For more information on Arkansas travel, visit Escape to the Southeast!
There's a spicy-sweet smell wafting through the air in Asheville, NC. That's because the biggest gingerbread throw-down in the U.S. happens here at the Omni Grove Park Inn. Gingerbread artists from across the country converge here in November for the chance to have their creation take top prize in the National Gingerbread House Competition.
These ain't your grandma's gingerbread houses!
Contrary to the contest title, entries don't necessarily have to be "houses". And they don't have to be entirely gingerbread either, although each entry must be completely edible. Contestants may use things like candy, fondant, chocolate and other decorative or structural baking materials.
Judges evaluate every minute detail. They examine each piece with flashlights, rulers, measuring tapes – they even use drills, to ensure that no inedible substances are used. What are they looking for? Creativity, complexity, originality, difficulty and precision.
2013 marks the 21st year of the contest. Over 150 entries were submitted. On November 18th, prizes were awarded in four categories: child, youth, teen and adult. Here’s a look at all the winners.
Contest entries are on display at the Omni Grove Park Inn through January 2 and there’s no charge for admission! In addition to the gingerbread profusion, enjoy the beautiful holiday displays and festive music throughout The Grove. A day – or weekend – spent here is sure to boost your Christmas spirit.
Asheville is a cool town with a fun “mountain” vibe and plenty of holiday events and boutique shopping. For more information on Asheville and surrounding areas in North Carolina, visit EscapeToTheSoutheast.com.
Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia is a living time capsule of a thriving early American colony. No matter what season you come, you leave life as you know it behind. You become an 18th century traveler to the early years of the American Revolution, a time when our country's freedom and independence was taking shape. But visit during the month of December, and you'll step back into Christmas 1775. All of the original homes, shops, taverns and public places that stood more than 300 years ago are entirely decorated in a festive array. The city is taken over by the sights, smells and sounds of holidays past. By nightfall, each window is illuminated and the scenes glow in warm candlelight.
Colonial Williamsburg's calendar is filled with special events all throughout December. Here's just a sample:
- The Grand Illumination – This event on December 8th kicks off the season with a bang - literally. Spend the day strolling the city, taking in all the beautiful decorations and enjoying special dining events and performances as you wait for the evening’s highlight: a thrilling fireworks display.
- Christmas Decorations Walking Tour – A guided look at festive building exteriors and streets decked in their holiday splendor.
- Musical Performances – From symphonic orchestras to fiddle and banjo duos, from carols played on the glass armonica (an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin) to wassailing carolers, music of every kind is present throughout the village.
- Holiday Dining – Experience the flavors of an 18th century Christmas. All restaurants in the Village embrace the season, offering their own take on a colonial-style holiday feast, through food, entertainment and atmosphere.
- Various plays and reenactments, including the Dickens classic "A Christmas Carol" can be enjoyed throughout the season.
There are many more events, too numerous to list. See the whole itinerary at the Colonial Williamsburg Holiday calendar. Certain events require tickets which can be purchased online, but don’t wait. Popular events sell out quickly, as do the lodging options in town.
Start a new holiday tradition this year at Colonial Williamsburg.
Learn more about things to do in Virginia at EscapeToTheSoutheast.com!
Construction began in 1858 but was delayed due to the Civil War. It was completed in 1881, and this enormous structure is the largest hand-cut stone building in America. (It is the second largest in the world, surpassed only by the Kremlin.) It was built to house 250 patients but by 1950 it reportedly contained over 2400 patients! Conditions were horrible for the patients -- they were kept apart from families and friends, and so-called treatments included frontal lobotomies and electro-shock therapy. Thousands of deaths occurred here, including patients killing one another and employees of the asylum. And since many were buried right on the grounds, it’s no surprise that this historic psychiatric hospital is one of the most haunted places in America.
The facility stayed open until 1994 when it was forced to close due its deteriorating condition. It was bought in 2007, and today it not only offers ghost tours (including a Private Paranormal Tour) but also historic tours that sound fascinating. >> Tour information
I am hoping to spend my Halloween taking part in their Overnight Ghost Hunt this year. (If you can’t make it on Halloween, a few other dates are currently available.) On previous tours, visitors have reported seeing ghostly forms, lights and orbs, etc. and hearing gurneys being pushed back and forth, banging noises, voices, laughing, screams coming from the electro-shock area, and warnings to leave the building! You can go it alone, but I think I’ll stick with the group option. Not that I’m afraid of encountering spirits and experiencing paranormal activities in a dark, scary, oppressive asylum all by myself, mind you! It’s just that I think it would be even more fun sharing the experience with other like minded individuals…yeah, that’s it! (You can find more like-minded individuals on their Facebook page.)
