Travel’s hottest trend puts the emphasis on getting tour members involved

The Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville lets visitors create a festive hat.

The Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville lets visitors create a festive hat.

There was a day when we traveled with a group and were perfectly content to watch the dolphins and manatees from the comfort of a boat. Now, we want to swim with them. Maybe it’s the advent of the reality shows that entices us to hunt for alligators and distill moonshine.

So, why the change in what we find interesting? One opinion might be that we’re simply more curious than ever before. Maybe it’s television that has introduced

us to activities beyond our imagination. Possibly, it’s the Internet that has opened doors to exploring new options. Either way, knowledgeable tour operators, group leaders and destinations are responding.

Southern destinations play an important role in the trend called experiential tourism, and every state has something special to offer. Here are just a few experiences to pique your interest:


Groups in Orange Beach, Ala. can learn the art of glass blowing at the Coastal Arts Center’s Hot Shop.

Groups in Orange Beach, Ala. can learn the art of glass blowing at the Coastal Arts Center’s Hot Shop.

Art is alive and well in Alabama and groups are invited to participate. A great place to start is BlackBelt Treasures in Camden. The Black Belt Region, named for its rich black topsoil, has grown some remarkable artists. BlackBelt Treasures represents more than 350 artists, including painters, sculptors, potters, basket-weavers, quilters and woodworkers. Classes can be arranged for groups visiting the area.

If glass is your medium, a visit to Adam Burges at The Hot Shop at the Coastal Arts Center of Orange Beach is in order. A BFA graduate of the University of South Alabama, Adam invites you to “come play with the toys.” Under the watchful eye and supervision of a master glass blower, groups can participate in the “Make Your Own Glass” program.

Monroeville is home to Harper Lee’s magnificent piece of American literature, To Kill a Mockingbird. The plot and characters are loosely based on the author’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as a 1936 event that occurred when she was 10 years old. Live the plot by taking a walking tour of downtown Monroeville and then do a small painting of your adventure.


Many of us recall summer visits with our families to state parks. Back in the day many of the parks were pretty primitive with only the bare essentials for camping. A visit to Arkansas reveals these are not your grandpa’s state parks. There are 52 state parks in The Natural State. While most offer interpretive programs, trails and camping, a few provide accommodations for tour & travel, student/youth and reunion groups.

DeGray Lake Resort State Park Lodge offers 94 rooms with all the amenities, a wonderful restaurant, and spectacular views of the lake and mountains. Of the activities you’d associate with a lakeside resort, two stand out. Summer snorkeling, from lessons through participation, is a great way to explore the lake. From late November through February an eagle-watching boat tour is a must. Land lovers are not forgotten with a championship 18-hole golf course on site.

For someone living at sea level, it’s difficult to explain the thrill of watching light clouds slowly drift by at eye level from my balcony. But there is considerably more to Mount Magazine State Park than the panoramic views from 2,753 feet above sea level. The well-appointed, 60-room Lodge at Mount Magazine and Skycrest Restaurant are both rustic and modern. An ATV guide service is available for those ready to explore the mountain. Mountain biking, horseback riding and hang gliding are all there for the outdoor sports enthusiast.

Petit Jean State Park is Arkansas’s oldest (constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps) and known for the legend of Petit Jean, the young French girl disguised as a boy who followed her early explorer sweetheart to the mountain. Accommodations in the 24-room Mather Lodge were renovated in 2012 along with the restaurant’s main dining room. Bird watching and hiking to Cedar Creek Falls are favored activities, while many prefer fishing and boating.


Groups can go shrimping off the coast of Georgia’s St. Simons Island.

Groups can go shrimping off the coast of Georgia’s St. Simons Island.

Like an army, groups move on their stomachs. We like to eat and Georgia is well known for its Southern cuisine. This time, though, we’ll work for our food.

Lauri Jo’s in Norman is a delightful addition to any itinerary. How can you go wrong with a tagline “Preserving the South One Jar at a Time.” What began as an enjoyable hobby soon flourished and became a business. Now, they offer more than 24 truly Southern products in 41 states.

Get ready for a roll-up-your-sleeves, how-to canning school. Groups arrive on a summer Friday afternoon, tour the facility, and go over rules and regulations for the class. Next, everyone goes to a farm and picks their produce. Return for a dinner that features Lauri Jo’s products.

After a restful evening in a nearby hotel, the group returns the next morning for breakfast at Lauri Jo’s. Then classes begin and at noon the group prepares a Southern lunch. The afternoon canning class is completed by 4 p.m. and groups depart with 24 jars of two different products they’ve made.

