A cool fall breeze blows across my face as the soothing piano intro of Lady Antebellum's smash hit 'Need You Know' drifts into my ears. I'm standing on a street in downtown Mobile, Alabama where the six-time Grammy Award winners have completely entranced the crowd that stretches a full city block away from the stage. I'm at Bayfest, one of the biggest music festivals in the south. Each fall, Bayfest takes over the downtown Mobile area for 3 days and fills it with more than 125 performances stretching across eight stages. Bayfest has running since 1995 and is organized by a non-profit organization of the same name. Local volunteers donate their time to help put on the event which draws in tourists from all over the United States. All of the money that is made from ticket sales goes into the next Bayfest, and because there isn't a big corporation behind the event it only cost $45 for all 3 days of music and fun! (3 day music fesivals in other cities can be $200+ per ticket) Bayfest 2011 will be held Friday, October 7 through Sunday, October 9 and you can get tickets on the Bayfest website located at www.bayfest.com.
Bayfest is definitely a family event, and you will see all ages scattered throughout the festival area which takes up nearly ten square blocks smack dab in the middle of downtown Mobile. The eight stages are loosely themed and include a rock, gospel, R&B and country stage. There is even a large kids/families area with it's own stage. As of press time, nineteen acts for the 2011 festival have been announced. Highlights include Toby Keith, 3 Doors Down, Duran Duran, Blake Shelton, Jill Scott and KoRn. The Bayfest lineup will continue to be posted as it is announced on their website, with the full lineup to be posted on August 25.
What was really refreshing about Bayfest was that it is filled with people there just to have a good time. Families bring lawn chairs and set up a little home base and let the kids go off and see the music they want to see while the parents get to see something they want to enjoy. Even though the festival is based in the middle of the city, there is security and fencing preventing people without tickets from entering. The security presence was very noticeable and the locals attending the concert were the same 'southern friendly' that we get here in Texas. Most of the music starts in the afternoon, so you would also have time to explore the Mobile Bay area which has a ton of great attractions. A great place to start would be the Museum of Mobile (www.museumofmobile.com). I was very impressed with the quality of the museum's exhibits and I got to learn quite a bit of Mobile's 300 years of history.
Mobile is also home to a science museum called the Gulf Coast Exploreum (www.exploreum.com). They had a ton of hands-on science exhibits, an IMAX, and an exhibit dedicated to the human body with more interactive stations. I could have entertained myself for an hour in the hand-on exhibit hall by itself. It is highly recommended to try both of these museums. Mobile is also home to the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. I'm a big fan of anything with an engine (see my auto review column every issue on the back page), and the park was filled to the brim with all types of vehicles. The standout of course being the USS Alabama, which is a battleship that saw action in World War II. Most all of the ship is open for you to explore, and they have several small exhibits scattered throughout the ship. Nothing gives you a better feeling of the history then actually squeezing through the tight corridors and seeing the bunks of the men that served our country during the war.
Also at the park is the USS Drum, a WWII era diesel-electric submarine. The Drum is also open for patrons of the park to climb through and explore. Also on site is a 20 plane strong aircraft collection. The planes span the entire second half of the 20th century and includes an A-12 Blackbird, the precursor to SR-71 Blackbird. Needless to say, the park can provide nearly an entire day of fun. Get more information at their website www.ussalabama.com.
I also had the pleasure of touring the Belligrath Gardens and Home (www.bellingrath.org). It is the original site of Walter Bellingrath's fishing camp on the Fowl River. Walter Bellingrath was the president of Mobile's Coca-Cola bottling plant. His wife fell in love with property and started developing the 65 acres of grounds into a stunning series of gardens. They eventually loved the site enough to move there in 1935. The grounds and the historical house are absolutely striking. If you have any interest in seeing the gardens, then absolutely make the 30 minute drive from downtown Mobile.
The other thing you have to do while visiting Mobile is eat! My favorite stop of ours was at Wintzell's Oyster House (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com). I had lunch at the historic downtown Mobile location and greatly enjoyed everything they brought to the table. In particular the seafood gumbo ($4.99/cup) and crawfish topped fried green tomatoes ($7.99) were wonderful. Wintzell's are also known for the oysters! Both raw and cooked they were fabulous. Entrees average around $15 and large lunch portions around $10. Definitely a must-stop at if you are in Mobile.
There are several wonderful hotels in downtown Mobile that provide walking access to the festival, but demand is very high, so be forewarned. I stayed at the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort in Pointe Clear, AL (www.marriottgrand.com) which sits on the east side of Mobile Bay. It's about a thirty minute charming drive back into downtown Mobile. The Grand Hotel offers two 18-hole golf courses 371 rooms across several buildings. It doesn't feel like a large property though and has a very intimate feeling. The original hotel was built over 150 years ago and it has a wonderful blend between a historic property with a modern property where everything is up to date and works (like plumbing, flat-screen TVs, etc). The property has beautiful views and an incredible restaurant with a killer breakfast buffet. I was enticed away from the buffet by the featured breakfast entree, the 'Signature Lump Crab Scramble' ($14.95). It was every bit as wonderful as it sounds and was even declared to be one of the top 100 dishes to eat in Alabama before you die. Check! As of press time, rooms were available for the weekend of the music festival for $249/night.
My trip to the Mobile Bay area was a blast. Getting to experience Bayfest while in Mobile created a perfect mix of getting to rock out to some of the top artists in the world, some of the best seafood in the world and getting some downtime and relaxing while staring out into beautiful Mobile Bay at the Grand Hotel. The other great thing about Mobile is that getting there is a breeze from Houston. Continental operates 6 non-stop flights per day from IAH (shorth 90 minute flight) and Google Maps says it is a hair under 8 hours by car straight down I-10. No matter how you like to travel, the trip to Mobile for Bayfest is not only a blast, but a bargain as well.