I like campy, cheap family vacations and I often find myself planning with just a few days’ notice. I just don’t have the time to plan ahead all the time. I’m starting to hear about fabulous fall break and holiday vacations that people already have figured out, and I’m not sure what to say–except that their conversation did spur me on to write this post. BUT, not a room is booked … yet. If you are looking for an incredible family vacation, on the cheap, and you are late to the Google search bar to find one, here’s hope. I’ve polled my best buds who travel like I do, and we’ve come up with some really good options, if I do say so myself. None require airfare and each is definitely under the radar, both of which can mean pennies saved and rooms that are available. Good things come out of saving a dime–you tend to look to the right and left a little bit more, usually discovering some incredible cafe or roadside dive along the way.
Are you ready? Here’s my list:
Cheap Vacay #1: Mentone, Alabama
Notable for hiking, waterfalls and mountain air
Mentone is a small town in DeKalb County, Alabama, and can be found on the Alabama side of Lookout Mountain, which is why so few people know about it. Here’s what Frances Niahos, one of our idea contributors today, has to say about this quaint mountain community:
Mentone is home to many private summer camps, including Camp Desoto, Camp Riverview, Camp Laney, and Alpine Camp. Believe me, there are camps galore in Mentone. The town is known for its lack of glamour, but does play host to a ton of quaint shops and restaurants.
As typical of any mountain retreat, there are tons of hiking trails and fly fishing is quite popular. The Little River Canyon National Preserve nearby is the deepest river gorge east of the Mississippi and is breathtaking. There are lots of impressive waterfalls in the area. Believe it or not, during the winter, Mentone is the one place to snow ski in Alabama, available at Cloudmont Ski and Golf Resort.
Where to Stay: There are tons of mountain cabins and homes for rent through VRBO, along with the famous gabled inn, The Mentone Springs Hotel. The Mentone Springs Hotel was built in 1884 and is home to two natural springs. Believed to have curative and restorative powers, the springs were a huge lure to area visitors back in the day. If you gravitate to old, historic (and perhaps haunted) inns as much as I do, then you’ll dig this hotel.
Where Eat: We’ve heard rave reviews about the Wildflower Cafe. Described by our Birmingham editor, Catherine Romero, as gourmet food in our country setting, the Wildflower Cafe gets high marks for their tomato pie, homemade desserts and herbal teas. Another suggestion is the Canyon Grille about 15 miles north from Mentone towards Chattanooga. The restaurant is BYOB and offers a great wood fired pizza.
Cheap Vacay # 2: Silver Comet Rails to Trail in Atlanta, Chief Ladiga 100 Mile Bike Ride
Notable for families who like active adventures
If you’re not familiar with the concept of rails to trails, you’re in for a treat with a trek down the Silver Comet Trail. Another of our contributors, Betsy Hindman, has a few thoughts to share about this trip:
Designed to reclaim old railroads routes for bikers, the rails to trails experience provides an inexpensive way for you and your family to exercise together and have a ton of fun.
This two-day trip starts at the Silver Comet Depot bike trail station outside Atlanta, where you can bike on easy, flat bike trails all the way to Anniston, Alabama. The roughly 66 mile-long Silver Comet Trail connects with the 33 mil- long Chief Ladiga Trail at the Alabama-Georgia line. Since it gets pretty darn hot in the summer, this trip is good for the fall and spring. The first real town you come to after leaving Atlanta is Rockmart. Rockmart is a good place for day trippers to say adieu and turn around, but if you’re in for the big adventure, keep reading.
Once at their final destination in Anniston, our family celebrated at the food court Chik Fil A and went to the movies. From Anniston, we took the Amtrak train back to Atlanta, which was a short ride. Just long enough to hit the bar car. Upon arrival, we grabbed a cab to pick up their truck, and spent the night in Atlanta. (Not saying this is cheap, but it could be with some research.) At the time, Amtrak wouldn’t allow bikes on the train so they drove our truck from Atlanta back to Anniston to pick up our bikes! All very worth it and fun. If you want to give your kids the treat of riding their bikes 100 miles, this is how to do it. Seriously, they’ll talk about it for a long time.
What to Eat: In Rockmart, there is a great place called Frankies’s Italian Restaurant. Serving authentic Italian homestyle food, you’ll find pictures and autographs of trail riders all over the walls. Also, there is a new restaurant, Bricks on South Marble, that caters to bikers and families. This trip is not necessarily about eating, so come prepared to eat à la convenience store some, too.
Where to Stay: Though you won’t find a Ritz Carlton along the way, there are some perfectly fine hotels that are located near the trail. For great information on where to stay and services, visit this website: bikesilvercomet.com.
Cheap Vacay # 3: Dale Hollow Lake
Notable for good old-fashioned camping and pontoon boats
Before you move right on to the next entry because you hate camping, I want you to know that I have done this trip about 4 times. Each time just gets better. One of Tennessee’s most beautiful lakes, Dale Hollow Lake offers pristine camping sites and motor boating opportunities and boasts the second largest population of bald eagles in the state. Every time our family has been, we’ve discovered gorgeous areas filled with butterflies, birds and plants.
Dale Hollow is so clear, it is used to teach people how to scuba dive. It’s only 107 miles from from Nashville, and 150 miles from Louisville, so it’s an easy trip to take as a weekend retreat.
