Flying into Mobile, Ala., from Houston, I had no idea what was waiting for me. As luck would have it, I soon found out that the Mobile Bay area is the epitome of Southern charm, food, atmosphere and, especially, “heart.”
Whether you’re looking for adventures in downtown Mobile, where you’ll find magnificently renovated pre-Civil War era architecture and century-old oak trees, or you’re looking to discover the many delights around every bend of Mobile Bay, this travel destination will not disappoint! Mobile is definitely worthy of a “road trip,” as Interstates 10, 65 and 165 rendezvous here.
Taking I-10 from Houston is 468 miles – a mere day’s drive. Southern hospitality, beautiful, historic surroundings and art galleries aplenty, along with sunsets across the bay, and a visit to Bellingrath Gardens and Home, combined to ensure that my visit was definitely one to remember. There are many intriguing moments tucked inside my treasured-memories box, making it hard to know where to begin. I had passed through Mobile many times on I-10, as my family made road trips to vacation in other locals. But speeding along the interstate, one could only see the “surface” of this little city with such a great big heart! My discovery: You have to take an exit ramp to find that the Mobile Bay Area is a destination worthy of a return visit – maybe even make it your choice for Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve.
The very first known Mardi Gras happened in Mobile in 1703, before the one in New Orleans. Seriously, I was left standing with my mouth agape when we visited the Mobile Carnival Museum, where extravagant, original royalty attire of elaborately jeweled robes and crowns are on display. This you have to see to believe! Billed as America’s original and America’s “family” Mardi Gras, the community brings the whole family out for the procession, festivities and fun. Mardi Gras goers are treated to flying Moon Pies (first thrown in Mobile) from the moving floats and revelers during the procession, along with other special treats such as toys, beaded necklaces and other trinkets. The Moon Pie tradition is so embraced that the city celebrates with “Moon Pie Over Mobile” – dropping a massive Moon Pie at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve – how fun is that? Didn’t I tell you this city has “heart?”
This is a city with a love of the arts, where The Centre for the Living Arts (CLA), under the umbrella of the Mobile Arts Council, has created The Memory Project – a nine-month exhibition featuring the work of eight significant artists, along with related programming. The project was announced at the Arts Alive! Festival in April and runs through December. The CLA hopes to be a pivotal force in contemporary art for the Southeast by luring global talent to serve all sectors of the Mobile Community. Alison Saar, an internationally acclaimed artist, displayed a mesmerizing, life-size art piece comprised of suitcases and a large sculpture of a woman as part of The Memory Project. Her exhibit contained audio that was hidden in various suitcases. The voices spoke of memories in different languages and left me with a desire to frequently reminisce about her work in amazement. The Memory Project strives to showcase individual memories of local, regional, national and international artists and musicians, while uniquely pulling together and continuing to create the collective memories of the viewer. Complete information can be found at www.centreforthelivingarts.com.
The Mobile Arts Council is made up of 80 arts organizations spanning both sides of Mobile Bay. My tour group visited numerous art galleries as we strolled through downtown Mobile during the Arts Alive! Festival, including Kangal Gallery, Robertson Gallery and The Host Gallery, where we met local artists Joy Gardner and Andrew LaMar Hopkins.
During our lunch at The Grand Hotel, we met the internationally renowned artist Nall, of The Nall Foundation, who so generously provided a tour of his private studio. In fact, some of his art decorated the walls of The Grand Hotel. We were impressed by Nall, whose career has spanned 40 years. Having studied under Salvador Dali, his works have been exhibited throughout the U.S., as well as Switzerland and at the National Natural History Museum of Paris. The N.A.L.L. Art Association is currently launching the perfume “Les Fleurs de Nall” by Bissoumine – available at www.bissoumine.com.
We visited the Mobile Museum of Art located at 4850 Museum Drive, which is said to be the largest art museum along the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Tampa. The 95,000-square-foot facility houses a permanent collection of more than 9,000 works of art in addition to world renowned traveling exhibits, regional art and a sculpture garden. This museum is very impressive and did not disappoint – www.MobileMuseumOfArt.com. Historic In downtown Mobile, you’ll see streets lined with historic, well-preserved oak trees that lend a feeling of being in the suburbs instead of in the middle of a city. Not only do the tree-lined streets add charm; they also add warmth. We discovered that it is a felony to harm the oak trees, but we observed a few colorful beaded necklaces left over from a previous Mardi Gras – actually charming.
