28 Aug Deep South Road Trip with Trek America
When Trek America invited me to explore the Deep South on one of their epic road trips, I didn’t have to think twice.
My vigorous “yes” may not surprise you but it shocked me. I’m usually not a big fan of organised tours. I like being in charge if my schedule and being able to retreat inside my hermitty shell whenever necessary. I’m not an introvert by any stretch but I do need a lot of alone time to be a fully functioning member of society, i.e. someone who doesn’t feel the urge to bite strangers when they ask how I make money or if I have a real job.
But Trek America seemed different. They only host small groups and work plenty of free time into the schedule. Their ethos also aligned well with my eco-friendly values, from hiring local guides to booking shared accommodation. Oh, and all that made their prices very reasonable which is a major bonus for us young travellers.
Long story short, I packed my suitcase and set out on a 10-day journey with seven people I’d never met before. This wasn’t your standard Trek because all of us are bloggers – mysterious creatures who see life through viewfinders and Instagram filters. We did get up to some crazy stuff you wouldn’t find on a regular itinerary, but if you’re considering booking a Trek America holiday this writeup should still give you a good idea of what to expect.
1. Birmingham, Alabama
We started our trip with a long drive from New Orleans to Birmingham. Our direct flight from London to New Orleans had been relaxing, but British Airways’ large film selection kept me awake for much of it so I was glad I could catch up on some sleep. Yes, I’m one of those people that can fall asleep anywhere. I realise that makes me unlikeable but please resist the urge. My arms break out in a rash whenever I drink wine, so the universe is fair.
I was glad Birmingham was on the itinerary because truth be told, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see it otherwise. It turns out that would have been a big shame! The city may not be beautiful in the traditional sense but it holds the key to America’s civil rights movement.
To learn as much as possible in the 24 hours we had there we decided to go on a little tour with Zyp BikeShare. It’s one of the best ways to explore the city – not to mention healthy and sustainable! We visited several important sites including the 16th Street Baptist Church, the city hall and spoke at length about Dr Martin Luther King.
Much of what we discussed was heartbreaking, from children not being allowed to play with those of a different skin colour to peaceful protesters being viciously attacked by the police. Perhaps the most terrifying part was realising that while we’ve come a long way, many of those sentiments still ring true. After all, not a week goes by without news of police brutality toward people of colour – this isn’t distant history.
But don’t worry, visiting Birmingham is not a depressing experience. The city has a thriving food and bar scene, which is something you should definitely take advantage of when visiting. Our group ended up having dinner at the upscale Bottega. The restaurant specialises in Italian fare made with locally sourced ingredients, and has standout vegetarian dishes like heirloom tomato salad and stuffed zucchini blossoms.
There was a family sitting to our left celebrating a petite blonde lady’s birthday. Emboldened by a few cocktails we all decided to sing Happy Birthday to her and instead of being mortified, she came over and shared her cake with us. This was our first proper introduction to Southern hospitality but it wouldn’t be the last.
After chatting for a few minutes she let us in on a little secret. Literally – she was the owner of a little secret bar called The Marble Ring and invited us to head there for a drink after our meal. Naturally we obliged and I’m so glad we did. There was no way we would have found the entrance which turned out to be a disused phonebooth tucked behind Hot Diggity Dogs. The speakeasy had nu jazz blasting from the speakers as Gatsbyesque waiters shimmied across the room. Their cocktail and craft beer selection would have kept us busy all night long if we didn’t have an early start planned for the next day…
2. Fort Payne, Alabama
After spending a night at the fancy Homewood Suites in Downtown Birmingham, we headed out to Fort Payne for a surprise activity. If you’ve skipped ahead and watched my vlog below (do it!) you’ll already know what it was, but if you didn’t here’s a hint: it involved strapping a harness to my torso and pretending to be Spiderman. We went rappelling down a cliff!
Many of the other bloggers were rightly a tad unsure whether this was a good idea or not. Me? I almost squealed with joy. If you follow me on Instagram you’ve no doubt realised that I literally like to live life on the edge, posing next to any steep rock face I can find. So taking a – controlled – tumble down one felt like the logical next step.
After a brief moment of panic as I glanced down at the ground, I quickly got into the groove. I was far from graceful but girl, was it exhilarating!
Famished after all that physical activity – we’d also decided to quickly trek down to a waterfall – we headed to a family eatery called Wildflower. Little did I know that it would become one of the cutest restaurants I’ve ever visited. From their famous tomato pie to my first taste of sweet tea, everything was perfect but the best part was the decor.
The walls were covered in colourful knickknacks, clearly collected over a long period of time and arranged with equal parts love and madness. I say madness in the nicest way possible, like a mad scientist or an old lady who owns thirteen cats.
There’s only so much I can convey through words so please watch my Alabama vlog below to get a better idea of what my time in Fort Payne and Birmingham was really like:
3. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
The next day we woke up in Gatlinburg. If you’ve never heard of it, I’d describe it as Banff meets Orlando. If you’ve never heard of those either it’s basically a quirky mountain town full of kitschy amusement parks, shops and restaurants. While that may not sound flattering suffice it to say that it was one of my favourite stops of the entire trip.
We arrived in Gatlinburg the night before but didn’t get up to much aside from a dinner at Loco Burro, a Tex-Mex rooftop restaurant. The next morning we stumbled onto the street jet lagged and tired, only to be met with howling gales going 80 miles per hour.
