Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga

Monday, February 25, 2013

An insider's view of Chattanooga (sorta, kinda)

My familiarity with Chattanooga spans three decades. What first attracted us was white water rafting on the Ocoee, an experience that, while thrilling my friends and husband, left me convinced I would never raft again. (Let me just say that hypothermia and I aren’t strangers.) I was too sick to appreciate our lovely private cabin at the Chanticleer Inn on Lookout Mountain.

The next time we visited Chattanooga found us at the Tennessee Aquarium shortly after it opened. Hailed as the largest fresh water aquarium in the nation in 1992, it attracted droves of tourists. And, to think, it took a bunch of students to realize its potential.

Yes, eager, forward-thinking, idealistic college students. From the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the architectural students can claim the pride of ownership of the idea for the aquarium. Their well-conceived design, along with proposals from a publicly-appointed citizens’ group, formed the “Tennessee Riverpark Master Plan.” The twenty-year plan called for $750 million of mixed-use development, enhancement, and conservation along 22 miles of the Tennessee River corridor through Chattanooga.

It just goes to show you that when people band together for a common good, positive things can happen.

The transformation began in 1984. Between my first and second visits to Chattanooga, revitalization had dug in its heels. Once labeled as “the dirtiest city in America” during a 1969 CBS newscast by Walter Cronkite, Chattanooga was no longer the recession-plagued industrial city it once was. In fact, it positively shined. Following the building of the Aquarium came the Chattanooga Visitors Center, the Creative Discovery Museum, the IMAX 3D Theater, and a remarkable pedestrian-only bridge, the renovated Walnut Street Bridge. Across the river, Coolidge Park, featuring a vintage carousel, opened, spawning increased retail activity. “And on the south end of town, the convention center was expanded a block away from a new conference center and hotel. Private enterprise was rekindled, too, with at least a hundred eateries, shops and other businesses sprouting up to support the influx of downtown visitors” (from a Tennessee Aquarium Press Kit).

Through the nineties, Chattanooga was featured in U.S. News and World Report and Parade. It was found to be one of the most enlightened cities in America (Utne Reader), one of the top 10 family vacation destinations (Family Fun), one of the world’s great cities (NPR’s Morning Edition), one of the country’s best places to live, work and play (Outside), and one of America’s most walkable cities (Walking).

From 2001-2007, my husband and I often stopped in Chattanooga on our way to and from Clemson University. Always looking for a good place to eat, we were never disappointed. Thanks to my husband’s generous Christmas present to me, we were able to take advantage this past weekend to once again sample all Chattanooga has to offer.

Steve made a reservation at the Mayor’s Mansion Inn. Built in 1889, the historical house did not disappoint. The room was lovely, the service fantastic, and the breakfasts superb: fruit cup, 3-cheese quiche, asparagus, potato medallions, and a blond brownie one day; ricotta cake, stuffed French toast, bacon, and honeyed-cinnamon fruit the next. Oh, my. I’m nearly drooling just thinking about it.

On Friday evening, we first went to the Big River Restaurant. Since the line was too long, we decided to make reservations for the next evening and went on to eat at Sticky Fingers. Having eaten there before, we knew what to expect: scrumptious BBQ and lots of it. (For just a couple of dollars more, we decided to share a three-meat platter: pork, chicken, and an introduction to beef brisket. Delightful!)

The next day, we took a walk through UTC and witnessed lots of construction but very few students at 9:00 a.m. Afterwards, we visited the Chickamauga Battlefield, stopping at the Visitor’s Center to see the museum and movie and then taking a driving tour through the battlegrounds. (In case you don’t know, Chattanooga, TN and Chickamauga, GA are places rich in Civil War history.) We ate lunch at Bluewater Grille and found the restaurant to have the best fish tacos ever, and the lobster bisque isn’t shabby, either! Since we had to work off breakfast and lunch, we then took the Incline up to Lookout Mountain and walked there for the next hour and a half, gawking at the huge mansions with their breath-taking views.

That evening found us at the Big River Restaurant. The food there was also delish (but, to my ears, the music a tad loud, making conversation difficult). Steve had gotten tickets for A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (adapted by a local playwright) so we went to the Chattanooga Theatre Centre across the river. (Beware adaptations by local playwrights. Ack! Poor Ibsen must have been rolling in his grave.  But, unlike most plays, this one got us to talking about it quite a bit—mostly with lead-ins, like “Can you believe . . . ?” and “What was he thinking when . . . ?” Unlike the vicious critic within me, the local reviewer was exceedingly kind.)

After the astounding breakfast the next day, we set out on foot for the Riverwalk. First walking away from downtown, we covered an hour in one direction. The lovely path with several gazebos and benches took us past the rowing house (with which we were familiar as our son was a member of the Rocket City Rowers). When we eventually turned around, we walked to downtown where we, once again, found a great restaurant, 212 Market Street. It was unfortunate, indeed, that our waiter was an older gentleman who didn’t quite know how to wait tables; instead of saying “Excuse me,” he poked my husband with his plate of food when Steve didn’t immediately become aware of his presence.

With protesting feet but fulfilled appetites, we began our return home to pick up the car.

What a lovely way to spend a weekend.

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