Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis

Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis

Those planning a fall getaway may initially think of popular LGBT destinations such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco. However, why not think outside the box and head to Tennessee, home to work-class entertainment, fine dining and tons of outdoor adventures.

The most gay-friendly destination in the state also happens to be the capital. Nashville is home to much more than country music and could easily be your one and only stop on the trip. Those looking for an extended vacation should visit Tennessee’s other major cities: Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

Each destination has its own distinct flare and culture. Memphis of course is known for blues and BBQ; Chattanooga for its beautiful riverfront aquarium and Knoxville for its vibrant downtown. I recommend spending a minimum of two nights in each city to really get a feel for the locale.

Nashville is probably your best beginning point as the airport offers inexpensive daily non-stops from South Florida and is centrally located, providing visitors with a short drive to either of the state’s other cities.

CHATTANOOGA – HISTORY & HEIGHTS

Chattanooga is one of the most historic cities in Tennessee.  A pivotal Civil war battleground, the city has earned its place in United States history. The word “Chattanooga” is a Creek word meaning “rock coming to a point” and it is thought to be a description of Lookout Mountain, one of the attractions we visited.

Chattanooga’s main attraction is without a doubt the Tennessee Aquarium, home to a collection of thousands of animals, divided amongst two buildings: River Journey and Ocean Journey.

The first stop on our visit is River Journey, the aquarium’s original building and features freshwater creatures and habitats from the Southeast and around the world. Visitors can explore two living forests under glass and get face to face with giant catfish, prehistoric sturgeon and alligators.

Ocean Journey takes visitors beneath the waves where 10-foot sharks, fierce barracuda and graceful stingrays glide through amazing coral formations. Other galleries showcase cuttlefish, squid, crabs and jellyfish. An indoor rainforest showcases the aquarium’s butterfly exhibit.

Operated by the aquarium is the River Gorge Explorer, a 70-passenger catamaran, which transports guests downstream into  “Tennessee’s Grand Canyon,” the Tennessee River Gorge.  This scenic waterway is home to a remarkable array of plants and animals in addition to historic mansions. Angled seating allows each guest to enjoy the scenic beauty and wildlife.  The 3-hour sunset cruise is not to be missed.

After a long day of sightseeing, check into the Sheraton Read House.  Nestled in the heart of downtown Chattanooga, the historical property combines Georgian architecture with modern amenities, including an indoor pool, fitness center and spacious guest rooms complete with complimentary wireless Internet, feather and down pillows and luxury linens.

The hotel is also home to Porter’s Steakhouse, voted one of the best restaurants. There is also a Starbucks Coffee located in the hotel’s lobby.

Well-rested and ready for adventure, we head to Rock City, one of the city’s greatest attractions.  The destination, said to have been “created by God and enhanced by man,” is a unique geological and botanical wonder. Located toward the top of historical Lookout Mountain, the attraction offers people the opportunity to experience enchanting beauty as they adventure along a nature trail, with added man-made entities.

The adventure begins as guests wind in and out of narrow rock formations and caverns.  Intertwined into the attraction are Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village, a fun experience for any age.  One cannot deny Rock City’s overall beauty.  The massive rock formations are estimated to be 200 million years old and the panoramic views of seven states from the observation deck at 1,700 feet above sea-level are unparalleled.  If that isn’t enough, Rock City features a majestic 100-foot waterfall and thrill-seeking swing-along bridge suspended hundreds of feet high. 

Also located on Lookout Mountain is the mystical Ruby Falls, one of the largest underground waterfalls in the world.  Discovered in 1928 by cave enthusiast Leo Lambert, Ruby Falls is also located in one of the deepest commercial caves, at a staggering 1,120 feet underground. 

Guests visiting Ruby Falls for the first time will not know what to expect.  Upon being transported via elevator hundreds of feet below, visitors are welcomed into an enormous cave, which doesn’t give any indication that it is home to a gigantic waterfall. 

As a tour guide leads a group through a maze of rock formations, one can only be in amazement of what Lambert went through to discover the falls, which he named after his wife. 

After a nearly a 30-minute hike past breathtaking stalagmites and stalactites, the cavern opens up and visitors get a glimpse of the awe-inspiring wonder.  Enhanced by multi-colored lights, Ruby Falls is one of the most thrilling sights in Chattanooga.  Guests are encouraged to walk around the falls to really appreciate its sheer beauty.