Our original plan was hiking but, rubbing dust out of our eyes, we collectively decided it wasn’t meant to be. Instead we headed to Crockett’s Breakfast Camp eager to make an alternative plan. Before I tell you what that is, please allow me a few moments to gush over the food.
If you like breakfast foods – anything from donuts to omelettes and giant cathead biscuits – this is your new favourite place. It will forever live in my heart as the place where I tried grits for the very first time. Oh. My. World. I think I was the only person in the group that really liked them, but I liked them enough for us all combined.
Instead of hiking we ended up wandering through mirror mazes, go carting, mini golfing, shopping for quirky jewellery and eating a whole lot. But most importantly, a group of us shelled out way too much money the hilariously staged old timey photo you can see above. When in Gatlinburg…
4. Nashville, Tennessee
Our one day in Nashville felt like a real whirlwind. How do you do this world-famous music city justice in just 24 hours? It turns out it’s not possible and I feel like we barely scratched the surface. Not because we didn’t do enough – Nashville is just the kind of place that deserves one’s undivided attention.
Our day in Nashville coincided with total systemic overload on my part. I was still jet lagged, sniffly and in desperate need of a lie down. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my time there but I did take it easy in the evening. Like, half-a-beer home-before-ten kind of easy.
If you decide to book a Trek America trip after reading this article, here’s my top tip: listen to your body. No matter how keen you are to explore it’s ok to sit a few adventures out. Travel shouldn’t be an excuse for treating your body poorly, tempting as it may be sometimes.
So what did we do with our time in Nashville? We spent it exploring the music scene, of course. We visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and even got to sit down with a local songwriter to write our very own song! If you want to hear it you should definitely watch the video below – it’s called ‘Where’s Kristabel?’ and I’m pretty sure it’s going to catapult us to worldwide fame. Pretty sure.
5. Memphis, Tennessee
Let me preface this section with a short word on personal safety. When I told people I was planning a trip to Memphis, nearly everyone warned me it was dangerous. “There’s a lot of crime in the city, just so you know,” they would say.
Now, I’m never one to ignore other people’s well-intentioned advice and spending two days there hardly makes me an expert. But I did feel incredible safe and welcome throughout my time in Memphis. In other words – if you’re letting fear hold you back from visiting please don’t worry.
Leaving Memphis off your Deep South road trip itinerary would be a huge mistake in my opinion. You can feel this unique vibe pulsating in the air, owing to the larger-than-life characters that call this city home.
If you like music – who doesn’t? – you’re going to find it hard not to like Memphis. Ever heard of Elvis Presley? The king of rock’n’roll lived and died there! You can even visit his old house while you’re in the area. Graceland is the second most visited house in America, right after the White House, and well worth a visit.
Continuing our grand tour d’Elvis (is it just me or does that sound dirty?) we headed to Sun Studio. Artists like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Elvis recorded there in the 1950s and just standing there feels like a thrilling journey back in time.
While you’re in Memphis don’t miss Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum which grew around it. This is where Dr Martin Luther King was shot on 4 April 1968 and while it doesn’t make for a cheery pitstop, it’s definitely one you should make.
If you only have time to visit one more neighbourhood make it Cooper and Young. It’s hip, LGBTQIA-friendly and full of cosmopolitan foodie joints. We got an entire free day in Memphis so Kara and I made the most of it by gloriously overindulging on brunch and $2.50 Bloody Marys. Want to know where to find these? Watch the video below!
6. Natchez, Mississippi
I was very sad to leave Tennessee but our next destination quickly won me over. Natchez is truly the Southern belle of Mississippi. Its combination of historic mansions and candy-floss sunsets made me so trigger happy that I probably have as many photos of Natchez as I do of Nashville.
That’s not to say Nashville is somehow superior to Natchez, but let’s be honest – this is probably the first time you’ve ever heard of the place. Not because I’m Nellie Bly incarnate but because Natchez is simply not that well-known outside the US, perhaps even outside of Mississippi.
We started the day off by touring around Monmouth House. The early 19th-century antebellum mansion looks absolutely spectacular – you can have a better look at it in my video below – but admiring it made me feel a little conflicted.
It’s an emotion you’re likely to feel throughout your time in the Deep South. Yes, it’s home to some of the most beautiful architecture in the country. But the way in which those mansions were built is far from beautiful.
Don’t let that stop you from visiting this region of America, but do view everything you see there in context. The debate about Confederate monuments is very heated right now which makes this a great time to visit. I’m of the opinion that racist statues have no place in our society and the best way to make up your own mind is to go directly to the source.
That’s enough about that – I don’t want you to think that my time in Natchez was one big historical revisionism thought experiment. On the contrary, we spent our 24 hours in the city leisurely wandering through the streets.
But that’s not all! We also sampled lots of local craft beers and finished the night playing darts in Saloon, a local biker bar. Yes, I wore that pink dress and a bow in my hair… why’d you ask? My video from Natchez isn’t live yet but if you’d like to watch it just subscribe to my YouTube channel!
7. New Orleans, Louisiana
If I had to pick my favourite stop of the entire road trip, it would have to be New Orleans. There is something incredibly unique about the city – a haphazard mix of architectural styles, cuisines and languages that makes you feel like you’re straddling the line between the past and present.
Have you heard of Trek America? Would you be interested in going on one of their trips? I’d love to know what you think!
Disclaimer: Many thanks to Trek America for hosting me on their annual #iTrekHere trip. I had a blast and all opinions are my own, as always. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to all the lovely bloggers and YouTubers who were on the trip – Charlotte, Jordan, Kara, Kristabel, Megs, Sam and Sophie. Do check them out!