Memphis Melts My Heart. Tennessee, United States
Memphis has never been high on my Holiday Places to Visit list – in fact, it’s never been on my list! But sometimes you have to compromise when you’re deciding where to go abroad. And I was definitely compromising!
I had to change at Newark for Memphis. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I’d read terrible tales about American security, and the treatment of passengers at airports.
But everywhere I went, I encountered nothing but pleasant and helpful staff, and very efficient, streamlined service.
That evening, we all ate in the Blues City Café in Beale Street. I had half a rack of ribs, chips, coleslaw, and goodness knows what else. It’s the first time that I’ve been given a plate of food so big that I couldn’t fit it all in to take a photo!
I said to the waiter, ‘Is that all? I’m hungry, you know!’
He just grinned and said, ‘If you eat all that, you can have another plateful.’
No, I didn’t.
The hotel, the Hampton Inn, had a large sign on the reception desk saying,
Attention please! This hotel is located in the sports and entertainment districts of Memphis. As such, it is noisy here till the wee small hours! We want you to have an enjoyable stay with us. If you are looking for a quiet hotel (and ‘area’) this isn’t it!
Eat, drink, boogie….repeat!
There was brilliant music carried on the night air through my hotel window, but it all finished at about midnight. After all, this was just a typical weekday Beale Street night, and people have to get up and go to work, then they go out and party all over again in the evening. What a life!
The staff were lovely, and the breakfast was good. It was a self-service buffet. But I was pretty horrified to find out that the plastic cutlery and throw-away plates weren’t recycled. And I complained about it.
We met in the lobby and off we went to Graceland.
Of course you can’t possibly go to Memphis without visiting Graceland!
I can, I thought, smiling sweetly at all the eager Elvis fans.
Okay, let’s get it over with, I muttered silently as we climbed on the coach. One more thing to tick off the ‘Must See’ list. I expected to say ‘cheese’ in more than one way!
I’ve never been an Elvis Presley fan. I like a lot of his songs, and they have memories for me. But that’s all. They were just background, and part of my teenage years.
And one of my pet hates is Elvis Presley impersonators.
The journey only took about five minutes.
As we drove along Elvis Presley Boulevard (cringe) I expected to be greeted by a group of males of different ages and sizes dressed in black plastic wigs and flared white trousers, gyrating their hips, pulling their upper lips into sneers and muttering ‘Uh-huh-huh.’
No, there was nothing like that. And I’m holding up my hands and admitting that my expectations of the whole experience couldn’t have been more wrong.
Our guide queued for the tickets and was back in a couple of minutes. Then we all waited for one of the coaches to take us across the road.
We were each given an audio-recorder with headphones and we were on the bus within five minutes.
Graceland is an attractive colonial-style mansion. A lot of awe-struck people obviously thought they were entering a shrine. I suppose they were really.
Queues moved quickly. Thanks to the audio-commentary, we could all wander off in different directions.
Again, I was expecting Cheesyland. But not a bit of it. The house was tasteful and homely.
Okay, there were a few indulgences like green furry walls and an indoor waterfall. Well why not?
Outside, the views were lovely, with horses in the fields. You’d never guess you were five minutes from the city.
Elvis’s grave was in the grounds, with his parents’ graves either side, near the swimming-pool, surrounded by flowers.
Back across the road, I enjoyed the car museum, and Elvis’s private plane. It was like a home with wings.
There are several souvenir shops. I thought they were expensive. Just as I expected! Then I realised that the prices were in dollars, and not expensive at all!
My reluctant opinion of Graceland? It’s one of the most organised stately homes that I’ve ever visited.
Alright, I admit it. I loved it, and I’d recommend it to anyone. And my appreciation of Elvis’s talents – and his sense of humour- have increased a lot since my visit.
We next drove to Mud Island. It was built out of the mud from the construction of the bridge.
There is an exact scale model of the lower Mississippi River. We all enjoyed the Mississippi River Museum. It has 18 rooms showing 10,000 years of the river’s history, and a life-size riverboat with sound effects.
We ate at the River Inn at Harbour Town. I loved the popovers, like Yorkshire puddings, and the strawberry butter.
We then had a Memphis Riverboat Cruise. The Mississippi is a bad-tempered, fast-flowing, muddy, unpredictable river. Alligators live in her. She is the third-largest river in the world.
Barges take three weeks to travel upriver, and just one week to travel back!
She is frequently changing her shape. Just when they think they have her under control, she’ll throw a tantrum and burst her banks.
The good thing about it is, the riverbanks have some of the world’s most fertile soil, which helped the cotton industry.
It was an interesting trip, with an enthusiastic guide.
