It’s the time of year when we start planning upcoming adventures. There are so many places I recommend visiting in the South, but 2016 will be an important year for many reasons. Each of these destinations has been thoughtfully selected for what is new and exciting in the state. So start searching for transportation deals and prepare to pack your bags!
There’s always something going on in this central Florida city. It may be known for its theme parks, but there’s plenty to see beyond them. The Orlando Eye is the highest observation wheel in North America. Downtown Orlando will see restaurant openings from nationally ranked chefs like upcoming DoveCote.
Universal Studios Resort will open a new onsite property this year, the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, and over at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the upcoming “A Celebration of Harry Potter” festival.
Disney World is renovating Downtown Disney and will be opening a Frozen themed attraction at Epcot. And before the next chapter comes out, there will be a Star Wars themed attraction. Additional runDisney events have been added for those interested in fitness travel and Club Villain opens at Hollywood Studios for adult visitors.
The Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee
This year will be a big one for all of the national parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains, as they celebrate 100 years. The towns around the Smokies include Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge , and Cades Cove. The area is ideal for hiking, horseback riding, driving and riding motorcycles.
Gatlinburg was once family-focused, but now has additional attractions for those traveling without little ones like the Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery. Sevierville and Pigeon Forge are known for their entertainment scene, which includes dinner shows. There’s also a renewed interest in Dolly Parton, an area native, after this winter’s made-for-television movie The Coat of Many Colors. Her theme park, Dollywood, just opened a new resort called DreamMore.
There’s no denying that the Mississippi Delta is a significant region for music history in America and beyond. So it makes sense that the first Grammy Museum outside of Los Angeles would open in the heart of it in Cleveland, Mississippi. Slated to open in March, the museum will pay tribute to the artists who came from the area like B.B. King and extend into modern history. Also, be sure to see Cleveland’s music history markers, denoted in blue, and the “life masks” of blues artists at Delta State University.
While you’re there, visit the rest of the towns that make up the Mississippi Blues Trail, specifically Tunica, Clarksdale, and Greenwood, and make time to visit its venues. I had the pleasure of visiting this area in 2015 and want to see more. You never know what you’ll find, from the ramshackle buildings where legendary musicians played to the roadside carts that sell Delta tamales.
The Grand Strand, South Carolina
Destinations like Charleston have seemingly never-ending praises from the press, but what about the rest of the state? Much of it suffered major flooding this past year and has been slowly rebuilding. The coastal areas between Charleston and the border with North Carolina were included. Known as the Grand Strand, the miles of South Carolina coastline feature quaint towns as well as fascinating ecosystems and some of the best beaches around.
Check out the historic downtown of Georgetown and frequent its shops and restaurants as you assist in flood recovery. Nearby is Hobcaw Barony, a former plantation with a visitor’s center that educates on the wildlife in the area. Closer to Myrtle Beach is Brookgreen Gardens, an attraction known for its grounds and sculptures.
In Myrtle Beach, you’ll find much more than spring breakers for this year-round destination. In addition to the golf and other sports, there’s the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk. Here you’ll see the kitschy landmarks like the SkyWheel, a Ferris wheel that towers over the beach, and Fun Plaza, a classic arcade. You’ll also be surprised by the restaurants, from the budget-friendly Peaches Corner hot dog stand to molecular gastronomy at The Chemist.
Virginia Beach , Virginia
Virginia Beach and its surrounding communities, namely Hampton, Norfolk and Newport News, are likewise viewed as a summertime destination for the surfing and family attractions. And while there’s much beyond that, namely U-Pick farms, state parks and fishing nearby, it’s also a year-round destination for adults.
Green Flash Brewery, a beloved San Diego establishment, followed a new trend of large scale breweries and opened an outpost on the East Coast. They will soon open an over 50,000 square foot space near the beach with a tasting room and beer garden as well as brewery tours and event space.
They’re only one of many in this military town. Among the smaller local breweries are Reaver Beach Brewing, Back Bay Brewing, Wasserhund Brewing, Young Veterans Brewing and Commonwealth Brewing.
The area known simply as Northwestern Arkansas, in the corner with Missouri and Oklahoma, is a surprising destination for many travelers. Best of all, dozens of towns and cities are within a short drive. Fayetteville is a classic college town with a presidential legacy at the Clinton House Museum. Bentonville is home to Walmart and all of the money it invested, namely in walking and biking trails and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. There’s also the 21C Museum Hotel and a downtown full of restaurants, bars, and shops.
Rogers has its own downtown with shops and restaurants and is also home to War Eagle Mill, a historic gristmill pictured above. Over in the mountains, stop by Eureka Springs, a former resort town known for its curing waters. They are home to the Great Passion Play, a large scale outdoor performance of Biblical stories.