In Enterprise, Alabama, at the intersection of College and Main Streets, there’s a 13-foot tall monument that holds above her head an object of great admiration and honor: a boll weevil. In further reverence to this shiny insect, there is a street called Boll Weevil Circle, a strip mall called the Boll Weevil Plaza and a Boll Weevil Inn. Your country music plays on radio station Weevil 101 (call letters WVVL). Why all this glory for what most consider an insidious pest?
Early in the 1900s, boll weevils invaded the U.S. from Mexico, eating up cotton crops wherever they spread. Rather than throw in the towel, farmers around Enterprise resisted – not by fighting the insects, but by planting crops the weevils wouldn’t eat. In short, they heeded the advice of agricultural scientists such as George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute and rebounded dramatically with crops of peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans.
In 1919, an Enterprise city councilman proposed honoring the boll weevil for forcing Enterprise to diversify its economy. A monument was dedicated that year. The monument is a classical Greek female figure standing on a pedestal and holding high a giant boll weevil. The inscription reads: “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the Herald of Prosperity, this monument was erected by the Citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”
Every October, the South Alabama town renews the tribute with a one-day Downtown Boll Weevil Fall Festival. This year, it will fall on October 19th and promises small-town fun at its best. For more information, visit the City of Enterprise, Alabama's website.
It's in the air: the smell of schnitzel and beer, the sound of the oompah-pah band. It's time for one of the oldest and best Oktoberfest celebrations in the United States in Helen, Georgia!
Helen is a charming alpine city tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Chattahoochee River. Although it's only an hour and a half drive northeast of Atlanta, Helen's Bavarian-styled buildings and cobblestone streets will have you thinking you somehow arrived in Germany.
Helen's famous Oktoberfest began on September 19 this year and runs through October 27. You can expect to see a wonderfully eclectic mix of people, ranging from octogenarians in lederhosen to hillbillies in overalls. The center of the festivities is the Festhalle, a walled pavillion with one side open to the river.
There are dozens of long tables for communal seating, concession areas, bars, a dance floor and a stage for the various bands. You can always expect some great music at the Helen Oktoberfest. (Check out the 2013 band schedule.)
As expected, there are lots of traditional German delicacies to enjoy such as pretzels, schnitzel and, of course, Bavarian beer which you can enjoy in their outdoor biergarten.
If you need a break from the beer and Bavarian revelry, Helen has plenty to offer, including a market square with galleries, shops and restaurants.
Nature lovers will enjoy canoeing, fishing, kayaking and tubing on the Chattahoochee River. Breathtaking Anna Ruby Falls, with its rare double waterfall, offers amazing photo ops. For something different, try a gold mine tour!
At this time of year, though, the main attraction in Helen is the Oktoberfest. Yes, it can be touristy and boisterous at times, but then again, that's kinda the reason it's such a fun event.So, polka your way down to beautiful Helen, Georgia! You'll not only experience an adorable Alpine village, but a wonderful Oktoberfest that guarantees a great vacation for the entire family.
Although you'll most likely drive into into Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in North Alabama, most of its visitors arrive by air.
That’s because most visitors here are birds – many, many birds. In fact, 285 species have been identified on this 35,000-acre tract along the Tennessee River between Decatur and Huntsville.
The most storied and conspicuous of Wheeler’s visitors are whooping cranes. These giants stand up to five feet tall and have wingspans of almost eight feet.
A few whoopers, North America’s most famous endangered bird, plus thousands of slightly shorter sandhill cranes spend winters at Wheeler. There are now a few hundred whooping cranes in existence thanks to human intervention and protection after the total population at one time plunged to only 15 birds.
The first whooping cranes found Wheeler thanks to a follow-the-leader game. A man disguised as a bird flying an ultra-light aircraft first led juvenile cranes to land here as part of Operation Migration, which established an eastern wintering ground in north Florida. Operation Migration teaches whoopers from central Wisconsin the route. In the program’s early years, they stopped at Wheeler. Now, mature birds bring youngsters with them.
