- A winning "Bama" destination -
Color the city of Tuscaloosa, AL, “crimson” with all things pointing to the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide football team. After all, they are the reining 2009 national football champions.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting this friendly city and was pleasantly surprised by all the hidden treasures waiting there. Using the name “Crimson Tide” or “University” for signage shows the support businesses have for the university. You definitely know you’re in a university town.
But, with hidden gems in every category, there is much more to “T – the City” than football. High on the list are the arts – museums, theaters and concert halls; outdoor recreation areas – state parks, the Black Warrior River, camping and hiking; ancient archaeological ruins; education and, last but not least, many excellent restaurants, blues bars and hotel accommodations offering southern hospitality that is second to none, based on my stay at the Hampton on 600 Harper Lee Drive.
The best place to begin your visit is the Jemison-Van De Graaff Mansion, where the Greater Tuscaloosa Convention and Visitors Bureau is currently located. The 1862 antebellum mansion is said to be one of the finest examples of Italianate architecture in the South. There you can meet the friendly staff and ask for a free copy of the “Tuscaloosa Driving Tour” CD and the “West Alabama, a proud past, a progressive future” DVD.
ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
The Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art, with more than 500 original works of American art spanning 1775 to the present is every art lover’s dream. The museum, lodge, gardens, Yacht Club and private residence represent more than three decades of collecting an impressive array of American art by Jonathan Westervelt Warner, known as Jack, of Tuscaloosa. He and his wife, Dr. Susan Austin, take pride in knowing the collection is one of the largest and most impressive of its kind in the world. After browsing the museum, we toured the gardens and were amazed by the grounds dressed for spring and the impressive views of the Back Warrior River. The museum is located in the NorthRiver Yacht Club complex, designed by Warner as a recreational and residential community overlooking Lake Tuscaloosa. The Warner Lodge on Lake Tuscaloosa is touted as an “art lover’s paradise” and is located adjacent to the world-renowned art museum.
Shelton State Community College, Alabama’s Community College for the Fine Arts, has a modern, impressive campus and is home to Theatre Tuscaloosa and The Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame, where a select number of remarkable Alabamians in stage and screen are celebrated. Inductees include Jim Nabors, Nat King Cole, Dean Jones, George Lindsey, Nell Carter, Polly Holliday, Tallulah Bankhead, and Fannie Flag to name a few. The theatre attracts over 18,000 patrons annually with five main stage productions.
HISTORY (AND TIDE PRIDE)
The Historic Bama Theatre was built in 1937 and was the first building in the city to be equipped with air conditioning. The structure is categorized as PWA Moderne, an architectural style that combines Art Deco, Art Moderne and Beaux Arts. The interior of the theatre is referred to as “atmospheric theatre,” where three-dimensional architectural elements, illusionistic painted landscape scenes and twinkling stars in the ceiling combine to imitate a Mediterranean courtyard. The theater is still used today as a movie palace as well as a performance facility for local arts organizations and civic groups.
Naturally, football is the hot topic in Tuscaloosa, where you’ll find the Paul W. (Bear) Bryant Museum located on the University of Alabama campus. Fascinating football memorabilia spanning over 100 years of Crimson Tide history makes it well worth a visit. The original paintings by sports artists capturing the exhilaration of key moments in Crimson Tide history are impressive, to say the least. Here you will see the 2009 National Championship trophy and the Heisman trophy. If you’re a fan of country music’s Tim McGraw, you probably know that his “Southern Voice” song is about Coach Bryant.
University of Alabama’s Moundville Archaeological Park celebrated a $5 million renovation with the grand opening of the Jones Archeological Museum in May. This place is absolutely fascinating and makes you want to know all there is to know about the long-ago inhabitants. “The Big Apple of the 14 thCentury” is how National Geographic described the once powerful prehistoric community. Located on the Black Warrior River 13 miles south of Tuscaloosa, it was the largest city north of Mexico at its peak. The impressive site preserves 326 acres where Mississippian Indians constructed 28 massive flat-topped earthen pyramids 800 years ago. Each October marks the celebration of the Moundville Native American Festival. The new state-of-the-art museum displays artifacts that show great insight into the day-to-day lives of the natives. For trivia buffs, Moundsville’s “Rattlesnake Disk” is the Alabama state artifact.
University of Alabama – the thin red line, the Crimson Tide – 2009 National Champs and Big Al, the elephant mascot – this is what it’s all about. The university was founded in 1831 and in the fall semester of 2009 enrolled 28,807 students. The 1,000-acre historic and beautiful campus offers more than 200 majors and minors and has 12 national football championships under their belt. On game day the city tops out at 125,000 people over the usual 90,000 – they even sell out the practice games, according to Mayor Walt Maddox.
Menus from many great restaurants, both large and small, will make your taste buds jump for joy. On our first night we visited Nick’s in the Sticks for some local flavor and the famous “Nicodemus” beverage. Most impressive was the mountain of onion rings served piping hot, and coated with a sweet- tasting batter. The next day for lunch we visited Dreamland BBQ – a must have. This location on 15 th Avenue E. is the original eatery where it all began – “Ain’t nothing like ‘em – nowhere.” The good news is they will ship and you can order online.
Another excellent restaurant, Chuck’s Fish, allowed our group to enjoy an array of fresh sushi. This restaurant prides itself on fresh fish and shellfish from the Gulf Coast.
If good food and an awesome view are on your wish list, the Cypress Inn Restaurant is the ticket. Sample the grilled chicken with white barbecue sauce for dipping or their delicious fried catfish.
You’ll find a rocking good time at Browns Corner Dueling Piano Bar & Grill, while nearby blues bars bid you welcome. Visit Little Willie’s for some live blues music or stop by The Gray Lady bar where the infamous drink “Sex with an Alligator” is on the menu.
The Mercedes Benz plant exemplifies progress, with its 800 robots used for welding and other repeatability tasks for consistency. The tour of the only Mercedes facility in North America will amaze you and you’ll talk about it for weeks. Ages 12 and up are eligible for the $5 tour, and groups of three or more are asked to make an appointment for Tuesdays or Thursdays.
Tuscaloosa, home to international companies and southern hospitality, boasts a metro-area population of more than 179,000 people. Located in west central Alabama, this original river port on the Black Warrior River is the connection between the gulf port and the Tennessee River.
“Explore the past while planning for the future” is their motto and I hope to return one day soon. There are so many more places of interest here to keep on my “to do” list.
For more information, visit the Tuscaloosa Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.tcvb.org.