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The Chattanooga Choo Choo is long gone, but the Tennessee city has much more to offer

Posted: September 10, 2017 at 1:52 a.m.

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Growing up in St. Louis, we often drove the family truckster (station wagon) to Florida to visit relatives. And whenever we passed through Chattanooga, my dad belted out a few lines: "Pardon me boy ... is this the Chattanooga Choo Choo?"

By the time he forgot the rest of the lyrics, Chattanooga was a glimpse in the rearview mirror. And, perhaps a few decades ago, nobody could fault us for it.

In 1969, Walter Cronkite called it "the dirtiest city in America." A year after that, the last train left the once-bustling Terminal Station. The Choo Choo was the nickname for the Cincinnati Southern Railroad's wood-burning steam locomotive that traveled from Ohio to Chattanooga.

Since then, Chattanooga has transformed into a forward-looking, green-conscious place that embraces its history while chugging forward.

Its Tennessee Aquarium celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and has helped revitalize a once-neglected riverfront. In 2010, the city was the first to offer gigabit-per-second internet services to all homes and businesses. And Terminal Station became a hotel complex, with recent updates to hotel rooms, new restaurants and a new Songbirds Guitar Museum.

I recently drove the 450 miles from St. Louis to Chattanooga with our son, 9, and daughter, 7, during a spring break trip. I had properly educated the kids by showing them Glenn Miller performances on YouTube. With the lyrics buzzing through our brains ("Woo, woo, Chattanooga, there you are!") we enjoyed more than enough eating, sightseeing and entertainment options to keep everyone happy.

THE CHATTANOOGA

CHOO CHOO HOTEL

Today, Terminal Station, built in 1909, is the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, which sits on the edge of downtown. While they touted the newly renovated hotel rooms, we had reserved four nights in a Pullman train car room. The lobby and domed ceiling of the old station wowed us as we checked in, as did a glimpse into the attached and newly renovated cafe, the Frothy Monkey, where we enjoyed a light dinner. While the room/car was otherwise comfortable, the carpet was a bit shabby and the bathroom floor tiles cracked and wobbly.

That first night, raindrops steadily drummed the curved metal roof, soothing us to sleep. The next morning, drops on my head jolted me out of bed. A text to the front desk got us moved to one of those newly remodeled rooms. The stay wasn't a loss: The kids loved the indoor pool, climbing on an old steam locomotive like the original Choo Choo and playing giant checkers at the hotel's Glenn Miller Gardens. Next door was a stop for the city's free electric shuttle, which was clean, efficient and took us where we needed to go downtown. Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, (423) 266-5000 or choochoo.com, starting at $119 a night.

THE TENNESSEE AQUARIUM

The two main buildings of the aquarium have pointed glass roof lines that make up part of the Chattanooga skyline along the Tennessee River. The buildings, River Journey and Ocean Journey, offer vastly different experiences. A new Lemur Forest exhibit with an improved stingray pool opened in March on the roof of the ocean building, where we visited penguins and jellyfish and circled down and around through a giant saltwater tank that houses several sharks and two sea turtles.

One turtle, named Oscar, lost part of his back legs and tail in an encounter with a boat propeller, but swims around just fine, explained a guide. Stuffed Oscar dolls with partial legs and tails were -- of course -- available in the gift shop.

River Journey took us through a room filled with tanks of seahorses, turtles and wildlife found in rivers worldwide. Otters played in their rooftop habitat, and giant catfish and freshwater rays swam slowly by in the River Giants tank. We also watched an electric eel tweet. (Yes, its electric discharges trigger its own Twitter account: EelectricMiguel)

After a quick and passable lunch in a nearby food court outside the aquarium, we crossed the street to catch Wild Africa at the aquarium's 3-D Imax theater, the only one in the country with a laser projection system. The underwater scenes looked so realistic, it felt as if we were back at the aquarium. Tennessee Aquarium, general adult admission $29.95, child 3-12 $18.95, (800) 262-0695 or tnaqua.org

ROCK CITY AND RUBY FALLS

"See Rock City," said the barn. "See Ruby Falls," said the billboard. "See Rock City and Ruby Falls," said the third barn and fourth billboard. "Fine," we said. These attractions, just about five miles from Chattanooga at Lookout Mountain, have entertained tourists for so long the historical kitsch is part of the experience. Both places still deliver.