Mobile has a rich history, as is evident in the architectural styles, churches, museums and landmarks. Indeed, there are 11 historic districts in Mobile. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was completed in 1850, and serves as the heart of the downtown historic district. It’s also known as Mobile’s Cathedral Square, which is surrounded by a variety of shops and galleries. In the downtown historic district of Mobile stands The Battle House Hotel which is connected to the Retirement System of Alabama (RSA) Battle House Tower. A tour of the hotel is nothing short of phenomenal. The original hotel, known as “Mobile’s Living Room,” was built in 1852 in an era of elegance and grandeur. Renovations to the hotel have restored it to its original splendor, with 238 guest rooms, world-class cuisine and 27,000 square feet of meeting accommodations. The Battle House Hotel and the RSA Battle House Tower are owned and operated by RSA. We did not stay here but I would love to do so in the future, as I get the feeling that guests here are made to feel like royalty, especially in the grand ballroom and dining room. We were also charmed by a visit to The Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa located in Point Clear, and known as the “Queen of Southern Resorts” overlooking Mobile Bay. This hotel reopened in 2006 after a $50 million renovation, which included repairs from Hurricane Katrina. Catering to guests in true Southern tradition since 1847, the hotel was named one of the top 500 in the world by "Travel and Leisure Magazine" in 2011.
After touring this hotel and lovely gardens with sweeping views of Mobile Bay, one can imagine luxurious weddings and peaceful retreats. Showing scars from the Civil War, history tells us that the hotel served as a military hospital, where thousands of Rebel soldiers were treated and many died and were buried on the property. During World War II, the hotel became a maritime training academy. Today the grounds are spectacular with wide, sun-kissed views of the bay, lush floral gardens, an herb garden, water features and much more. I found myself wondering if there might be ghosts here – who would ever want to leave?
The Saenger Theatre first opened in 1927 and is now home to Mobile’s flourishing live music schedule. We enjoyed a sneak preview of Carmina Burana during a dress rehearsal by the Mobile Symphony at this amazing historic theatre. East Side – West Side Taking a tour along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, we spent a few hours visiting the many galleries and shops of the quaint little town of Fairhope. Starting at the Eastern Shore Art Center, we took a walking tour of this charming village full of history, delightful shops and many galleries, where you’ll find everything from art to gourmet foods to antiques – www.fairhopemerchants.com.
My very favorite tour happened to be on the western shore of the bay – the historic grandeur of a bygone era, Bellingrath Gardens and Home, which was first opened in 1932. The year-round, 65-acre garden estate began as a hunting camp, which gradually started to fill with beautiful plants from the Bellingraths’ home in Mobile. Soon it was a showplace where people traveled from far and wide to visit the beautiful, lush gardens. The grandiose, English Renaissance-styled home, built in 1935, has been featured on A & E’s America’s Castles series and is filled with priceless antiques and furnishings. For more details visit www.bellingrath.org. Delectable Dining While experiencing the eastern side of the bay, we had dinner at Bob Baumhower’s Compleat Angler Seafood Grille & Bar, a tribute to the Compleat Angler, a 1653 classic that was the inspiration for the iconic and historic hotel and bar by the same name in Bimini. The menu has a Bimini influence with such favorites as Bimini Bread, conch fritters and fresh catch with Stevie Nicks sauce – a personal favorite! The breathtaking sunsets across the bay added a special ambience to the meal. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch at Spot of Tea on Dauphin Street across from Cathedral Square, which also offers alfresco dining. A sweet spot, if you ask me, with very friendly service.
Further down Dauphin Street we dined and stuffed ourselves on scrumptious seafood at Wintzell’s Oyster House. The variety platter of oysters-on-the-half-shell was almost unbelievable – it looked huge! And more importantly, the oysters were delicious, as well as all the other seafood items that we sampled on the menu. We enjoyed Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, located at 916 Charleston Street, for the fact that it is very casual and the food is mouth-watering. It’s a good place to unwind with a beer or specialty drink after a day of soaking up the sights in Mobile. Southern comfort in Mobile I was surrounded by Southern comfort at the landmark, historic Admiral Semmes Hotel on Government Street, in downtown Mobile. In fact, steeped in history, it still has the feel of a different era, which I really enjoyed.
The Malaga Inn, located on Church Street and the Kate Shepard House B&B at Monterey Place were also excellent accommodations, as reported by part of my group. When I return to Mobile, I think I’ll try to stay at The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa downtown or The Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa on the bay. I think I would enjoy exploring their history-laced charm, while either downtown or on Mobile Bay.