Rocket to Huntsville

Destination: Wing Ding 2015

OK, so now that this year’s Wing Ding is over and in the books, what do you do? Yep, that’s right, start planning for the next one. 2015’s shindig will be taking place in Huntsville, Ala., aka “Rocket City.” Instead of showing you how to get here, we’ll show you what to see, do and eat while in town for the next year’s big show. Let’s start our countdown …

Blast Off

Before we go any further, let’s stop for a sec and dig a little deeper into Huntsville’s catchy nickname. The city was given this handle due to its major part in U.S. missile defense ventures and space missions dating back to the ’50s. But even before that, the area was selected by the U.S. Army to be a site for building chemical munitions facilities during WWII. With a rich history such as this, Huntsville is certainly a town that offers many points of interest to visit while there. One place in particular is the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which is sometimes referred to as Earth’s largest space museum. There, you’ll be able to check out the roughly 1,500 permanent pieces of rocketry and space exploration artifacts on display, and there are always rotating specialty exhibits on display, so make sure to check its calendar as the dates get closer.
If you space cowboys and gals really have an itch to continue exploring all things outer space-related, the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, which is located at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, is also a must-see. It houses one of the world’s three remaining Saturn V rockets (the other two are at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Johnson Space Center in Houston). There are also old space suits, shuttle remnants and parts, blueprints, and so much more to look at and learn from. Those who already have a passion for space travel history will fall in love with what Huntsville has to offer in this category and those who haven’t had much exposure to it will surely find themselves captivated at what’s in store.
Aside from rocket ships, this town is also home to Veterans Memorial Museum, which has an emphasis on World War I history. It’s really the perfect place to get an idea of how life was at that time for both participating members of armed forces and their family members. On display are more than 30 historic military vehicles (including the world’s oldest Jeep) from the WWI time period to the present day. There are also many artifacts and memorabilia dating back as far as the Revolutionary War — this place really is a history buff’s dream. One special portion of the museum is the reference library that contains many written and oral reminiscences of Alabama residents. With uniforms and other decorations from all services also showcased, a stop at this informative museum is definitely a good idea.
Lovers of trains will get a kick at the North Alabama Railroad Museum, just six miles east of town. There you’ll find a great collection of rolling stock, a small-scale train depot with a fully restored waiting room, freight room, an agent’s office, as well as a an array of photographs and other items that depict the region’s rail history. The museum’s completely volunteer staff is passionate about preserving the historical pieces they have assembled since being incorporated in 1966. The real centerpiece of the museum is a heritage railroad, however, which is called the Mercury & Chase Railroad. It stretches 10 miles round-trip and runs through the Huntsville branch of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway. This journey lasts just over an hour and is an unbeatable opportunity to take in local surroundings while cruising in a real piece of history. The museum functions mostly on donations, so any generosity shown will be greatly appreciated.
But don’t think for a second that you’ve reached your final destination on the road to a good time. There’s one stop in particular that has a whole day’s worth of action. Planted in the heart of downtown Huntsville is the EarlyWorks Family of Museums, which houses two different adventures you may also be interested in checking out. The Huntsville Depot and Museum continues to stress the wealth of railroad history in this particular area and lets visitors experience railroad travel as it was back in 1860. This location was an active passenger station and corporate Eastern headquarters for the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, but was closed for duty in 1968 and transformed into a site of historic preservation. There’s also a great exhibit of graffiti done by generations of travelers, Civil War prisoners and workmen on the museum’s third floor. 

A short stroll from the Huntsville Depot will lead you to the Alabama Constitution Village, where you can see early colonist life taking place before your eyes. See and smell freshly baked goods being prepared using genuine old-school methods, take a look at the vintage tools used in the cabinet maker’s workshop and watch as villagers carry out everyday tasks around the facility. It’s like time has stood still here. One highlight of this place is the Historic Huntsville Breakfast Trolley Tour, which takes you on a ride throughout the surrounding historic districts. Food and coffee is provided on this tour, and the narrated trolley ride whirls along an intriguing route of historic homes, landmarks and other important sections of town. This is an excellent way to start a day of exploration.

Eat Up

Even if you did hop aboard the breakfast cruise, walked around and took in some local history, chances are you’re ready for some more grub. No matter what your taste is, you’ll be sure to satisfy it here. And if you enjoy venturing outside of the boundaries of what your palette is used to, there is certainly a culinary quest here just waiting to begin!
Let’s start at Cotton Row on the southwest corner of Courthouse Square. The building itself does have a story to tell, as it was built in 1821 along the cotton exchange (another big part of Huntsville’s history). Now, the menu here changes with the seasons, but any month is a good time to pull up a chair. Classic American entrees such as grilled, natural filet mignon; free-range chicken; and delicious seafood options are always available, but whatever you order, save room for dessert. The Peanut Butter and Jelly in Phyllo is a probably the most-ordered sweet thing on the menu. The ingredients are simple — strawberry compote, chocolate ice cream, salty peanuts and marshmallow fluff — but the combination is anything but ordinary. Cotton Row does sit on the more upscale side of eateries in the area, but you’re on vacation—splurge a little.
If something more along the lines of a sit-down-and-chow place is what you’re looking for, try the Blue Plate Café for any meal of the day. You are, in fact, in the South, and Blue Plate delivers just the food to prove it. The atmosphere is comfy. Actually, you’ll feel right at home here because every meal comes with a hearty, complimentary helping of Southern hospitality. Looking for old-fashioned, familiar, classic dishes like grandma used to make? Search no farther.

Now, let’s focus on the eateries that offer dishes that stand apart from the rest. A trip to Po Boy Factory is pretty much like being in New Orleans (taste wise, anyway). The Big Easy is about 450 miles away from Huntsville, but when you’ve got your lips wrapped around a spoonful of Po Boy’s sausage jambalaya, you’d swear you’re there. The star of the show here is the po’ boy sandwich, but how you dress it is entirely up to you. Shrimp, catfish, oyster, crawfish, mahi-mahi and more savory selections are all up on the menu.
Mexican food is readily available wherever you are, but at Bandito Burrito, don’t expect the traditional enchilada dinner plate (although it is on the menu). When you pull up, don’t let the looks of the place turn you away. Put bluntly, it appears a little “dive-y,” but just wait until you taste the many flavors it has to offer. Burritos are just a small sample of what is prepared and there’s even a decent amount of veggie options, as well. Half the fun of eating here is sitting on the patio and playing “guess the car part.” The eclectic decor found inside and out on the patio is a direct reflection of the youthful souls that aim at putting a unique spin on the casual dining experience.

Mission Complate

Well, there you have it, a small sampling of Huntsville, Ala. — a few bits and pieces we think you’ll enjoy while in town for Wing Ding ’15. Gather up some pals, hop on the bikes and soak up the city’s many flavors. There’s plenty to do, plenty to see and plenty to eat, so plan accordingly and make the most out of each day you’re here. See you soon!

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