By Kathie Farnell
Chattanooga’s Tennessee Aquarium is launching a high-speed catamaran designed to let Aquarium visitors venture into the heart of “Tennessee’s Grand Canyon.” The 65-foot River Gorge Explorer will transport up to 70 passengers into the Tennessee River Gorge to experience this unspoiled stretch of the Tennessee River.
During each 90-minute cruise, passengers will be able to view wildlife and scenery from within an air-conditioned cabin while a naturalist points out native plants and animals and discusses the rich history of the Gorge area. Once inside the Gorge, passengers may go topside onto a viewing deck to look for eagles, ospreys and other wildlife. The Tennessee River Gorge Trust has preserved more than 16,000 acres of land within an incredibly rich area which boasts one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world.
In addition to wildlife, the area is rich in history. Hernando DeSoto, who arrived in 1540, was the first European to write about the area. Later, fur traders used the river as a trading route, and during the Civil War the river played a major role in the battle of Lookout Mountain.
The River Gorge Explorer was manufactured in Washington State at AllAmerican Marine in Bellingham. Transported through the Panama Canal to Port Everglades, Florida, it began its maiden voyage across the Gulf, though Mobile Bay and upriver to Chattanooga. I was able to join the Aquarium’s Thom Benson for the Explorer’s Mobile Bay stopover. “We’ve had a great trip,” said Thom. “Yesterday evening the Bay was just like glass.
Captain Pete opened up the engine and we were doing 53 miles an hour coming into the Bay.” On this sunny June Sunday, the Bay was nearly as calm. As Captain Pete Hosemann and his fellow captains Mike Hosemann and Larry Patton nosed the Explorer out of the Dog River Marina, the four Caterpillar diesel engines were surprisingly quiet.
At nearly 24 feet wide, the Explorer is extremely stable; once out on the Bay, the engines revved up to 53 miles per hour (ordinary cruising speed is around 34 mph) and we sped across the water enjoying the distant view of the Mobile skyline.
After it arrives at the Tennessee Aquarium, the Explorer will begin its regular passenger runs on June 27 from the Chattanooga Pier. The riverfront area, enjoying a second phase of redevelopment that began in 2005, has expanded its array of family-friendly activities.
In addition to the Aquarium itself, which has added an Ocean Journey building devoted to saltwater life, the Pier offers free entertainment all summer, including the Nightfall Concert Series every Friday. Ferries, water taxis, the Southern Belle riverboat and Blue Moon dinner cruises all keep visitors entertained and on the water.
For Thom Benson, the best thing about the brand-new Explorer is the opportunity it will give visitors to see a little-known side of Tennessee. “We’ve got 26 miles of pristine riparian habitat. To get it to see it up close from a state-of-the-art craft like the Explorer will be the highlight of your trip.”
The Tennessee Aquarium is located in downtown Chattanooga at One Broad Street. Many types of Combination tickets are available be sure and check the website at www.tnaqua.org or call toll-free 1-800-262-0695.
Other attractions to Visit in the Chattanooga Area
All of our family fun attractions are either downtown or within 20 minutes of downtown! While you’re downtown, you can park your car and take the free electric shuttle that connects hotels, attractions, dining, shopping and parks.
* Chattanooga Zoo: Chattanooga ‘s beloved zoo will be adding an additional four acres and will reveal a new entrance (off of Holtzclaw Avenue ) becoming more accessible to visitors and featuring a new gift shop, restaurant and endangered species carousel.
* The new Jukebox Junction Theater at the Chattanooga Choo Choo: This new evening entertainment venue has two live, on-stage performances – the Choo Choo Cha Boogie comedy show and the Rock-n-Roll Revue.
* Splash Valley: Splish Splash in this new 14-acre water park containing a wave pool, surf pool, a 1,000-foot lazy river, an uphill water rollercoaster, restaurants and other amenities.
* Rock City Gardens: 4,100-foot walking trail, massive rock formations, lush gardens, Fairyland Caverns, 200-foot swinging bridge or see seven different states from Lover’s Leap. Meet a hawk, an owl and a vivacious vulture in the Rock City Raptors Birds of Prey show.
* Ruby Falls: located 1,100 feet below the ground, marvel at stalagmites, rock formations and the 145-foot waterfall, the largest underground commercial waterfall in the world. Explore the cave by day with lights or at night with only a lantern on the Lantern Tours!
* Incline Railway: Straight up the side of Lookout Mountain, the 72.7% grade is steepest passenger railway in the world exhibits breathtaking views through the roof.
* Southern Belle Riverboat: Enjoy lunch and dinner and specialty cruises as you cruise down the beautiful Tennessee River.
* Chattanooga Choo Choo: The Choo Choo offers several restaurants, retail stores, a ride aboard an authentic New Orleans trolley, railroad museum and stationary sleeper traincars. The Chattanooga Choo Choo is celebrating 100 years in 2009!
* Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum: Ride “Railroadings Golden Age” aboard the Tennessee Valley Railroad’s restored vintage trains.
* Lake Winnepesaukah: The South’s favorite family amusement park offers great rides, games, miniature golf, great food, events and a new “Stay & Play Hideaway” cool-down area.
* Creative Discovery Museum for Children: Dig for dinosaurs, splash in RiverPlay, play in the Rooftop Fun Factory or visit Clifford the Big Red Dog in the new summer exhibit.
* Hunter Museum of American Art: You don’t want to miss the Hunter’s new summer exhibits: “Charles Burchfield: The Seasons” (view through June 1) and the amazing glasswork of “William Morris: Myth, Object and the Animal” (opening June 23). Be sure to check out the gift shop and café.
* Bluff View Art District: Only a few steps from downtown, this inclusive district on the bluff has a gallery, sculpture garden, museum, 2 restaurants, a café and a bed & breakfast.
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