Greetings from Alabama! Last week we left off from Florida and from there my next trip was a jaunt to the neighboring state of Alabama. Yee haw! Sweet home Alabama! Believe it or not, this was my first time here and admittedly, I had all kinds of preconceived notions.

I flew on Delta from West Palm Beach (PBI) to Birmingham (BHM) via Atlanta. It took one hour and 27 minutes to get to Atlanta and then 34 minutes to fly to BHM (it’s a two-hour drive). Whenever I layover in Atlanta, I almost always grab some southern food from Paschal’s, even when I’m not hungry. I flew out of the C gates and there’s a Paschal’s over by C33 with table service. The waitress was awesome and the meatloaf with choice of two sides (I had Mac ‘n’ cheese and candied yams) was pretty darned good but their cornbread needs some help. It’s not sweet. A fresh salad also came with the meal and the total cost was $10.95.

The gate agent was so cool I bought him a box of chocolates since he switched me to the earlier flight. I’d rather have gotten in two hours early to Alabama by flying economy on a smaller jet (CRJ-700) than take the 737 with the confirmed upgrade (it’s a 34 minute flight!). You know you’re going to the Deep South when the guy next to you is reading a copy of Garden and Gun magazine. When I landed in Birmingham, I would have bet the house that the person picking me up was going to be driving a pickup. But I was wrong. He had a shiny new BMW.

To get from the airport to downtown Birmingham takes about 10 to 15 minutes. We went straight to dinner at an upscale place called Bottega. The scene both inside and outside of Bottega felt like I was in Hollywood except that: the valet parking is free, the prices aren’t as high, everyone is dressed up and the girls have way more attitude. I not only didn’t see one pickup truck but the driveway was lined with Bentleys, Mercedes and Range Rovers. Nobody was wearing any hunting gear except me. Why did I go out and buy a new neon orange cap and a camouflage jacket? Everyone just kept staring at me like I was a Martian.

Bottega has two restaurants side by side. One is a fancy dining room and the other is a casual, livelier café, which we were at. The owner and chef is Frank Stitt who is quite well known and is also a recipient of the James Beard award for “Best Chef of the Southeast”. Who would’ve thought that on a Monday night around 8pm, there would be a 45-minute wait for a table at a restaurant in Birmingham? Monday at Bottega is crab cakes ($16.95) night but I was told Tuesday is an even more popular night but I don’t think it’s because of the chicken thighs with asparagus special, but who knows. My buddy Will and I split a grilled chicken and pesto with aged provolone and mozzarella pizza ($13.25) and then chicken scaloppini with crisp breadcrumbs and capers ($15.75). They were good but the fresh bread was even better.

I stayed at one of the city’s top and most historic hotels: The Tutwiler. It’s located in the financial district across the street from the city’s civic park. The Tutwiler recently became a Hampton Inn, part of the Hilton family. And in April 2007, the hotel completed a $9 million total preservation that included new interiors, finishes and furnishings. When I walked in, I couldn’t believe this place was a Hampton Inn. This place was awesome and what a value. My room was huge, had a 32″ flat screen HDTV with 75+ channels of cable television, free Internet and the heat and air conditioning worked well. There was a lap table to work in bed (I loved that!), a microwave, a CD/DVD player, free breakfast and free cookies in the lobby (the baggie comes with one chocolate chip and one oatmeal raisin). What else could you ask for? The only thing I didn’t like was that the bed was a bit springy, the towels weren’t so soft and the pillows were too bulky for my liking. But when rates are $159 and include everything I listed above and there’s a super-friendly staff, then who’s complaining? There’s even a little gift shop that sells bottled water for just $1.50. The Tutwiler, 2021 Park Place North, Birmingham, AL, Tel: 205-322-2100.

