Cool, Quirky Destinations of the American South: Introduction
The American South is known for its cool and quirky bits and pieces. Go down this country road and you'll find the birthplace of the blues. Paddle up this river and you'll reach three lovely tree houses. Say goodbye to Heartbreak Hotel and hello to Graceland's new luxe resort. Step into Colonial Williamsburg and step into living history. These are some of your options. All of the following can only make your life more interesting.
Farewell, Heartbreak Hotel. Hello to Graceland's New Luxe Resort
The brick-and-mortar Heartbreak Hotel was built in 1985 just outside the entrance of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, to honor Elvis Presley's seminal 1956 hit, "Heartbreak Hotel." This song became his first number one single and inspired a generation of musical geniuses from the Beatles to Bob Dylan.
Heartbreak Hotel, with its heart-shaped pool and nostalgic themed rooms like the scarlet Burning Love room, had become a little "archaic," said Priscilla Presley. So it was torn down to make way for a modern replacement. The appropriately Vegas-worthy new structure, The Guest House at Graceland, opened in 2016. It is a resort fit for the King, built on the site of the old Heartbreak Hotel, steps away from Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion.
Enter The Guest House at Graceland
The Guest House is hardly your usual guest house. It is more a grand 450-room hotel splashed with Elvis style and featuring 19 specialty suites with designs personally overseen by Priscilla Presley.
The magic doesn't stop at the guest rooms since The Guest House also includes more than 17,000 square feet of space for weddings and events, two full-service restaurants, a 464-seat theater for live performances, and an outdoor resort pool and green space. It seems that Elvis wedding events just got an upgrade.
For 250 elite Elvis fans, there are diamond-level Founder memberships at The Guest House. These memberships set applicants back a cool $30,000 and can be passed down to subsequent generations during the 40-year membership term. Long live the King.
Stay at Historic Colonial Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg, in Williamsburg, Virginia, south of Richmond, is the largest living history museum in the United States, preserving artifacts and customs of 18th-century Williamsburg from 1774 to 1781. Encompassing 301 acres, the restored historic district includes 88 original buildings, 225-period rooms, 500 reconstructed buildings (much on their original foundations), a vast archaeological collection, thousands of American and English antiques, and more.
For guests who wish to enjoy the ultimate 18th-century experience, Colonial Williamsburg offers accommodations in 26 one-of-a-kind colonial-style guest houses and cottages, located throughout the historic district. Accommodations can be as small as one room inside a tavern or as large as 16 rooms. Larger groups may combine rooms in some of the houses to accommodate up to 32 guests.
Each of the historic Colonial-era houses offers special appeal, and all are furnished with period antiques and reproductions. In addition, some of the houses have wood-burning fireplaces, sitting rooms, or canopy beds. For the less adventurous, there are a number of great commercial hotels and inns in Williamsburg.
Stay in the Historic Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel
Back in 1941, "Chattanooga Choo Choo" was a catchy tune recorded by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, whose upbeat version made it the number one song in America for nine weeks. It was continually revisited over the years, but Bette Midler revived its popularity in the early 1970s.
The song again faded from the charts, but it persisted as American lore and inspired a group of Chattanooga, Tennessee, businessmen in 1973 to refurbish the city's shuttered, once-grand Terminal Station, then reopen it as a hotel. The renovation paid homage to the old train terminal, a restored Beaux-Arts building featuring an 85-foot central dome and what was "the largest brick arch in the world" when it opened in 1909. From the mid-1970s on, it was the centerpiece of the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel complex including traditional rooms and suites, and charming accommodations in 48 restored Victorian-era Pullman train cars.
Nearly half a century later, the hotel is still a vacation and convention complex situated in the heart of downtown Chattanooga. But now the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of 260 authentic historic hotels across America.
Today, you can take a train ride, visit the museum, or dine in the railside restaurant. Located next to a free electric shuttle stop, the historic Chatanooga Choo Choo hotel is a vacation destination that also serves as a launching pad for other fun things to do and places to visit in the Chattanooga area.
Stay in Tree Houses on South Carolina's Edisto River
If you want to stay at the Edisto River Tree Houses, you'll have to paddle about 13 miles down South Carolina's placid cedar- and cypress-lined Edisto River, the longest, free-flowing blackwater river in the country. Your destination is one of three fully equipped treehouses nestled in the woods along the riverbank. Relax in a rope hammock or on the dining deck, complete with an outdoor grill for cooking dinner, and fall asleep to the sound of rustling trees, croaking frogs, and hooting owls. Wake the next day to morning wildlife chatter, and prepare breakfast before continuing downriver.
