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What's Cool
Searching for places to beat the heat in the South during the dog days of summer

More than 15,000 animals fill the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, including sharks, stingrays, piranhas and endangered sea turtles. Many can be seen from within the walk-through Caribbean Reef tunnel. /The Audubon Institute photo
By Lynn Grisard Fullman
Published: Jul/Aug 2000

If soaring temperatures have thrust you into air conditioning, come out, come out, wherever you are because cool Southern places await you.

You can escape searing temperatures by retreating into a cool cave, sauntering into a mist-filled aquarium, basking on a breeze-blown beach or hiking behind a plunging waterfall.

The sultry dog days of summer can be conquered. Pack an ice-filled cooler with soft drinks and head to these cool places.

Icy and frosty

The cool setting inside the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans makes a great escape from summer’s brutal heat.

Cool waters – more than a million gallons – and some 15,000 animals fill the aquarium, which has been ranked one of the nation’s best.

On the Mississippi River bank, the aquarium hosts daily “expeditions” into major aquatic habitats of North and South America, including the Caribbean Sea, the Amazon rainforest, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. You might spot rare paddlefish, swamp-dwelling alligators or Gulf sea turtles in exhibits that closely reflect the beauty and diversity of wild habitats. Then cool off while viewing presentations at the adjacent Entergy IMAX® Theater, where the screen is as tall as a 5 1/2-story building.

In the Crescent City, you’ll find relief from the heat at a snowball stand, where a clear block of ice is put into an ice-shaving machine that whirs and chops before spilling cool, fluffy, icy blasts into a cup. (Unlike snow cones made from regular crushed ice, this refreshment is fine and snow-like.) Next comes the rich syrup–flavors like strawberry, grape, vanilla or nectarine – that is poured over shavings before being topped with extras such as cherries or whipped cream. Now this is cool, and New Orleans has tons of these stands scattered throughout the city, from Uptown to the Mid-City area.

For details on other cool places in New Orleans, contact the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-672-6124 or (504) 566-5011. Visit online at www.neworleanscvb.com.

Island escape

Ship Island is a cool ferry ride – and a dozen miles – off the Mississippi coast.

Often likened to the Bahamas or the Virgin Islands because of its tropical feel, West Ship Island is an arc of white sandy beach where the Mississippi Sound meets the clear, green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. On one of the few barrier islands virtually untouched by human development, you can spread a picnic, dip into soothing water and escape summer’s heat.

You begin your island visit with a 50-minute boat ride from Gulfport. (Unless you have your own boat, getting to the island means taking the ferry which departs daily March–October from Gulfport at 9 a.m. and noon, then returns at 2:30 and 5 p.m.)

Along the way, as the spray cools your face, you’ll likely spot pelicans, sea gulls and migrant birds. Bottle-nosed dolphins often skim alongside the boat and almost smile for your camera. When the ferry docks at West Ship Island, you’ll step onto a pier that connects with a one-third-mile- long boardwalk.

A pristine beach on the Gulf of Mexico awaits at the boardwalk’s south end, where the setting is complete with colorful umbrellas and beach chairs available for rent. On the island, you can go swimming, hiking, beach combing, shelling, birding and fishing. A snack bar, beach store, outdoor showers, bathhouse, restrooms and picnic pavilions (available on a first-come basis) are nearby, making certain that man-made comforts are not as far away as they seem.

For additional information, call Ship Island (1-800-388-3290) or visit online at www.msshipisland.com; the Mississippi Gulf Coast (1-800-237-9493), www.gulfcoast.org/mgccvb.

Cool caverns

Visitors to Blanchard Springs Caverns in Mountain View, Ark., marvel at incredible formations. Several tours are offered, including a Wild Cave adventure. And the temperature is always 58 degrees. /A.C. Haralson, Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism photo
On a hot day, venture to Blanchard Springs Caverns in Mountain View, Ark., where the cave temperature year-round is 58 degrees.

Blanchard offers guided tours into developed sections and undeveloped reaches of the federally protected underground system. A multi-level cavern complex, Blanchard has two upper levels open for guided tours along paved and lighted trails.

Operated by the National Forest Service, Blanchard, which has been ranked one of North America’s top 10 caves, remains a “living” cave (formations are growing) after 27 seasons of visitation, thanks to constant environmental care.

You’ll be cool when you traipse developed trails that offer access to incredible formations, including the Dripstone Trail’s 1,150-foot-long Cathedral Room, which is among North America’s most decorated underground rooms. The one-half mile Dripstone passes through the oldest and most beautiful rooms in the cave.

On a lower level, the Discovery Trail covers 1.2 miles and includes almost 700 stair steps. A giant flowstone, underground stream, unique formations and the natural entrance to the cave are highlights of this route.

When descending for the recently opened Wild Cave Tour, you will climb up and down steep slopes, crawl through areas with low ceilings, scramble over large boulders and experience a three- to four-hour physical workout. Your reward will be spectacular cave views never before seen by the general public. Among the finds is the Titans, a passage filled with a cluster of missile-shaped formations. You need not be an Olympic athlete to tackle this tour, but you’ll need to be in good physical condition. You furnish hiking shoes and the Forest Service will provide helmets, lights, gloves and kneepads. The Wild Cave adventure currently is offered only on Saturdays and Sundays. Reservations are required.

The cool waters that cascade out of the cave are the perfect temperature for trout, and you can angle for them in Mirror Lake, which is fed by the underground stream that emerges from the cave. People fish from the banks or from a wooden boardwalk. No boats are allowed on the lake, and anglers need a state tag to fish.

For more information on Blanchard, which is 90 miles north of Little Rock, and other caves in the Ozark National Forest, contact Blanchard Springs Caverns at 1-888-757-2246 or www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ozark/.

Splish, splash

A trek behind a misty waterfall should cool you off on a simmering day, and you can do just that at Fall Creek Falls State Resort Park, which is located about 18 miles west of Pikeville, Tenn.

You can bike to the falls along a three-mile-long paved path or hike through an oak and hickory forest that gives way to gorges with tulip poplar and hemlock. Once you reach the 256-foot falls, walk behind the mist and let the coolness shroud your scorching skin as you marvel at the highest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains.

Stay overnight in the resort’s motel, cabins or campsites, splash in the swimming pool, let children cavort in a wading pool or try a fishing boat, canoe or pedal boat.

For additional details, contact the resort at (423) 881-3297.

The cool earth

You can beat the heat six miles north of Valley Head in northeast Alabama where you can be shrouded in fall-like temperatures inside Sequoyah Caverns.

In a multi-room cave stretching almost one-quarter mile inside the base of Sand Mountain, you will find still pools of mineral water. After touring the cave, you are welcome to spread a picnic on the grounds, roam the acreage, fish or camp.

For details on Sequoyah Caverns, call 1-800-843-5098 or (256) 635-0024, or visit www.sequoyahcaverns.com; DeKalb County Tourist Association, (256) 845-3957; or Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association, 1-800-648-5381 or (256) 350-3500.

History confirms that sultry days of summer eventually do fade into cool days of fall. But, until temperatures drop, you can fight the heat in some of the South’s coolest places. But, first you must leave the air conditioning and pile into your car for an adventure to places where temperatures have been squelched.

Lynn Grisard Fullman is a contributor from Birmingham, Ala.


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