Long-time C&C readers will recognize my cousins, who have popped up frequently in these parts over the past decade, particularly each summer when we (attempt) to organize an annual Cousins Weekend in a different locale.
This year, we couldn’t get our act together to all get away in the summer, so we pushed our trip back to early fall. But where would we go—past get-togethers have included Lake Martin, Alabama; Destin, Florida and Tullahoma/Nashville, Tennessee for family weddings—and how did we find a location convenient to all of us, who are spread out in Memphis and the Nashville areas?
Luckily, one of us is well-versed in road trips and took the reins. (It’s me, you guys; I took the reins.)
Picking a Location
When you’ve got a group of 10—though two couldn’t make it, so it wound up being a group of eight instead—scattered all over Tennessee and North Carolina and want to pick somewhere central, you’ve got to go where the rental houses are. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find a house to accommodate so many unless you look for coastal areas or a region near a lake with ample recreational facilities.
In the beginning, we toyed with the idea of Kentucky Bourbon Country (too far for the Memphis folks), the Smoky Mountains (too crowded in peak foliage season) and even the waterfalls around Nashville (no houses that could accommodate all of us) before confining our quest to Northern Alabama.
I had searches up on VRBO and HomeAway and finally found the perfect place for us thanks to my reliable Airbnb: a four-bedroom house on Pickwick Lake/the Tennessee River with plenty of communal space for chilling, cooking and playing cards.
Best of all, the price was right: The eight of us paid a total of $761 for the weekend, versus some of the other homes we found that were that for a single night (and thus, way out of our budget). And we were right on the lake, too! You can’t beat that morning view.
Creating a Killer Weekend Itinerary
I’ve been known to create a pretty fun weekend itinerary or two in my years of travel, if I do say so myself, and Cousins Weekend is no different. I like to ensure that everyone eats and drinks to their heart’s content and that we leave no local spot uncovered. After all, most of us only have a few free weekends a year to go out and explore—gotta make them count, right?
As such, SVV and I got down there before the rest of them to scope out the terrain. After picking up our rental car in Tullahoma on Friday morning, we hit the road and drove two hours to the town of Florence—with a couple of stops along the way (an Amish market, a few street murals, the usual).
I’ve never been to the Florence area, which also comprises Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia, despite growing up just two hours away. But ever since moving back five years ago, I’ve heard there’s a lot going on down in the quadrant of towns, and I’ve long wanted to see it for myself.
So I guess you could say I used Cousins Weekend as a way to check another Southern road trip off my list!
By the time we arrived in Florence, it was high time for lunch; SVV was getting hangry, and that’s never a good thing for either of us.
Who, me? Grumpy? Never!
My colleague Corinne had told us to eat all the things at Odette, and given she went to college in Northern Alabama, we didn’t question her judgment. Lunch and cocktails at Odette it was!
This cute Court Street bistro had a great selection of lunch items, but the server raved about the burger that for a change, SVV and I both ordered the same thing (and licked our plates when we were through).
After we were through, we powered through the food comas and strolled around downtown Florence. What a delight of a town you are, Florence. So many cute boutiques, cafes and the like—why can’t every mid-sized city be so charming?
Word on the street is that Billy Reid having his flagship store on Court Street has done wonders for this town. We didn’t go in—not within this writer’s shopping budget, unfortunately—but I’m going to attempt to try my hand at nabbing an invite to his annual Shindig each summer in hopes that I have an excuse to next time.
On our way out of Florence, we stopped at the main entrance of University of North Alabama for a bit of a wander.
We had heard that they had a pair of lions, which I only assumed to be statues guarding the entrance.
Nope, the real deal! Meet Una and Leo III, the UNA mascots. They live in a lion habitat right next door to the president’s house.
Corinne also had told me to drive over the O’Neal Bridge to shoot the Old Railroad Bridge, and once we did, we spotted a cool park on the Florence side of the river and headed back just in time to catch the sunset.
And we were so glad we did: The golden glow of November really stole the show, and McFarland Park was a diamond in the rough: RV campers, tent campers and day trippers alike spread out through the tall pine trees comprising this sprawling riverfront park.
Then, we drove the 45 minutes on to Cherokee to meet the rest of the family, have dinner in the house and get our bourbon on.