Chattanooga is definitely a place that can be enjoyed by history buffs and thrill seekers alike, and, visitors should take in a little of both for the best experience.  Who would have thought we could do all of this in just 24 hours?

Visit ChattanoogaFun.com for more information.

NASHVILLE – More than country music

Creative, diverse, friendly and welcoming are words often used to describe Nashville. It has long been a destination rich in culture, music and food and is quickly becoming one of the premier LGBT destinations in the country.

As the largest city in Tennessee, Nashville is home to dozens of arts organizations, historical landmarks, James Beard award-winning restaurants and fabulous entertainment and nightlife venues.

Nashville is also the headquarters of the state’s largest HIV/AIDS organization, Nashville CARES, numerous gay sports leagues, the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce and the Oasis Center, an organization designed to support and educate LGBT youth.

While in Nashville be sure to visit some of the city’s premier LGBT-friendly cultural attractions, most notably the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Tennessee State Museum.

History buffs should head straight to the Parthenon in Centennial Park. This exact replica of the Athens original, also houses a 42-foot tall statue of goddess Athena, the tallest indoor statue in the Western Hemisphere.

If you desire, try to catch a performance by the Nashville Ballet. Since its founding in 1986, the group has grown to become the largest professional ballet company in Tennessee, presenting a varied repertoire of classical ballet and contemporary works. The company is now comprised of 22 professional dancers from around the world.

Another LGBT-friendly highlight is the glorious Cheekwood Botanical Gardens & Museum, a 55-acre botanical garden and art museum located on the historic Cheek estate. Enjoy a brisk Nashville morning strolling with your partner through Cheekwood’s beautifully manicured gardens and admiring the culture and heritage of one of Nashville’s most prominent families.

Those yearning for music history should head to the Country Music Hall of Fameand Museum located in the heart of downtown Nashville. The facility has almost completed a multi-million dollar expansion and features more than 40,000 square feet of country music artifacts and archives in addition to a full service restaurant.

Just a short walk away is the famous Ryman Auditorium. Referred to as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” the Ryman is a National Historic Landmark and has hosted musicians from Chris Isaak and James Brown to Patsy Cline and Bruce Springsteen. The Ryman recently received Pollstar Magazine’s coveted “Theater of the Year” award again for the fourth time in the past decade.

A vacation to Nashville would not be complete without a visit to the Grand Ole Opry, country music’s longest running show. The show brings together an incredible mix of talent to a live audience three times per week. Superstars including Vince Gill, Keith Urban, and Reba McEntire as well as new acts such as The Band Perry and Luke Bryan have all graced the Opry stage.

Touring the city is sure to make you hungry and luckily there are new culinary hotspots popping up everywhere in Nashville. Favorites among gay locals include Virago, Kayne Prime, Watermark and City House, owned by James Beard award-winning chef Tandy Wilson. In addition, GQ Magazine recently voted The Catbird Seat, one of the best new restaurants in America.  

Don’t forget to say hello to Top Chef Arnold Myint at one of his wonderful dining establishments which include PM, Cha Chah, and Suzy Wong’s House of Yum, the latter conveniently located on Church Street, adjacent to one of Nashville’s hippest gay bars, Tribe.

In recent years, Church Street has become Nashville’s gay mecca. In addition to Tribe and Suzy Wong’s, the street is also home to Play Dance Bar, Canvas and Blue Gene’s as well as Out Central, Nashville’s LGBT community center. Or venture south of downtown to an area known as the “Triangle”, home to Stirrup, Trax and Purple Haze.

Just across the bridge from downtown, the neighborhood of East Nashville has been known as “the gayborhood” and offers tons of dining and nightlife venues to fit every taste. Two of the most popular LGBT destinations are Lipstick Lounge and Mad Donna’s. Mad Donna’s is the best place in town to play a game of drag bingo while dining on wonderful cuisine, while Lipstick Lounge offers karaoke and live entertainment throughout the week and is a favorite among the ladies.

After a long day of sightseeing, check into the beautiful Hutton Hotel.   Located in Midtown, this swanky property features an urban-chic sophistication not seen at many hotels in the city. Rooms are lavishly appointed with luxurious linens, flat-screen televisions and granite flooring. A state-of-the-art fitness facility and in-room spa services are available to all guests.

Nashville is truly a magical place that people can’t comprehend until they see it for themselves. So put on your favorite pair of cowboy boots and head on down to Music City USA.

For more information, go to www.visitmusiccity.com.

