Journey to the land that time forgot 

Visiting Chattanooga

Chattanooga, Tenn., just two hours from Atlanta, bills itself as the "Gateway to the South." But for my money, it is the gateway to nostalgia and some of the most exquisitely old-school entertainments as you're likely to see in an American city these days.

In fact, Chattanooga has an astoundingly high concentration of retro attractions, many of them built during the Depression and that capitalize on the area's twin obsessions: railroads and scenic mountains.

You couldn't swing a plastic back scratcher in Chattanooga without hitting something homespun to harken back to summers of yore in this town that also hosts the headquarters of the holy trinity of 20th-century Southern junk food: Krystal hamburgers, MoonPies and the trans-fat splendor of Little Debbie snack cakes.

You could squeeze a good share of Chattanooga's adorably old-school attractions into a day, but if you really want to boogie down with the sorghum pace and go native, then an overnight stay at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn (1400 Market St., 423-266-5000), situated in a 1908 train depot, is a must.

In keeping with Chattanooga's train fetish, some of the guest rooms at the Choo Choo are actual stationary sleeper train cars. There is also a vintage dining car where you can eat a steak dinner and pretend you are living in the age of fedoras and big-band music instead of OxyContin and Paris Hilton. Also on site is an epic Chattanooga Choo Choo Model Railroad Museum, for the kind of closet control freaks who get giddy when they can loom over a world shrunken down to mouse size.

For fans of life-size thrills, there is no lack of fun in these retro-rific attractions.

Rock City Gardens

1400 Patten Road, Lookout Mountain, Ga. 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m., May 28-Sept. 5. 800-854-0675.

Never has an advertising campaign felt so justified. Every goading red barn, bird house, billboard and bumper sticker imploring you to visit this attraction should -- indeed, must -- be obeyed.

The man behind Rock City, Garnet Carter, had a great amusement pedigree, credited with inventing one of the most divinely retro pleasures of all, Tom Thumb Miniature Golf, which later grew to a franchise of thousands of mini-golf businesses around the country.

Opened by Garnet and his wife, Frieda Carter, in May 1932, Rock City clings to the kind of vintage charm that is becoming an endangered species in the South. The Depression-era simplicity and aesthetic still cling to this park carved into the side of Lookout Mountain. There are magnificent views of seven states, and near the base of the mountain lies a freshly minted subdivision to jolt you out of a retro-fugue into the here and now.

The childish of every age will be thrilled to take a leisurely stroll through the beautiful, peaceful Rock City gardens, featuring 400 varieties of plant life, a pit of White Fallow Deer relaxing in the summer sun, and the old-fashioned metal signs indicating important "landmarks" like "Fat Man's Squeeze," "Swing-A-Long-Bridge" and "Goblin's Underpass." Even the trash bins are cute, housed in stone covers like tissue boxes with crochet koozies.

The whimsical stroll culminates in the psychedelically kitsch experience of the Fairyland Caverns, added in 1947 and created by Atlanta sculptor Jessie Schmidt, a spectacle that somehow channels both golly-gee innocence and head shop. The cavern interiors are encrusted with coral and crystals, and black lit, glow-in-the-dark miniature fairy tale tableaux from "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Snow White" and "Humpty Dumpty" all doing their thing.

If Rock City does not touch some gooey kid-center deep inside your hardened adult shell, you have officially lost your soul and your only recourse is to buy one of the hilariously goth bumper stickers in the gift shop declaring in white on black lettering: I SAW ROCK CITY.

Ruby Falls

1720 S. Scenic Highway, Chattanooga. 8 a.m.-8 p.m., year-round (except Christmas Day). 423-821-2544.

What was it with all those Chattanoogans boring their little jackhammers into every crevice and cranny?

A city whose name translates from the Cherokee "rock coming to a point" has made good use of its craggy gifts. The Depression didn't appear to dampen the spirits of the men of Chattanooga, certainly not Leo Lambert, the spelunking entrepreneur who poked his pick ax into Lookout Mountain, belly-crawled through its depths for 17 hours and was rewarded for his efforts with an underground Niagara that he dubbed "Ruby" after his wife.

Sunlight junkies will love Rock City, but gloomy shut-in types who like to watch "Days of Our Lives" with the shades drawn will dig the subterranean thrills of this 145-foot underground waterfall that opened in June 1930. It can only be reached by first enduring the Borscht Belt yuks of your companion tour guide, in our case a dead-ringer for Steve Buscemi save for his Tennessee twang.



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