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Cover Story September 24th, 2009

  Untitled Document
This is Alabama?

First stop was the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery, Alabama. They had stayed in plush hotels before, but none more plush than this. Highly polished marble floors, beautiful tapestries on the walls, exciting and colorful works of art adorning the halls of the entire hotel.

They had arrived late and missed the reception so they hunkered down in an oak paneled bar adjacent to the restaurant and ordered a flatbread sandwich. This is apparently what they call a pizza in Alabama. It was delicious as was the Mojito the bartender prepared. A Mojito is a Cuban drink they had recently discovered, made of rum, sugar, lime, mint, and ice. Easy to drink, too easy . . . as in so easy to drink it was like drinking lemonade and one had to be careful not to overindulge. Even accidentally. They limited themselves to one. It was cold, wet, and tasty.

Their room was comparable to a suite in other hotels. 300 thread count linens, more pillows than they knew what to do with, a colorful duvet (bed cover), comfortable easy chairs, large screen tv . . . all the comforts of home.

In the morning they looked out of their window and saw a modern day town square. It was as though they were looking back in time, to the turn of the century.

Montgomery has rehabilitated the downtown area to look just as it must have looked back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The architecture was beautiful, the design of the town both utilitarian and pleasing to the eye as well. Hard by the downtown area was a gently flowing Alabama River. One began to imagine being a young lad, floating down the Alabama on a home-built log raft.

Turns out there is a kayaking adventure offered by local entrepeneurs where you can do just that, rent a kayak, participate in a lengthy kayak float or paddle (you decide whether you do the work or let the river do the work and have the current carry you). At the end of each day’s kayaking there is a screened in rest area, off the ground, with gourmet prepared food and a staff to attend to your every want and need. This was his idea of roughing it. She wasn’t so sure. At least not just yet. So far, he thought, her idea of roughing it was the Hilton.

After a continental breakfast they would adjourn to the Great Hall where they would meet every 15 minutes with a different resort operator, vendor, chamber of commerce or visitor’s bureau, all of whom were anxious for favorable publicity about their neck of the woods. Old friends were greeted and new friendships were established. It was a busy day, but productive. Lots of interesting locations surveyed, lots of story ideas began to develop, this one being just one of them.

Alabama is divided into two camps. Those who support Auburn University and those who support the University of Alabama. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, these are football teams. Montgomery tends to favor Auburn, Birmingham tends to be University of Alabama country. Each year they meet on the gridiron in a major rivalry that has built up over the years. More often than not, the Crimson Tide prevails (that’s the University of Alabama).

He had a bit of fun with supporters of both football fraternities, commisserating with them about how, with all these trees in Alabama, there probably wasn’t a piece of ground large enough for Alabama to field one college football team, let alone two. Because of all the trees, he said, a fella would go out for a pass and get knocked down. By a tree. If they could only find a large piece of land to build a football field, he said, he thought he could arrange for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers to teach them the game.

This would draw raised eyebrows, but then when they realized their legs were being pulled, they gave out with a big Southern smile. Later, when visiting Birmingham, he would suggest to the Alabama fans that there was an apprentice program from football teams at Auburn University; once they learned the fundamentals from Auburn, they’d graduate to Nebraska where they’d learn the finer points of the game. Same result, raised eyebrows, then a big Southern grin. Southerners’ enjoy a joke as well as the next person.

He and she both noticed that Alabamans tend to talk “soft Southern.” Not the mushy-mouthed southern that is depicted in so many books and movies. Oh, it exists alright, but usually in the more rural areas. In Montgomery and Birmingham you find very sophisticaed, very cosmopolitan, very ‘with it’ folks.

After the first morning of meeting in the Great Hall, the journalists were treated to a tour of the Hyundai plant, just outside of Montgomery. While she looked forward to it, he thought it would likely be boring and he’d just go along to be polite. He was wrong.

It was probably one of the most enjoyable, interesting and entertaining tours either of them had ever taken. They were placed in a linked caravan of golf carts and traversed the entire assembly plant. They were not required to walk (as is the case with the Mercedes tour) but were comfortable in their open-on-all-sides cart.

