NASHVILLE FOR FAMILIES:

Music, Meerkats, Motorcars Are Just a Few of Fun Things to Enjoy

By Karen Rubin and Eric Leiberman

Nashville is world-renowned as Music City, and the downtown brims with honky tonks, the Ryman Auditorium, Printer’s Alley and other live venues as well as museums paying homage to musical heritage.

But outside the downtown are many intriguing music venues that are attractions in themselves, along with a marvelous selection of interesting and fun attractions that offer a veritable smorgasbord of family delights.

The place to experience music with your older teen is Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Café, where locals and visitors-in-the-know alike have the thrill of experiencing songwriters performing original material in an intimate “in the round setting”.

Innocuously situated in a shopping strip, sandwiched between the Shell Station and McDonald’s just a few miles away from the downtown Honky Tonks, the Bluebird Café is becoming iconic, much as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and for the same reason.

The music is pure, the audience is rapt, silent (actually, “Shhhh” is the Bluebird’s motto), sitting around the four musicians who perform facing each other in a circle in the center.

Originally opened in 1982 as a casual restaurant, Amy Kurland began to offer some live music. The Bluebird has evolved into a music club first and a restaurant second.

We arrive half-way through the first set of the night – all the tables are filled, and we find a seat in one of the pews (no charge). People listen reverently, barely even moving, while four performers, who sit facing each other in a circle, take turns.

Early shows have no cover, though there is a $7 minimum charge for food and drink (not hard to meet); late shows have a cover charge that goes to the entertainers.

Late shows feature established hit songwriters while earlier shows feature the songwriters of tomorrow, though you may well get to see someone who is a pro.

The autographed photos on the wall of people who have performed at the Bluebird Café are a veritable who’s who, such as Garth Brooks who played there before he was discovered, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Christopher Cross, Art Garfunkle, Amy Lou Harris. The Bluebird Café was even the setting for the movie “The Thing Called Love,” starring River Phoenix.

A rapt audience listens as four singer/songwriters perform their own music at the Bluebird Café(© 2007 Karen Rubin).

It is amazing, given the stature of the Bluebird Café in the musical community in Music City just how small it is – only 21 tables – but this is what makes for the intimate experience that is so much of its charm and what makes the experience so special.

That and the serendipitous quality of never knowing if you will be seeing a future star.

There are shows seven days a week: Tuesday through Saturday, it is the circle-in-the-round format; on Sundays, the first show features songwriters who have auditioned, and then in the second show, features more established songwriters; Monday is an Open Mike, where people come in “off the street” to sign up for a turn.

They now take reservations (call early for “big” shows). (Bluebird Café, 4104 Hillsboro Road, 615-383-1461,www.bluebirdcafe.com; click the link to see who is playing.).

Grand Ole’ Opry

Of all the music places, the most famous is the legendary Grand Ole’ Opry, which began as a radio show in 1925 and for a generation, from 1947 to 1974, was broadcast from the famous tabernacle of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville.

But the Ryman, which literally was built as a tabernacle in 1897, was not air conditioned, and even the most devout music lovers found it oppressive in the summer, while the demand for seats outgrew the hall. So the Gaylord company built a brand new venue for the Grand Ole’ Opry at its amusement park, Opryland, just outside of town (on land, we learned, that was originally John Harding’s plantation, the scion of Belle Meade).

The amusement park is no more – in its place is the Opry Mills, a retail, dining, entertainment complex with over 200 outlet and specialty retailers, themed dining and entertainment venues, all under one roof (much like Sawgrass Mills, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). One of these fantastic entertainment venues is the Grand Ole’ Opry, which faithfully mimics the tabernacle look of its matriarch, the Ryman, so you sit on vast pews, and the feel of that Mother Church of Country Music.

It also houses the Grand Ole’ Opry Museum, a free attraction which pays tribute to the world’s longest running radio show and its stars (known as “members”) with exhibits featuring the legendary Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl (“howdeee”), and Little Jimmy Dickens.

Almost a million people visit the Opry every year to see their favorite stars. In 1925, National Life & Accident Insurance company founded the radio program, originally called the WSM Barn Dance – WSN standing for the company’s slogan, “We Shield Millions” and the radio station’s call letters. Those call letters are still emblazoned on the stage.

It is thrilling and weird at the same time to sit in on one of the broadcast performances, and see, in the flesh, performers who we had seen as a museum exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and at RCA Studio B. The night we were there, we saw Porter Wagoner (it was one of his last appearances; he died soon after) and Little Jimmy Dickens. It was amazing to hear their music performed by themselves as well as the new generation of singers. Old timey, hokey and new at the same time, the Grand Ole’ Opry is classic.