Twice a day, the Peabody Ducks travel up and down in the hotel’s elevators, in front of a packed audience.
They live in the Duck Palace on the roof, but they spend the day in the Italian fountain in the Peabody Grand Lobby.
So there I was at 4.30pm, waiting for five ducks to come out of the fountain, walk along a red carpet, and go up in a lift!
No, I’m not making this up!
Doug The Duckmaster (what a job!) dressed in full uniform, made a speech about the history of the Peabody Ducks, then the little gate was lifted, the ducks hopped out and shook themselves, and with a gentle prod from behind with the Duckmaster’s stick, along they waddled.
One of them paused beside me. And I realised that I was sprawled on the floor in one of the world’s top hotels, next to a red carpet, clutching my camera and making eye contact with a duck!
Believe it or not, the Peabody Ducks are Memphis’ second-favourite attraction next to Graceland. It was hilarious.
They waddled into the lift, Doug the Duckmaster closed the doors, and up they went to their palace in the sky.
In the evening, we had a magnificent meal in BB King’s Club on Beale Street, and listened to the top-quality group that was playing there. After that, we wandered along Beale Street.
OH MY GOD! I’m British. I can’t take enjoyment like that. It’s not natural!
Bar after bar has a fantastic group playing live. The street is packed with happy people of all ages, all dressed up and laughing together.
Clusters of people perform organised dances in the road. Others stand around, clutching a beer, or sit on the pavement, watching life go by.
Restaurants and clothes shops, mainly selling t-shirts, are slotted in between the bars.
Food smells, music, groups of revellers and laughter all blend together, creating an atmosphere that soaks into your bones and sweeps you along.
Every town in every country should have a Beale Street. Doctors should give out prescriptions for trips. People should make pilgrimages to go there and dance, sing along, or just walk about. It would cure a lot of problems and ailments, I know it would!
In the morning, we went to the Smithsonian’s Rock ‘n Soul Museum, which is opposite the Gibson Guitar factory. We wandered through the rooms, which tell the history of three decades of music revolutions; the Blues in the 1920s, Rock & Roll in the ‘50s, and Soul in the ‘60s.
The museum has a reputation for having friendly, enthusiastic staff.
After that, we went to the Sun Studio, where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, and many others began their careers.
Founded by Sam Phillips in 1950, it’s only a tiny place, but it’s packed with memorabilia – and tourists. Tours are limited in numbers.
The original recording equipment is still there and we all had our photos taken, posing with the actual microphone that the stars used.
On the floor is a big taped cross where Elvis stood.
Apparently, Bob Dylan walked in when his son Jacob was playing and recording there, bent down and kissed the cross, and walked out again!
My final opinion on Memphis? I completely misconceived what it would be like.
The Americans are experts at making recent history into best-selling tourist attractions. But it works!
There are a lot more attractions there that we didn’t get time to see, like the site of Martin Luther King’s death, and the Stax museum.
Everything is within walking distance, so you don’t need to hire a car.
The weather was hot all the time. The locals don’t go in for swimming and sunbathing. And you can’t swim in the Mississippi. You’d end up in the Gulf of Mexico! But there are indoor pools in the hotels.
You’d never go hungry in Memphis! How on earth do they eat so much?
It’s good food though. Restaurants take a pride in their menus, and their service. And you can eat any time of the night or day.
A lot of tourists stop off in Memphis on the way to somewhere else. But it really warrants spending more time there. Memphis throbs with life and energy. And it has a lot to offer!
Tour operators who feature Memphis, Greenwood, Vicksburg & Natchez:
America As You Like It: www.americaasyoulikeit.com or Tel: 020 8742 8299
North America Travel Service: www.northamericatravelservice.com or Tel: 0113 246 1466
Bon Voyage Travel: www.bon-voyage.co.uk or Tel: 0800 316 0194.
Quapaw River Company: www.island63.com. Standard group rate fees (6 or more people): $65/person outfitting & guiding + $25/person refreshments & sandbar lunch + transportation.
Our regional co-op Deep South USA has loads of info on the river and all the places we visited: www.deep-south-usa.com
If folks want to speak to us and request free info packs: 01462-440787
Where to Go Online
47 Union Avenue
Memphis, TN 38103
Where to Stay
The Peabody Memphis
149 Union Avenue
Memphis, TN 38103
Hampton Inn & Suites Memphis – Beale Street
175 Peabody Place
Memphis, TN 38103
145 Second Avenue (Above BB Kings on the corner of Beale Street and Second Avenue)
Memphis, TN 38103
What to See
3734 Elvis Presley Blvd.
Memphis, TN 38116
706 Union Avenue
Memphis, TN 38103
Mud Island River Park
125 N. Front Street
Memphis, TN 38103