The Mountain Lakes Region of North Alabama – what a surprise! – For a fun and exciting adventure in Southern culture, I suggest visiting the Mountain Lakes Region of North Alabama, where mountain fresh air, beautiful lakes, waterfalls and Southern hospitality overflow generously. From a luxurious mountain lodge known as Dream Ranch to the Rattlesnake Saloon nestled inside a cave, including corn-bin hunting cabins – a tour of North Alabama revealed surprises at each and every turn. “Unique” is the word I would use to describe my tour of this Mecca for the outdoorsman, the fisherman, the hunter, the hiker or for the soul who just wants to relax in a place that oozes with a peacefulness that is rare, and extremely hard to come by these days.
Scenic Beautiful waterfalls and vistas are calmly waiting for you to find them. DeSoto Falls, Little River Canyon Falls and Lookout Mountain are just a few majestic spots to savor and reflect on for many years to come. The outdoorsman will feel right at home here, with recreation in every category yours for the taking, including hunting, fishing, boating, camping, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, bird watching and simply rejuvenating the soul. The Alabama Mountain Lakes region is comprised of eight lakes: Bear Creek, Guntersville, H. Neely Henry, Lewis Smith, Pickwick, Weiss, Wheeler and Wilson Lakes. The lakes are brimming with fishing guide services, fishing boats and tackle supplies, resorts, cabins and campgrounds, which can be found in a price range to fit every wallet. But it was the uniqueness of the area that stays with me.
Unique Finds Dream Ranch, a world-class hunting and fishing operation, definitely lives up to its name. Owned and operated by the Ainsworth family, this mountain retreat would put all others to shame. Located atop a bluff and nestled in the trees overlooking Lake Guntersville in northeast Alabama, the log and wood structure commands peaceful vistas and affords complete privacy. With decking on two levels for ultimate relaxation while enjoying the view, one could simply sit by the outdoor fireplace or relax in a porch swing for a respite, depending on the season. Inside this majestic, gated fortress is a feast for the eyes. Decorated with animal hides from Africa, almost every wall hosts mounted heads of deer or exotic game brought home by the owners from safari. Zebra skin rugs and antler chandeliers make this retreat a hunter’s dream – hence the name, “Dream Ranch.” Deer are raised on this ranch, where breeding is a science to see just how large the antler racks can grow when genetically engineered. Hunting and fishing packages are available to guests of Dream Ranch, on 1,400 acres, with 3,000 acres of hunting terrain. There are eight guest rooms and 25 beds, including some bunk rooms.
Next on my list of “Unique Accommodations” is Seven Springs Lodge, which is owned by Danny and Fay Foster. What, you may ask, is so unique about this lodge? Grain bins are converted into two-story cabins reserved for hunters during the season and open to tourists the rest of the year. They also offer 56 electrical and water hook-ups for campers and trailers on the grounds at Seven Springs Lodge, as well as furnished bath houses, space for camping and a swimming pool. Their son built and operates the Rattlesnake Saloon nearby, which is even more unique than this corn-bin lodge.
Where else can you sleep in a corn-bin then take a ride in the bed of a truck downhill to have lunch inside a cave? The Rattlesnake Saloon at Seven Springs Lodge, which is located in Tuscumbia, is owned by William Foster, who grew up there – the land was first purchased by Foster’s great-grandfather – and the saloon owner says the smoke rings on the cave ceiling are the result of campfires he made as a child while camping there. Our tour group was loaded into the back of a pick-up truck and slowly driven down the hill on a one-lane dirt road to the entrance of the saloon. It felt surreal to find a saloon doing business Thursday - Sunday inside the wide opening of an outcropping of solid rock. People come from far and wide to experience this unique setting, with up to 500 arriving on any given Saturday. There is nothing special about the menu, but the atmosphere is unparalleled. Another unique find, Howards Chapel in Mentone, is a church built around a huge rock outcropping, which protrudes inside the church and serves as the backdrop behind the pulpit. I call that “unique,” as there is just no other word that fits.
Among Alabama’s best kept secrets are the many vineyards in the Mountain Lakes Region. We were amazed by the feeling that we had been transported to somewhere in France or Italy each time we gazed upon the vineyards. Somehow it makes you feel proud of the entrepreneurs who planted their grapes in spite of being told it wouldn’t work. They proved all the nay-sayers completely wrong, indeed. The Jules J. Berta Vineyards in Albertville offer European-style wine that is dry and sweet, including fruit flavors such as strawberry and watermelon from local farmers. Visitors are welcome to sample and take home their favorites.
Wills Creek vineyards, which offers Muscatine wine as one of their specialties, was a definite crowd pleaser. Farmers markets abound in the fertile Tennessee River Valley. Festhalle Market Platz celebrates the rich German history of Cullman and hosts the only “dry” Oktoberfest in the country. Spring Park Farmer’s Market in Tuscumbia is also a local favorite. While in Tuscumbia, we also enjoyed a tour of Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller, where “The Miracle Worker” is presented each summer. Between Mentone and Valley Head, we discovered Miracle Pottery, which offers unique and original pottery designs by owner Valinda Miracle. I could not resist purchasing a few unique pieces for gifts. One of my favorite spots on this tour was the Rosenbaum House in Florence. This is the only house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Alabama, and is open for tours. Furnishings in the home are also designed by Wright along with several Eames designed chairs. Built in 1940, the home includes floors with radiant heat and three fireplaces.
Southern Comfort Food
During our tour, we traveled through eight Alabama counties, and sampled the best in southern cuisine along the way, including Greenbrier Restaurant, Crawmama’s and Nessa’s. Each proved to be as delicious as the next. At Crawmama’s we were treated to a Southern seafood smorgasbord, with crawfish, shrimp, crab legs and alligator served with seasoned vegetables such as red potatoes, corn on the cob and onions, with homemade rum cake for dessert that was “to die for.” We also visited Big Bob Gibson’s, which is famous for his championship red barbecue sauce, original white barbecue sauce, and delicious slow-cooked meats including pulled pork and chicken. At Hester’s Rocking Chair restaurant in Tuscumbia we sampled a Southern tradition: chocolate gravy and biscuits, which is considered to be as Southern as grits. Café 113 in Decatur, owned by Victor Melonas, is where visitors seek out the “Mafia Booth” for a unique dining experience of good food and atmosphere. This restaurant offers elegant dining and a large bar for a casual experience, which is where the locals hang out. Another unique location with an atmosphere of sophistication is the 360 Grille in Florence, which is located atop the Renaissance tower with views of Wilson Dam and the Tennessee River. At the top of my “favorites” list is the Cotton Row Restaurant in Huntsville with Chef James Boyce in charge. Boyce hosts a regular cooking segment on the Today Show and every menu item served to our group was declared “excellent.”
Sweet Home Alabama
There were many places to find sweet morsels along the tour, including the Dutch Oven Bakery in Falkville; Morgan Price Candy in Decatur, which ships globally. Their tasty toffee is listed as one of the “Top 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die!” In Cullman, we found goodies at such places as Seven Winds Kitchen – home of Bert’s Brittle, a family tradition since 1947; St. Bernard Abbey’s Monk bread and All Steak’s orange rolls. Lodging Affordable lodging is plentiful and includes Mountain Laurel B&B near the historic town of Mentone below DeSoto Falls; Best Western River City Hotel in Decatur; Doublehead Resort on Lake Wheeler with 2-story cabins and boat ramp near the Dam, horseback riding and wave runners, plus Coldwater Inn in Tuscumbia, where the Alabama Music Hall of Fame is located. We flew in to Birmingham and drove one hour to Huntsville, then on to the many gorgeous destinations beyond.