Wheeler’s wildlife observation building offers a glass-enclosed room (spotting scopes included) that provides you a sheltered place to see a great variety of birds – migrating songbirds in spring, hummingbirds returning from Central America as summer approaches, warblers in October and thousands upon thousands of ducks and geese in autumn and winter. In addition, other wildlife is abundant, five hiking trails are open and fishing is good.
Mention the southern city of Charleston and most people will think of South Carolina. But West Virginia features a Charleston too, and it happens to be the state capitol and the largest city in WV (not to be confused with another WV city called Charles Town). Home to a variety of exciting cultural and recreational attractions, it's a city well worth visiting. And, if you're into history you can't miss the Cultural Center near the State Capitol building.
As you enter the Center, you are greeted by its Great Hall, a beautiful space with marble walls and floors and crystal chandeliers. There is a theater behind the great hall which features dance, music, plays, film festivals, and many other types of events. The center also houses reference and archive libraries, and a wonderful State Museum which was constructed to showcase the Mountain State’s historic, artistic, and cultural heritage. The Museum was recently renovated, and what an amazing job they did! It is like something you might expect to find in Washington, D.C. The layout makes it a pleasure – you don’t wander around aimlessly, hoping to catch something interesting. No, they have it ingeniously laid out so that you follow along chronologically, taking in their self-guided exhibits at your own pace. It is a great way to experience some of the pivotal moments in West Virginia’s history.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this experience, and also pleasantly surprised to find out that my visit was free! The museum is open to the public January through December, most days except major holidays, Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m.
I consider the State Museum at the West Virginia Cultural Center a must-see for anyone living or visiting the great state of West Virginia!
As people across the U.S. are all preparing for our Independence Day celebrations, it's the perfect time to think about one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. We all know Jefferson as the framer of the Declaration of Independence and one of our most beloved presidents. But not everyone knows he was also an inventor, a farmer and plantation owner, an architect, a scientist, meticulous record-keeper, and a voracious reader and writer. Fewer people know of his darker side as a slave owner and "baby-daddy" to several children he allegedly fathered with one of his slaves. To really get an intimate look into the man and his daily life, you have to pay a visit to Jefferson's beloved home, Monticello, located just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Jefferson built Monticello in 1775 based on Italian Renaissance design. The home contains many of his own design innovations and inventions. It is really fascinating to get a glimpse into Jefferson's daily life, his hobbies, his passions, and to understand what drove this brilliant man to be the patriot he became. A Day Pass to Monticello includes a guided tour of the home's first floor. Also included is the "Slavery at Monticello" tour Other tours are available for additional cost, including a "Behind the Scenes Tour", where you get to see the upstairs floor, a "Revolutionary Garden Tour". Visitors are also free to explore the grounds to get a real feel of what life was like on an 18th century plantation. The website is a treasure of information about Jefferson, Monticello and what you will experience during your visit. I highly recommend spending some time on the website to check what seasonal events may be going on and buy tickets to any tours you're interested in - tickets sell out quickly during peak travel season.
On my recent visit, I had a very personable and well-informed guide. She was a great story-teller and seemed to know everything about Jefferson, his home and his family. I was left with a newfound sense of admiration and respect for this larger-than-life American icon! Instead of taking the shuttle back to the orientation area, I decided to stroll along a gravel path to really take it all in. Along the way, I passed the cemetery where Thomas Jefferson is buried. A wrought iron fence keeps visitors from getting too close, but still, it was a surprisingly moving experience for me! I guess by that point I felt like I really knew the man!
For more information on planning your Virginia travel, visit www.EscapeToTheSoutheast.com.
Note: this is a repeat of last year's Mudbug Madness blog, but all the dates and details have been updated for 2013
Accordions and fiddles belt out a lively Zydeco rhythm and the smell of boiled crawfish fills the air. It's the annual Mudbug Madness Festival in Shreveport, LA and you don't want to miss it!
On May 23-26, this northern Louisiana city takes on a south LA flavor and celebrates the crawfish or "mudbug" with Cajun food and music that define its southern traditions.
Beginning in the eighties as a two-day street festival in downtown Shreveport, Mudbug Madness has become one of Louisiana’s largest and most popular festivals, featuring well-known Cajun, Zydeco, Blues and Jazz artists, fantastic authentic Cajun cuisine, crazy and quirky contests, and fun for all ages. Now a Shreveport institution, Mudbug Madness is nationally recognized as one of the Southeast Tourism Society’s Top 20 Events.
