Nicky Thornton from Oasis Travel in Lisburn hits the high notes as she takes in Tennessee, travelling in style with Virgin and Travel2.
They say that the roots of country music lie in the ballads and folk songs which Ulster settlers originally took with them to their new homelands in the Appalachian Mountains … which goes a long way to explaining why country music has such enduring appeal here in Northern Ireland and why pilgrimages to the ‘music city’ of Nashville, Tennessee are so enormously popular.
The associations between our two cultures run deep; indeed Belfast has had a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Nashville since 1994, which involves both cities working together to develop cultural, educational, tourist and business links.
Expectations and excitement were therefore running high as I headed to Tennessee recently.
First thing to say is that it is a long journey, so my advice is to choose your airline wisely and, if budget will allow, go for an upgrade. I flew via Manchester with Virgin Atlantic and was upgraded to Upper Class which was a fantastic experience and allowed me to arrive in fine form, ready to tackle anything! On arriving at Atlanta it was very straight forward going through customs and transferring to another terminal to board my Delta Air Lines flight to Nashville – a 40 minute hop.
When I’m visiting a city I invariably opt for a central location, but this time I stayed at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel, slightly to the North of ‘downtown’. It actually proved an ideal touring base for the wide range of attractions I planned to visit. Southern hospitality reigns supreme here and service was excellent throughout, with great food, including American breakfasts that would, as they say, ‘sink a battleship’ … but oh so tempting!
First stop was a live country music night in the iconic Grand Ole Opry, complete with a VIP backstage tour. This really is the home of legends, for all the greats have played – and continue to play – on this world-famous stage. This is an experience not to be missed and it is so packed with heritage, that it is a great starting point towards getting the feel of Music City.
I may never grace the stage of the Grand Ole Opry (actually you can forget ‘may’, it’s just never going to happen), but I now have a real claim to country fame, having recorded my very own song in RCA Studio B, the very spot where Elvis recorded so many of his hits!
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville is dedicated to preserving and presenting to audiences the evolving history and traditions of country music. It is a vast venture with 2.5 million artefacts and is very much one of the must-do attractions of this incredible city. Everyone will find their own favourite musicians amongst those inducted into its Hall of Fame but, for me, the astonishing thing was seeing just how many great, influential names were showcased here.
Another ‘you really ought to see’ (and Nashville is packed with them) is the Johnny Cash Museum, celebrating the life and legacy of The Man In Black. Brilliantly done, telling a captivating story … and everyone goes out humming a Cash tune!
People still flock to Nashville in the hope of being discovered and Making It Big. The Listening Room Cafe is one of many restaurants in the city where people come to sing and play in the hope of getting noticed. Being part of the audience for that fresh talent is a great experience in itself, particularly when you can kick back and enjoy it all, with an imaginatively themed menu and an incredible atmosphere combining to make any stay an occasion to remember.
At the Wildhorse Saloon, you get to be part of the entertainment, with lively lessons in the art of line dancing. Small and intimate it isn’t – this venue has a capacity of 2,400 and includes bar, restaurant, concert venue and even its own TV studio. Go big or go home!
Follow up your visit to wild Wildhorse with a tour of Nashville’s Honky Tonk bars, a fun night out in an age-old tradition … hony tonks are rowdy bars where patrons enjoy country music with their drink. They still do!
Suitably inspired by the honky tonk gaiety, it’s well worth paying a visit to the Jack Daniels Distillery where a supremely well-organised tour will guide you through the rich history and current production of this famously smooth-sipping whiskey.
I had crammed a huge amount of sight-seeing and experience into just three days in Nashville and I was genuinely sorry to have to leave so soon – there is just so much to see in this city and surrounding area that you really could fill a fortnight with amazing memories. However, for me, it was onward and upward and off to Chattanooga en route for the gracious city of Atlanta.
It’s impossible to visit Chattanooga without bursting into a chorus of ‘Pardon me boys, is that the Chattanooga chou chou?’, but I expect the locals have heard it all before!
I visited two key local attractions, The Tennessee Aquarium (a fun experience) and the underground Ruby Falls, for more than 85 years one of the region’s major tourist attractions. In 1928, Leo Lambert and a team of cavers found a breath-taking 45 feet high waterfall located over 1,120 feet below the surface of Lookout Mountain. Leo named the falls after his wife, Ruby, and opened the area as a public attraction. It really is a marvellous spectacle and, today, the venue has a host of activity options for visitors, although I drew the line at stream zip-lining!
In Atlanta I stayed in the huge (1,059 bedrooms and suites) Atlanta Hotel, located within the CNN centre, and offering stunning views of the downtown Atlanta skyline and the Centennial Park. Despite its size, hotel service has a nice personal aura to it, living up to the Omni determination to ‘put the soul in hospitality every day’.
Atlanta is a beautiful city, packed with attractions but I has such a short time to spend that I had to plump for just three. A tour of The World of Coca Cola Museum proved fascinating, but I didn’t manage to discover that secret formula behind the world’s best-selling soft drink.
Atlanta's Top Tourist Destination. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site attracts large numbers of national and international visitors each year and I was more than eager to include it on my own personal itinerary. The 35 acres complex includes several buildings including Martin Luther King Jr.'s boyhood home and the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was baptized and both his father Martin Luther King Sr. and he were pastors. The Visitor Center has a museum which engagingly chronicles the American Civil Rights Movement and the path of Martin Luther King Jr.
A brief stop at Ponce City Market in the historic Sears, Roebuck & Co. building in Atlanta, reinvented as a vibrant community hub housing the Central Food Hall, shops, apartments and offices – a shopaholics’ delight!
All too soon and I was on the move again, this time flying to Orlando with Delta Air Lines, for an overnight at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, a manmade fantasy tropical paradise. It’s an amazing haven and the whole experience was rather like living on an extravagant, adventurous jungle movie set. This would be a great place for park-lovers to stay, for guests enjoy exclusive benefits at Universal Orlando Resort, including early park admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal’s Volcano Bay plus complimentary transport to all three theme parks.
My final day was spent relishing the full VIP Experience at Universal Studios, merrily skipping the queues at rides and getting to see behind the scenes of this incredible creative enterprise. Hardly a relaxing end to my short trip, but certainly a fun climax … and then I had the relaxation of Upper Class on Virgin to look forward to for my return flight!
Combining Tennessee with Florida is really pulling out all the stops, but it can certainly be done and creates a holiday packed with experience. Talk to me about visiting both … or about taking your time and exploring fully any of these great destinations.