Nashville welcomes visitors for a country Christmas

Contributing Travel WriterDecember 9, 2012 

  • IF YOU GO

    Nashville

    Where to stay: The Hutton Hotel is a good choice for convenience, affordable price, an exuberant and welcoming staff and one of the most comfortable beds I've ever slept in. 108 West End Ave. Huttonhotel.com.

    Where to eat:

    ■ The Capitol Grille in the Hermitage Hotel. AAA Four-Diamond-rated restaurant near the state Capitol building noted for its beef dishes. 231 Sixth Ave. N. Thehermitagehotel.com.

    ■ Puckett's Grocery Store. Leave your calorie counter at home and indulge in down-home cooking. A favorite of music execs and stars. 500 Church St. Puckettsgrocery.com.

    ■ Urban Grub. It is urban but there's nothing grubby about this wildly popular new hot spot, with a focus on haute cuisine and classic cocktails. 2506 12th Ave. S. Urbangrub.net.

    Learn more: Visitmusiccity.com

  • Four don't-miss attractions in Nashville

    Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. A must for all country music lovers. From Hank Williams to Taylor Swift, all the greats are here. You can trace country music from its roots through videos and recordings; see the solid gold Cadillac belonging to Elvis Presley, and two special exhibitions — Patsy Cline (through June 2013) and The Bakersfield Sound (throughout 2013.) (222 Fifth Avenue South, countrymusichalloffame.org.)

    The Parthenon. The world's only full-sized reproduction of the Greek Parthenon, complete with a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom (in this case, the work of local sculptor Alan LeQuire, which took eight years to complete.) (Centennial Park, West End & 25th Avenues, parthenon.org.)

    Frist Center for the Visual Arts. If the Parthenon is an homage to classical Greece, the Frist is Art Deco at its finest. The design and décor of the building (a former post office) are as much a work of art as the actual rotating collections. (919 Broadway, fristcenter.org.)

    The music scene. From the unscripted musical round tables of the Bluebird Café to the legendary "Mother Church of Country Music," the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville truly is Music City.

    There is no shortage of places to hear the Nashville sound, but the most famous is Tootsie's Orchid Lounge (422 Broadway, tootsies.net.) It's said to be 43 steps from the back door of the Ryman to Tootsie's, making it the place where Opry stars went to kick back after performances. It's a honky-tonk with a history. Kris Kristofferson once played for tips here, while his Highwayman sidekick Willie Nelson stocked beer cases.

    Lest you think Nashville is just about country music, a visit to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center (127 3rd Avenue South, nashvillesymphony.org) will prove otherwise. Have dinner in its stunning Arpeggio Restaurant and then treat yourself to a concert (several performances of the Messiah are on tap this holiday season.)

    PATTI NICKELL

NASHVILLE — In his smoky, sultry voice, Tim McGraw welcomed me to Nashville. It didn't matter that it was a recording and that McGraw (as well as George Strait, Blake Shelton and Martina McBride) welcomed everyone flying into Nashville's airport with equal enthusiasm. I felt truly welcomed.

Nashville is a very welcoming city, and particularly so during the holiday season, when Christmas carols are sung with a decided twang; the seraphs are often honky-tonk angels; and if you're in the mood, the eggnog comes with a splash of Jack Daniels.

This is a town that takes its traditions seriously, but never itself. Nashvillians can pull out their poshest duds for Cheekwood Mansion's Swan Ball one night, and then don jeans for a boot-scootin' boogie at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge or Robert's Western Wear the next.

I wasn't in time for the springtime Swan Ball, but I did join the revelers at Tootsie's and Robert's, along with experiencing a host of serious Christmas traditions.

City of plantations

If you love Southern plantations decked out in holiday finery, Nashville is the place to come. There's a plantation and a holiday tradition to suit every taste.

The circa 1799 Travellers Rest is the oldest home open to the public in Nashville and was built by John Overton, who also was one of the founders of Memphis.

The decorations here are minimalist — a few wreaths in the windows and a scattering of greenery — but they are true to the period. My guide told me that Christmas trees came first to New England from Europe in the early 1800s and gradually made their way south after the Civil War.

The same holiday minimalism is apparent at Nashville's most famous plantation, the Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson, although the subdued décor here is for an entirely different reason.

Jackson's beloved wife, Rachel, died just three days before Christmas 1828. This was a house in mourning. Again, true to the times, the Hermitage's holiday decorations consist only of garlands, wreaths and candles throughout the house.

At this National Historic Landmark (the fourth most visited presidential home in America, after the White House, Mount Vernon and Monticello), there is plenty to see even without over-the-top decorations. There's the formal dining room, where Andrew and Rachel entertained dignitaries and Tennessee backwoodsmen alike; Andrew's study and Rachel's garden; and most poignantly, the couple's graves in a serene setting behind the garden.

If the Hermitage is low-key in its holiday traditions, the same can't be said for Belmont Mansion, the 19th-century home of Adelicia Acklin, one of America's wealthiest women and one of Nashville's most colorful characters.

Acklin was left an enormous fortune courtesy of her first husband — a bankroll she zealously guarded by making two succeeding husbands sign a prenuptial agreement. Belmont, built in the 1850s, is a marvel of Victoriana, where during the holidays every room is adorned with garlands, fruit, dried flowers and decorated trees.

Belle Meade, "Queen of Tennessee Plantations," has a direct link to Lexington and the Bluegrass region. Central Tennessee, like Central Kentucky, has vast deposits of calcium-rich limestone beneath the soil, a plus for raising Thoroughbreds.

During the antebellum period, it was Belle Meade that was the leading Thoroughbred farm in America. So much so that its owner, William Giles Harding, wrote a letter to the editor of the American Turf Registry extolling its virtues as a breeding establishment. "Blood stock here is all the go," he wrote. "To be without it is to be out of fashion and destitute of taste."

The Civil War and the accompanying conscription of Belle Meade's Thoroughbreds for use by the cavalry resulted in many of the finest horses being sent to Woodburn Farm in Woodford County for safe keeping, thus giving a boost to Kentucky's own horse industry.

Still, the lineage of Thoroughbreds such as Secretariat, Funny Cide, Barbaro and Smarty Jones can be traced back to Belle Meade breeding stock.

On Mondays and Fridays during the holidays, visitors can opt for a Plantation Culinary Tour, which in addition to the lavishly decorated mansion includes a cooking demonstration and a tasting at Nashville's only winery.

It's not a plantation, but Cheekwood Mansion is a must for those who love elaborate Christmas decorations. The 55-acre estate, formerly the home of the Cheek family of Maxwell House Coffee fame, has an annual Festival of the Holidays, in which rooms feature professionally decorated themed trees. This year's theme is favorite children's Christmas stories.

'A Country Christmas'

You would have to be a real Grinch not to love Gaylord Opryland Resort's "A Country Christmas." It features 2 million twinkling lights, lunch and dinner shows on the General Jackson Showboat as it plies the Cumberland River, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular show with the Rockettes, and many other attractions.

You won't want to miss this year's incarnation of ICE!, an interactive winter wonderland of larger-than-life sculptures carved from 2 million pounds of ice. Forty artisans arrived from Harbin, China, several months ago to begin work on "Shrek the Halls," where the films' lovable green ogre, Princess Fiona, Donkey and other characters are depicted in displays of colored ice.

Opryland's "A Country Christmas" will continue through Jan. 1.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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