On May 2nd, I hopped on a plane to Huntsville, Alabama on a journey to my 40th state. I would spend eight days in The Heart of Dixie. My time would be split between the TBEX conference in Huntsville and a post TBEX trip with a smaller group to Montgomery. I have spent a lot of time in The South, notably in Arkansas and Texas, but had never been to Alabama.
While many people have preconceived notions, I went to Alabama with an open mind and had a surprisingly awesome trip. I was blown away by the history, culture, technology, and friendly people I met as I explored Rocket City and the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. The trip was so wonderful that I wanted to take the time to share the details. Alabama is an affordable vacation destination. If you are looking to get away on a budget, Alabama should be at the top of your list. Let’s dive in.
Traveling to Huntsville and Getting Acquainted
Flying from a small airport to a small airport, I had a bit of a journey getting from home to Huntsville. I drove up to Santa Barbara and flew on United SBA > LAX > IAH > HSV. From the time I got into my car until I reached my hotel, it was a bit over 12 hours of travel, but I had my trusty laptop to work in the air and made it a productive day. Aside from the sprint across Houston’s airport to barely make my flight to Huntsville, the travel was uneventful.
Thanks to TBEX and the Huntsville tourism boards, my flights and hotel in Huntsville were paid for. Thanks guys! I stayed at the SpringHill Suites Huntsville Downtown, where I enjoyed the familiar comforts of Marriott and a location on the edge of downtown and just a few minutes from the massive Huntsville convention center, The Von Broun Civic Center named after the famous NASA rocket scientist.
I spent my first day in Huntsville at Space Camp, but more on that in a minute. Getting settled in, I enjoyed some goodies at my hotel and a welcome event for TBEX speakers and sponsors. One of my 2017 life list goals was to speak at a conference, and TBEX helped me make it happen. Speaking has perks, which in this case included travel and the welcome party.
The welcome party was great. I met some fun people including the team from Oklahoma City’s tourism agency, an executive from Wind Creek casinos, and local business owners and vendors. In addition to some local craft beers, we were able to sample food and beverages while viewing artwork from local artists at the giant Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, a historic factory turned bohemian and hipster food, drink, and art facility. I would put this down as a “don’t miss in Huntsville” attraction. Make sure to grab a tea from Piper & Leaf and a booze filled popsicle at Suzy’s Pops upstairs.
NASA and Space Camp
I’m a bit of a nerd. I love space and science things. I have seen every Star Trek and Star Wars movie, an embarrassing number of Star Trek episodes, and can’t resist a good space or alien movie. As a kid I visited Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and was looking forward to two space related stops in Huntsville, known as Rocket City due to its long history with NASA and the space program.
I was looking forward to my talk, but inside I was excited to go to Space Camp like a little kid. I also took a TBEX trip to Marshall Space Flight Center on the Redstone Arsenal, but let’s start with Space Camp.
Space Camp is probably the coolest place I’ve been in the last few years. And when I say cool, I mean totally sweet. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is home to a museum, an IMAX screen, a rocket park, and Space Camp. I was one of a few lucky Bexers selected for the full day Space Camp experience, and my first morning at TBEX I was off like a rocket to this dream day at camp.
Our morning started with a briefing session about our day, then we had a tour of Space Camp before making our way to the simulators for training. Everyone was assigned a role in the team for our mission to the Space Station, and I jumped up and volunteered was lucky enough to be picked as Mission Commander! As a real-life pilot, it was only fitting that I drive the Space Shuttle on our mission. At least that was my logic.
After training for the mission, we had a tour of the museum, which was awesome to visit in its own right, walked through the rocket garden, and made our way to the famous NASA Spinny Thing. That is the nickname I gave the motion simulator made up of several rings to form a giant human gyroscope.
The next thing we did was lunch, which I was luckily able to stomach just minutes after flipping and spinning. After lunch, the group split up for our mission to the International Space Station. Mission Commander Rosenberg was up for the challenge, which took about an hour to complete.
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At the U.S. Space & Rocket Center I enjoyed seeing a real moon rock. The sign below told us that it is astronaut Alan Bean's favorite rock. What makes it the favorite? I have no idea. But if it's his favorite, maybe it should be mine too! #tbex #ihearthsv #space #moon #moonrock #nasa #nerdingout #nerdingouthard
We lifted off, flew to the ISS, then two members of our team left through the back of the shuttle for an “EVA,” where they did a spacewalk to the ISS simulator. There, a team did experiments while my co-pilot and I stayed on the radios with “Houston” and took care of some shuttle problems and errors.
