Huntsville - a touch of southern comfort.
The city of Huntsville, nestled amongst the hills of north Alabama, is certainly not the backwater southern town that I perhaps expected. It manages to combine a delightful historical old-town with a state of the art high-tech modern city built around the U.S. space programme.
Huntsville is nicknamed ‘The Rocket City’ due to its impact in helping to launch the US space programme in the early 1950s. With the help of a number of notable German rocket scientists brought to the U.S. after WWII, Hunstville became the key centre for the U.S. Army’s rocket programme and the nation’s space programme.
It is no surprise therefore that the major tourist attraction in Huntsville is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which houses one of the world’s largest collection of space flight hardware. It is also home to Space Camp which offers a range of training and educational programmes for children and adults alike.
The centre also plays host to a number of annual events including a Moon Buggy Race in which teams from around the globe race around a simulated moon-surface track in human powered buggies. The race was in full flow during my visit and the car-park was full of enthusiastic amateur mechanics starting to live their dream.
Evidence of the affluence which came with the space programme can be seen all around, but particularly in the carpet like lawns that surround the highways around and in the city.
Stepping into the historic old-town of Huntsville is like taking a conveyer belt back to the 19th century. Strict local laws require that the look and feel of the neighbourhood is kept in this historical perspective and it is a wonderful and peaceful area to explore with quaint (some would say twee) shops and period buildings. A visit to the Alabama Constitution Village, which is a sort of living museum, is recommended for some excellent insight into 19th century southern life. Groups can pre-book a 'Mischief and Mayhem' walking tour which is conducted by guides in period costume and details some of the more salacious history of the city with plenty of humour.
Just a short drive out of town you will find the Huntsville Botanical Gardens. Botanical Gardens are not necessarily my first port of call but I was blown away by the relaxed easy going approach to garden presentation and the first rate visitor facilities, which make it an excellent day out for the family. There are plenty of interesting and stimulating areas for children and the flora is displayed in an artistic but unpretentious way.
I was only there for a day but Huntsville has plenty to occupy the visitor for a couple of days and the Space Camp looks like a must for any budding astronauts.
Interesting fact – it was originally named Twickenham; but was renamed after a rise in anti-English sentiments due to the war of 1812.