The broadcast, with Cracker Barrel commercials and all, is fast paced – the acts come on and off seamlessly – and features a variety of musical styles in half-hour segments.

Shows are Friday (at 8 p.m.), Saturday (6:30 pm. and 9:30 p.m.) and Tuesday (at 7 p.m.). (The radio show broadcasts from the Ryman Auditorium from Jan.-Feb. and Nov.-Dec.).

You can get a line up of performances online, and order tickets. (Grand Ole Opry, 2802 Opryland Drive, 800-SEE OPRY, www.opry.com).

The Meerkat habitat is one of the many highlights of a visit to the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

Another wonderful venue for families to enjoy music and get into the spirit of the Old South, is to enjoy a cruise on the General Jackson Showboat, a 300-foot paddlewheel riverboat accommodating up to 1,100 people, which sails twice daily from the pier at Opry Mills (Opryland Drive).

For more than 20 years, the General Jackson Showboat has sailed the Cumberland River and offered visitors a wide variety of shows in its two-story Victorian theater. Midday cruises lasting 2 1/2 hours, offer a country music show and lunch (from $41.26/A, $24.12/C), while three-hour evening cruises offer an elegant dinner and a Broadway-style revue ($from $66.51/A, $41.29/C), though you can also purchase a cruise-only ticket ($14.95/A, $9.95/C). There are also special shows throughout the year like Sunday Gospel Brunch Cruise (866-567-JACK, www.generaljackson.com).

Fun Food

At Opry Mills, shopping is sport and entertainment, and the icing on the cake is the selection of fun dining experiences.

The Aquarium, a themed restaurant in the same vein as Rainforest Café (which is also at Opry Mills and is owned by the same company), is novel for its humongous aquariums big enough to hold sharks, rays, a giant moray eel, and hundreds of fish.

The biggest aquarium, 200,000 gallons and free form in shape, takes up the entire center of the restaurant, from floor to ceiling, where you can see more than 100 species of colorful tropical fish from the Caribbean, Hawaii, South Pacific and Indian Ocean. To everyone’s delight, a diver makes feedings twice a day in full view of the dining room. The food was delightful – our burgers were superb, and there is also a menu to satisfy everyone in the family, with fish, seafood, and steaks (615-514-FISH, www.aquariumrestaurants.com).

The Aquarium Restaurant is offered symbiotically with Stingray Reef, located just across the hall, where you pay $3.95 per person for all day admission and can touch and feed live stingrays and visit exhibits of over a dozen species including lionfish, piranhas, poison dart frogs. There are games and a carousel, as well.

From there, we treated ourselves to a movie at the 32-screen cinemaplex, where one of the theaters is IMAX. There we saw the latest Harry Potter in IMAX (20 minutes of it in 3-D). It was phenomenal.

Another fun place to eat when in downtown Nashville, in the Honky Tonk district, is the Old Spaghetti Factory. Housed in a turn-of-the-century warehouse, it is like stepping back into the Victorian era, with red velvet, stained glass, wood paneling and brass; there is even a railroad dining car. The pasta selections are scrumptious – my favorites are the spinach tortellini with Alfredo sauce ($9/dinner), and the spinach and cheese ravioli ($9/dinner). A superb value, lunch and dinner entrees come with choice of soup or salad and freshly baked bread (160 Second Avenue, North, 615-254-9010).

For more family fun, explore Nashville’s topnotch zoo, science museum, and motorcar museum:

Nashville Zoo at Grassmere

Take a walk on the wild side at Nashville’s world-class Zoo. Situated on a sprawling 200 acres on what used to be a farm dating from the colonial era, the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere lets you stroll trails and paths from habitat to habitat – you come upon the Siamung clutching a toy as it climbs a tree on Gibbon Island; you encounter Meerkats popping out of their holes – in fact the Meerkat habitat and Gibbon Island were voted the best in the nation by Animal Planet, for their natural beauty and the way they immerse zoo guests in the creatures’ environment.

This place is enchanting not just because of the natural settings that take you completely out of an urban environment, but the many opportunities for close-up and interactive experiences. At Critter Encounter, you get to walk into a field (not just a pen) with sheep and goats; there are opportunities throughout the day to “Meet the Keepers” as they feed the Bengal tigers or the alligators or even the Giant Anteaters (Nashville Zoo is part of the Giant Anteater Breeding and conservation program; there are only 50 in the U.S.), and 20-minute Animal shows take place in an amphitheater near the Unseen New World, an indoor display of fantastic reptiles, fish, bats, insects.