The “Shrimpin’ Excursion” departing St. Simons Island aboard the Lady Jane is another culinary adventure. In the protected waters of St. Simons Sound, you’ll be shrimping on a vessel that has been certified by the Coast Guard to carry 49 passengers. The Lady Jane has plenty of deck space, an air-conditioned cabin and restrooms.

When the nets come up, guests help sort the shrimp from the catch of other species. When your work is done, enjoy the fresh-caught shrimp, boiled and served while onboard the Lady Jane.


On the first Saturday in May, many of us are in our family rooms anticipating the “Fastest Two Minutes in Sports,” the running of the Kentucky Derby. Prior to the actual race, much of the television coverage will focus on the horses, the owners, the trainers and… the hats.

What lady or gentleman doesn’t want a special hat for that special afternoon? There’s no better place to create your own Derby chapeau than the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville. This exclusive group activity provides the guests with a hat and all the Derby-inspired ornamentation. When it’s perfect and to your liking, you can wear it as you explore the museum and then take it home.

Maybe your group is looking for something with a little more action. Look no further than Eastern Kentucky and the Red River Gorge area of Natural Bridge State Park. Known as a premier rock-climbing destination, the area also offers zip lines, hiking, camping, canoeing and other outdoor activities.

Whether you simply want to enjoy the exquisite beauty or are ready for a true adventure, Red River Outdoors is the place to begin. For smaller groups, cabins are available with all the comforts of home. Full kitchen, bath, linens, heat and a/c, TV and gas grill are standard.

Climbing is a way of life for Red River Outdoors guides, and they enjoy guiding both experienced and novice climbers. For groups seeking to enjoy the beauty and excitement of the Red River, Kentucky’s only National Wild and Scenic River, a canoe or kayak is the way to go. The Middle Gorge is Class 1+. The three- to five-hour trip is self-guided, but Red River Outdoors provides the shuttle, launch and pick-up.


Visitors can learn the local dance steps in Louisiana’s Cajun Country.

Visitors can learn the local dance steps in Louisiana’s Cajun Country.

Lafayette, in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun Country, is rich in traditions known worldwide. Authentic Cajun and Creole cuisine is a staple of the culture, but just as important is Zydeco Cajun dance music. Usually played on accordion, guitar, and violin, it combines traditional French melodies with Caribbean and blues influences. The music is not for sitting and listening —wallflowers are discouraged.

So, do you want to dance? There’s no shortage of Cajuns ready to share their love of dance and hospitality. Allons Á Lafayette, Inc., a receptive company, is happy to arrange a complete South Louisiana tour, including dance lessons.

If you watch the History Channel, you’ve probably come across Swamp People. Viewers are awed at these self-reliant Cajuns of the Atchafalaya Swamp and the risks they take to “fish gators.” Groups, too, can get up close and personal with Louisiana’s oldest residents.

Covington Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery, directed by Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries, offers well-respected student tours that meet state and national learning standards. Guided tours are designed to be age-appropriate. Insta-Gator Ranch is entering its 25th year harvesting alligator eggs. Ask about holding a hatching alligator egg.


When visiting Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, taking advantage of numerous fishing options is the way to go. Whether your interest is pier, surf, wading, inland fresh water or deep sea fishing, you’ll find it here.

More than 13 piers await the casual anglers in your group. Many offer equipment rentals and purchases, or find the right equipment and get a fishing license at Wal-Marts, K-marts, sporting goods stores, and bait shops and fish camps. Enjoy an afternoon in the fresh air and don’t be afraid to ask for some help and direction. Other pier fishermen are pleased to share their knowledge.

More than 60 charter boat captains stand ready to offer professional guide service to saltwater spots where the big ones are found. More than 25 species make their home in the warm Gulf of Mexico waters.

Once you’ve put some nice fish in the boat and the crew has helped you clean and prep them, have a cookout. Any park with a grill and some picnic tables will do just fine.

North Carolina

Learn about furniture making in Hickory, N.C.

Learn about furniture making in Hickory, N.C.

At one time North Carolina produced 25 percent of all the furniture in the world. Hickory is one of the cities with a proud tradition in furniture-making.

In 1901 the Hickory Furniture Co. opened, utilizing the abundant timber in the area and a labor force that would pass their skills from generation to generation. The industry grew steadily, survived the Great Depression and exploded at the end of World War II. In 1960 a handful of manufacturers hosted an event for retailers and wholesalers in what is now the Hickory Furniture Mart. In 1985 the doors were opened to the public, and today the mart welcomes more than a half-million visitors to their factory outlets, showrooms and galleries.

