It might have been those intoxicating chords of Lynard Skynard, perhaps it was re-runs of Gone with the Wind or maybe it’s that sing-song southern drawl, but the Deep South has always been on my bucket list. Where people call you “Ma’am”, shrimp and grits is always on the menu and the southern charm is as thick as the humidity.
Honky Tonk Music City
So when it came to ticking that bucket list, Music City was singing to me to make Nashville, Tennessee, top of our list. For all you Irish Country Sound readers, the home of Honky Tonk is everything you’d expect and more, complete with Stetson hats, cowboy boots and Daisy Dukes.
Walk down Broadway day or night and live music blasts from every bar, as talented musicians playing for tips and the sheer love of country music wait to make the big time. On an afternoon in June with the southern sun shining, we had a pinch-ourselves moment when a small band did an acoustic version of Wagon Wheel, so raw it gave goose bumps.
The bars of Broadway have the popular country sounds (we’ll never again listen to the Eagles’ Take it Easy without thinking of Nashville). However, for more authentic country music, a trip to the Grand Ole Opry is a must. Home of the original barn dance, this intimate venue is alive with history and you can feel the presence of musical greats Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline. It’s even where Johnny Cash first met June Carter.
Shows run throughout the week with a selection of acts, so you can experience some country pop, a bit of bluegrass, folk and gospel, toe tapping your way through the night.
The Grand Ole Opry is 15 minutes away from Broadway, so drive there but stay downtown. The Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel with its stunning foyer and country music theme was our home for three nights and was a short walk from Broadway and the perfect location for exploring the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Johnny Cash Museum and the Ryman Auditorium.
Walking in Memphis
Put on those blue suede shoes, because the next stop on our trip saw us walking in Memphis. This is a city of memories, and it can feel surreal to stand in the same street Martin Luther King Jr was shot, to walk through the home of Elvis or to be on Beale Street swaying to the sounds of Sweet Caroline, which was originally recorded just blocks away. Soul and blues fill the bars of Beale Street, with the smell of BBQ lingering in the air. BB Kings might be the tourist bar that draws you in, but when you end up sitting next to the drummer who played with the late blues legend, well that’s $5 well spent on a beer.
Staying in the hub of the action, the Westin Memphis Beale Street has to be one of the best locations, as it overlooks the bustling blues street, yet inside we couldn’t hear a sound when we turned in for the night. It’s located opposite the Gibson Factory and a unique perk is that housekeeping will drop a Gibson to your room so you can strum away. We felt like proper rock stars.
Of course, a trip to Memphis and Graceland go hand in hand. Walking through the dining room where Elvis entertained friends, experiencing the Jungle Room, where he recorded some of his final songs, and seeing the piano he played the day he died are all highlights before you reach the King’s grave. Tickets are $38, but we opted to pay the extra $10 for the platinum ticket, which gave access to his car museum and aeroplanes as well.
Sun Studios is also a great tour for music lovers, but you can’t leave Memphis without visiting the National Civil Rights Museum. Telling the resilient stories of generations from the arrival of slavery to the appointment of President Obama, it brings history books alive. Its location at Motel Lorraine makes the experience so poignant and moving, as you stand minutes away from where Martin Luther King Jr was killed.
The Big Easy
If a trip to the south conjures up images of white-washed porches, plantations and jazz, then New Orleans is brimming with the historical romance you’re looking for.
A sugar plantation was high on our agenda and we had to see Oak Alley for ourselves: 28 oak trees lead to the stunning Louisiana mansion and guides dressed in period costumes talk about the families that built this plantation, their glory days and suffering. Oak Alley is an hour outside the city, but worth a morning of exploration.
Complete your day of romance back in the city by gliding down the Mississippi River on the Steamboat Natchez. With the water gushing through the red paddle wheel, you’re taken back in time to see the Big Easy from a unique angle. The route itself is quite industrial and isn’t as picturesque as the overall experience of being on a steamboat, but when the jazz band starts playing When the Saints Come Marching In, you really don’t mind.
The French Quarter has the buzz of Bourbon Street, the jazz of Frenchmen Street and we stayed in the centrally located Wyndham Hotel, a great location to explore the jazz and cuisine of the city.
Although Nashville has the best fried chicken and the BBQs of Memphis are finger licking, the creole flavours of New Orleans top them all. Seafood gumbo, oysters, crawfish etouffee, po boys, jambalaya and beignets, it’s best to arrive hungry.
Georgia on my Mind
No matter when you’re visiting, check out what food festivals are on, as they’re the best way to sample the flavours of the south. Georgia was always on our mind and our trip coincided with the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, where we drifted around stalls sampling crab legs coated in Old Bay seasoning, caramelised devilled eggs and rotisserie chicken, which hung over an open fire.
For the final leg of your journey, Atlanta has lots to offer families. Within 10 minutes walk of each other, you’ll find one of the biggest aquariums in the States: Georgia Aquarium near the World of Coca Cola and the CNN museum. A trip to Six Flags is always a day to remember, and top it off with the ultimate family focused American activity: a baseball game, complete with hot dogs, kiss cams and home runs. We cheered on the Atlanta Braves and ended our trip with a Friday night firework spectacular that left us dazzled.
Travel Department offers a range of escorted holidays to the USA, including California, New England, New York and Alaska.
Travel Department Guided Tours
Driving can be tricky so if you fancy a relaxed approach to your road trip, the Travel Department are doing a guided 13 night Deep South USA holiday where you will visit Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans and Georgia as well as Pensacola, Jekyll Island and Savannah. Prices start from €3,599 and include return flights from Dublin, 12 nights B&B accommodation in 3* and 4* hotels, transfers and excursions, as well as an expert local guide throughout. This holiday departs on October 10 2016 and March 7 2017. Travel Department offers a range of escorted holidays to the USA, including California, New England, New York and Alaska. www.traveldepartment.ie.