Memphis is going to the birds. More specifically, to the ducks.
For decades, the Peabody Hotel has been the top lodging in The Bluff City, famous for is twice-daily "Duck March." Every morning since 1940, a family of ducks has ridden the elevator down from their rooftop coop and walked a red carpet to the travertine marble lobby fountain where they spend the day. Perennially popular with hotel guests and the general public, the marches pack the lobby.
But suddenly the Peabody is not the only Memphis hotel featuring water fowl. April saw the city's biggest grand opening in years, Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid, a Vegas-style architectural fantasy that combines a huge Bass Pro retail store, the Ducks Unlimited Water Fowling Heritage Center museum, a 32-story high outdoor observation deck, the 120-room Big Cypress Lodge hotel, and the Cypress Swamp Waterfowl Habitat. An ode to the nearby Mississippi River delta, the "swamp" occupies much of the ground floor, with ponds, streams, tanks and aquariums, spanned by footbridges and showcasing a floating selection of fishing boats. The waters are full of live ducks, catfish, sturgeon and even alligators.
Long a white elephant along the Mississippi, the Memphis Pyramid was built as a sports arena in 1991, and once hosted the Memphis Grizzlies. But the NBA team moved in 2004 and ever since the world's sixth-largest pyramid has sat empty, causing much local consternation. But after a major investment and early success, it has been received as a vital part of the city's larger current renaissance.
Reviving the Pyramid
"The pyramid presented a remarkable opportunity for us to develop one of the most dynamic retail stores anywhere in the world," said Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris.
Known as the "Walt Disney of retail," Morris executed the largest investment the company has ever made outside of its flagship Missouri headquarters. More than $190 million later, the basketball court has been replaced with 600,000 gallons of water features containing around 2,000 fish, ultra-realistic faux cypress trees towering 100 feet in the air and dripping Spanish moss, and endless animal mounts. In the very middle of it all, the world's tallest freestanding elevator glows in neon as it rises to a restaurant and observation deck.
More than 35,000 customers came for opening day on April 29, the best debut in the chain's history, with more than 500,000 in the first 27 days. "We are very optimistic about the future," says Morris.
The Bass Pro concept is retail as theater, but even by its standards, the pyramid is over the top. Families scramble in and out of boats tied up at indoor docks, the main restaurant has an undersea-themed full-sized bowling alley with ball returns shaped like octopi and life-sized fiberglass great white sharks hanging overhead, while the store contains separate shooting and archery ranges. Many visitors come just for The Lookout with its unique perspective and views of the river, Mud Island and downtown Memphis.
"We expect Bass Pro Shops to open an entire new market of visitors and attract tourists from all over the world," said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
But perhaps the most unique touch is the hotel, the only one of its kind at any Bass Pro Shop. Ringing the second floor atrium and overlooking the swamp and retail space, lodging is styled on rustic cabins, and some are actual cabins on stilts. Balconies with rocking chairs open onto the swamp, and despite having no actual outside windows, it is easy for guests to forget they are inside. All rooms have hand-hewn beams, virtual fireplaces, and plenty of animal mounts, along with luxe creature comforts like jetted oversized tubs, huge walk-in showers, fresh turn down cookies and generous welcome baskets of free snacks.
Memphis is hopping
Arguably the world's most notable and unique hotel opening of 2015, the pyramid is a huge change to the Memphis tourism landscape, an instant must-see and maybe must-stay. But there is a lot more going on. The city already has the nation's finest collection of attractions for music buffs, with the Smithsonian's Rock 'n' Soul Museum,Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Sun Studio and, of course, Graceland, Memphis' signature attraction.
But now there are two more noteworthy newcomers, including the just-opened (in May) Blues Hall of Fame Museum, which spans two levels full of artifacts, exhibits and interactive displays honoring inductees. The museum was built and is run by the non-profit Blues Foundation, which also organizes the International Blues Challenge. Now in its 31st year, the event brings over 250 performers to the Beale StreetEntertainment District each January. It takes over about twenty bars and music venues, offering 20,000 or so attendees a round-the-clock slate of performances.
The new Blues museum sits across the street from another can't-miss Memphis cultural attraction, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Built around the historically preserved façade of the motel where Martin Luther King, Jr.was assassinated, the world-class museum is also part of Memphis' moment in the sun. Open since 1991, it closed for much of 2013-14 for a $27.5 million renovation and expansion before reopening last spring better than ever.