The lead driver was also the narrator and guided the journalists from the beginning, where there were rolls and rolls of sheet metal, each of which was picked up by giant robotic arms, transferred to the next stage where the sheet metal rolls were cut to the necessary forms for various elements of the soon-to-be car. From there, they watched a giant stamping press, using tons of pressure, stamp the sheet metal into the prescribed form. It then moved along the conveyor system where they would soon be primed, painted, assembled, and before long, a car or SUV began to appear. They only make the Santa Fe (SUV) and the Sonata (sedan).

Once the basics of the cars had been put together, giant robotic arms would, again, gently place into the right slot, the dashboard, the front and rear seats, the front and rear windows. Robots would also do all of the welding . . . all of this coming on a steady, consistent movement of the conveyor system, and all very precisely done. At the end of the line, the cars rolled off and awaited a test drive. All cars will have 6 miles on their speedometer at the showroom. That’s the distance the test drivers run to put the car through its paces. They are then parked in a huge parking lot, awaiting shipment by train, or by truck, to waiting dealerships.

This plant runs two shifts, turns out 450 vehicles per shift, 900 cars per day. The 2300 member staff is not referred to as employees but as “team members,” with each team being assigned a specific task, and all teams working together. It is probably one of the most powerful and effective demonstrations of outstanding management and use of resources and personnel one will ever see. One of the better afternoons they had ever spent; certainly one of the most fascinating tours.

Now came the first of several “Fam Trips.” A Fam(iliarization) Trip is an experience where the journalists get to visit facilities, restaurants, resorts, historical areas, and the like, so that they might report back to their readers or viewers. They chose to experience the Montgomery Grits and Gumbo Tour. They were given directions to a very chic private location, located on the second floor of a building that was probably 100 years old. The walls were solid brick; it used to be an old storeroom but had been converted to a lovely, intimate dining location. A buffet table offered all kinds of Southern cuisine, including jambalaya, red beans and rice, collard greens, specially prepareed grits, plenty of food to fill most any gourmand. He decided the food was a bit too spicy for him and allowed as how he probably would not order Cajun food in the future. No reflection on the chef or the restaurant . . . it was simply a matter of taste for a certain cuisine.

She seemed to enjoy her dinner. There was plenty of wine to accompany the meal and they were given tickets to redeem for mixed drinks at another night spot between this restaurant and the hotel. Being tired, probably as much due to the time zone change as the busy day they had, they redeemed only one drink each, giving the other tickets to newly found friends.Following dinner, Day one was done.

photoDay two of the convention concluded after an all day visit with exhibitors with a great banquet and that was it! Far too many conventions and trade shows run four/five days. That’s too long. Exhibitors and visitors are both fresh and able to glean a great deal over two days; by the third, fourth and/or fifth day, everyone is tired, feet and legs are sore and it’s hard to get things done. This convention was dead solid perfect.

The next morning they were off, via van, for Birmingham, about an hour and half drive north of Montgomery. First, they had to return a rental car to Enterprise. Some difficulty ensued in returning the rental car, but was it was accomplished only after an unpleasant experience.

They decided they’d think long and hard before renting from Enterprise again. Once that was resolved, onward to Birmingham. En route, they noticed a sign on the right side of the road. He laughed out loud when he saw it. She merely smiled. The sign did not surprise either of them. Alabama is right in the middle of the Bible Belt and there are a great many very strong fundamentalist churches and believers in the area. This posed no problem for them or any other journalist; merely gave them another interesting observation and memory.

Upon arrival at their Birmingham destination, the Renaissance Ross Bridge Gold Resort and Spa, they thought they had died again, and gone to heaven, again.


A piper ends each day at Ross Ridge Golf Course & Spa - just one of many ‘special’ services

The Ross Bridge Gold Resort & Spa is built along the lines of an old Scottish castle. Beautifully impressive and imposing from the outside, it becomes warm and hospitable within. The reception area, the bar, the club room, the halls . . . all reek of money and a sophisticated way of life. Both of them had stayed in beautiful hotels before, often, but this had to be one of the prize speciments!

