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The Bluff View Inn
The historic property's three houses and 16 rooms overlook the Tennessee River.
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Clumpie's Ice Cream Shop
Satisfied customer. The cone is from Clumpie's Ice Cream Shop.
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The Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge spans the park above joggers, roller-bladers, picnickers and families.
More Than Just A Choo Choo: Chattanooga's Revival Makes It A Cosmopolitan City With A Dose of Hometown Comfort
In a way, Julie Poston has come home again. As head innkeeper at Chattanooga’s historic Bluff View Inn, she presides over the very house where her grandfather, T.C. Thompson, raised her mother. She recalls the Chattanooga of her youth, naming the children that she went to camp with and played with at the community pool. Many of the family names are the ones that the inn’s three historic houses and 16 rooms commemorate.
“A lot of these families are still in town,” Poston explains. “And many of them have been instrumental in bringing about the renaissance that has made Chattanooga such a wonderful, fun city to visit and to live in today.”
I could attest to that description, since I, in a very small way, had come home as well. My husband and I lived for a short while in Chattanooga several years ago and were thrilled to be back on our first visit. This time with 7-month-old Katie in tow. When we lived in Chattanooga I’d become intrigued with the Bluff View Art District, where the inn is located, as well as the city’s recent redevelopment. You may recall that it wasn’t long ago that Chattanooga was included on the list of our country’s top 10 dirtiest cities. But today it’s a sparkling attraction on the Tennessee River, flanked by rising mountains and flush with a mix of cosmopolitan as well as down-home activities.
I figured Poston to be a great person to ask about the changes in the area, since her family has been around since before the Civil War. She explains that the Bluff View Art District mirrors the renaissance that began in the early ’90s and has touched almost every neighborhood in the city. She says a mix of private and public funding came together to bring about the changes.
“For example, the entire Bluff View neighborhood has been bought, house by house, by one family, the Porteras,” she begins. “They love art and historic houses, so when they saw that one of the houses here was for sale back in ’91, they bought it and opened the River Gallery.” The gallery houses works by local artists and is just a stone’s throw from the historic Hunter Museum of American Art “…so it seemed like a perfect fit. From there, they just kept buying houses with no real idea that the district would eventually become such a wonderful attraction.”
The district is anchored by the Bluff View Inn’s three houses (including Poston’s grandpa’s), sitting atop white cliffs that drop 80 feet to the surging river below. The neighborhood’s cobblestone pathways lead between the inn houses, the restaurants, the River Gallery, a glass blowers studio, a sculpture garden and a terrace overlooking the river complete with a bocce court. The landscaping evokes New Orleans or perhaps Tuscany, with impressive sculpture amid stone archways drenched in flowering vines. Each of the restaurants has a beautiful outdoor patio and a tantalizing menu. The Back Inn Café offers American cuisine with a gourmet touch, Tony’s Pasta Shop has incredible handmade pasta and sauces, and Rembrandt’s has great coffee and pastries made by a chef Poston told us had recently returned from a stint in France. All of this was just steps from our room. I immediately began planning a late-night cannoli mission.
When we awoke, brilliant sunshine streamed through the window of our room, beckoning us to spend the day outside. Poston gave us a host of ideas for enjoying downtown Chattanooga. The city is home to the country’s largest freshwater aquarium, housed within a funky, pointy-roofed building smack in the middle of downtown and just steps from the river. We could have walked there in about 10 minutes on the city’s Riverwalk path, but that seemed like too much indoor time, so we opted for a different itinerary. After a hearty breakfast at the inn of waffles for me, eggs Benedict for Joe and strained peaches for Katie (she got the short end of that stick), we put her in her stroller and headed for the Riverwalk. We wound our way to Walnut Street and up to the historic wooden pedestrian bridge. Here we found ourselves in the middle of the action, surrounded by joggers, bikers and rollerbladers, and families with strollers. We admired the views of the river and downtown while Katie smiled and squealed at all the excitement.
Across the bridge, our first stop was the Stone Cup Café. Their rustic deck overlooks Coolidge Park and the river and offers one of the best cups of coffee you can get this side of Seattle. After enjoying a cappuccino and a conversation with the girls at the next table (Chattanooga is an extraordinarily friendly city), we strolled through the park. It was quite a festive atmosphere, with families picnicking, frisbees being thrown and friends meeting by the river.
Nearby, laughter and music could be heard coming from the round pavilion that houses an old-fashioned carousel. Outside the pavilion, children were romping in the fountain; making laps around its stone animals that spout water at just the right height to run through. Our next stop was Clumpie’s, where the homemade ice cream is so delicious that the line is constantly out the door. We figured ice cream would make an excellent lunch and Katie got to enjoy her first-ever bite of a hot fudge sundae!