MEMPHIS – BLUES, BBQ AND ELVIS

Known for Blues, BBQ and Elvis, Memphis is a city steeped in culture and tradition. There are many things to do and see in Memphis, but one of the largest tourist attractions by far is Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley. I was a bit surprised to see that the estate was located in the heart of an urban neighborhood instead of the sprawling countryside, but once you enter the music note adorned gates, you are quickly transported back in time.

Many of the rooms in Graceland still contain the same furnishings and décor as it did when Elvis and his family lived there. More than 600,000 visitors tour Graceland every year, making it one of the most visited homes in the country.

The mansion sits on 13.8-acres and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006. The only portion of the mansion that is off limits to guests is the upstairs, as Elvis always wanted to keep that portion of his home private.

Hundreds of gold records and memorabilia can be found throughout the estate. Even the clothes worn by Elvis and Priscilla on their wedding day can be seen behind glass in another building constructed on the property. Visitors can also tour Elvis’s private plane collection. I’m not talking about model planes, these are the real deal. Finally, pay your respect to the King with a visit to the Presley family grave site in the meditation garden.

If all of the touring has made you hungry, head downtown to find some of the best BBQ east of the Mississippi. Hidden in an alley off of 2nd Street is Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous, a Memphis institution featured on Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food Nation.” Even though host Adam Richmond suggested trying the ribs, my guest and I both opted for the succulent Pork Shoulder sandwich. At just $7.95, this delicious over-sized sandwich arrives overflowing with pork and accompanied by baked beans and a unique mustard and vinegar-based slaw. It’s the perfect way to begin a culinary journey of Memphis.

After lunch, walk over to the historic Peabody Hotel and catch a glimpse of the world-renowned Peabody Ducks, which have been featured on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Sesame Street, the Oprah Winfrey Show and in People magazine. Over the years, celebrities including Paula Deen, Joan Collins, Kevin Bacon, Emeril Lagasse, Patrick Swayze, and Peter Frampton have received the coveted role of Honorary Duckmaster. The Peabody is a member of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, so you and your partner will feel welcome staying here.

Spend the early evening walking down Beale Street and listen to any one of dozens of live bands perform, or grab a cocktail at Wet Willie’s. Beale Street comes alive after dark, but if you’re looking to catch a great drag performance, head to Crossroads, one of Memphis’ premier gay bars. The establishment boasts a large stage, outdoor patio and multiple bar areas. However, they don’t serve alcohol but encourage patrons to bring their own.

Other options include Drew’s Place and Pumping Station, but club-goers should head to Spectrum. The 30,000 square-foot complex boasts two dance floors and is the hottest place in town to meet and mingle with the young and fabulous crowd.

Memphis is home to many music-related attractions in addition to Graceland. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, located at the original site of Stax Records, pays tribute to all of the artists who recorded there. The museum features an amazing collection of more than 2,000 pieces of memorabilia from soul pioneers including Ike & Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, The Jackson Five, Al Green, Sam Cooke, James Brown and Ray Charles.

A few miles up the road is Sun Studio, a recording studio opened by rock pioneer Sam Phillips in 1950. The building is known for recording what is being called the first rock-and-roll single, Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats' "Rocket 88.” The studio also holds the nickname “The Birthplace of Rock & Roll.” Music legends including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis all recorded here at some point in their career.

For dinner, I recommend Local Gastropub on Main Street. Diners should choose to sit outside and watch as street cars and decorated horse-drawn carriages travel up and down the street, which is closed to thru-traffic, giving Local Gastropub a very European vibe. The food at Local is varied and plentiful. For starters, try the Smoked Duck Quesadilla with chipotle aioli or the Crispy Spanish Shrimp with sweet paprika mayo. For a lighter entrée, choose one of Local’s signature salads. The Seared Tuna Tostada contains ahi tuna cooked to perfection over a bed of mixed greens, marinated cucumbers, crisp wontons and toasted sesame seeds with a Thai dressing.

If you have more of an appetite, try the Fish & Chips, a hearty portion of North Atlantic cod deep fried in a Ghost River Golden Ale batter with lemon dill tartar sauce served with hand cut fries. Another great selection is the Shrimp & Grits, served with chaurice sausage broth, tomato jam and fried egg.

Memphis is a great weekend destination and an excellent city for those looking to learn more about music history. Remember, bring your appetite and don’t forget to pack your blue suede shoes!

For more information of Memphis, visit www.MemphisTravel.com