The landing was particularly cool. Normally the simulator is locked for visitors outside of the campers who have had several days of training. As a private pilot, the Space Camp mission expert unlocked the controls and put the success of the mission in my hands. On the first attempt, I landed gently in a swamp in the Everglades, but we were running a little early so I got a second try. This time, I landed less than 10 feet from the center line of the runway in Florida. The PR person assigned to our group ran in to tell me it was the closest landing she’s ever seen in her time working at Space Camp. I held my chin up a little too high the rest of the day.
Space Camp is also home to a military style camp called Aviation Challenge, which features F-16 flight simulators, zip lines, and survival training. Between Space Camp and Aviation Challenge, there are wonderful camps for kids, adults, and families. Even if you are not lucky enough to head to a full Space Camp experience, any family or grown-ups would enjoy a visit to the Space and Rocket Center to see the original Saturn V rocket, Space Shuttle, a moon rock (maybe my favorite rock), explore the museum, and the rest of what the public experience has to offer.
The Marshall Space Flight Center
The next day, I went on two local pre-BEX trips. One of them was back to space at the Marshall Space Flight Center. I met the man in charge of the entire NASA site, saw some very interesting speakers on topics ranging from engineering to plans for a mission to Mars.
Our tour group was broken up into smaller groups to visit various NASA facilities, all located on the sprawling Redstone Arsenal, a United States Government site that houses facilities for multiple rocket focused agencies including NASA, the military, and FBI. Everything from bomb testing to rocket testing takes place at the site. They don’t do this type of test at Redstone anymore due to safety and noise issues in Huntsville, but they test fired the real Saturn rocket there. The blast from the five engines was so powerful it blew out half of the windows in town.
Redstone is a secure facility and we had to be US citizens and show ID to enter. There are options to take a bus tour of Marshall through the Space & Rocket Center. Because I was with a group of travel bloggers, we went on the tour normally reserved for US Senators and House Representatives! Blogging FTW!
We broke up into smaller groups and each group saw a different facility. I was lucky enough to see some giant robots and 3D printers used to fabricate space ship parts and the payload system that will go up on the next Space Launch System (SLS) launch delivering satellites and a Japanese rover that will fly on to the moon!
Our next stop was the facility where people here on Earth work with astronauts and cosmonauts to operate various experiments and tests at the ISS. We looked through a viewing window into the room where they were actively monitoring the ISS, including people working on setups with nine or twelve monitors and cool names like CAPCOM. Watching live video of the ISS made everything I saw over my day at Space Camp and time at Marshall seem much more real. Sadly this facility is typically closed to the public.
At the end of our tour, we drove around and visited launch test sites including one on the national historic registry and the massive one used for the largest rocket tests.
This was an awesome place to visit and I’m thrilled I was able to attend. If you get a chance to visit Huntsville and go on the tour, I highly recommend it.
The Busy TBEX Schedule and Local Sightseeing
Back on Earth, I was really in Alabama to attend the TBEX conference, where I was also a speaker. TBEX is a conference for travel bloggers and media, including some fun social media, podcasting, and blogging personalities. I met some very cool people along the way. If you are interested in travel blogging, put TBEX on your to-do list.
At TBEX I was able to network with other bloggers ranging from brand new, pre-launch bloggers getting ready to start and others who have been in the industry for decades. We met with sponsors from around the world looking to lure in writers to cover in their destinations. Other exhibitors were focused on the business side of blogging.
One of my favorites was the Centers for Disease Control, where I met lovely people for an in-depth conversation about Zika virus. As a future second time Dad, I don’t want to risk Baby #2 by taking my family on a trip to the wrong place! Sorry South America, you will have to wait for another year.
TBEX included some other great speakers, like my new friends British Columbia travel expert Jim Barr and international photographer Ajay Sood. We ate and toured well in town, talking a walking tour through Huntsville’s beautiful, historic downtown and surrounding neighborhoods and events at A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard, a sprawling event space with live music, food, beer, and more, and Campus No. 805, a former middle school turned event space, brewery, and more. All awesome stuff.
I was excited by keynote speaker Destin Sandlin, YouTuber at Smarter Every Day, and loved the overall atmosphere throughout the event. Like my favorite annual conference FinCon, TBEX offers a great community, fun sponsors, and engaging people. For me, the highlight was my 45 minutes on stage as a speaker at a major conference for the second time.
My Talk on Turning Your Side Hustle into a Full-Time Job
After a successful FinCon presentation last fall, where I spoke about growing a side hustle using my experience growing my side hustle to $40,000 per year. At TBEX, I spoke about taking your side hustle full time, which I did last April when I quit my job and quickly became a six-figure freelancer.