Later, we hopped in the car for a quick jaunt up Signal Mountain to visit some of our favorite sights. Signal is one of the two mountains that flank the Tennessee River, forming a gorge-like feel to the west of the city. The breathtaking view at Signal Point is alone worth the drive up the winding switchbacks that lead to this small community atop the ridge. We lamented that it was Saturday, because on Friday nights, we used to love to go to Waycrazy’s BBQ and then enjoy some footstompin’ and fiddlin’ at the Mountain Opry.
Alas, we drove, instead, back down to the inn to unwind, feed Katie (now that she’d had ice cream, strained peaches were even more of an insult!) and get ready for dinner at the Back Inn Café. This was our favorite restaurant when we’d lived here and we couldn’t wait to sit out on the terrace and enjoy the warm night breeze and a great meal. It turned out to be even better than we’d imagined, since Katie was quiet and happy almost all the way through my perfectly grilled steak and Joe’s Moroccan-spiced lamb chops. As we ordered dessert, an older couple at the next table started chatting with us. Before long, the woman had Katie on her lap and was playing with her while Joe and I enjoyed a delicious warm chocolate torte and sipped espresso! I told you Chattanooga was a friendly town.
The next morning Poston suggested a day trip into Northwestern Georgia. First we headed up Lookout Mountain, home to a wealth of Civil War history and sites. At the Incline Railway, which bills itself as The World’s Steepest Passenger Railway, we leaned out over the observation deck and gawked as the cars chugged their way up an impossibly steep track. Then we moved on to a stroll through Point Park. We enjoyed the view off the edge of Lookout Mountain and marveled that we were standing in the exact spot where the famous “Battle Above the Clouds” took place. Civil War buffs could easily spend days on Lookout Mountain soaking up the history.
Next we followed Poston’s command to see Rock City, a private “garden” made famous in the ’30s by the ubiquitous “See Rock City” signs painted on the roofs of barns throughout the southeast. We were skeptical, but Poston was right: It’s definitely a must-do. It’s made up of sandstone formations that have been worn down over time to form narrow slots in the rock, precipitous overhangs and precariously balanced boulders. Walking the 4,000-foot-long Enchanted Trail through the crevices and over the stone bridges is extremely neat, especially if you can overlook the touristy aspects that accost you every so often along the trail (Your Name on a Grain of Rice is just one of the fine offerings available). As soon as we crossed the hanging bridge (extremely nerve-wracking if you’re toting a 7-month old, by the way!) and arrived at the top, we were at once stunned by the view and seduced by the smell of funnel cakes. The brochure claims you can see seven states from this point. I have no idea if that’s the case, but it’s a great view regardless. We didn’t pause for too long, since we wanted to save room for a burger at Poston’s lunch suggestion, the Lookout Mountain Café. We wound our way back down the trail, and found that the only way out was – surprise! – through the gift shop. We managed to escape without any rice, and quickly headed to the café to fortify ourselves for the rest of the day’s adventures.
Soonn we were making our way south on the Scenic Highway. It’s about a half-hour drive from Lookout Mountain to Cloudland Canyon State Park. The canyon is quite a surprise when you walk to its edge. It’s impressively large and has two gorgeous waterfalls plunging to the canyon floor. Both are accessible to hikers who don’t mind the arduous climb back out. We opted instead to follow the canyon rim trail for a shorter, easier jaunt. Shades of misty green played off the gray outcroppings of rock that drop an amazing 1,100 feet into the canyon. It was a beautiful walk and just the perfect length to work off our lunch and perhaps start up an appetite for dinner. Traveling is, of course, all about eating as far as we’re concerned.
After getting our fill of fresh air, we headed back towards Chattanooga by way of the Chickamauga Battlefield. It’s the country’s oldest and largest military park and could, again, be a four-day vacation in itself for the dedicated Civil War enthusiast. Much of the park has been preserved in wartime condition, with more than 1,600 markers, cannons and monuments leading visitors through the various battles. Many of the descriptions were done by actual veterans of the war. For us, it was a great place to stop and stretch our legs, stroll Katie around through the beautiful grassy fields and enjoy the end of our day.
Finally, somewhat exhausted, we drove back to the inn. By the time we arrived there, we were so tired that we decided to order a pie from our favorite pizza place, Lupi’s, and just relax in our room. While we waited for the pizza to be ready, we strolled Katie around the art district and sat on the terrace overlooking the river below. We admired the moon and the lights on the water and enjoyed the warm breeze on our faces. I could see why Julie Poston’s family had never left Chattanooga after so many generations. I could also see why after only living there for less than a year Joe and I had come to feel so at home here as well. It occurred to me that even after just one long weekend here, this beautiful, friendly place would probably make most people feel like they’d come home.