• Travel

Ever Been on the Chattanooga Choo Choo?

By Robin Tierney
Travel Writer

Comfy bed, courteous service, central location. The tasteful Chattanooga high-rise had everything I wanted. Or so I thought, until I began touring this high-spirited Tennessee town.

Once named America’s dirtiest city in an EPA report, Chattanooga has cleaned up its act. Citizens, nonprofits and government triple-teamed to transform streets and riverfront, where the world-class Tennessee Aquarium now gleams like a gilded pyramid against the Appalachian Mountain backdrop.

Dawn to dark, Chattanoogans push baby-strollers, jog, and pedal across Walnut Street Bridge, among the world’s longest, highest, pedestrian-only spans. People wade in River Walk’s step-down waterfall; families play amid Renaissance Park’s oversized animal sculptures.

The vibe is southern comfort meets Bohemian.

Eco-green buildings are springing up. Scrap-metal paintings animate shop windows. Frazier Street’s embedded brass footsteps depicting the Mambo, Tango, Waltz, and other dances inspire random acts of silliness in the North Shore ‘hood. Tasty, cheap, locavore bowls at Sluggo’s attract musicians, mechanics, and board-game aficionados. Steps from downtown, the trendy new Bluff View arts district charms with a spectacular hilltop sculpture garden, divine coffee-roaster, and cheery big-windowed bistro.

Mixed-media stallions and spooky glassworks energize the Hunter Museum of American Art, its two wings a face-off between old South mansion and avant-garde fabrication. Homegrown musicians, street performers, magicians, even belly-dancers are plentiful enough for frequent riverfront festivals.

Ten minutes from downtown on Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls cave leads to the world’s tallest underground waterfall. ‘Round the mountain is a bustling hang-gliding flight park and See Rock City, the fantasyland that looks as it did in the 1920s.

Chattanooga is a charmer—and a tease. A fierce case of lodging envy set in as I discovered intriguing places to stay.

Staterooms on a haunted paddleboat.

See that gangplank on the Tennessee River’s north bank near Coolidge Park? It leads to the legendary Delta Queen. Commissioned in 1926 by Gordon Greene, the five-deck, 44-ton paddlewheel-powered, million-dollar pinnacle of luxe was the first boat to offer air-conditioning! Ran off the steam system—and still does. It reopened in 2009 as a boutique hotel.

Tour guide Debb Fager explains how volunteers saved the vintage steamboat. “‘Queenies’ fund-raise, petition, and visit to clean. They polish the brass fixtures and add memorabilia to our scrapbooks.” Yes, the ship can sail, but law prohibits overnight cruising by vessels with wooden superstructures. “It’s the nation’s only floating National Historic Landmark,” Fager tells tourists eyeing a banjo, guest book, and plaque commemorating “Delta Queen Steamboaters,” one of whom took 140 trips.

The Delta Queen cruised along rivers, was camouflaged to serve as floating barracks and medical ferry, and raced (top speed 12 knots) as spectators ran alongside.

Lounges still shine with teak floors, crystal doorknobs, mahogany and cherry furniture, stained-glass windows and a Steinway grand. A big bed sits beneath a windowed wall of a cozy guestroom (back in the day, cabins cost $4.50; now they start at $89 a night). We ogled the outdoor calliope with gold-plated pipes, boiler-room controls, decks where overnighters stroll in robes, and the helm.

Passengers reputedly include ghosts of crew members and Mary B. Greene, who became Delta Queen captain after her husband died. Fager recalls two paranormal researchers who were conducting a lengthy investigation in Greene’s former suite. During playback of a three-hour tape-recording of their nonstop banter, a third voice—female—was heard whispering, “How do I make this stop?!?”

Some report hearing the banjo play between 2 and 3 a.m. Crew members say they’ve been awakened by voices prompting them to stanch leaks. “It’s never creepy, it feels like [spirits] are just taking care of the boat,” says Fager. The pre-dawn jogging that annoyed passengers in 1979? Not a ghost, but then-President Jimmy Carter.

Captain Mary prohibited alcohol on board, says Fager, but after she died—in her stateroom—the kids opened a bar. Wouldn’t you know, it was wrecked in a collision with a barge, eerily named the “Mary B.”

Victorian train car: choo-choo gone chi-chi.

It’s a retired hobo’s dream: 24 Victorian train cars turned into 48 hotel rooms, each with big bed, trundle bed, vintage accessories, and bath (rates start at $180). The Chattanooga Choo Choo no longer runs, but does have DSL (WiFi can’t pierce the metal housing). The cars are parked on tracks behind the Market Street Terminal Station that turned 100 last year. I got there by hopping the Downtown Electric Trolley, which is hobo-priced—free.