I recorded my talk and posted it on YouTube for conference attendees to watch if they missed my presentation. The camera turned off a little early, but I got most of the presentation. Watch it below or bookmark it for another time if you don’t have a half hour to learn about taking your side hustle full-time.
Overall, the talk went great! I had a great response from the audience, insightful follow-up questions, and I’m gearing up for the next time I’m able to jump on stage.
After my talk, I was able to relax and enjoy the rest of the conference and my time in Huntsville. After the conference wrapped up Saturday night, I packed my bags for a trip down to Montgomery, the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and an amazing cultural gem.
My trip to Montgomery was a post-BEX FAM trip. FAM trips are a media term for familiarization. The idea is for journalists and travel bloggers to visit the area, experience some of the best it has to offer, and share it with their audiences. I couldn’t resist sharing my trip to Montgomery. I had an amazing experience making new friends and learning about Montgomery.
My Montgomery experience was care of The Montgomery Chamber of Commerce. The people there are amazing! If you get a chance to stop in Montgomery, reach out to the Chamber ahead of time for suggestions and help planning your trip or stop by the public tourist office in the old downtown train station.
We stayed at another Marriott property, the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center. This luxury hotel is very comfortable and has a rooftop pool with an awesome Montgomery view. But as with all cities, the best part is outside of your hotel room, even if it comes with one of those beds that feels like sleeping on a cloud.
I’m going to break out highlights from Montgomery by the type of activity rather than chronologically to make it useful for your trip to Sweet Home Alabama. Check out a summary of my trip in this short video, with music by John Nemeth recorded at Capitol Oyster Bar.
Montgomery is an old city, with modern roots going back to the early 1800s and was officially founded in 1819. The city is very aware of its roots and history with slave ownership, racism, and the Civil Rights Movement. Much of this is presented in a tasteful, educational way that preserves and acknowledges the history while taking steps to ensure equal rights for all.
Montgomery’s nickname, The Heart of Dixie, comes from its place as the first home of the Confederate States of America when the southern states broke away triggering the Civil War. You stumble on historic sites in the city, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s church, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, the bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded a bus for her fateful ride into history, and much more.
The city was a rail hub for the region, and still has active train lines running through town. It has a rich cultural history and offers a true taste of famous Southern Hospitality. I can’t say nice enough things about our hosts for the trip and the people we met along the way. It was a wonderful experience.
Eating in Montgomery
I came home from Alabama with snugger pants than when I left. I couldn’t resist eating heaping portions at every restaurant along the way. I don’t have enough room here to leave a lengthy review of everywhere we ate, so I’ll put a short summary and link to the restaurant’s Yelp page so you can learn more.
The A&P Social – Sadly this fantastic restaurant has closed since my trip to Montgomery. When it was around, it was located in an amazing neighborhood and offered great Bloody Mary’s. While A&P is gone, make sure to stop by Old Cloverdale, a gorgeous neighborhood with shopping and dining options.
Capitol Oyster Bar – We sat outside at Capitol Oyster Bar, a place with serious Southern fare. Enjoy live music, river views, and a menu including oysters, gumbo, hushpuppies, shrimp, po-boys, gater tail, and frog legs. We saw the amazing John Nemeth, a blues singer nominated for a BB King Blues award.
D’road Café – D’road Café is owned by Janett Malpartida, a South American immigrant who brings her Venezuelan cuisine to Montgomery. She was so sweet and I left stuffed from a fantastic breakfast. Recommended for brunch!
Central – Central is a high-end restaurant that takes southern favorites and updates them to a modern, flavorful dish. Take someone special here for a nice dinner.
Cahawba House – Chawba House is a coffee shop and café owned by a brother-sister duo. If you go for breakfast or brunch, have a coffee and have lots of beignets. Lots and lots of beignets. And take some to go for later.
Chris’ Hot Dogs – This hot dog joint is a Montgomery institution with roots going back to 1917. The 100-year-old restaurant is visited by rich, poor, black, white, young, old, and everyone in between. Grab two loaded hot dogs and a Coke for lunch on Montgomery’s largest downtown street.
Vintage Year – A stop for fine dining, Vintage Year has a great menu sure to please anyone with a refined pallet. Admittedly I had a few too many to drink at Vintage Year, but I was celebrating at the tail end of a trip with new friends. It happens!