Eric Leiberman monitors a 10-foot high heart at Nashville's Adventure Science Center (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

You’ll also encounter African Elephants on a three-acre savanna, cougars, black bears, zebras, cheetahs, African wild dogs, elands, lynx, red pandas and playful river otters – there is really an excellent selection.

As so many of the attractions in Nashville, a city that is clearly booming, the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere is growing and improving. It recently opened Lorikeet Landing, with more than 50 of the brightly colored Australian parrots that move freely inside a meshed enclosure and come to your finger when you offer them a cup of nectar. The new Giraffe Savanna features three rare Masai giraffes, and Alligator Cove has the look of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, in re-creating the feeling of a jungle outpost.

The zoo is continuing to expand and improve with a Red River Hog exhibit in the savannah area, African wild dogs, and Lynx exhibits.

Children will love the Jungle Gym playground (don’t show the kids the jungle gym until about 45 minutes before you are ready to leave, because you will never get them away), where there is also a shaded picnic area and misting station, and a carousel.

Take time to visit the Grassmere Historic Farm – the home of the Croft sisters who deeded the land to the city (Union soldiers camped there during the Civil War), and made it possible for the zoo to relocate there in 1997; guided tours of the house are offered seasonally.

(Allocate at least 3 hours. $13/A, $8/C 3-12, $11/S. Nashville Zoo, 3777 Nolensville Rd., 615-833-1534,www.nashvillezoo.org).

Adventure Science Center

Adventure Science Center encourages children of all ages to explore how science, invention and innovation affect their lives through marvelously engaging hands-on, interactive exhibits and programs.

The center is cleverly done, and will appeal to any age and fairly comprehensive in terms of laying the foundation for learning and appreciating science in their world, from tunneling into an exhibit of robotic dinosaurs to climbing around structures to learn basic physics of light, energy, and climbing down a vertebrate ladder.

The most thrilling section is BodyQuest where you can investigate all the body’s systems, literally walk into a brain (BrainStorm) that lights up different parts; interact with a 10-foot tall heart that occasionally suffers a cardiac arrest, and sit in the Amazing Aging Machine to see what you will look like as a 70-year old after a lifetime of smoking (if you make it that long). There are arcade-like games, like a basketball toss and pitching game which use play to teach, but the most fun (we did it about three or four times) was Body Battles, an interactive laser game that animates the ongoing struggle inside all of our bodies between health and illness.

There is even a flight-simulator ride – a three-minute virtual reality experience where you are in the pilot’s seat.

You feel you are a part of a timeless tradition watching a stage performance of the Grand Ole' Opry radio show (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

The center’s Sudekum Planetarium is being reconstructed and expanded, and is expected to reopen in June 2008.

(Allocate 2-3 hours, $9/A, $7/C, Adventure Science Center, 800 Fort Negley Blvd., 615-862-5160,www.adventuresci.com).

Lane Motor Museum

Motoring around Music City, a must-visit is the Lane Motor Museum. This place, located on a typical street appropriately lined with automobile showrooms, was such a surprise. You won’t find your father’s Buick, and this is not your typical car museum. You don’t have to be a car lover to find yourself enthralled by this extraordinary collection of cars, appreciating their special significance all the more from the interesting and even humorous “Fun Facts” supplied for each one.

Founded in 2002 by Jeff and Susan Lane (Jeff was a life-long collector), passion is what fuels this place.

There are some 150 vehicles on display, mainly from other countries, making this collection all the more special. Many of the cars are quite literally “unique” or unusual. Unlike many car museums, the majority of these are in running condition (the Lanes even take them out for a spin) – you can even look into the repair shop to see what car is being worked on.

There are Czechoslovakian cars (like the 1947 Tatra T 87); microcars; amphibious vehicles; competition cars; alternative fuel vehicles (like a 1945 Machet Velocar that went 21 mph “or as fast as you could peddle”; and a 1959 Renault Dauphine Henney electric car, which shows how far back “alternative fuel” technology goes). There are military vehicles and motorcycles, and most fascinating, the prototypes and one-of-a-kind vehicles (easy to find under a big sign that says “Unique”).

Some of the most unusual: a one-of-a-kind propeller-drive car, a 1932 Helecron, made in France a 1928 Martin Aerodynamic, made in the U.S., a 1964 Scootacar, made in Great Britain.

