There’s no use pretending there is any substitute for the sugar-white sand beneath your toes, but let’s be grateful that there are some fun restaurants and activities that can shake up your routine or serve as an excitement-builder for the real thing. Until you can pack for a getaway, consider:
Dine at the Fish Market for plates heaping with shrimp, crab claws, and the freshest fish. The 280 and downtown locations have great details in the design (downtown has more of a Mediterranean feel with cypress trees outside and white stucco walls inside) and all locations have patio dining.
Joe’s Crab Shack on hwy 280 has a sand play area for the kids just like the like the dining spots at the beach. It’s a chain, yes, but I would argue that the best time to visit such a chain is when you can’t visit a bona-fide crab shack on the coast. (You aren’t one of those people who goes to Pensacola and eats at Red Lobster, are you?)
Alabama Splash Adventure Wave Pool and sand beach – it’s completely contrived, but on the plus side, no worries about sharks at dusk.
This we can do; heck, we’re already in the Appalachian foothills. Choose from the trails at Oak Mountain, Ruffner Mountain, or a number of other spots.
Head to Shades Crest road for a burger at Tip Top Grill in Bluff Park. No kidding, this is a fantastic view and the burgers are tasty. Here’s a little secret: Breakfast is good, too! If you have early risers, head to Tip Top for a biscuit and watch as sun warms up the valley below. Wouldn’t recommend the restroom, though (small, outdated) so have everyone go before you leave the house.
For a creek side experience, head to The Depot in Helena, which is literally next to a bright red caboose (photo op!). The train really does pass by here, but you need to be heading to the nearby park that gives you access to the water and a play area. There aren’t the big, smooth rocks of the Smokey Mountain rapids, but the advantage is that the water isn’t rapid in the first place. It feels more like a community fishing hole, and did we mention that the burgers and hot dogs at The Depot are great? Dine on the back patio and enjoy the view if you don’t care to wade in.
If the Big Apple is too far a stretch, settle for the Birmingham Art Museum and its lovely cafe. From there you look out upon courtyards that could be an urban oasis in any city.
Max’s Delicatessen – have piled-high Ruben, potato latkes or matzo ball soup. It’s not the Carnegie, but the food is still delicious.
Theater productions – quit griping and check out the live theater scene in Birmingham, not to “support the arts” but because it is good stuff. Birmingham Festival Theater will present The Last Flapper June 13 – 29. The play is about Zelda Fitzgerald, Alabama’s most famous party girl. Don’t tell me you would go see DeCaprio in Gatsby yet miss out on showing Zelda some love.
Trattoria Centrale – This is your Little Italy bistro, complete with little tables and freshly made pizzas and salad. The brightly polished espresso machine is a thing of beauty.
Cheesecake Factory – a chain, yes, but let’s not get snobbish over good cheesecake. The Factory has an abundance of cheesecake selections, an outdoor patio overlooking the mountains, and some killer gelato. It’s the closest we can get to Rome. Go during the week and at off hours to avoid a wait.
There’s no tram or three o’clock parade, but two places in town have a particularly Epcot-like vibe inside:
Olexa’s, Mountain Brook – Consider it an indoor Parisian street corner complete with street lamps and french blue shutters. Even if Olexa’s were completely generic, the food would distinguish it as the perfect spot for lunch (warning: only the most secure of men is not self conscious eating here). Try a slice of quiche or the wonderful almond chicken salad and DO NOT MISS the triple layer chocolate cake. Get the ganache on top and repeat: “French women don’t get fat.”
Iguana Grill, Hoover – See a previous post. You can go anyplace for Mexican (and honestly, Iguana isn’t distinctive insofar as the food goes), but you can’t enter such a complete escape to another world in any of the other strip mall spots.