In 2005 Johnny Morris, Founder of Bass Pro and Big Cypress, went fishing on the Mississippi River with a couple of his buddies, Bill Dance and Jack Emmitt. The Memphis Pyramid, built in homage to Memphis, Egypt, was a local conundrum—no one was quite sure what to do with it, standing like a glossy lighthouse on the riverbank next to downtown. The three men made a bet. If one of them caught a 30-pound catfish, Johnny would build a Bass Pro Shop in it. A monster catfish took the bait. Twelve years later, Bass Pro Shop, two restaurants and the National Waterfowl Heritage Center are open for business—and so is Big Cypress Lodge, a wilderness-inspired hotel like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
There’s plenty to see and eat outside in Memphis—Central BBQ, Muddy’s Bakeshop, Gus’s Fried Chicken—in addition to famous sites like Graceland, Beale Street and the National Civil Rights Museum. But Big Cypress Lodge and Bass Pro Shop have a lot going on.
Bass Pro Shop swallows up 535,000 square feet of hunting and fishing retail space, along with aquariums and man-made ponds where catfish and gar the size of toddlers glide through the water alongside the occasional duck. Posed animals frozen in action are displayed everywhere: a group of hogs peering into an elevator, a herd of rams rattling around on the rocks. Fake cypress trees dig deep roots under the water, draped in shawls of moss. Ducks Unlimited has contributed the National Waterfowling Heritage Center, where duck hunting relics such as antique duck calls and decoys are displayed. The heavenly scent of fresh fudge wafts up from The General Store, where local goods and old-fashioned candy can be purchased. The Memphis Zoo has even lent out three alligators which live lazy lives on the rocks underneath the iconic glass elevator. At 300 feet, it’s the country’s highest free-standing elevator, leading up to the newest romantic spot in the city, The Lookout, a beautiful fine-dining restaurant with nearly panoramic views of Bluff City.
Though the ground floor’s various shops and activities are open to tourists and locals alike, the elevators leading up to Big Cypress Lodge require a key card. The intimate 103 rooms ring around the pyramid, encompassing half of the second floor and all of the third. Some open up onto balconies under the Memphis skyline and others, like the hospitality suite, look out over the man-made swamp for easy fish-and-people watching.
After a short flight, I settle into the hospitality suite, complete with a complimentary basket of snacks from The General Store. A glowing stained-glass cabinet door hides a Mr. Coffee and two complimentary water bottles; a red switch activates an electric fireplace underneath one of two TVs. The chair backs are made of soft, real cowhide, and chandeliers fashioned from antlers float down from the ceiling: one over the sitting room and another above the feather-soft king bed. A walk-in shower and a huge bathtub sit quietly off to the side, out of the way. Even though the hotel is full of guests, it’s remarkably quiet, save for excited thrills from kids below. By closing time, it’s peaceful. One could almost imagine the animals climbing the rocking waterfall might spring to life.
For a quiet first night, I order room service from Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl and Grill. Uncle Buck’s specializes in seafood, fried alligator and burgers with “a mound of bacon.” It’s an easy meal to eat on the balcony with an open bottle of wine while watching the elevator glide up and down a pillar of blue light. Around 7 p.m., a nice staff member knocks, delivering a pair of fresh Mississippi Mud cookies.
The next morning is spent touring all Bass Pro Shop has to offer. Everything a hunter or fisher could want is there, from guns and fishing gear to spring apparel, candles and other home accessories including a particularly clever kitchen towel: “We interrupt this marriage to bring you deer season.” There are regular gun and gear demonstrations on the main floor and catch and release fishing lessons in the various ponds. Activities include an arcade shooting game and a virtual duck blind, where I shoot exactly one of the onscreen ducks. The six-year-old next to me hits four.
For lunch, Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl and Grill, one of two restaurants inside the pyramid, features a shipwreck-theme and bowling. It’s fabulously styled after Davy Jones’ fashion, full of low blue light with a shipwreck hanging from the ceiling, mermaids on the banisters and other undersea creatures. Tip: Bowl before indulging in Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl Cocktail. Bright, aquatic blue, and nearly big enough to be passed off as a bowling ball, this cocktail is meant for two. It’s utterly to blame for the sudden shift in gravity that occurred in my lane—only my lane—luring every ball into the gutter with a thunderous plunk.
Retreating back to the third floor, the peace of Big Cypress Lodge is a welcome respite from the wonderful hubbub of the store below. The recently reopened spa offers manicures, pedicures, facials and more, conveniently located next door to the state-of-the-art fitness facility. In the early evenings, a piano plays quietly to itself in the lounge and guests relax in nearby easy chairs.
After a day of shopping, it’s time for dinner in the clouds at The Lookout. There is a healthy mix of customers, young couples enjoying a night out and families resting after the exciting elevator ride. The staff have combined experience from a wide variety of fine-dining establishments all over the city: a chef from Flight, one of Memphis’ premier restaurants, and a pair of general managers from the iconic Peabody Hotel. It’s a fresh, new restaurant with high ambitions to become one of Memphis’ most essential dining experiences. Considering the views, the night-long waiting list and the stunning round aquarium in the center, The Lookout is well on its way.
The highlight of the appetizers is Medjool Stuffed Dates: bacon-wrapped, goat cheese-filled little glories that are better than candy. While waiting for an entree, step outside onto the glass floor of the balcony, breathe in the breeze coming off of the Mississippi River and perhaps catch a colorful light show played out on Harahan Bridge. The kitchen surprises me with an off-menu dish of seared Sea Bass with asparagus, creamy rice and lemon zest and a spin off of Bananas Foster for dessert, a banana bread pudding served under a drizzle of banana liqueur sauce and a dollop of ice cream.
In the morning, there is time for a final walk over the bridges to look at the wildlife and breathe in a last wistful hint of fudge before a quick, easy check out, leaving with more Bass Pro merchandise than I arrived with.
Big Cypress Lodge—aptly full of big cypresses—is not short on personality. Its lively sense of fun is tempered with rustic comfort and the amenities needed to leave refreshed. A stay in the Memphis Pyramid is an unforgettable experience for outdoorsmen, families and everyone in between.
Originally published in Plano Profile‘s April 2017 issue.