The first time the Fox family went, we loaded two dogs, tents, grills, chairs and coolers into our john boat. Looking like the real life version of The Griswolds, we didn’t win any style points, but we got where we wanted to go. On our next visit, we stepped up and reserved a pontoon boat. This was much better, because pontoon boats are roomy enough when it comes to hauling all of your creature comforts to a camp site. The perfect camping spot is easily found along one of the many gravel bars along the shore, and once you’re set up at camp, you can cruise around, anchor your boat and enjoy a swim. (Call this main phone number to reserve a boat: 800-321-1669)
Where to stay: Your own tent, or a rented cabin on the lake.
Where to eat: Personally, when we camp, I like to make a pot of beef stew with s’mores and top it all off with a cool brewsky. If you want to dine out, though, there are almost 15+ marinas on Dale Hollow and five of them have restaurants. We’re not talking about filet mignon, but we are talking burgers, BLT’s and fries. After a night on the gravel bar, don’t underestimate how delicious these American delicacies can taste. Visit the Dale Hollow website to learn more restaurants like, Ollie’s, home of the 2 lb. burger. Oh, yeah! www.dalehollowlake.com
Cheap Vacay #4: Grayton Beach, Florida
Notable for: longs walks on the beach, sunsets and paddle boarding
Here’s what Jennifer Johnson has to say about this beach destination:
Grayton Beach is an awesome long weekend getaway. It is not a tough trip to leave work on a Thursday, stop in Birmingham for a quick overnight and keep going. While in Birmingham, check out The Hotel Highland, a boutique hotel with fun, modern decor. On your way to dinner at one of the many incredible nearby (aka within walking distance) restaurants, stop by the hotel’s martini bar for a cocktail. You can take advantage of some amazing dining opportunities in this premier Southern food town at places like Hot and Hot Fish club and The Highlands Bar and Grill. Of course, your last leg of the journey to Grayton the next day will include all the usual stop for bags of boiled peanuts RC Cola.
If you haven’t been to Grayton Beach, it is usually love at first site. Grayton is what Florida used to be like–rambling dirt roads, uncrowded beaches, bike trails and an incredible state park. There are a number of bike companies and paddle board companies, who’ll deliver your rentals to you. For one of the many, click here,
Where to Stay: Once again, there are tons of VRBO properties available, and lots of small condos. If you’re the adventurous type, Grayton Beach State Park offers both camping and cabins and is,in one word, gorgeous. You can book up to 11 months in advance, and I recommend not waiting until the last minute. For more information click> here.
Where to Eat: The most famous place in Grayton is the Red Bar. Even if you’re not staying in Grayton, a pilgrimage to the Red Bar is a must. Maybe it’s the cold beer or the greasy burgers, but it’s a keeper. Since seafood is in abundance, there are a number of other places to eat including Basmati’s, Goatfeathers and Cafe 30A.
Cheap Vacay # 5: Clarksdale, Mississippi
Notable for blues music and local culture
From Martha Podesta and Katherine Michalak, here’s what you need to know about a quick Memphis road trip to Clarksdsdale:
For those of you who grew up crooning “Take the Last Train to Clarksville, I’ll Meet You at the Station,” then stop reading, because we’re going to Clarksdale, as in Mississippi. Clarksdale is closely associated with the Memphis music scene, since it’s just a short drive south on Highway 61. Not only does this town sing the blues, it celebrates them too. A quick check on the Clarksdale Visitor Bureau and revealed the following roster:
- Ole Biscuit Blues Festival: October 4-5
- Second Street Blues Party: October 6-7
- Tennessee Williams Festival: October 12-13
- Annual Hambone Festival: October 26-27
Clarksdale is a rival to Memphis when it comes to the blues, and we see why. Located an hour and 30 minutes from Memphis, famous musicians like Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters passed through Clarksdale on the way to stardom in Memphis. You can pay homage to many blues legends while you’re here with a stop at at The Delta Blues Museum.
Where to Stay: If you think that I’m kidding with this next recommendation, I’m not. The Shack Up Inn (seriously, a real place) and Cotton Gin Inn are considered the best places to stay in Clarksdale. My sister (a true sojourner) can vouch for The Shack Up Inn. What you can expect is a clean, understated room with a comfy couch or barcalounger on the porch. See why Mississippi’s history is so steeped in culture?
Where to Eat: Clarksdale’s most famous restaurant Madidi, known for its fresh seasonal ingredients and famous owner, Morgan Freeman, was closed last year. (Let’s take a moment, please.) Local are keeping a stiff upper lip since it was a huge draw for downtown Clarksdale. But, happily, Morgan Freeman’s other venture, Ground Zero Blues Club, remains open. Housed in a former cotton warehouse, Ground Zero is Clarksdale’s favorite blues club. SB Nashville friend Jere Myers, who grew up close to Clarksdale, suggests these places, as well:
- Rust – progressive, Southern cuisine that reflects the Delta’s heritage
- Rest Haven – wonderful Lebanese sandwiches and mile-high meringue pies (The menu says: “No hookah smoking before 3PM, please!”)
- Stone Pony Pizza
- Ramon’s – Greek place with a great following
Thanks to all of today’s contributors for sharing with me their great discoveries and memories. I hope that you feel energized to get our your road maps and get going. Don’t let high-priced hotels and fancy meals snuff out your enthusiasm for being an adventurous traveler. There’s always the Shack Up Inn and Ollie’s to look forward to!