Exclusively for groups, the furniture mart is developing a package that combines a tour of a Hickory manufacturer with a hands-on skill experience from building to upholstering a chair. With newfound knowledge and appreciation for manufacturing, groups return to the Hickory Furniture Mart to see the retail side of the industry. A final date for the tour’s introduction has not been set.

South Carolina

In a mountain region of South Carolina named the Dark Corner, a hearty group of Scots-Irish immigrants was quite proficient at distilling alcohol from grain. After the Civil War, taxes were placed on distillers and although some obliged and actually sold to the government, many took their skills to the forest. Working at night so the smoke could not be seen by revenuers, they got into moonshining.

Today Dark Corner Distillery is producing award-winning spirits and opening its doors to groups. Its Distilling Class, a Greenville CVB Signature Event, shows how to make moonshine, providing hands-on training in producing high-quality distilled spirits. Lunch is provided. Upon graduation, each student receives a DCD Certificate of Completion.

In the Myrtle Beach area groups are regular visitors to both La Belle Amie Vineyard and Grapefull Sisters Vineyard. Both offer tours and tastings. Make sure you purchase one of their wines because you’ll need it on your next stop.

New to Myrtle Beach, Wine and Design invites groups to drink wine while learning how to paint. A corkscrew and all the art supplies are provided. Then follow along as an artist helps you create your masterpiece.

Charleston, of course, is history and what better way to investigate the past than a Drayton Hall archaeology program. A landscape walk follows an archaeology-focused house tour. Several former excavation sites are visited. Throughout the tour images of artifacts from Drayton Hall’s collection will be interpreted. Hopefully you paid close attention. With newfound knowledge you’ll investigate an 18th century building to determine how it was used over a 200-year span.


Groups get a chance to record a song at Historic RCA Studio B in Nashville.

Groups get a chance to record a song at Historic RCA Studio B in Nashville.

If you want to become engrossed in country music and discover if your group can really capture the Nashville Sound, then you’ll just have to go to Nashville. It all starts at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and Historic RCA Studio B.

With more than 1,000 Top Ten hits from 35,000 recordings (150 by Elvis!) you’ll know you’re on sacred music ground as soon as you walk into Historic RCA Studio B, a Music Row landmark operated by the Hall of Fame and Museum. The names ring like a country music Who’s Who—Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton, the Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, Elvis Presley and many more.

Studio B’s “Sharing the Art of Songwriting” program introduces your group to an accomplished songwriter, who leads the group in creating its own original song. Then the writer will record your song.

If you know there’s vocal talent hidden within your group, go directly to becoming a “Star for a Day.” A tour of the Historic RCA Studio B concludes with your group working directly with a sound engineer in a recording session.


The Eastern Shore of Virginia is the last wild stretch of coast in the Mid-Atlantic. There is no better way to explore what’s just around the corner of the inlet than by kayaking. The outfitter to lead that exploration is SouthEast Expeditions, which has more than 25 years of experience in kayaking. Certified eco-tour guides lead the way.

First-time paddlers might choose an expedition from Onancock and follow the calm waters that Captain John Smith discovered in 1608. A popular program is kayaking the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge observing birds in their native habitat.

For those with an appetite for Virginia’s cherrystone clam, kayak clamming is for you. Visit an Eastern Shore aqua farmer and dig some fresh clams for your dinner. Your first dozen is included in the cost.

What better way to enjoy a day of paddling than to finish with award-winning wines. Enjoy a day on the water and conclude with a visit to Chatham Vineyards or Holly Grove Vineyards. Wine, kayak, gear and instruction are included at one reasonable price.

West Virginia

Since opening in 1996, the strikingly handsome Tamarack, with its pointed façade representing the state’s mountain peaks, has been sharing the artistic traditions of West Virginia with more than 500,000 visitors annually. Located in Beckley, it truly represents the “Best of West Virginia.”

At Tamarack there’s something for everyone. If it’s good to eat, you’ll find it in the gourmet food department. Wood, baskets, pottery and glass produced by West Virginia artisans seem in endless supply. Jewelry and apparel, an artist gallery, a food court, a theater and the Greenbrier Shop complete this statewide cultural center.

Observing one of the five on-site artisans at work provides an introduction to textile, pottery, blacksmithing, woodworking and glass skills. An exclusive group activity provides one-on-one time with master artisans and welcomes all skill levels. Stained-glass or etched-glass ornaments are created. Specialty cards are made using fabric and paper. A Civil War figurine is hand painted and created from a thread spool.