Leroy – This bar has old school charm and is located in the heart of Old Cloverdale. Drive by the home of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald and tour the museum on the way to Leroy for a period fitting cocktail. Great drinks and great atmosphere.
The House at The Renaissance – This hotel restaurant offers downtown diners a variety of options. I went for the breakfast buffet. You can’t go wrong with an omelet bar!
Montgomery Museums –
Rosa Parks Library & Museum – The Rosa Parks Library & Museum is home to an experiential walkthrough where you can see exactly what happened on the day Rosa Parks was asked to go to the back of the bus. The museum documents the history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a major milestone in desegregation and civil rights. The museum is also home to several rotating exhibits, including a moving exhibition on the history of lynching.
Museum of Alabama – Across from the Capitol of Alabama and steps from the first Confederate White House is the Museum of Alabama, a history museum documenting the state from pre-historic natives through the Civil War and modern day. The building alone is worth seeing, and be sure to bring the kids along for child friendly exhibits.
Civil Rights Memorial Center – The Civil Rights Memorial opened my eyes to modern racism and the continuing need to work for equality for all, regardless of race or any other minority distinction. The documentary video here is moving, slightly upsetting, and still very important to see.
Memorial to Peace and Justice from the Equal Justice Initiative – Our group had a tour of the Equal Justice Initiative by two outstanding young leaders. EJI is building a new Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery. Make sure to go by if it is completed when you visit town.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church – There are few experiences I have had as memorable as visiting Dr. King’s church, but that is thanks to the woman who guided our tour. I was moved and inspired by my visit to this important historic site.
Hank Williams Museum – Country music legend Hank Williams passed away at the young age of 29, but in his short life became one of the most influential musicians in American history. His story is captured at the Hank Williams Museum. It isn’t all that big, but it is nonetheless a fun stop. True Hank fans will also want to visit his grave, just a short drive from downtown at the Oakwood Annex Cemetery.
Activities in Montgomery
Alabama Shakespeare Festival – Unlike most Shakespeare Festivals, Alabama’s is alive year-round. We saw a modern interpretation of The Two Gentleman of Verona. I’m not normally into the whole Olde English thing, but had a fun time at the show.
Montgomery Biscuits Baseball – Minor League Baseball is fun and affordable, and the beautiful Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium is a fitting home for the Tampa Rays AA affiliate team. Who cares where you’re from. Just root root root for the hometeam!
Escapeology Virtual Reality Arcade – Escape rooms are popping up across the country, and my first experience was at Escapeology in Montgomery. My small group had a fun time solving the puzzle and working our way out of the room. The site also hosts a virtual reality arcade with immersive gameplay.
Blake’s Segway Tours – Mrs. Blake was our tour guide as we cruised the waterfront and local parks on Segways. If you have never done a Segway ride, the Blakes are terrific hosts and get you up to speed quickly for a safe, fun, and informative tour and ride.
EAT South Urban Farm – Located on a former railroad yard, EAT South Urban Farm is just what it sounds like. A small crop of produce, chicken coop, and beehives are some of what you’ll see at this reclaimed site dedicated to local eating.
I was Seriously Impressed
If you couldn’t tell, I was seriously impressed by my time in Montgomery. Set your preconceived notions of The South aside and go enjoy this transforming, culturally rich city. I didn’t know what to expect heading into my days in Montgomery, but I left with a soft spot in my heart for the city and hope to be back sometime soon.
Other Alabama Stops on a Cross State Roadtrip
Alabama is laid out with geography perfect for a spring or fall road trip. You might want to skip going in the dead of summer, and heat and humidity will dampen your experience. But outside of the hottest months, you can turn a trip into an Alabama adventure going from North to South or South to North.
Here is the route I recommend (or follow in reverse):
- Gulf Shores
Go to Huntsville for culture and space. Go to Birmingham and Montgomery for history, culture, and food. End your trip in Gulf Shores for some rest and relaxation on the beach before heading back home. Click here for an interactive Google Map showing the route, which mostly follows I-65.
Surprisingly Awesome Sweet Home Alabama
That’s the end of this recap. I hope you found it useful. One of the biggest reasons people don’t travel is the cost. You don’t have to hop on a plane to the other side of the world for a great trip, you can jump in the car or fly down to HSV and MGM. However you get there, Alabama is a fun and affordable destination packed with history, adventure, cuisine, technology, and even a warm water beach. Whatever you want, Alabama has it and it can be reasonably priced. That’s my kind of trip!
Do you have any suggestions for places to visit in Alabama? Share your thoughts in the comments below! Any questions about my trip? Let me know in the comments and I’m here to answer.