Both the Renaissance Hotel in Mongtomery and the Renaissance Ross Bridge Gold Resort & Spa are just part of the magnificent undertaking of the legendary Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a network of world-class public golf courses along the states main thoroughfares. The brainchild of visionary, Dr. David G. Bronner, CEO of the heavily-laden-with-cash Retirement Systems of Alabama. Dr. Bronner pumped $100 million and change into the endeavor. What has resulted is nothing short of amazing. “Build it and they will come!” has been proven time and time again. Bronner has succeeded in changing Alabama’s image into one of the world’s top golf meccas and Alabama is enjoying an exponential increase in tourism and corporate business.

The initial effort was so successful he continued building more courses and partnering with Marriott to add a splash of luxury to stay-and-play packages. The Ross Bridge Resort is simply the latest jewel in the Trail’s crown. The castle-like Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa is at the forefront of a magnificent 18-hole golf course, complete with challenging holes, and its own history lessons as well.

Suddenly, Alabama is no longer known as a backwoods state, but a state with skyscrapers, with superior restaurants, with hotels that defy belief . . . and, of course, great golf courses. The Ross Ridge facility has the third largest golf course in the world.

The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail offers twenty-six world-class courses on 11 sites, 468 holes of golf at 11 sites spread across the state, all with startling beauty. Many are in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains (in the northern part of Alabama), with great scenery and fairways that rise and roll, fall, and rise again.

State officials describe the Trail as one that “stretches from the rolling hills of northern and central Alabama to the wetlands and woods near the Gulf Coast. Each of the eleven stops on the Trail is within a two-hour drive of the course closest to it, and each is within 15 minutes of a major interstate.”

Greens fees on the Trail courses average around $50.


The pool area at Ross Ridge Golf & Resort Spa

All of the Resort Collection Hotels on the Trail carry the Marriott or Renaissance flags. Four of the eight hotels have the coveted AAA Four Diamond rating. Both Montgomery and Birmingham offered historical tours of the battlegrounds of civil rights. They opted to participate in the Bon Apetit tour and see what the Birmingham area had to offer in the way of victuals and libations. They came away impressed.

Ozan Vineyard and Cellars has over 2000 vines planted at Ozan with plans for expansion. Lovely small winery with lovable owners. One frustration here is their peach wine, which is done perfectly and is to die for, is not able to be shipped to California by the winery.
From here, the tour went to the Vizzini Farms Winery. They make wines from the finest Alabama and West Coast Vinifera grapes. The owner, Frank Vizzini, gave a detailed description of how wine is made. Our traveling couple was so impressed with both the Chocolate-Raspberry Merlot, and the Black raspberry/Merlot (Paulina - named after Frank’s mother) that they bought a case, half and half.

He said, “that free wine tasting stop cost me $224.” (But he was pleased to pay it. It’s a great wine).

The final winery stop was Morgan Creek Vineyards – a family owned and operated vineyard which specializes in Southern varietals of wines ranging from a sweet apple to a dry red Muscadine. After a return to the hotel to freshen up, the trip’s masterpiece was presented.

One does not tend to think of Alabama as a location where you would find fine dining. One would be dead wrong in that thinking.

Probably some of the finest dining they had ever enjoyed was found at Highland’s Bar & Grill, owned and operated by Chef Frank Stitt. They have dined in some of the finest restaurants in the world. None were finer than the Highland’s Bar and Grill.

photoFrom the pages of Gourmet Magazine: “When we dream about an American restaurant, it looks and smells a lot like Highlands Bar & Grill: a gleaming, big-city place with the precise butter glow of our favorite Parisian bistros. Frank Stitt's cooking, which showcases Gulf seafood, splendid Alabama produce, and southern staples like grits, pan-roasted rabbit, and country ham, is both all-American and extremely French - as if Alabama was somehow sandwiched between Mississippi and Provence.”

They were met by a perky young lass by name of Tina Britt. Not only was Tina attentive and efficient but she knew the menu, knew every technique for preparation, the history of the restaurant, the background on the meals served. She was a top waitress.

After a perfectly made Mojito, they sampled Chincoteague and Apalachicola Oysters on the half shell, fresh Gulf shrimp cocktail with old-fashioned cocktail sauce, Bayou LaBatre crab claws with homemade ginger sauce . . . all were superb.

