Road trip around a state steeped in music, history, and culture, rich in natural beauty, and bursting with authentic southern hospitality.

This is a feature from Issue 7 of Charitable Traveller. Click to read more from this issue.

In the Deep South, all roads lead to Alabama, which lies at its heart. And while you’ll find some as you expected – passing white picket fence towns with porch swings a-plenty – others lead to places you never knew existed, from the lush foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the sugary shores of the Gulf.

A road trip is the best way to uncover the soul of Alabama, stopping in cosmopolitan cities, charming small towns and stunning wild spots to soak up home-grown music, famous southern hospitality and trail-blazing history. Fly direct to New Orleans, Nashville, or Atlanta from the UK and you can pick up a car or take a connecting flight into one of Alabama’s regional airports.

A musical odyssey

Close to the border with equally musical neighbour Tennessee is a place as legendary as it is off the beaten track. Mentioned in Lynrd Skynrd’s famous song Sweet Home Alabama, the small city of Muscle Shoals was the hit recording capital of the world in the 1960’s – where stars like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and the Rolling Stones recorded tracks. Close by is the home of W.C Handy, ‘Father of the blues’ and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, which honours 1,200 Alabama musicians, ranging from country star Emmylou Harris to funk and soul band the Commodores. 
From here, head south to the Jazz Music Hall of Fame in Birmingham and then state capital Montgomery and it’s Hank Williams Museum, where you can see his famous blue Cadillac and hear pioneering country classics, like Hey Good Lookin’.
If you prefer live music to museums, then you’re spoilt for choice, from bluegrass and jazz in Humphrey’s, Huntsville to a mish-mash of classic tunes in fun-time bar Florabama, Orange Beach.

Trailing legend

Follow in the footsteps of history on the Civil Rights Trail which links to all surrounding states. Highlights include Birmingham, where the Civil Rights Institute gives an overview of the fight for racial justice and equality. Afterwards, cross the street to visit the 16th Street Baptist Church, where a terrorist bomb tragically killed four young black girls, but gospel choirs still sing loud and proud.
Montgomery is the site of the tiny First White House of the Confederacy, but it’s the Rosa Parks Museum that inspires, dedicated to the woman who refused to give her bus seat to a white man and sparked a bus boycott which led to racial integration on public transport. Next, head to Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a civil rights protest march was met with police brutality but awakened the world to racial injustice, leading to a new law on voting rights and eventually paving the way for Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.
Literature lovers should detour to Monroeville, home of author Harper Lee and inspiration for her seminal novel To Kill a Mockingbird.  Visit the tiny courthouse, which set designers for the film adaptation used as their blueprint, and don’t miss the exhibition on the author.
If you’re more of a science geek, you should visit the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, where you can follow the space race to a glimpse of the future, experience G-force and see a Saturn V Rocket – one of only three in the world.

Take the wild way

Just 90 minutes’ drive from Atlanta is the highest point in Alabama, Mount Cheaha. Hit a hiking or mountain biking trail to gaze across Talladega National Forest’s ocean of oak, hickory and pine trees, which comes ablaze in the autumn, or just enjoy driving past dramatic outcrops, rolling hills and seemingly endless green horizons.
If you’re coming from Tennessee, start in Fort Payne and visit DeSoto State Park, famous for its rushing waterfalls and carpets of wildflowers, or the Little River Canyon National Preserve, where dramatic bluffs drop more than 600 feet, attracting hikers, anglers, and paddlers. West of here is Lake Guntersville State Park, where you can spot bald eagles soaring over the lake, or soar over the forest yourself, on the hair-raising Screaming Eagle zipline.
Now turn south to low country and the Mobile Tensaw Delta. This green maze of waterways was described by one naturalist as the ‘American Amazon’. Guided kayak tours take you along serene creeks and through atmospheric swamps of submerged cypress trees, home to lurking alligators and majestic birds of prey. From here, head to Gulf State Park to spot pelicans and nesting turtles.

Just coasting along

For fun in the sun, the Gulf Coast of Alabama is easily reached from Florida. The resorts of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach comprise 32 miles of pristine white sand beaches backed by a few condos and waving sea oats. Fun hang-outs include LuLu’s, owned by Jimmy buffet’s sister and famous for seafood and live music. Or head to Gulf State Park to wander peaceful trails through pine forests or hire a paddle board and take to the sparkling sea.
Beached out? Follow the coast into Mobile Bay, stopping at cute towns Daphne and Fairhope to browse the boutique shops and art galleries lining flower-lined streets, have lunch in a swanky restaurant or quaint café and choose which idyllic cottage or waterside mansion you’d like to live in.
Last stop is laid-back Mobile, hope of the first ever Mardi Gras in the U.S. (and a museum dedicated to it). Grab a cold beer on a wrought iron balcony in the historic district before enjoying a southern meal of fried oysters and hush puppies.

This is a feature from Issue 7 of Charitable Traveller. Click to read more from this issue.