A captain licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard, Jim Steele’s more than 25 years of boating⎯including time spent at the helm of Opryland’s water taxis⎯comes in handy as he coaxes The Blue Heron, a specially built 40-foot pontoon, about the Cheatham Wildlife Management Area on daily tours. Out on the water amid soothing birdsongs and the burbles of river critters, Captain Jim can be found behind the wheel of the craft, exercising his chops as an entertainer as he regales his passengers with chuckle-inducing anecdotes and factoids about local flora and fauna. With the comfort and safety of his guests always in mind, Captain Jim equipped the Heron with a restroom and keeps the vessel stocked with a comprehensive library of life jackets to fit adults, children, and pet iguanas of all ages and sizes. Hitting an average cruising speed of 5 to 10 miles per hour, the Heron affords its passengers leisurely looks at area wildlife as it embarks upon all manner of tours, from gold-tinged sunset cruises to kids' adventures punctuated by the gleeful laughter of curious youngsters.
When visitors walk between the 1853 Greek-revival mansion’s six solid-cut stone pillars, onto the portico, and through the heavy wood door, they might tour the rooms or learn to cook in its original kitchen. Originally founded by John Harding in 1807 for thoroughbred-horse breeding, the rolling grounds of Belle Meade Plantation now welcome seasonal tours and events ranging from book signings to art shows. Knowledgeable guides in period costumes lead tour groups through the building’s parlors and bedrooms and down a long central hallway to ascend the three floors via a circular cherry-wood staircase.
As groups wander the mansion and cross the grounds, guides divulge facts about famous visitors, such as President Cleveland and General Ulysses S. Grant, including the fact that they probably got scared of the dark just like normal people. During special tours, the staff demonstrates Southern cooking techniques and walks visitors through an herb garden or serves them lemonade or hot wassail with desserts. In an on-grounds winery, winemakers hold tastings of red and white varietals made from Tennessee grapes. Visitors can also clink wineglasses over Southern-style cuisine at the Harding House restaurant, located on the plantation grounds.
When Franklin On Foot founder and guide Margie Thessin discusses the Civil War’s impact on Franklin, she shuns dry textbook summaries. Instead, she gathers groups before historic homes and battle sites, and she explains, “The war happened here. The people who lived here– this war was their 9/11. This was their Pearl Harbor.” Suddenly, she sees sets of eyes light up, as minds make the leap from musty tomes and texts to the people who lived¬—and fought and died—where they now stand 150 years ago.
To make history relevant, Ms. Thessin humanizes it, honing in on the famous and lesser-known people who shaped Franklin and the struggles they faced to do so. In that spirit, she seeks out guides who are not only passionate about history but possess a natural knack for storytelling.
In keeping with her commitment to orchestrate vivid tours, Ms. Thessin conducts them by bike or on foot. “You get so much from a place by walking it instead of looking out a window of a bus—you may as well fly at 32,000 feet,” she says. Small groups of sightseers stroll or if preferred, Charleston across the downtown area or expand their tour’s scope by cruising on one of Franklin On Foot’s 24-speed Fuji bikes.
Though the staff at Honeysuckle Hill Farm cultivates livestock and crops of seasonal produce, its other chief resource is outdoor adventure. Through their seasonal tours, farm staffers teach adults and children about farm operations, the basics of agriculture, and which fabrics scarecrows find itchy. They also give visitors a chance to work their way through labyrinthine corn mazes. At birthday parties, younger visitors can pet the resident animals, pan for gemstones at an artificial stream, and race each other in pedal-powered carts. Away from the fields, Association for Challenge Course Technology–certified guides and their guests soar down a one-mile zipline course designed and built to ACCT standards. The guides lead tours through the course’s three elevated towers, three canopy-level bridges stretched across Battle Creek, and eight ziplines, which they maintain daily to chase away loitering vigilantes. Along the way, guides showcase their knowledge of the creek’s history while pointing out local flora and fauna.
Walking through Belmont Mansion's Victorian-era plantation is like exploring an alternate history. The stories presented by the 2,000 artifacts that fill the 18 rooms are all true, but in place of the 19th-century South's traditionally male-dominated household, tour takers witness evidence of a plantation controlled, enlivened, and energized by a woman. After inheriting a fortune from her first husband, Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham oversaw the construction of the mansion with her second husband, basing the style off an Italian villa and completing the project's first phase in 1853. Over the years it would change appearances as dramatically as a caterpillar on Halloween—sometimes by her hand and sometimes not. She commissioned a Prussian-born architect to expand and embellish the house six years after completion, and fled as the Civil War's Battle of Nashville destroyed most of the plantation's outbuildings, including the greenhouse, bear house, and zoo. After Adelicia sold her home in 1887, it transformed into a girl's school, then a girl's academy and junior college, and, in 1952, became part of the Belmont University campus.
Today, Belmont Mansion is the largest house museum in Tennessee, inviting visitors to wander past cast-iron neoclassical statues in the gardens, to cross the fountain courtyard, and to study the original water tower and few remaining gazebos. Stoic marble busts, decorative boxes, and a four-post bed fill the interior's 10,000 square feet, alongside more than 120 works of art. During a themed art tour, which is not included with this Groupon, expert docent Mancil Ezell introduces visitors to these masterpieces, including two 400-year-old Flemish paintings. And for those bright-eyed visitors captivated by the surroundings, the staff also coordinates weddings, building on a tradition established when Adelicia married her third husband on the grounds in 1867.