He had Beef Carpaccio, which is thinly shaved beef, shaved parmesan, local arugula and horseradish sauce; they both had Stone Ground Baked Grits with country ham, mushrooms, fresh thyme and parmesan. She had grill Pompano as an entree . . . served with avocado, grilled red onions, yellow corn and sun gold tomatoes; he had the Flat Iron Steak, served with sweet potato gratin and collard greens. He could have done without the collard greens. They were a bit bitter to him and he suspected they were an acquired taste. Dessert was simple ice cream, but home made, with melted chocolate sauce. The waitress reacted with horror when he asked if it was Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup. “Heavens no!” she said, “We melt our own chocolate drizzle it over the freshly made ice cream.” He ate it, enjoyed it, but allowed as how he would have enjoyed it just as much had it been just plain old Hershey’s Chocolate syrup.

She had contented herself with just a dish of homemade ice cream. A great meal often results in a pleasant, drowsy feeling and so it was on this occasion. They retired to the beautiful Renaissance Hotel & Spa and were soon sound asleep.

Come Saturday morning and yet another tour by van with a group of eager and curious journalists. Breakfast was served outdoors, at Jones Valley Urban Farms with Chef Clayton Sherrod not only serving up Shrimp & Grits, but showing how they were made. A local celebrity chef who has written numerous books and appeared on many tv shows, Sherrod is a master showman with a clever wit.

This Urban Farm utilizes over five acres of vacant downtown property and a 25 acre farm at Mt. Laurel. Jones Valley Urban Farm grows organic produce and flowers, educates the community about healthy food, and helps make Birmingham a vibrant community. It also is an example of what some of our north county cities should be doing with their vacant land.

Next stop was the Pepper Place Saturday Market - a street faire and farmer’s market combined. She loved the idea of shopping, he found a convenient bench and relaxed. He is not fond of shopping. The “Pepper Place” name comes from the building which, at one time, housed the Dr. Pepper bottling plant. A nice, neat, airy place.

But he still doesn’t like to shop so was quite content to relax on a park bench.

Back on the van, off to the Peanut Depot, a centuries old building that looked like it probably had not been cleaned once in that century. He took one look at it and returned to the van to rest up some more. He was not terribly impressed with the Peanut Depot. It was basically a collection of two or three peanut roasting machines, a rickety looking ancient building, and a few shelves of peanuts ready to be purchased.

They were then taken to Niki’s West - a fast paced cafeteria line where, they had been warned ahead of time, the proprietors and management were similar to the Soup Nazi on the Seinfeld show. One dared not hesitate in making up one’s mind in ordering or the dreaded “Next!” would be shouted out.

As it happened, things went smoothly, none of the journalists were embarrassed by having to be ignored and having the cafeteria line person turn to the “Next!” person.

The food was adequate, filling, not of gourmet quality. But, it was another dining experience in a bit different atmosphere. The journalists had been, frankly, fed so much and so often that they had very little appetite by now.

While the rest of the journalists would enjoy dinner that evening at Hot and Hot Fish Club . . . and breakfast the next morning at Brock’s . . . the superb restaurant at Ross Ridge Golf & Spa, as well as either a game of golf or a spa treatment, also at Ross Ridge . . . our intrepid couple had to head for the airport and the trip home to paradise in San Diego County.

It had been a fantastic trip, they both agreed. Many new, exciting places to write about and, perhaps, explore again in the future; many new journalists and exhibitors had been met, a link-up with top officials with both the Montgomery and Birmingham Chambers of Commerce and Visitor’s and Convention Bureaus . . . fine food, fine lodging . . . all in all, time well spent . . . and enjoyed.

And they learned that Alabama is no longer a ‘backwoods state.’ It is, in fact, a very chi-chi state, very ‘with it’ - full of pleasant surprises at every turn.

They decided they would return for more adventures. After all, they reasoned, they had even learned to talk “soft Southern.” Besides, they loved Alabama!
The part of He/Him was played by lyle e davis
The part of She/Her was played by Evelyn Madison
The part of the great state of Alabama was played by its very own self.





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