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CHATTANOOGA -A TOURISM HEAVEN

By Michael Hepworth

Chattanooga is a delightful city on the Tennessee River that has such a strong community spirit, that it is no wonder that it has made a remarkable turnaround since 1970. At that time Walter Cronkite called it the “dirtiest city in America ,” and downtown was definitely a place to avoid at all costs.  All that has changed now, with upscale condo developments everywhere, art galleries, new restaurants and impressive looking hotels have all been built. It still however has the feel of a small city, and although some locals were complaining about the rush hour traffic, I never saw any. More than 8 million people visit Chattanooga each year and tourism is currently worth $690 million a year.

Founded around 1810 with the opening of a store by Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Indians, Chattanooga ’s population had reached 2,000 by the year 1860. Despite numerous setbacks such as a massive snowstorm in 1899 and various epidemics such as Yellow fever and Spanish Influenza, the city has continued to grow.  The future also looks bright, with the recent announcement that Volkswagen will be opening its USA Manufacturing Factory in the City in 2010, bringing thousands of jobs to the local market.

Chattanooga is so user friendly that they offer a free electric shuttle service downtown in clean new looking buses virtually the whole day. It connects all of the hotels with the shopping district, restaurants, riverfront and everything in between, and it runs every five minutes seven days a week up until 11 pm at night.  The City however is an outside enthusiast’s dream, and one of the fun things to do is take a bike ride along the Tennessee River Walk- stretching from the downtown riverfront to Tennessee River Park , a ten mile pathway with various scenic views of boardwalks, wetlands, parks and more. There are literally hundreds of outdoor activities to partake, and the Visitors Bureau is the place to check with prior to visiting the city.

Of course most people think about the Chattanooga Choo Choo when they think of the city, and today the railroad station is a Holiday Inn. I did not spend any time there at all because my schedule was a bit rushed in a city with so much happening, but they do have 363 guestrooms including 48 rooms aboard restored train cars. 

The Convention Center is also a place worth a visit, located all on one floor and offering 185,000 square feet of space. Of course they have to compete with the likes of Atlanta , Nashville and Birmingham for serious business, but this facility is so unique that any planner must give it a serious look. It is the first center in the nation to incorporate “day lighting” technology which allows sunlight to filter in through 30-foot ceiling openings to complement the buildings artificial light, and all at the flick of a switch.

The Tennessee Aquarium is the top tourist attraction in the State and it is not hard to see why. There are two major buildings at the Aquarium, the River Journey which was launched in 1992, and the Ocean Journey which saw its debut in 2005. The former is the height of a 12-story building, and the latter is the height of a ten-story building and holds a total of 700,000 gallons of water. Here you will find just to name a few- big, toothy sharks and seahorse, cold climate penguins in their own display, tropical Hyacinth macaws, otters, 70 species of turtles, snakes, alligators, crocodiles, jellyfish, crabs, octopus, cuttlefish and crayfish. The River Gorge Explorer takes up to 70 guests directly from the Aquarium to the Tennessee River Gorge at speeds up to 50 mph to witness the unspoiled stretch of the Tennessee River . The cruise lasts 2 hours, and passengers will get the chance to see more than 1,000 species of plants and animals including eagles and osprey. The habitat is a birder’s paradise, and also includes rare songbirds and raptors.

The Chattanooga Zoo is a pleasant way to spend part of the day, with the star attractions being Hank the Chimpanzee and my personal favorites, Zoe and Nigalya, the red pandas. Called the ‘Best Little Zoo in America ,” the zoo continues to grow and expand, and is still mourning the death of Pasha (aged 19), the Argentine Jaguar. He was a favorite with the kids, but his spouse remains at the zoo but in ill health. Argentine Jaguars are most critically endangered species in Latin America , with only about 300 left in the wild.

Art is everywhere in Chattanooga , and the downtown skyline is dominated by the river setting of the Hunter Museum of American Art. It is in fact two separate buildings, the Lobby and the Auditorium, and it is located in the Bluff View Art District . This is one whole artistic area that is owned by one family, and the area now includes restaurants, gardens boutiques, a hotel and art galleries. The Museum features modern American artists, and is solely devoted to art from the Colonial period to the present day. The mansion was owned by George Thomas Hunter who had made his fortune through Coca Cola distribution.

One very unusual space is the International Towing & Recovery Museum, that features the history of tow trucks, and which houses some of these remarkable vehicles. Obviously as you all know, the tow truck was invented in Chattanooga in 1916, and even today the largest tow truck manufacturer in the world is located here. Many of the tow trucks on display here were found rotting in barns or rusting in fields, and have been lovingly restored by their owners.  The Museum has a Hall of Fame and has recently introduced a limited number of “Wall of the Fallen” Statues to honor tow truck drivers who have died at accident scenes. Although not an obvious tourist haunt, it is well worth the visit. 

One must visit is the Haunted Cavern at Ruby Falls, an eerie underground adventure 260 feet below the ground, an area that used to be an old German slaughterhouse. A couple of the women that were brave enough to try the experience were genuinely scared for most of the time, and were quite relieved when it was all over. Unfortunately it is only open for a few weeks each year around Halloween time, but it really is quite special.

Civil war buffs should head out to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, site of one of the bloodiest two day battles of the civil war in 1964 with 34,000 casualties, and a turning point in the conflict. It was established in 1890 by Union and Confederate veterans, and even today they are finding cannon balls and other remnants from the battle.  The best way to experience the Park is to sign up for the audio tour, and then follow the tape as you drive in sequence to the various crucial points of the battle that saw a Confederate victory. However due to blunders by the High Command led by General Braxton Bragg ( still disliked in the South), the Yankee troops were able to regroup in Chattanooga ( 8 miles away) and eventually take Atlanta and the rest of the south. Even today, emotions still run high in certain quarters, and the park rangers admit that they still have to accommodate Confederate sympathizers with a certain amount of caution and concern.

Art and Sculpture are everywhere in Chattanooga , and the Bluff View Art District is the place to go. The River Gallery Sculpture Garden has been around 15 years, and is currently featuring the work of Southern artist Casey Downing Jr. He works primarily in stainless steel, corten and bronze, and his work is displayed along with that of regular artists such as Dan Jackson and Evan Lewis in this most delightful of settings.

website: www.chattanoogafun.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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