V rocket itself among the most popular exhibits.
The original Mardis Gras
You may immediately think of New Orleans when picturing the legendary Mardis Gras celebrations, but the first organised festival by French settlers actually took place in 1703 in Mobile, Alabama. These days, the celebrations now span several weeks and have evolved across the world to include colourful parades, masked balls and mystic societies. The festivities officially start in February and run daily until Fat Tuesday itself.
So why choose the celebrations in Mobile over those in New Orleans? Mobile's is known for its family-friendly atmosphere, with alcohol only allowed in designated areas of the parade route. And you'll also find plenty of traditions unique to the Mobile Mardis Grais, including the custom of throwing moon pies, a Southern confectionary staple, from elaborately themed floats and Joe Cain Day, which honours the city's iconic mascot, who's credited with rejuvenating the carnival tradition after the Civil War.
Where is Alabama? Alabama is in the heart of the American Deep South, with Tennessee to the north, Florida to the south, Georgia to the east and Mississippi to the west, and great cities like Nashville, New Orleans, Memphis and Atlanta all an easy drive away -- perfect as part of a wider road trip.
How do I get to Alabama? Fly to international airports in neighbouring Louisiana (New Orleans), Tennessee (Nashville) or Georgia (Atlanta), all of which are less than two hours' drive from Alabama.
When should I visit Alabama? The state's subtropical climate makes for pleasantly mild winters, while summers can get hot and humid, with short but dramatic thunderstorms when the mercury peaks. Early summer and autumn are an ideal time to visit, with fine weather and fewer crowds.
Visit in February for the Mardis Gras celebrations, June for the wholesome Chilton County Peach Festival or the exciting Alabama Sports Festival, or October for Kentuck Festival of the Arts, which showcases art and craftsmanship.