Garnet and Frieda Carter developed Rock City among their land's giant rock formations and opened it to the public in 1932. Tourists still shimmy through Fat Man's Squeeze and obey the plea to "see seven states" at Lover's Leap. We enjoyed the swinging bridge, the 100-foot fake waterfall and looking for gnome statues, but we were most enchanted by the black-lighted dioramas inside Fairyland Caverns, which date to the 1940s. Snow White, the three men in the tub and Humpty Dumpty glowed like performers at a fairy-tale nightclub.

In 1928, cave enthusiast Leo Lambert drilled into the side of Lookout Mountain and crawled through the cave for several hours to discover the magnificent, 145-foot waterfall more than 1,100 feet below. Lambert returned with his wife, Ruby, to show her the waterfall, which he named after her. "I don't know about you, but if I crawled through a tunnel for hours in a dress to see a waterfall, I'd expect it to be named after me, too," said our male guide, who had clearly run through this script before.

The walk to the falls took us by formations such as the "dragon's foot," the "potato chips" and the now-trendy "bacon." We heard the falls on the approach, and saw it upon the guide's dramatic flip of a light switch. The lights changed color as we oohed and ahhed, took pictures, walked back the way we came and took the elevator back up. Rock City, adult general admission $19.95, child 3-12 $11.95, (706) 820-2531 or seerockcity.com; Ruby Falls, adult general admission $19.95, child 3-12 $11.95, (423) 821-2544 or rubyfalls.com, combo tickets available

CREATIVE DISCOVERY MUSEUM

My son claimed he was "too old" for a children's museum, but his grumbles stopped upon our approach to the downtown building. A window wall showcases a two-story climbing and water play structure inside, where they tried out musical instruments, dug for dinosaur bones, connected circuits and dodged other kids on field trips.

A rooftop "fun factory" with machines to spin and ropes to pull didn't keep their attention too long, but we enjoyed the view of downtown from a lookout tower, which contained information about the green building practices of the Carmike Majestic 12 Theater next door. Creative Discovery Museum, general admission for ages 2 and up $13.95, cdmfun.org

WALNUT STREET BRIDGE, PARKS AND ART

The historic Walnut Street Bridge was slated for demolition until community members helped raise money for its preservation. It reopened in 1993. It connects the Riverfront Plaza around the aquarium across the Tennessee River to Coolidge Park and the funky shops of Frazier Avenue on the north shore. We walked across the wooden-plank bridge one afternoon with the promise of Clumpie's Ice Cream, a local favorite, on the other side.

We rode the park's restored 123-year-old carousel, complete with carved Civil War soldier figures standing sentinel on the calliope. The kids climbed on carved animal sculptures (the fountains around them weren't yet turned on for the season) and played a snail-shaped hopscotch game permanently embedded in the sidewalk.

Chattanooga is brimming with works of public art, most in thanks to the growing city program Public Art Chattanooga. Many sculptures were interactive (a brick couch and boat, wooden peg "pixels" on a giant pegboard) and captivated the kids. Back on the other side of the bridge, the Hunter Museum of American Art perched atop a bluff above the river. The museum is in an Edwardian-style mansion built in 1904 with modern additions. The terraces offer sweeping views of the city's bridges and of kayakers and rowers on the river. Hunter Museum of American Art, adult admission $15, children 17 and under free, (423) 267-0968 or huntermuseum.org

OTHER ATTRACTIONS

The Tivoli Theater, one of three historic theaters downtown, is an easy stop along the free shuttle line. This year's lineup includes The Sound of Music, Kinky Boots and Jersey Boys.

The Moon Pie, Chattanooga's marshmallow-filled, graham and chocolate treat, turns 100 this year. The general store downtown includes a lunch counter, free Moon Pie samples and plenty of Moon Pie trinkets to help you celebrate. If Moon Pies aren't your thing, maybe chicken and waffles-flavored taffy is, which you can bag up along with traditional kinds.

The next time my family takes a road trip in our family truckster, I'm not sure we'll make it as far as Florida. We might see Chattanooga in the distance, start singing, and decide we need to stop again. Woo woo!

Visit chattanoogafun.com

Travel on 09/10/2017