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Authentic experiences in the Southeast


Courtesy Alabama Tourism

Authentic culinary, craft and cultural activities are the hottest trends in the tourism business today, and states throughout the Southeast offer plenty of attractions that deliver experiences sought by today’s bank groups.

As groups travel through the region, they receive a rich introduction to Southern culture, arts and history. Alabama’s favorite food dishes vie for the hearts and stomachs of all who follow their mouthwatering culinary trails. Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail intertwines the age-old tradition of distilling bourbon with the state’s colorful history.

Rural Mississippi offers groups hands-on agricultural experiences. Cajun traditions come to life in Louisiana’s restored 1800s village of Vermilionville. Tennessee’s robust music scene is ever-changing, and West Virginia’s arts-and-crafts heritage is on display throughout the state.

With so much to choose from, itineraries can focus on one particular theme or cherry-pick from the breadth of offerings within each state.

One Hundred Tasty Dishes

From sophisticated seafood to Southern comfort food and decadent desserts, Alabama’s culture comes alive by way of the kitchen. The Year of Alabama Food (being held over after wild success in 2012) celebrates 100 delectable dishes served throughout the state; all are appetizingly plated and described on the Web to help groups plot their travels.

“It’s a bucket list of Alabama food, and we can set up a tour specifically targeting our cuisine,” said Rosemary Judkins, group sales manager for Alabama Tourism. “People love to visit and check off dishes on our 100-dish list.”

Five culinary trails make it easy to nosh from one end of the state to the other. Each trail offers unique dining. The North Alabama Trail’s cuisine centers on Southern comfort food. On the Alabama Heartland Trail in Tuscaloosa, the original Dreamland has served slabs of ribs and its famous sauce since 1958.

Taste of the Magic City Trail is characterized by renowned chefs and sophisticated dining. Known for its focus on seasonal ingredients, Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club is chef-owned by Chris Hastings, a graduate of Johnson and Wales Culinary School. Hot and Hot has received 11 consecutive Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence.

Given the area’s proximity to the Gulf, the Lower Alabama Trail’s rural culinary traditions serve brick-pit barbecue, grilled foods and fresh seafood,. And, of course, seafood stars on the Coastal Cuisine Trail, with fresh-caught fish and legendary seafood gumbo.

Roots and Heritage
In Cajun Country near Lafayette, the reproduction village called Vermilionville preserves the heritage and folk life of an 1800s Cajun community, a melting pot that combined the rich cultures of Cajuns, Creoles and Native Americans.

Situated on Bayou Vermilion, the historic village has 19 buildings, including a blacksmith shop, a church and six original homes filled with artifacts of Acadian life between 1765 and 1890. There are costumed re-enactors, and a walking brochure guides visitors through the village.

“Re- enactors are locals who speak with a distinct Cajun accent,” said Jeff Richard, public information officer at the Louisiana Office of Tourism. “Cajun French is still very common among older folks, and many grew up in homes where French was the first language.”

Groups can watch cooking, traditional craft and musical demonstrations that have a distinctly French flair. Weekends bring music and dancing. In spring and fall, bayou boat tours feature a naturalist who explains the flora and fauna.

La Cuisine de Maman, the onsite restaurant, is styled as an overseer’s home on a plantation. The glass-enclosed back porch affords a bayou view. Groups can choose the buffet or order from the menu.

“The restaurant serves traditional Cajun cuisine such as jambalaya, gumbo and etouffee, plus po’ boys stuffed with fried catfish and shrimp. They’re our equivalent of a hero sandwich,” said Richard.

Next door to the village, the Jean Lafitte Acadian Cultural Center explores Cajun history and culture through exhibits and movies. One popular film describes the migration of the Acadian people from French Canada to Louisiana.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.