We woke up and cooked brunch at the rental house—bacon, mimosas and orange-vanilla French toasted dusted with powdered sugar for those of you who were curious—watched some football then moseyed into Tuscumbia for a late lunch at The Palace.
This soda fountain and sandwich shop occupies an 1833 building, and it’s got that sort of old-school nostalgia that never gets, well, old.
Tuscumbia also happens to be the home of Helen Keller, though we did not visit her birthplace. Instead, we heard a singing fountain and were drawn down to Spring Park where there’s a waterfall, playground and plenty of fowl to chase.
Next, we headed into the Shoals to attempt to visit a few of the prominent music studios like the Muscle Shoals Sound and Fame. Only, we got there at 2:30pm to find they all closed at 2pm! Rookie error not checking that beforehand, but I inaccurately assumed if an attraction was open on a Saturday, it would at least stay open until 4 at the earliest.
Oh well. Lesson learned.
Instead, we did what this crew does best: We went to drink beer. Last year, I met Rob and Michelle, the good folks behind Singin’ River Brewing, while they were releasing their product to the Nashville market, and I was excited to check out their brewery for myself.
It’s a very spacious, dog-friendly converted warehouse with plenty of TVs for watching the games (go Vols!) and an adjoining facility, tentatively called the Oak Barrel Room, that’s debuting next year as a live music venue.
We had a couple of rounds before taking a taxi to our next stop: the Marriott for a drink in its 360 Grille, a rotating bar on the top floor of the hotel.
After a quick round there, it was off to Wildwood Tavern for more craft beer and craft hot dogs (yes, that is a thing!) in addition to the friendliest service we found in Florence. Go to this casual tavern if you’re looking for a laid-back experience and exposure to some unique brews.
The crew got up and moving early and we were out of our rental house by 10:30am. SVV and I decided to take a different route home through Huntsville, which led us to the darling town of Decatur, which was mostly shuttered for the day (see: anywhere on a Sunday in the Deep South) but which I’d love to return to on a weekday and check out more in depth.
A three-hour drive turned into seven as we stopped at plenty of other places along the way, but isn’t the art of unpredictability the beauty of a road trip in the first place?
What It Cost
- Rental car: $62.26 for three days
- Lodging: $96/person
- Gas: $19.30 total
- Groceries: $40/person
- Nice lunch out in Florence: $23/person
- Casual dinner out in Florence: $13/person
- Pharmacy lunch in Tuscumbia: $8/person
- Trip to the brewery: $9/person
We took advantage of Enterprise’s weekend special, which runs from Friday morning through Monday morning at between $9.99 a day for a compact car to $19.99 for a full-size vehicle, and picked up a car in Tullahoma after dropping Ella off at her grandmother’s for the weekend. Because the prices were so cheap, we didn’t go with the lowest available option, but rather upgraded to something in the middle with the intermediate, then were charged another $10.11 (a rate of $.20/mile), because our round trip wound up clocking in at 360 miles, exceeding the promo of 100 miles a day. Note: This rate only applies to non-airport locations.
To be honest, for all car rentals, even when I’m flying in somewhere like our Washington trip over the holidays, I’ve started taking a cab to the rental car location nearest to—but not in—the airport, and it typically costs me about half the cost of renting directly from the airport when you deduct airport taxes. Just a little pro tip for you road warriors out there.
And $66 for a full three-day rental with a greenhouse gas emissions offset isn’t bad at all, considering it would have cost me more than that to get my car all gussied up—washed, vacuumed, oil changed—and ready for the trip! Not to mention, renting a car saved the wear on my aging Altima that just hit 100,000 miles. Plus, I didn’t have to clean out my well-stocked trunk—seriously, if you want to be broken down with anybody in the midst of an Apocalypse, it’s me—for our luggage and coolers full of food (and booze).
Your Turn to Plan
Even if you aren’t within driving distance of Alabama like we are, I encourage you to take advantage of your next free weekend and get out of town with family and friends. As you can see from my own experience, it doesn’t have to be an expensive ordeal. In fact, we spent less during our 48 hours in Florence than I do on a normal Nashville weekend.
Now, where will you go? Maybe it will even be Florence and the Shoals!