Carolina Heritage Outfitters' tree house adventure attracts an array of outdoor enthusiasts, including couples, groups, and families from around the nation and abroad. The 150-acre Edisto River Refuge is a large private wildlife refuge with several miles of hiking trails, cypress and tupelo swamps, sandy river banks, and a sandy, shallow river bottom. It lies within a 350,000-acre river basin in a scenic area between Charleston and Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Carolina Youth Campers Stay Overnight on the USS 'Yorktown'
Commissioned on April 15, 1943, the USS Yorktown was the 10th aircraft carrier to serve in the United States Navy. After more than 25 years of service, including heavy-duty action in World War II and the Vietnam War, the legendary "Fighting Lady" was decommissioned in 1970. In 1975, the aircraft carrier was towed from New Jersey to Charleston and dedicated as the centerpiece of the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, which now runs USS Yorktown operations.
Organized youth groups such as scouts, church groups, schools, and others are able to experience one of the country's most interesting educational adventures: the Youth Overnight Camping Program aboard the USS Yorktown. Campers sleep in the sailors' berthing quarters, eat Navy-style meals in the Chief Petty Officer's mess, explore naval and aviation history, and more. Participants must be ages six and above. One- and two-night packages are available. More information about this program is available from the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum.
Stay the Night to Hunt Ghosts at the Old West Virginia Penitentiary
Over its 129-year history, the West Virginia Penitentiary was the site of executions by hanging and electrocution, torture by such innovations as the Kicking Jenny and the Shoo-Fly, prison escapes, riots, and other violent acts. In 1986, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the small 5- by 7-foot cells constituted cruel and unusual punishment and the prison was ordered to be closed. These days, people who know this place are convinced it is haunted, and they show prison visitors why.
If you'd like to look for ghosts within these tortured walls, make your way to Moundsville, West Virginia, near Wheeling. Once there, you'll be sent to registration and orientation. Ghost hunters begin with a 90-minute guided tour, followed by pizza, soft drinks, and a movie. Then you are on your own until 6 a.m. to explore and hunt for ghosts for the rest of the night. Sleep if you dare.
The West Virginia Penitentiary is a menacing-looking building, one of many supposedly haunted buildings in the American Southeast. The penitentiary was designed in the Gothic Revival architectural style popular in America from the mid- to late-19th century. Originally built in 1866, partially by convict labor, the dour, fortress-like stone structure features 24-foot-high walls, battlements, and turrets.
Stay at a Replica of Dorothy's House in North Carolina
Wizard of Oz fans may not be able to resist a chance to vacation in this scaled replica of Dorothy's Kansas farmhouse, which is actually located in the mountains of North Carolina. The house, which sleeps two to four, is best suited to couples or families with older children since the layout and furnishings are not toddler proof. Pets, even little Toto, are not allowed.
Emerald Mountain, a 400-acre community in Beech Mountain, North Carolina, was once home to The Land of Oz, a small and somewhat quirky movie-themed attraction. The Land of Oz park operated from 1970 to 1980. While much of the original park is now gone, several of the themed areas have been restored, including Dorothy's farm, the yellow brick road, gardens, gazebos, a fountain, and more.
Every fall, there is an Autumn at Oz party, which features Wizard of Oz characters, music, food, memorabilia, and a chance to return to Oz. This event sells out each year. Lodging and year-round vacation options are available in the town of Beech Mountain.
Beech Mountain, the town with the highest elevation in eastern America, is a year-round vacation destination with winter skiing, fishing, hiking, golf, wildlife, and many nearby attractions. It is located in the Southern Appalachian Highlands of northwestern North Carolina, near the North Carolina and Tennessee state line.
Stay in a Mississippi Sharecropper's Shack Near the Birthplace of the Blues
Cool places often marry history and music, and that's what happened at the Shack Up Inn-Cotton Gin Inn, known by most simply as the Shack Up Inn. Situated in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on an old delta cotton plantation, visitors stay in 35 units comprising renovated sharecroppers cabins and cotton gin bins that can accommodate as many as 85. The accommodations are purposely rough on the outside and comfortable inside with air-conditioners, good showers, musical instruments, and more. Kids under 25, bus tours, or "drunken frat boys" are not welcome.
The popularity and success of the place, mostly perpetuated by a grassroots style movement, is almost as intriguing as the concept itself. Many consider this place a must stop in their pilgrimage to the cradle of the blues. Original blues musicians like Sam Cooke, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House, and Elmore James got their starts on the backroads around the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale.
Contemporary creative luminaries like Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Ike Turner, Patty Griffin, and Mary Louise Parker, to name a few, have also made the pilgrimage to honor the area's history and stayed at the Shack Up Inn.
That history is commemorated in the place's on-site music teaching and performance venue and the nearby Delta Blues Museum. In town at the Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, and Red's Lounge, you can see local blue musicians play their hearts out.
According to Guy Malvezzi, one of the operator-owners, the Shack Up Inn attracts visitors from across the nation and around the world. From music fans to history buffs and artists, many visitors remember their stay at the Shack Up Inn fondly. Many returns.
The witty down-home humor of the owners, known as "shackmeisters," creates a relaxed and quirky atmosphere with fun touches like nighttime moon pies left on pillows. Their laid-back friendliness, love of music, and appreciation for the lore and traditions of the region manifest themselves in an appealing setting for visitors of various ages and interests.
Edited and updated by Lori Mac Brown