I was awestruck as the slick penguins waddled toward me behind thick glass. I've seen creatures like them at other aquariums, but there was something about these penguins that stood out in my mind.
Perhaps it was the bright yellow crest feathers protruding from the heads of the penguins of the Macaroni species, or the deep red beak of the Gentoo penguins. It's impossible to ignore their beauty and, well, cuteness. Welcome to the new "Penguins' Rock" attraction at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.
Since opening in May, "Penguins' Rock" has been receiving rave reviews.
At first glance, the display seems surreal. After all, this is the Southeastern United States - penguins are the last thing we would expect to see. When reality set in for me, though, it was a delight to see the animals frolic with each other in a habitat that includes a statue of a Pacific octopus known as "Mr. P," or Mr. Potatohead.
"Even if I didn't work here I'd tell you that every time I go to visit these birds they put a smile on my face," said aquarium spokesman Thom L. Benson. "And many times they are doing something that surprises or amazes me. Just after their afternoon feeding recently, several of the Gentoos and Macaronis were playfully racing around. They move fast and have the ability to reverse direction on a dime."
Penguins attract visitors from all age groups
Benson said he hears many children yell "Happy Feet," in reference to the 2006 animated movie, when they get up to the display's window. But children aren't the only ones wowed by "Penguins' Rock."
"For me, watching the first group of teenagers come in and crowd around the windows taking lots of pictures with their cell phones was pretty remarkable," Benson said. "When an exhibit can engage what can be a pretty jaded group of young people - well, that's pretty special."
This past August, the penguins received a visit from one of Tennessee's famous sons, former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker. Baker was the guest speaker for the annual Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
"The birds were glad to meet him," Benson said. "But they quickly lost interest when they realized that he didn't bring any smelt or capelin with him."
Rock City, Ruby Falls attract crowds
Before the downtown's revitalization and the Tennessee Aquarium, Rock City and Ruby Falls on nearby Lookout Mountain were the attractions in the area that received all the attention.
While they might play second banana to downtown and the aquarium these days, both sites still draw huge crowds. I learned that lesson on a recent visit. Rock City had just opened for the morning and throngs of visitors were already waiting at the turnstiles. I shudder to think of how big the crowds were an hour or two later.
I credit my wife with our "early entrance strategy" - she is a native Chattanoogan with plenty of Rock City/Ruby Falls experience. By being early birds, my wife, daughter and I were able to roam this historical property after a short wait.
A path takes visitors past attractions including the Tortoise Shell Rock, Swing-Along Bridge and Fat Man's Squeeze. My 9-year-old daughter Caitlin's favorite was Fairyland Caverns. The biggest draw is Observation Point, where visitors are treated with a view of seven states.
After Rock City, we drove to Ruby Falls, which was packed with visitors. My wife knew to make a beeline through the front entrance to get in line for the Ruby Falls tour.
Be prepared for a lengthy guided tour that drops you 420 feet into the mountain. Your guide is stocked with plenty of historical facts and tales about Ruby Falls. As several other groups pass you by, you are left wondering when you will ever get to the falls.
When we finally did reach the waterfall, we were greeted with a bevy of lights and music. Sure, it's touristy, but that's part of Ruby Falls' charm.
Chattanooga is full of great places to stay. From the Clarion to the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn, you cannot go wrong.
For the past few years, I have been coming back to the Chattanoogan Hotel. It is reasonably priced and centrally located to downtown and Lookout Mountain. From Oct. 22 through Nov. 10, the Chattanoogan is running a deal known as the Fall Foliage Getaway. The package includes deluxe overnight accommodations, two tickets to the Southern Belle Riverboat's Fall Leaf Cruise, breakfast for two at the hotel's Broad Street Grille and unlimited use of the hotel's health and recreation facilities.
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The Chattanoogan Hotel
Chattanooga is about two hours north of metro Atlanta up Interstate 75. If you are thinking of leaving on a Friday afternoon, leave as early as possible. On the day I left, a tractor trailer caught fire, bottling the road up for hours.
Did you know?
The Macaroni penguin's crest feathers got their name from 18th-century English travelers who wore hats with feathers and dyed their hair. These people were scornfully referred to as "macaroni dandies." When British explorers encountered these penguins for the first time, they called them "macaronis."
Penguins spend nearly 75 percent of their life in the water hunting for food.
While penguins don't have visible ears, they do have very good hearing. An ear canal under their feathers allows these birds to hear on land and under water. Hearing is very important to penguins so they can zero in on their mates or chicks within a colony that could have 80,000 or more birds.
In 1936, Garnet Carter began his famous barn roof advertising campaign to lure vacationers from the highway with the famous slogan "See 7 States from Rock City."
Ruby Falls was discovered more than 75 years ago by Leo Lambert, who found the opening to its cave, Lookout Mountain Cave.
Sources: Tennessee Aquarium, Rock City, Ruby Falls