|Published May/Jun 2006|
Huntsville’s multi-faceted attractions include a space center, gardens, living history village and children’s museums.
By Elaine Warner
|untsville calls itself “America’s Space Capital,” as the U.S. Space and Rocket Center makes this town in northern Alabama its home. But families looking for a quick getaway this spring or summer will find a variety of attractions that are out of this world.
America’s Space Capital
After World War II, German rocket scientists were brought to the Redstone Arsenal to work on America’s missile and rocket program. The results of their work put men on the moon and sent exploration vehicles to other planets. These accomplishments are featured at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, One Tranquility Base off Interstate 565.
The amount of time you spend at the center is only limited by your interest. Whether you want to pore over graphics or be a vicarious astronaut in the spinning G-Force Accelerator, it’s all here. Even the youngest child will find learning activities and opportunities to work off excess energy.
Possibly the most important artifact is the Apollo 16 Command Module from America’s penultimate moon mission. Center spokesman Al Whitaker says, “When you realize that the calculator on your desk has more computer power than that module, it makes it even more amazing.”
Outside, among dozens of rockets and missiles, you’ll find an actual Saturn V like the one that carried astronauts to the moon. Longer than a football field, it was the largest, most powerful rocket ever launched. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center highlights some of America’s finest achievements. Don’t miss it.
Cradle of the state
Since its beginning, Huntsville has been a progressive town. It was here that territorial leaders met in 1819 to draw up the state’s constitution. Several territorial-period buildings have been reconstructed on their original sites and make up Constitution Village, 109 Gates Ave., a living history museum. See how wool is spun into thread or watch a basket maker plying her craft beneath a massive magnolia. Visit the blacksmith’s shop or the furniture maker (who could also knock together a quick casket). It’s easy to forget that this clever, re-created village is in the heart of a modern city.
But it’s a modern city with a real regard for the past. There are several charming historic districts in town and a walking tour brochure from the Huntsville/Madison County Visitor Center, 500 Church St., will guide you past elegant antebellum mansions and ornate Victorian painted ladies.
Especially for the youngsters
At EarlyWorks Children’s Museum, 404 Madison St., children can rummage in drawers to find items that would have been familiar to Alabama’s earliest Native American inhabitants, sit under a talking tree to hear stories of the past or climb onto a keelboat to learn about life on Alabama’s waterways. You’ll have difficulty dragging your children away from all the fun but entice them with the promise of more fun at Sci-Quest, 102-D Wynn Drive, the hands-on Science Center.
From exhibits on magnets, gravity and pendulums to displays on the formation of sand dunes and tornados, Sci-Quest covers a lot of territory. Hands-on apparatus and computer screens get kids involved in learning. One of the most popular areas is the exhibit on human physiology. You may be grossed out, but your kids won’t be. If the Burp Man or the Vomit Center is too much for you, you can always play the giant “Operation” game.
The great outdoors
Expect the usual beautiful flowers and expert landscaping at the Huntsville Botanical Garden (4747 Bob Wallace Ave. off I-565), but be prepared for a big bonus. Their brand-new Nature Center and Children’s Garden opens June 2. Marketing director Sharon Jordan says, “I want to get kids out from behind video screens and into nature.” This should do it.
The Nature Center will feature a 9,000- square-foot butterfly enclosure with more than 30 species of North American butterflies, hummingbirds, quail, a 12-foot waterfall, a turtle pond and a frog bog.
Outside, the two-acre Children’s Garden has eight areas including a Dinosaur Garden complete with ancient plants, a brachiosaurus bridge and a “dino-dig” area for budding paleontologists. In the Space Garden, a real rocket has been transformed into a clock that shoots spurts of water to mark the hours, while inside a space station test module, children learn how food may be grown for space adventurers on long voyages.
For a more rugged adventure, head for Monte Sano State Park, 5105 Nolan Ave. Its 20 miles of hiking and biking trails offer gorgeous panoramic views of the Tennessee River Valley. You’ll also find renovated, rustic cabins, campsites and picnic spots.
While you’re in the area, visit Burritt on the Mountain, a living museum, at 3101 Burritt Drive. This attraction includes the Burritt Mansion and a collection of restored buildings representing area farms between 1850 and 1900. Even the farm animals are vintage breeds.
If you’re a cave connoisseur, a 40-minute drive east of Huntsville will take you to Cathedral Caverns State Park off U.S. Highway 72. See Goliath, billed as the world’s largest stalactite/stalagmite column, a large frozen waterfall and flowstone wall.
A trip to Huntsville is a multi-dimensional adventurefrom the depths of the earth to the outer reaches of space.
Elaine Warner is a contributor from Edmond, Okla.
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