The entire area is accessed by bike trails like the Razorback Regional Greenway, a project over 15 years in the making. The 36-mile trail access points from Bella Vista to Fayetteville with stops at the University of Arkansas campus, the Walmart headquarters and dozens of historic sites and landmarks.
Craft beer fanatics will enjoy Northwestern Arkansas’ breweries. The Fayetteville Ale Trail is a beer trail that includes the whole area with its own passport where you can earn points for a t-shirt.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Despite its significant role in American music history, most people haven’t heard of Muscle Shoals, a town located in northwestern Alabama. A few years ago there was a documentary about all the acts that came through here to record with what was called the “Muscle Shoals sound.” That includes the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Music fans should start at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in nearby Tuscumbia to get background information before visiting the FAME Recording Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio Museum.
Also make time for the W.C. Handy Home Museum in Florence and the childhood home of Helen Keller in Tuscumbia. The area also is home to restaurants listed on “100 Places to Eat in Alabama,” including L.O. Bishop BBQ, The Palace Ice Cream and Sandwich Shop, and Rattlesnake Saloon.
Shreveport and Bossier City, Louisiana
I spent over a week in these northwestern Louisiana twin cities near the border with Texas over the course of two visits. They spread across the Red River and surprised me, as there’s much more to do than just gamble. It was at the Municipal Auditorium that the famous words “Elvis has left the building” were uttered after a performance. The city also has a much tamer Mardi Gras celebration that is popular with families. Artist Nick Cave has created a large scale installation, a “blanket” of beads, and local artisans sell their goods at Agora Borealis.
Another lesser-visited destination in a state known for popular tourism, it served as a popular resettlement location for those fleeing Hurricane Katrina and much of the food culture of New Orleans has been brought here. Bring your appetite for fresh crawfish at Kim’s Seafood, boudin and more at Bergeron’s and new takes on Louisianan fare. Ralph and Kacoo’s is the best spot to chow down on beignets in town. They even have surprising international cuisine. In terms of nightlife, check out Great Raft Brewing, the city’s only craft brewery, and bars like The Boot.
I was torn when choosing a must-see place in my home state because there are so many. Augusta, Athens and Atlanta all crossed my mind, but Macon ultimately won for its music legacy. This year’s tourism theme is Georgia music and Macon played a large role in it. Go on a tour with Rock Candy Tours, led by locals with a connection to the music industry. Jessica Walden’s father was a music producer and her husband’s family owns a candy company, thus the name. Capricorn Records was based here and helped bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers rise to fame. Otis Redding was born here and his family still lives here. You can see a statue of the artist downtown, which sings his famous hits. Visit the home where the Allman Brothers lived with their friends at family, now a museum called The Big House. Grab breakfast at H&H Restaurant, a soul food joint that fed the then-poor band, and catch live music at Grant’s Lounge.
Apart from the music history, Macon has its own attractions worth checking out. The Hay House is one of the finest Italiannate homes in America and is open for tours. Visit the home of Georgia’s former poet laureate at the Sidney Lanier Home and see the burial mounds at Ocmulgee National Monument. There’s also the Tubman African American Museum and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
Grab a bite and one of the many downtown eateries, namely The Rookery, known for its offbeat burgers and milkshakes, and the upstairs Dovetail, a more fine dining approach to Southern food. The speakeasy-style Downtown Grill has the best steaks in the city and is a great spot for a classic cocktail. Macon Beer Company is the city’s first brewery.
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
While there’s plenty to get excited about for 2016 in the cities like Lexington, Louisville and Bowling Green (new museums, restaurants and distilleries, to name a few!), Kentucky has so much natural wonder to experience. Mammoth Cave National Park is an important landmark that will also be celebrating for the 100 years of the NPS. This is the world’s largest cave system, with only 400 miles of it explored thus far. Rangers regularly lead tours so that you can see as much of the caves as possible. Learn about the spaces inside like the Rotunda Room and the creatures that inhabit the caves, like the bats and albino shrimp. Above ground, take advantage of the park’s backcountry camping, hiking, fishing and more.
“The Triangle,” North Carolina
A part of what’s known as “The Triangle,” a group of cities in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, this area ups the ante for your traditional college towns.
Raleigh is a college town home to North Carolina State University, Meredith College and dozens of others. It has a thriving arts, both visual and performing, scene, dozens of museums and hosts annual events like the Bluegrass Festival. Award-winning restaurant Poole’s Diner calls the city home. Neighboring Durham has the brand new 21C Museum Hotel and was named by Travel + Leisure as a place to visit for 2015. Duke University has its own museums and attractions like the historic homestead, chapel and lemur center. Chapel Hill has the University of North Carolina and a number of historic buildings.
And being North Carolina, all three have their own breweries and maps to point you in the direction of the best places. Visit the website of the North Carolina Brewer’s Guild for up to date information.