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Tennessee & Atlanta Vacation

April 23rd, 2011

I can’t believe how quickly our vacation came and went! I wish I could be paid to tour the zoos and aquariums of this great country; how awesome would that be?

Saturday, April 16

We left home around 8 am and stopped in Louisville, Kentucky for lunch at Tumbleweed. The food and service were fine but the place was really dirty.

We drove a few more hours and arrived in Nashville, Tennessee in the late afternoon in the area of the now defunct Opryland looking for food and entertainment since it looked like a hot spot, only to find the large mall, Opryland Mills, was closed due to flooding. We drove around the area a bit and then headed to the Loveless Cafe where I fell in love with biscuits and blackberry preserves.

Loveless Cafe

After a frustrating hunt for a hotel, we ended up staying overnight at Comfort Suites in Franklin, Tennessee. It was one of those outdoor entrance hotels that I really don’t care for, but it wasn’t bad for one night. They had free internet and breakfast which was nice.

Sunday, April 17

After breakfast we headed back into the city to visit Nashville Zoo which was the best amongst the zoos we toured. I almost felt guilty for getting in free due to our membership at our local zoo. I love how much land each animal is given and how realistic their exhibits are made to look. Most of the enclosures allow good photo ops as well which is always a bonus. I even got a decent photo of a red panda and believe me, that’s not easy. They are always either sleeping or have their back turned. It’s like they know how cute they are and don’t want you to capture it.

Red Panda

After the zoo we grabbed some steak tacos with the best hot sauce from a little hole in the wall place and drove two hours to Chattanooga. We drove up Lookout Mountain to see the Incline Railway, also nicknamed the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. We didn’t ride it but got some great views from the top as well as at the base of the mountain once we came back down.

Incline Railway

From there we drove two hours to Atlanta and looked around the downtown area for accommodations. We didn’t care for the hotels in our price range so we drove a bit away from the city and ended up at a real nice Staybridge Suites near Perimeter Mall. The front desk manager gave us a great rate and was very helpful.

We had dinner at Boneheads where I tried salmon for the first time and it was amazing! The cucumber lime and yogurt sauce really complimented the grilled flavor. I originally ordered mahi mahi but they ran out so they substituted the salmon which luckily was really good since I was nervous about trying it. As an apology we were each given free dessert – a slice of keylime cheesecake – which was so good I inhaled my entire piece even though I was already stuffed from my delicious dinner.

Monday, April 18

We visited Zoo Atlanta as soon as they opened and headed straight for the giant pandas. Neither of us were terribly impressed with the rest of the zoo even though we got some nice pictures. It felt like the animals were too crowded and the zoo was laid out in a way that it was easy to miss parts of it. That being said, the baby panda was worth the visit alone. The last time we saw any giant pandas was something like nine years ago when we visited San Diego.

Baby Panda

After seeing everything the zoo had to offer, including riding their little train, we decided to check out the Silver Skillet which had been featured on the Food Network. I had the breaded pork chops which were really good and we shared a slice of their homemade lemon ice-box pie which was voted one of the “5 Best Pies in the USA” by Life Magazine. I have to say, I didn’t understand the rating. It was ok, but nothing to write home about.

Silver Skillet

After lunch we were feeling a little run down so we headed back to the hotel to relax. I read my Kindle for a bit and then took a nap before we had dinner at Tin Drum Asian Cafe. I had the sesame chicken and Joe had the pad thai. It was ok and the food was fresh but it wasn’t outstanding.

Tuesday, April 19

After a fantastic complimentary breakfast, including the best waffles ever, we visited Georgia Aquarium. I have mixed feelings about that place. While it looks very colorful and clean inside, I don’t think it was worth the $80 we spent between general admission and tickets to the new dolphin exhibit, Dolphin Tales. I can respect the effort they put into the production, but I found it to be a snooze-fest.

The aquarium also has the worst problem with accurate signage and traffic flow which is desperately needed based on how ridiculously crowded it was. Most exits from the Dolphin Tales theater were not available and there was even a door labeled alternate exit that was anything but. I had read online you could view the dolphins without a ticket to the show but the only viewing window we could find was right outside the theater which was completely packed, not to mention you couldn’t even access that area without first showing your theater ticket. So if there was a way to see the dolphins elsewhere they didn’t make it easy to find at all.

In all I found there weren’t really that many exhibits in the aquarium but it seemed huge because of the way everything is laid out where there’s a big open area in the middle and different exhibits branch out from there. It is very modern, however, compared to all the other aquariums we’ve visited.


