Flying into Mobile, Alabama, one can’t help being stuck by how deep blues and greens combine as water and land integrate, below. This is a different sort of place. Downtown, some streets are empty enough by early weekday afternoon to resemble an abandoned movie set. Crossing the road against traffic lights is not a problem, neither is finding curbside parking. That’s not a bad thing if you’re looking for a restful getaway. But don’t let the light traffic fool you, Mobile is full of cultural opportunities, including a surprising number of museums focused on everything from the region’s maritime connections to the Civil War to art and children.
Spend the briefest amount of time in Mobile and you’ll learn that revelers in the Camellia City began celebrating Mardi Gras in 1703, 15 years before New Orleans was established. Mobilians are also quick to stress that theirs is family-friendly party, steeped in tradition with kings and queens—a white pair and a black pair—passing through generations, and with neighbors returning to the same parade-watching spot year after year.
Mardi Gras lasts just over two weeks, but you’re likely to see beads hanging from the oak trees lining parade routes long after Fat Tuesday and you can always visit the Mobile Carnival Museum. A tour here begins and ends in a gift shop stuffed with masks, Chattanooga’s own Moon Pies (the city marks the beginning of each new year by dropping a giant Moon Pie the way New York drops a crystal ball) and other kitschy items. Decades’ worth of glimmering gowns, robes, scepters and other memorabilia are on view in the cream-colored Italianate house, which includes a “wow” room named for the inevitable response to its jaw-dropping presentation of royal court wear.
Art and Historic Properties
Many antebellum homes are found in Mobile, including the Bragg-Mitchell House and the Oakleigh Complex. However, a trip out to Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Theodore, Alabama, lands you in a different era. The 65-acre estate backs up to the Fowl River—Bellingrath started out as a fishing camp for Coca-Cola bottling franchisee Walter Duncan Bellingrath—and cruises on the waterway are sometimes offered. Though the English Renaissance-style house isn’t overly extravagant, it is brimming with fine furniture and decorative arts. The house is surrounded by exquisite gardens and water features that are connected by trails. Bellingrath hosts a slate of annual events including a classic car show in April, various flower festivals (azaleas in spring, mums in autumn, camellias in winter) and a holiday light show.
Glass lovers should head to the Mobile Museum of Art for its extensive collection ranging from small traditional vessels to innovative pieces like Carole Perry’s “Purple Tiger Floribunda,” with purple, blue and green strands of glass mimicking woven fabric complete with “frayed” edges. John Miller’s “Brown (Do Not Duplicate)” is a super-sized pair of keys on a brown leather key chain—all made of glass. Set in the 720-acre Langan Park, this is the largest art museum on the Gulf Coast at 95,000 square feet and more than 9,000 works of art. The museum celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2013.
Hollywood musicals, westerns and other spectacles once played at the Saenger Theatre, a 1920s movie palace in downtown Mobile. Now beautifully restored, the Saenger serves as a venue for all sorts of performances and is open for tours—note the stained glass exit signs and the stairwell murals depicting life on the Mobile Bay.
The four-star Battle House Hotel is another of Mobile’s restored landmarks; following a $200 million restoration, it opened in spring 2007 having stood dormant for 30 years. Inside there is intricate wedding cake molding, Tiffany skylights dating from 1908 and a second-floor whispering gallery. Schedule plenty of time for the brunch buffet served under another Tiffany insert, this time in a domed ceiling. All of that is in the historic part of the hotel; a large new wing includes a luxurious spa and rooftop swimming pool lined with palm trees.
A weekend in Mobile feels like time spent in New Orleans’ Garden District, especially if you have a room at the Malaga Inn. This complex of pink buildings with black shutters and iron railings was built in 1862 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The locally owned hotel has undeniable charm. Rooms have high ceilings, tall windows and hardwood floors; four-poster beds and ceiling fans. Some overlook the central courtyard where tables are set up around a fountain.
The Grand Hotel Marriott Resort located in nearby Point Clear, also has a long history. Built in 1847 and relaunched in spring 2006 after a $50 million restoration (including post-Katrina repairs), it’s set on 550 acres. The meticulously manicured grounds include two golf courses, a spa and peaceful nooks for lakefront lounging or private dining. Dining indoors or outdoors is an experience—the chef pulls ingredients from an herb garden on the property—and you can hone your own skills with a cooking class.
Mobile’s location ensures a supply of excellent seafood (every chef also seems to have a secret ingredient that takes gumbo to another level). Wintzell’s Oyster House is a Mobile favorite, serving oysters anyway you can think of—or as they say “fried, stewed or nude”—and also crab cakes, fried shrimp, etc. Locals, tourists and college students frequent the Dauphin Street location for its spirited, yet casual atmosphere. Meanwhile, across the bay at former NFL player Bob Baumhower’s Compleat Angler Seafood Grille & Bar in Daphne, Alabama, the views—especially at sunset—almost upstage the menu. Almost. The tangy Stevie Nicks sauce brings out the flavor in oysters, shrimp, crab cakes, crab claws and other seafood items. Lump crab salad and conch fritters add a Caribbean flavor to this menu. And, yes, there’s gumbo, too.
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Story by MiChelle Jones
Photography courtesy of Mobile Bay Convention & Visitor’s Bureau