Alabama: old southern charm, new southern surprises

Ami Simpson

Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel

The state of Alabama is located in the middle of the south-eastern region of the United States of America. It is bordered by the states of Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, and also by the Gulf of Mexico.

Alabama's nickname, 'Heart of Dixie', can be traced to the $10 notes issued by the Citizens Bank of Louisiana before the civil war. The notes bore the French word 'dix', which means 'ten', and eventually the South became known as 'dixie land'. Montgomery was the capital of the confederacy during the early months of the civil war.

Today, Montgomery is the state capital and one of the four major cities in Alabama. The other three are Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile. Nearly half of Alabama's population of 4,062,608 live in the metropolitan areas of these four cities. About 40 per cent of the population live in rural areas, and the remainder live in cities and towns.

Alabama's largest city, Birmingham (metro population 809,795), was founded on the iron and steel industries but, today, the major industry is medicine. The University of Alabama's medical school, situated in Birmingham, combined with hospitals in the area, have given the city the reputation as one of the nation's leading medical research centres. Incidentally, few people realise Birmingham is a young city - it was founded after the civil war, in 1871.

The second largest city is also the oldest. Mobile (metro population 526,009) will celebrate its 300th birthday in 2003. Founded by the French, Mobile's heritage is evident in street names such as Dauphin and Bienville. The huge oak trees draped with Spanish moss, the pink azalea bushes, and the graceful iron lace balconies make this a romantic and charming city. It is also a port city - one of the busiest in the United States - and ranks eighth in the nation in exports.

Huntsville (metro population 324,983) owes its growth to space exploration and high-tech industries. In 1950, the city's population was only 16,000. Then came the team of scientists, led by Dr Wernher von Braun, who developed the Saturn V rockets that propelled men to the moon. The major industries in Huntsville today are aerospace, electronics, research, defence and telecommunications. The core of the city still looks like that sleepy, cotton town of a bygone time. Surrounding it is a sprawling, modern and fast-paced city.

Montgomery, with a metro poulation of 320,183, ranks fourth in size. Its major employer is state government, followed by federal government. It is home to Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, an important training ground for international officers. It has been called both 'cradle of the Confederacy', because it was the first Confederate capital, and 'birthplace of civil rights', because the Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked the crusade for equal rights for black Americans. Sites associated with both historic eras are evident and have become major tourist attractions, among them the antebellum state capital building and the church where Martin Luther King Jr. began his ministry.

The countryside of Alabama is altogether different from its urban landscape and varies quite a bit within the state. In fact, for geological diversity it ranks second in the nation, exceeded only by a much larger state: California. The upper third of Alabama has low mountains and caves, streams and waterfalls. The middle portion, with its gently rolling hills and verdant pastures, looks like good land for a plantation, and once it was. Most of the state's antebellum homes are located here. The southernmost regions of Alabama are flat and more closely resemble Florida than the rest of Alabama. The seaside towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have become popular resorts.

The citizens of Alabama are known as a friendly, conservative and religious people. Southern hospitality is not a myth; it is a way of life. It is not unusual for perfect strangers to speak to each other in passing. A typical exchange would go as follows:
Person A: "Hello. How are you?"
Person B: "I'm just fine. And you?
Person A: "Fine, thank you."

The predominant religion in Alabama is the Baptist church which has more than a million members. Most shops and businesses are not open on Sunday mornings, and most areas of the state do not allow the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sundays. Several counties in north Alabama do not permit the sale of alcoholic beverages at all and are known as 'dry counties'.

Alabama's climate is temperate, becoming largely subtropical near the coast. Winter is cold enough for a coat or jacket, but snow is minimal. The summers are long and hot. Nearly all buildings are air conditioned.

Alabama's mild climate and natural beauty have made it a natural choice for outdoor sports enthusiasts. Water covers one million acres, so it's little wonder the state has a reputation for excellent fishing, particularly for large mouth bass. All kinds of water activity “ sailing, skiing, swimming, snorkelling “ are popular in Alabama. Hiking and mountain biking are popular, particularly at the state parks. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a string of 18 golf courses stretching across the state, has made the state a golf destination.

In summary, Alabama is a state rich in natural resources and diversity. Its people are outgoing and disarmingly friendly. Rich in history, it is quickly leaping into the next century. Visitors looking for the Old South will find it....right next to an Alabama looking to the future.

To learn more about Alabama, visit the State of Alabama government Web site at or the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel Web site at www. touralahama. org