Hopping Around Huntsville

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History, art and peeks into outer space flavor a visit to this group-friendly city in North Alabama.

Just past the Tennessee state line and off I-65, Huntsville is conveniently located less than a day’s drive from a quarter of the United States population. Groups find that it’s easy to reach with plenty to do upon arrival.

It’s logical that we begin our Huntsville visit at the place where America’s space program was born. It’s here the rockets were developed that would eventually send men to the moon. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center features the most comprehensive U.S. manned flight hardware display in the nation.

U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Showcasing the past, present and future of space travel, noteworthy artifacts range from the early Explorer I satellite to the next-generation vehicle, Dream Chaser. If you followed the space program through its history, you may remember names like the Saturn V Moon Rocket, Pathfinder, Apollo 16 and many others. They’re all on display, plus many other exhibits of significance.

The Spacedome IMAX and the National Geographic Theater should be part of every visit to the center. Space- and aviation-themed films are featured daily on the 65-foot dome screen with titles like Journey to Space, Living in the Age of Airplanes and Hubble. The latter theater shows quality educational films in 3D such as Jerusalem 3D, Robots 3D and Hidden Universe.

U.S. Space & Rocket Center2

If you want to be an astronaut for a day, the center has the simulators that deliver the experience. How does a 3, 2, 1 and liftoff rocket launch experience sound? The Space Shot will send you 140 feet straight up at 4GS of force on launch, a few seconds of weightlessness followed by a 1G free fall.

If you’re not quite ready for the launch, possibly a little astronaut training is in order. Experience three times the force of gravity as 3Gs push your body and centripetal force tests your strength. With astronaut training and a launch completed, you’re ready for the Mars Mission. Your ride in the simulated capsule will explore Mars as you never imagined.

With more than 3,000 pieces in its permanent collection and regular traveling exhibitions both featuring many nationally acclaimed artists, it’s easy to see why the Huntsville Museum of Art is one of the state’s top attractions. The museum’s permanent collection focuses on American art from the 19th and 20th centuries with emphasis on the Southeast. The museum has 400 works by American artists such as James McNeill Whistler, Reginald Marsh, John Sloan and Andy Warhol. African, Asia and European art is also displayed.

Huntsville Museum of Art

The museum prides itself on regularly presenting visitors with insightful exhibitions. Encounters: Tim Taunton on display to Feb. 7, 2016, is a look at the acclaimed Georgia artist’s contemporary art in clay and oil paintings. The Tsars’ Cabinet: Two Hundred Years of Russian Decorative Arts under the Romanovs begins in mid-October and runs through Jan. 3, 2016. Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art opens April 10 and continues to June 26, 2016. Another exhibition of regional contemporary art, Encounters: Dan Farnsworth, features the North Carolina artist’s hand-carved figurative statues from June 25 and continues to Oct. 30, 2016.

Docent-led tours enhance your experience at the Huntsville Museum of Art. Along with special programs, musical events and lectures, the museum offers art classes for all ages. On the museum campus are pieces of public art that are part of the citywide, 36-works SPACES sculpture trail. A favorite Huntsville Italian restaurant, Pane e Vino, is situated on the Plaza level with both indoor and outdoor seating.

Alabama Constitution Village

Part of the EarlyWorks Family of Museums in the downtown historic section of Huntsville, the Alabama Constitution Village and Historic Huntsville Depot, along with the EarlyWorks Children’s History Museum, form an impressive collection. On this very spot the Alabama State Constitution was signed, adding Alabama as the 22nd state. Today, the Alabama Constitution Village living history museum takes visitors back to 1819. The sheriff’s residence, print shop, federal surveyor’s office and a law office surround the cabinet shop where that historic event took place. Witness a seamstress applying her craft while the aroma of freshly baked bread drifts through the village.

Visitors interact with villagers dressed in period garb as they go about their daily responsibilities. In April-May Village Ways/Village Days invites both student and adult groups for a two-hour guided historical adventure through the village with stops at the blacksmith, cabinet-maker and herbalist.

Is there any reason not to love an historic train station? Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Depot traces its history back to 1860. It served as the Memphis & Charleston Railroad corporate offices for the eastern division and a local passenger house, and remained an active passenger station until 1968.

Visitors to the Depot, one of America’s oldest railroad structures, can examine Civil War graffiti and listen to the robotic ticket agent tell about working on the railroad in olden days. During the Civil War the Depot served as a hospital for Union soldiers and a prison for Confederates. Do not miss the antique cars and trains on the grounds. The Depot is a great stop for a catered lunch.

Huntsville Botanical Garden

Set amid the natural aesthetic beauty of North Alabama, the Huntsville Botanical Garden is a year-round pleasure. The seasonal Nature Center Butterfly House is the nation’s largest. Maps are provided for a self-guided walking tour of the 112-acre garden. Docent-guided tours provide insights. Box lunches can be arranged. The American Bus Association recognized the Galaxy of Lights, a November/December Top 100 Event.

Harrison Brothers Hardware Store

Other Huntsville attractions include the Weedon House Museum, where the work of artist-poet Maria Howard Weedon is on display. For a glimpse into the past, stop at Harrison Brothers Hardware Shop.

The Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau offers a series of itineraries. “Antebellum to Antigravity Experience,” “African American Heritage,” “Between the Mountains and the Lakes” and “Civil War Experience for Groups” are available at huntsville.org. For further information and to book your experience, contact Pam Williams, pam@huntsville.org.

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