FOR a nation that won’t let you drink until you’re 21, a high school seems an odd place to open a brewery. But at the Straight to Ale beer house I chugged my way through a lesson in American craft beer — before the bacon-wrapped pretzel bites gave new meaning to the word feeder school.
To be fair, this is a former school. The students are long gone and their classrooms turned over to bars and restaurants.
Our stop at Campus No 805, this quirky complex in Huntsville, Alabama, was the midway point of a round trip through the great southern state on the back of a BMW motorcycle.
With production moving overseas, Harley-Davidsons are about as American as soccer these days, so I didn’t mind tackling the US on a German machine. Besides, the all-terrain F 800 GS proved the perfect ride for winding switch-backs through the Appalachians — a dream for any biker.
The prospect of rekindling my love of motorcycling, having had it beaten out of me with years of London commuting, sounded great. But as I opened up the engine on the interstate, reality hit.
Driving on the wrong side of the road? Check. Riding a much bigger bike than I’d ever used? Check. Navigating steep, winding, wet roads? Check. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, thanks to the leadership of David Haynes — the master of Alabama’s back roads — the answer was absolutely nothing. After all, he literally wrote the manual on biking in the Southern state. It’s called Motorcycling Alabama: 50 Ride Loops through the Heart of Dixie.
Added to that, David and fellow guides Graham and Brian all had a laid-back Southern demeanour which set a relaxed tone for the five-day voyage.
From our starting point just over the border in Atlanta, Georgia, it wasn’t long before we arrived at our first stop of the day — The Walk Hard BBQ in Leesburg. It wasn’t the prettiest restaurant, so I knew the kitchen must be serving up something special.
The juicy pork sandwiches, smoked rack of ribs and something called beef plate, gave me a flavour of what was to follow on the gut-busting trip. After admit-ting defeat and not clearing my plate, we were soon climbing the winding routes through the Little River Canyon National Preserve.
Here, I caught my first glimpse of the beauty of the state, with its vast rivers and lakes and tall trees in autumn reds, browns and yellows.
Our first hotel was in the city of Fort Payne, where we found a funky restaurant-cum-second-hand shop called Vintage 1889 Cafe — complete with an old lady nestled in the corner, no younger than 80, playing guitar and singing the blues.
This was no an attempt at making the place feel hipster or cool. It was quite normal, with most bars and restaurants offering live, nightly music — a sign of how deeply song is entwined in Southern culture. After a monstrous breakfast at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa of eggs, bacon, biscuits and grits — still not sure what they are — our biker gang was back on the road and headed towards the city of Huntsville.
We were met with more spectacular scenery, as we criss-crossed bridges over lakes then on through villages with picket-fenced homes besides hundreds of small white and speckled cotton fields — so pretty, yet part of the South’s chequered past.
Our night out in Huntsville was filled with more live blues as we explored the bars and brewery at the high school Campus No 805 before waking on day three like an excited child. We were going to space camp.
Houston and Florida are synonymous with Nasa’s space programme but the rockets that took man to the moon in 1969 were actually built in Huntsville, hence the nickname Rocket City. The town’s proud homage to this feat is the US Space and Rocket Center.
It features a set of huge rocket boosters at the base of a Saturn V rocket in the main hall, surrounded by space suits, lunar modules and old 1960s tech.
As we left, the weather changed to overcast skies with continuous rain. This didn’t stop us enjoying the ride up to the world-famous music studio Muscle Shoals. The small, unassuming building played a huge role in 1960s and 1970s music. The Rolling Stones, Cher and Bob Dylan were some of the many artists to have recorded there.
The rain continued on day four for our longest ride but the scenery still wowed on our way to the Barber Motorsports Museum.
The Graceland for motorcycle enthusiasts, it is home to the largest collection of vintage motorcycles in the world. The sheer size of the building was mind-blowing and you’d need a full day to see all the bikes.
It is part of a 880-acre site with Indy car race track and nature reserve, and if you have bikes in your blood this place has to be on your bucket list.
The final day’s riding should have been the most picturesque as we drove through the vast Cheaha State park, home of the state’s largest mountain, Mount Cheaha. Unfortunately, the fog and rain rolled in around us, obscuring the views from the peak.
Drying out in the city of Anniston, we stayed at Hotel Finial, a converted Victorian mansion, where the owners joined us for dinner. This Southern hospitality was a constant, as I chatted with curious strangers at every gas station, lunch spot and bar.
Almost as thrilled as I was to be there, every local seemed over the moon to have us exploring their sweet home, Alabama.
GETTING/STAYING THERE: America As You Like It offers an eight-night trip, from £2,165pp based on two sharing. Includes return flights from London to Atlanta, seven days’ motorcycle hire with Eaglerider and various accommodation along the way. See americaasyoulikeit.com or call 020 8742 8299.
MORE INFO: To find out more about Alabama, see alabama.travel.
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