The collection is constantly rotated to keep the exhibit fresh, and there are special exhibits, such as “Hold Your Horses: The History of the Deux Chevaux – the Citroen,” which was going on during my visit.

Another demonstration of just how passionate the Lanes are about cars: the cars are not kept behind barriers (except for a few) so they can be fully appreciated, but visitors are asked to respect the cars, as well.

The presentation is interesting and tremendously fun. An orientation video is highly recommended, and the museum map offers 50 fun things to do.

There is even a play area for youngsters, and a virtual reality racecar game, where you sit in the seat, choose your car, color, track and level of difficulty and drive (free).

There are some real stunners and eye-openers, like the 1965 Peel Triden, which got 100 mpg and was advertised that driving was almost cheaper than walking; the 1965 Scoot Car which came in a crate that the manufacturer said could serve as its garage; the aerodynamic 1946 Hewson Rocket, which could go 90 mph, and was the only one produced, at $16,000.

The museum is housed in a well-known Nashville landmark, the former Sunbeam Bread Bakery, which at the time, in the 1950s, was the most modern bakery in the area. The benefits are the natural light that flows, the high ceiling, and the fact the architectural style complements the age of the cars represented. Even the 1870s horse-drawn bread carriage, which was painstakingly restored by the Amish, is respectfully displayed.

(Allocate 1 1/2-2 hours; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, $5/A, Seniors 55-plus, $3, under 18 free; 702 Murfreesboro Pike, 615-742-7445, www.lanemotormuseum.org.

Embassy Suites-Nashville Airport

Looking more like a Caribbean resort than a business traveler's hotel, the Embassy Suites Nashville Airport provided a lush haven after returning from a day of sightseeing (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

Our base of operations for our family adventure in Nashville was the Embassy Suites Hotel-Nashville Airport. At first blush, I would have thought an airport hotel would be cold, institutional, and even smoggy with jet fumes, especially considering that it was situated within an office park adjacent to the airport.

In fact, the Embassy Suites was ideal for our family, superbly situated so it was central to all the attractions we wanted to visit by car (free, convenient parking is nothing to sneeze at), and was loaded with “extras”.

To begin with, the 296-suite hotel, which just underwent a $702 million renovation, has the look and feel more like a Caribbean resort hotel than a hotel that caters to transient business travelers – a huge atrium and lounge/sitting areas landscaped with giant palm plants, a waterfall/fountain and even a cage with cockatoos.

Because the rooms are all suites, there was plenty of room for our family to spread out – the children stayed in the living room, separated by a door, in the pull out Queen-size couch, where there was also a television (remote control), microwave, sink, and refrigerator, and table/desk.

Our room was spacious, and was loaded with creature comforts and amenities, including practical items like iron and ironing board.

But that was only the beginning. The hotel has a large indoor swimming pool – great for swimming laps or just frolicking – as well as a whirlpool tub, and a fitness room. The pool is set off by big picture windows, and opens to an outside sitting area.

In the morning, the complimentary breakfast, served in that festive, tropical setting is a luscious affair, with the piece de resistance: omelets freshly prepared for you with the ingredients that you select, plus a selection of cooked meats, grits and hash brown potatoes, fresh fruits, cereals, breads and pastries, juices.

Each afternoon, between 5 and 7:30 p.m. there is a Manager’s Reception where drinks (beer, wine, sodas and so forth) and snacks are served complimentary. Unbelievable.

The hotel features 14,000 square feet of meeting space including 10 meeting rooms, a business center (where we could use computers and check emails at no charge), concierge services, a small gift shop. And the service was warm and gracious.

It is only 2.5 miles from the airport (free shuttle service to and from the airport), and seven miles to downtown (about 20 minutes); it was also about 15 to 30 minutes from every attraction we wanted to visit.

A superb value, with rates from $99; Embassy Suites Hotel-Nashville Airport, 10 Century Boulevard, Nashville, 615-871-0033, embassysuites.Hilton.com.

For more information about visiting Nashville and the Music City Total Access Attraction Pass (that lets you choose four attractions and one free admission for $45) contact the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, 150 Fourth Avenue North, Suite G-250 Nashville, TN 37219, 800-657-6910, www.visitmusiccity.com. Lodgings, packages, discounts and the Total Access Pass can be purchased online.

 

 

Thursday, 20 December, 2007

 

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© 2007 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

This entry was posted in U.S. Travel by Travel Features Syndicate. Bookmark the permalink.

About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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