The even newer Memphis Music Hall of Fame is a satellite of the larger Rock 'n' Soul museum down the street, a geographically-centric collection honoring musicians who are from or substantially tied to Memphis. The late B.B. King was in the inaugural class, so it seems fitting that the new space is just half a block from his original and still thriving Beale Street blues club. The historic 1904 building was the original Lansky Brothers store, a men's shop that found huge success with local musicians, including King, Duke Ellington and many others. But it was when Elvis Presley began buying his wardrobe here that Lansky Brothers became "The Clothier to the King." As history comes full circle, Lansky Brothers just reopened a boutique in its original space below the new Hall of Fame.
The goal of the museum, which opens this month, is to showcase the individual behind the music, with a lot of personal artifacts, like Jerry Lee Lewis' Cadillac. "We want people to get to know the person beyond the performer," said executive director John Doyle. "So while we have one of Elvis' jumpsuits, we also have his first mobile phone, in a briefcase, and his Gi from his karate days. The Rock 'n' Soul museum was done by the Smithsonian in their style, traditional and academic. This one honors the craziness of the folks who invented rock 'n' roll."
While the museum has plenty of early rockers like Presley and Lewis, it covers every genre, soul, gospel, R&B and even local radio personalities so long as the Memphis connection is there. Honorees range from Isaac Hayes to Johnny Cash to ZZ Top. It is a stop on the looping shuttle that connects Graceland, Sun Studio, Stax and Rock 'n' Soul, making most music attractions accessible even without a car.
As one of the top places in the world to catch live music, there's more for fans than just museums. Before the Beale Street area boomed, Overton Square was the spot for live music and theater, but it later declined. The neighborhood is suddenly thriving again, and has become the trendiest area in Memphis, full of new restaurants, shops, brewpubs, yoga studios and, of course, music. Back in Overton Square's heyday, the place up-and-coming acts wanted to play was Lafayette's Music Room, where Billy Joel, KISS, Barry Manilow and Styx all succeeded at breaking into the business. But Lafayette's fortunes were tied to the neighborhood, and it had been shuttered for more than three decades. Recently reopened in its former spot, it has again quickly became one the city's hotspots for music fans. Every night it features two live bands and serves traditional Southern and soul food. Several other spots in the suddenly revitalized neighborhood dish up food and music, including Bayou Bar & Grill and Zebra Lounge.
"There has been a resurgence of the Memphis music scene as of late. Places like Lafayette's have given many musicians of different genres a great place to be seen and heard," said Darren Jay, headliner of Darren Jay and The Delta Souls and former president of the Memphis Blues Society. He predicts the new Blues Hall of Fame "will undoubtedly add another place to visit to places like the Stax Museum and Graceland."
No visit to Memphis would be complete without a stop at Graceland, and even this iconic attraction is changing. Much to the relief of fans, the new owners discarded a loudly publicized plan to removed Elvis' aircraft collection, and instead of shrinking, Graceland is expanding. Construction is underway on the 450-room Guest House at Graceland, opening next year. The Guest House will include a 500-seat theater for live performances and movie screenings, VIP suites designed by Priscilla Presley and all things evocative of The King's style. It will uniquely offer a free airport shuttle for all guests, an in-town shuttle, outdoor pool and several bars and restaurants – with an unbeatable location for Elvis fans.
If you go
Getting there: The user-friendly airport is just 15 minutes from downtown Memphis, served by Southwest, Delta, American/US Airways, United and Frontier.
Hotels: The Peabody is the classic luxury choice. The brand new Big Cypress Lodgeis small rustic-cabin themed hotel set within Bass Pro Shop at the Pyramid. Downtown Memphis has a full array of national chain hotels including Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, Sheraton, DoubleTree, Courtyard by Marriott and Hampton Inn & Suites.
Dining: One of the city's nicknames is the BBQ Capital of the World and barbecue is the most famous food, especially ribs and pulled pork. The best larger spots include
Central BBQ and the Bar-B-Q Shop, while small time-honored local favorites include Cozy Corner and Payne's. Gus' Famous Fried Chicken is one of the most revered fried chicken spots in the country, and Lunchbox Eats is a funky modern soul food sandwich place with a schoolhouse theme, open only for lunch and breakfast. Chez Phillippe is the flagship eatery in the Peabody Hotel, and may be the only fancy French restaurant in the country that as a matter of policy, never ever serves duck.