Strapped into a harness and lying only a couple of inches from the soft, dew-wet grass airstrip at Lookout Mountain Flight Park in Georgia, I close my eyes, swallow hard, and then say a little prayer. Okay. Scratch that. A big prayer.
I was about to hang-glide for the first time in my life, and I had changed my mind about going, oh, say, a hundred times in the last minute.
Petrified yet excited, I made the final decision to take the flight only at the very last moment. When the plane powered up, I knew there was no turning back. As the one-seater tow-plane roared down the airstrip, I finally snapped open my eyes as our kite-like contraption reached lift-off speed. As the ground grew farther and farther away, my tandem pilot, Eric Graper, and I swept skyward, my arms wrapped around him in a death grip that I wouldn't release for all the mint juleps in Georgia.
"The tow-plane is going to let go now," Eric said after we had been aloft for a few minutes. "Then we're going to drop. Are you ready?"
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Ready or not, the rope snapped away, the hang-glider did indeed drop a few tummy-churning feet as the plane sped away. Next I heard a loud screeching and then thumpity-thumpity-thumpity, which turned out to be my screaming like a schoolgirl and my heart pounding wildly with exhilaration mixed with numbing fear.
Soaring into the wind underneath a canopy of gray clouds on that blustery day, I peered 2,000 feet down at the honeycomb of ancient mountains and forests at the intersection where Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama meld together. My fear melted away at the incredible view.
"Do Wonder Woman!" Eric shouted above the wind. "Let go of that death grip you have on me and do a Wonder Woman!"
More thumpity-thump-thumps as I nervously let go. Tentatively raising my arms into the wind, for a few magical, incredible seconds I felt more like Nike, the winged goddess of victory, than Wonder Woman.
Back down on the grass airstrip, my knees still shaky and my head still light, I was surprised that I immediately wanted to go again. I had conquered my fear of hang gliding, but even better is that I'm now convinced I know how angels fly.
My husband and I were on a quick getaway to Chattanooga, Tenn., which is just a few miles from Lookout Mountain. While Chattanooga may have a funny name, it is a fantastic place to visit — and if you're plucky enough, to hang glide.
The name Chattanooga emerged from a Creek Indian word meaning "rock coming to a point." That, of course, would be Lookout Mountain, which meanders from Chattanooga to northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama.
Back in the early 1980s, I had first visited there to see Rock City (Yes, really! See Rock City!). At the time, Chattanooga was a dirty, smoky industrial city filled with pollution — so much so that drivers had to use their headlights during the daylight — and was going nowhere fast. Even the Environmental Protection Agency got into the act and proclaimed it "America's Dirtiest City," a fact that Walter Cronkite reported to the world.
Long story short, an incensed Chattanooga cleaned up its act, and in the past couple of decades has scrubbed itself so shiny that it's now a centerpiece city of the South filled with culture, history, arts, entertainment, shopping, and antiquing. And did I mention hang gliding?
"Chattanooga is one of the most transformed cities in America," says Thom Benson, Communications Manager at the Tennessee Aquarium & IMAX Theater. "And now we have so many natural and man-made attractions that draw people from all over."
This trip was our third return trip in 10 years' time, and every visit brings something new in this ever-changing, ever-evolving city.
First, though, there are plenty of noteworthy attractions that have been around for a while. At Lookout Mountain, you'll want to visit these true slices of Americana: Rock City Gardens, Ruby Falls, and the Incline Railway where you ride along "America's Most Amazing Mile" from the top of Lookout Mountain to the valley below.
We really enjoyed seeing the Tennessee Aquarium again. The aquarium was the first I had ever been to, and I've been to plenty of them since, but this one really is a sight to "sea" with its thousands of animals, three living forests, and spectacular jellyfish exhibit.
So, what's new in Chattanooga since our last visit three years ago? The Aquarium has added its "River Gorge Explorer," a state-of-the-art high speed catamaran that takes guests on a two-hour journey into the Tennessee River Gorge to see the wildlife, wildflowers, and wilderness of Tennessee's own version of a "grand canyon." I couldn't help but marvel at the way the catamaran zips upriver at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour and then can stop on a dime, sending spray every which-away.
For a bit of tame nightlife, we went to the Jukebox Junction Family Theater, Chattanooga's newest live entertainment venue that started only two years ago and features hits from the 1950s and '60s and the cornball "Elwood Smooch's Choo-Choo Boogie Variety Show." Remember, this is Tennessee, so there has to be a little bit of nostalgic hillbilly tossed in with the glitz.
You'll want to stay downtown so that you're within walking distance of the Aquarium, museums, restaurants, the Bluff View Arts District, and the 10-mile-long scenic Tennessee River Walk. We stayed at the wonderfully renovated Doubletree Hotel. On our first trip to Chattanooga, we stayed at the same property when another chain owned it and was in desperate need of renovations. We were happy to see that it, like Chattanooga, had transformed itself and is now a four-star hotel.
If you prefer quirky, try one of the train car rooms at the world-renowned Chattanooga Choo-Choo, a member of the Historic Hotels of America, or for something more intimate, the Stone Fort Inn or Bluff View Inn, both small boutique hotels. And Marriott has several properties downtown to fit every budget, including the Chattanooga Marriott, a Courtyard and Residence Inn.
In the South, it's all about the food, so you'll like these recommendations. The original Sticky Fingers barbecue house is in Chattanooga, but also try the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Station House where "singing servers" provide live entertainment. We were serenaded by Elvis as he served our dinner. Yeah, it's hokey, but fun.
We also tried Rembrandt's Coffee House and the Back Inn Cafe in the Bluff View Art District and savored every morsel. We lunched at the Public House and dined on some of the best Vidalia Onion rings to ever come out of a frying pan. For dinner, we sampled the American-Greek cuisine at Niko's Southside Grill and gave it a definite thumbs-up.
Still hungry? Try the Chattanooga Bakery's MoonPie, a treat that's the mother of all southern icons. A MoonPie pairs exceptionally well with an RC Cola and is best served after hang gliding to help soothe the throat after all the screaming like a schoolgirl.
IF YOU GO:
For more information and links to hotels, attractions, restaurants, festivals and events, and airlines, visit www.ChattanoogaFun.com.