Another one of my preconceived notions was that you wouldn’t be able to get some authentic Italian food in Alabama. Wrong again. GianMarco’s was another popular restaurant, this time in the residential neighborhood of Homewood. I don’t know if it was the same car but there was another Bentley parked out front. I’d seen more Bentleys in 24 hours in Alabama than I’ve seen in years in L.A. The restaurant is owned by Giani and Marco Respinto, brothers who were born into their father’s restaurant (Rocco’s) in Greenwich Village, New York. These guys are doing something right because their place was completely packed and it was a Tuesday night at 8:30pm. GianMarco’s serves traditional and northern Italian dishes with lots of pastas, veal and fish. I followed my host’s lead and ordered the chicken parmigiana (my favorite) and they made it, even though it’s not on the menu. The parm was really good but the spaghetti just okay. GianMarco’s, 721 Broadway St, Homewood, AL; Tel: 205-871-9622.

I was in town meeting with the good folks from MedjetAssist. I’ve been a member since 2000 and for anyone who is traveling more than 150 miles from home, especially internationally, you will want to listen up. MedjetAssist is the premier emergency medical evacuation membership program for travelers. If you are hospitalized more than 150 miles from home—virtually anywhere in the world—MedjetAssist will review your condition with the attending medical staff and your own physician(s) and provide a medically equipped and staffed aircraft to fly you free of charge to your hospital of choice. That’s right! So if you are in Kenya and get severely hurt, you don’t need to worry about spending months in some crazy hospital or worry about footing the bill for a $150,000+ private jet. MedjetAssist will take care of it. Don’t just take my word for it. They are the exclusive provider of worldwide air ambulance and medical repatriation services for AARP. Check to see if you are covered by your insurance or credit card. If not, this might just be the best $250 you have ever spent (that’s the annual fee). Short-term memberships start at $85.

I was in Alabama for work so I didn’t get to check out any of their attractions except seeing the Vulcan statue from afar. No one can miss it since it’s 56 feet tall. In fact, it’s the largest cast iron statue in the world and it was built for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The Vulcan is now the city symbol of Birmingham, which depicts the Roman god Vulcan (god of the fire and forge) and reflects the city’s roots in the iron and steel industry. According to the Birmingham CVB, in addition to the Vulcan Park (and museum) the other nine places a tourist shouldn’t miss are: Birmingham ZooAlabama Adventure,Birmingham Civil Rights InstituteBirmingham Museum of ArtMcWane CenterRobert Trent Jones Golf TrailBarber Motorsports ParkRiverchase Galleria and the Talladega Superspeedway.

I would add one more must-see to that list and it’s Dreamland for bar-b-que! Dreamland began in 1958 in Tuscaloosa but they have seven more locations all around the state, including one near downtown Birmingham and UAB, which opened in 1993. It’s what I pictured an Alabama restaurant to look like. Nothing fancy, just a casual place, with lots of license plates,funny signsmenus and college paraphernalia on the walls. Our waitress was friendly and the service was lickety-split. They offer pulled pork sandwiches, barbecued chicken, slab of ribs, hickory smoked sausage, baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, sweet tea, a variety of sauces and amazing banana pudding. We had half a smoked sausage ($5.95) to start but before that the waitress brought slices of white bread with a BBQ dipping sauce. I thought that was weird until I found myself uncontrollably devouring it. I then had half a chicken($6.95) and ordered a side of baked beans and Mac ‘n’ cheese ($1.45) – yummy! We made the mistake of getting a pint of banana pudding ($6) because the two I was with just had one. But and I ate the rest since I was taught to clean my plane. Besides it was that good but my belly is now that big. The drive back to the hotel was less than 10 minutes and we arrived just in time before I passed out from a food coma. I now know why they call it Dreamland. Dreamland, 1427 14th Avenue, South, Birmingham, AL, Tel: 205-933-2133.

In the morning I was back at the BHM for an 8:10am flight. There was no line at the security checkpoint but an agent came up to me before I went through and handed me a black briefcase and asked me to put it on the belt. At first I was like, “Are you crazy?!” I don’t take anything from anybody (one of the golden rules of travel). But then I realized it was a test suitcase and that they must have a new screener who they were evaluating. I did it and guess what? He didn’t catch whatever was in the case! The good news is that they pulled him off the post. The bad news is that I left all the shampoos back at the hotel because I didn’t want to deal with them confiscating them. Heck, I could’ve brought a garden and a gun through.

Next week we’ll be going somewhere hot and spicy.

Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Marriott.

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