Hundreds of people will line up to buy their box o’ bugs, brimming with boiled crawfish, red potatoes and corn on the cob. The crawfish are cooked with a zesty blend of spices, a little bit hot and a little bit sweet. If you've never eaten a crawfish, friendly “natives” are quick to tell you how: twist, peel and bite! For those who don't desire a mess of mudbugs, the festival features some of the best jambalaya, crawfish étoufee, poboys, alligator, dirty rice and other dishes unique to the region.
After you’ve sampled all the food, the infectious beat of the music will likely draw you over to one of the three stages of live entertainment to clap, dance and sing along. This year’s event will feature performances by Louisiana favorites such as Grammy-winner Wayne Toups & ZyDeCajun, Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers.
While the crawfish is the star of this festival, the weekend is really about celebrating Louisiana’s rich cultural heritage and the people of Shreveport are proud to bring a little bit of south Louisiana up north.
Hernando, MS 38632
There's a unique theater in McMinnville, TN that began construction 3.5 million years ago. That's when geologists estimate Cumberland Caverns started forming in the limestone hills of Middle Tennessee. For most of those millions of years, the caverns have been silent, but when nature designs an acoustically pure and perfect place, you have to find a way to honor it.
Once a month, 333 feet below the ground, the otherwise perpetual quiet of Cumberland Caverns gives way to an amazing aural experience in the "Bluegrass Underground", a live concert series featuring some of the country's biggest acts in bluegrass music. Fans of this style of music are sure to know the stellar names that appear on the stony stage but really, it's a must-see for any music lover, as the bluegrass blends with an eclectic mix of "Americana". There's truly something here for everyone and the quality of the sound will blow you away.
Your experience at Bluegrass Underground begins as a Cumberland Cavern tour guide leads your descent into the subterranean world, taking you past underground pools, waterfalls and stunning cave formations to the stage where you will enjoy music in a venue unlike any other you are likely to ever experience!
When you think "cave", you may think "dark and creepy", but The Volcano Room, where the concerts are given, are anything but. The musical acts are well-lit and the natural stone walls create a shadowy and ethereal beauty. In fact, the theater won a 2013 Emmy Award for lighting.
To say that this is a very cool venue is true in more ways than one: the cavern temperature is always a temperate 56 degrees (so don't forget your sweater). And don’t worry about silencing your cellphone…you won’t find any service here.
The Bluegrass Underground program is broadcast on AM radio station WSM in Nashville, also home to that other famous country music show, the Grand Ole Opry. Performances are streamed world-wide on wsmonline.com. But if you can make it in person, you will experience an event you will never forget.
Take a look at this clip of the PBS special on the Bluegrass Underground:
Elkins probably isn’t what you’d expect a little mountain town in West Virginia to be...
For a long time, it was a railroad town, but the railroad left in 1997, abandoning a 23-acre rail yard on Main Street.
What’s a town to do?
It has taken years, a lot of vision and tons of work, but Elkins is practically the complete package today that combines the natural beauty of West Virginia, art and all types of music – even some classical music at times.
Elkins is a certified West Virginia Arts Community and has been named one of the 100 Best Art Towns in America. Focal points include the Randolph County Community Arts Center – where you can enjoy everything from bluegrass icons "The Seldom Scene" to a Celtic concert to a cello and flute duo – and the Augusta Heritage Center, which is dedicated to traditional folk cultures and offers nationally respected week-long workshops focused on art, music, dance and crafts.
American popular music (country, gospel, bluegrass and more) is the draw at the 527-seat American Music Theater directly in the Elkins rail yard and at the Gandy Dancer Theatre.
And while the commercial train operation is gone, scenic train rides into the mountains are a major attraction here. Among them are the various excursions of West Virginia Mountain Rail Adventures restored World War 2 era trains such as the Cheat Mountain Salamander and the New Tygart Flyer.
If you're a nature buff, don't miss the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. Located in the Monongahela National Forest, this 10,215-acre area is one of the few true wilderness areas on the East Coast. You'll find unsurpassed scenery along rugged trails as you view birds and animal-life, pick wild blueberries and climb upward to an altitude of 4,000 feet. The reward is the view of Dolly Sod's wide and wild landscape.
Beautiful nature, a thriving arts and music scene and living history along the rails make Elkins a wonderful place for a relaxing getaway you won't soon forget.
If you're planning a vacation in West Virginia or any of the USA's Southeast states, please visit our website for lots of great travel information. You can also request a free copy of our "Escape to the Southeast" Travel Guide, the official guide of the Southeast. Order it today!