We left the aquarium around 1 pm and drove the two hours back to Chattanooga, stopping along the way for a quick lunch at Krystal, which based on the history of the establishment, is a nearly carbon copy of White Castle which opened a decade before Krystal came into existence. The only exception is that Krystal burgers are slightly larger and come standard with mustard in addition to the pickles and onions. They taste just like sliders although the buns are more moist.

Even though it was late afternoon by the time we arrived in Chattanooga we decided to try our luck at the Chattanooga Zoo and were greeted by a nearly deserted parking lot. That should have been our first clue how disappointing it would be. Don’t get me wrong, I think they did a nice job with the exhibits they have, there’s just not much to speak of, and considering how much empty lawn they have near the entrance, and the over-sized parking lot, they could easily expand. The blue and gold macaw did try to welcome us by coming down off his perch to wave, however. He was my favorite. And we got in free so that was cool.

Blue and gold Macaw

We were at the zoo less than an hour before heading to a Staybridge Suites near the expressway. We were disappointed to find the rate was much higher than we paid in Atlanta, plus they gave us a handicap room which meant no kitchen counter or even a bathroom counter.

We had dinner at O’Charley’s which seems like the South’s version of Bennigan’s. Or maybe it’s the other way around since I’m not sure which came first. In any case, their brownie lover’s brownie is, to use a very out-dated phase, off the hook. Yum-O! I definitely gained five pounds by eating it, or perhaps only two since I had the mini version which was still fully satisfying, and worth every bite.

Wednesday, April 20

Our last destination was Tennessee Aquarium, which while clearly older than Georgia Aquarium, blew it out of the water (pun intended). I love how this aquarium is set up so traffic keeps flowing and you don’t miss a thing! It’s no wonder it’s rated the top aquarium in America. We did the Ocean Journey building first where I got to pet a shark. It took about an hour for us to see everything in that building and then we did the River Journey building. In both buildings you ride an escalator to the top and then work your way down through exhibits. It’s brilliant and they fit a ton of animals in there, not to mention lots of my favorite of them all – jellyfish!


After seeing it all we decided to grab lunch at Big River Grill a block or so away from the aquarium (I love how the campus is set up – everything is easy to find). We shared the fish tacos which were awesome – mahi mahi sautéed with Cajun spices, in a crisp blue corn tortilla wrapped with a soft flour tortilla with pepper jack cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo and avocado remoulade and served with black beans and Spanish rice. Doesn’t that description just make your mouth water? When we explained to the waitress that we were splitting the dish she had the kitchen plate each taco (the dish comes with two large tacos) with half the serving of rice and beans to accommodate. I thought that was incredibly thoughtful of them so we left her an extra generous tip.

Instead of driving to Louisville, Kentucky and staying the night so we could visit the zoo the next day as we originally planned, we decided to drive straight home from Chattanooga. We were both a bit burnt-out on zoos, our feet were sore, and we missed sleeping in our own bed. It took about 9 hours but with the time zone change we were home before 9:30 pm.


Southern hospitality is no myth – once we got into Tennessee everyone was incredibly nice, and not just at the zoos or restaurants but also at fast food places and gas stations which you don’t always see. We went through the drive-thru at Wendy’s to grab some food between Chattanooga and Atlanta and asked for cup of ice. The woman not only filled the cup to the top with ice but she also included a straw, anticipating we were going to use it for some drinks we already had in the car. That’s the kind of service we received from everyone we encountered during our trip. It just blew my mind and put Tennessee on the list of possible places to move when the kids are older. I really hated coming back to the rude Chicago area where everyone drives like an asshole. It just wasn’t like that in Tennessee and Georgia. I don’t think it was vacation goggles either because I noticed the shift from good to bad as we got into Kentucky.

Since we decided to wing it with hotel accommodations, which we have never done before, we wasted a lot of time looking for a place in a decent neighborhood. For future reference I will make it a point to find a hotel that’s not only near the expressway, but also by an indoor mall. They are always in a nice safe neighborhood, at least in our experience. Staybridge Suites has been added to our short list of affordable accommodations that feel the most like home and are extremely clean with free breakfast and wireless internet.

Speaking of breakfast, I want to buy a waffle iron now! I’ve been spoiled by the waffle makers at the hotels we stayed at and will never be able, or willing, to eat a frozen waffle again.

Photo Sets

Nashville Zoo – Perfect Pixels // Flickr
Incline Railway in Chattanooga – Perfect Pixels // Flickr
Zoo Atlanta – Perfect Pixels // Flickr
Georgia Aquarium – Perfect Pixels // Flickr
Chattanooga Zoo – Perfect Pixels // Flickr
Tennessee Aquarium – Perfect Pixels // Flickr

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  1. April 24th, 2011 at 08:11 | #1

    I’ve wanted to go to the Loveless Cafe since I saw them on the Food Network… those biscuits looked good!

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