CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Growing up in St. Louis, we often drove the family truckster 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. (My husband stayed home to work and enjoy a quiet house.) 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. "Don't old men live in train cars?" asked my skeptical daughter. "No, there won't be any hobos in our hotel room," I reassured her. The lobby and domed ceiling of the old station wowed us as we checked in, as well as 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, choochoo.com, starting at $119 a night.)
THE TENNESSEE AQUARIUM