Blooming and Blasting Off in Huntsville

Spend a springtime weekend in this Alabama city, where the past, present, and future converge.
Tanner C. Latham

You know you're in Huntsville when you see the rocket. The Saturn V replica stands as the towering gatekeeper to a city long identified by its contribution to the country's space program. That celestial presence is still strong, but galaxy exploration is far from the only show in town. Spend an April weekend here when the city is in bloom, and suit up for a little exploring of your own.

Friday--Walking on Whitesburg
When you get here, go straight to Whitesburg Drive, one of the best shopping areas in town, particularly for antiques. You'll need energy, so first duck into Duffy's Deli for a late lunch. Order a cup of Famous White Chili ($2.95) with the Classic ($4.95), a sandwich with sliced chicken breast, Canadian bacon, and blue cheese served on rye.

A little further down the street, treat your nose to Courtney's Candles, which offers more than 80 fragrances. For jewelry, pottery, and fine art, visit Signature Gallery. And as far as antiquing is concerned, we liked Portobello Savvy for its collection of home accents and accessories and Bulldog Antiques for its furniture.

Check in to your room at the Hilton Huntsville ([256] 533-1400, 1-800-774-1500, or www.hilton.com; rates range from $99 to $129), located close to Big Spring International Park, and enjoy a break before dinner at the Furniture Factory Bar & Grill. Oh, you might want to rent a trailer. You'll like the funky atmosphere so much that you may be tempted to take some of it home with you. That's because all the tables and chairs are for sale. When you order your Angus Filet ($20), consider some wrought iron chairs ($45), perfect for the garden. Or if you're feeling like something a bit lighter, go with the Thai Lettuce Wrap ($8) and Adirondack chairs ($150) for the patio. The Furniture Factory also offers live music on the weekends, so stick around and relax.

Saturday--Flowers and Fine Wine
Wake up to breakfast at Mullins Restaurant in the Five Points section of town. Nothing fancy--just your basic bacon and eggs ($2.65) with a pancake on the side ($1.75) and some of the fluffiest biscuits around.

If you can fight off the urge for a midmorning nap, drive to the Tourist Information Center on Monroe to get a Historic Huntsville Walking Tour brochure. You'll love strolling through Twickenham and Old Town, two wonderful downtown districts. Twickenham has more than 65 antebellum homes, businesses, and churches (including the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, circa 1859). While you're in the area, visit Harrison Brothers at the corner of Washington and Eustis. The screen door squeaks you back a few years. Around since 1897, Alabama's oldest hardware store pays nostalgic homage to a time before supercenters.

Hop back in the car and drive away from town to one of our favorite places, the Huntsville Botanical Garden. April is the perfect time to be here as the Spring Festival of Flowers stretches the entire month. Grab a chicken salad sandwich in The Garden Cafe, and rejuvenate yourself with a tall glass of Botanical Fruit Tea. You're now ready to spend a sunny spring afternoon amid the tens of thousands of blooms: daffodils, azaleas, and wildflowers, among others. Remember to pack your camera as the photo ops here are endless.

Head back to the hotel, and get spiffed up for an elegant dinner at 801 Franklin restaurant. You'll find Continental cuisine and a superb wine list in a romantic atmosphere. When we were here, we started with the Baby Calamari ($8.95) and had the Atlantic Salmon ($22.95) as an entrée, but executive chef Matt Martin changes the menu often.

Sunday--Blast Off on Your Way Out
A light breakfast at the hotel is your best bet this morning. (You'll thank me later.) Pack your bags, because the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is on your way out of town, and you simply can't visit Huntsville without spending some time here. A $16.95 admission ($11.95 ages 12 and under) provides access to the museum and all the simulators. You will find dozens of hands-on exhibits and artifacts chronicling the space program. The real fun, though, lies in the simulators. One of our favorites is the Space Shot, which propels the rider up a 180-foot tower in three seconds. (I told you you'd thank me for the light breakfast.) Of course, you can take a tamer route by testing your flying skills at Land the Shuttle, or get an up close perspective of the spacecraft collection with a walk through the Rocket and Shuttle Parks. You can actually spend a full day here learning and playing, but we know you need to get back home.

By now you've probably worked up a healthy appetite, so stop for lunch at Greenbrier Bar-B-Que, an area landmark since 1957. Go for the large plate of hickory-smoked barbeque pork ($6.95) with all the usual sides. Now, you can't see the rocket from Greenbrier, so forget about waving goodbye to the Saturn V. But don't worry. It will be there standing tall and waiting to welcome you back the next time you visit.

For more information: Contact the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 700 Monroe Street, Huntsville, AL 35801-5570; (256) 551-2230, 1-800-772-2348, or www.huntsville.org.