The last train left the station August 11, 1970. The station house is now a dinner-club with singing servers. The terminal still astounds with its 85-foot freestanding dome of steel and concrete.

”Train enthusiasts love staying here,” says general manager Jim Bambrey. The National Trust for Historic Preservation landmark includes the Model Railroad Museum, whose 3,000 feet of track showcases 120 locomotives, 1,000 freight cars, 80 passenger cars, five rail yards and four stations.

Modernist tree house perched over a deep-woods creek.

Chattanooga’s wide river winds through green forested hills, mixing panoramas of solitude with urban views. “The number of people coming here to kayak, bike, hike and mountain bike has been off the charts,” said Minya James, recreation specialist at the recently renovated Outdoor Chattanooga complex. The Tennessee River’s tributaries include far-from-the-madding-crowd Lookout Creek, overlooked by the new Paddler’s Perch.

At Chattanooga Nature Center’s visitor center, Susan Russell gives me Paddler’s Perch rental details ($35 a night for two, $10 per additional guest) and a trail-map leading to Blue Heron Boardwalk, an elaborate tree house, and enclosures protecting several red wolves, an endangered species. I spot one slumbering beneath shade-trees.

A walkway zigzags up to Paddler’s Perch. The roomy cabin’s screened windows overlook the dock, trees, and thickets of native plants.

No electricity leaves you unconnected, the better to watch the neighbors—hawks, herons, turtles, crickets. There’s no room service; bring water bottles to fetch drinking and wash water at the Nature Center; pack sleeping bag, flashlight, garbage bags, and bug repellent. BYOB—bring your own boat—or rent a canoe at the center.

Sleep on a hang-gliding airfield.

A short drive past Ruby Falls, on the northwest Georgia border, is Lookout Mountain Flight Park. While waiting to take my tandem flight—a pro in control and me hanging on for a thrilling soar with the birds—l ask about the buildings scattered on the field’s perimeter. Constructed for staff and hardcore regulars, the cabins and lofts are now being rented to guests, says instructor Dan Zink.

So for under $70 a night for a private cabin, you can lodge with 360-degree views of broccoli-green treed mountains, aero-tug takeoffs, sky-high releases, and humans soaring like birds and landing with huge grins.

Back in my room

My hotel was not without adventure. A long hot shower, the perfect tonic after hours of bicycling, hiking, and hang-gliding, set off the smoke detector. Be advised, it’s hard to ring the front-desk for help as an earsplitting alarm blasts overhead. Promptly dispatched, the building engineer recommended that next shower, I shut the bathroom door to confine the steam.

A typical friendly Chattanoogan, the engineer was eager to chat. I wasn’t, feeling underdressed in a robe. So I ushered him out, hit the bed, and gave thanks that what my hotel lacked in novelty, it made up for with comfort.

For more information: Chattanooga Take Me There (visitors bureau): (800) 322-3344; www.chattanoogafun.com

Lodging:

Delta Queen: (423) 468-4500; www.deltaqueenhotel.net

Chattanooga Choo Choo: (423) 266-5000; www.choochoo.com

Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding cabins and lofts: 800-688-5637; www.hanglide.com

Paddler’s Perch Cabin at Chattanooga Nature Center: (423) 821-1160 ext. 102; www.chattanooganaturecenter.org

Dining:

Back Inn Cafe at Bluff View Art District: (800) 725-8338, www.bluffviewartdistrict.com/

Taco Mamacita: (423) 648-6262; tacomamacita.com

Sluggos North: (423) 752-5224; www.urbanspoon.com

Playing:

Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding: www.hanglide.com

Ruby Falls cave and underground waterfall: www.rubyfalls.com

Rock City gardens and enchanted trails: www.seerockcity.com

Chattanooga festivals: www.chattanoogafun.com

Outdoor Chattanooga bicycling and kayaking: www.outdoorchattanooga.com

About Robin Tierney

Tierney is a full-time freelance writer who covers art and artists, health, cuisine, and the outdoors. When traveling, this avid (some say intrepid) cyclist looks for offbeat, intriguing places, inventive eco-friendly ventures, and hiking, biking, and water trails that provide communion with natural wonders. Side-projects have ranged from writing canine-care guides, veganized recipes, and mindful living tipsheets for nonprofit groups to building a near-net-zero, Earth-friendly homestead by the ocean in Florida.

Tierney’s articles have appeared in regional and national newspapers, travel, business, and arts magazines, and other media (including very short works etched on sand, ice, and random signposts).