There’s something about being in a small town. You just somehow feel more secure, more welcome and more like you belong there. And that’s the feeling you get in all the small towns around Mobile, Alabama.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the large town of Mobile itself. With a population of just over 300,000, it still has a small town feel. And it’s where you’re likely to find that football you might have heard about. Architecture and a sense of history can be found everywhere instead. Take the Battle House Hotel for instance. The original was built in 1852 and burned in 1905. The hotel is synonymous with southern charm and was a gathering place for the high society of the day. It was here at Battle House on October 27, 1913 that Woodrow Wilson said, just before World War I, that the United States would never again wage a war of aggression again. Ah, if only that were true….At the hotel you can view the rich work of Alabama artists on display, all curated by the artist Nall. Or how about telling a secret from 35 feet away along the Battle House’s Whispering Arch? Gives a new meaning to the expression “the walls have ears”.
With all the sightseeing you will see in the area, get yourself prepared in advance with a spa treatment. Best places to check out for these are the Battle House Hotel or the Grand Hotel. Either one will have you relaxing or snoozing within minutes.
Once you’re relaxed, set out for the small town of Fairhope. This upscale community boasts a museum and several elegant small cottages and bungalows. Here they use a system called Single Tax, after the theories of Henry George, who advocated no taxes other than a single land tax. Not only is the town known for its monetary system, it’s also known for its romantic appeal. In fact it was described as “One of the most romantic coastal towns in the South” by Coastal Living Magazine because this area of 4,500 acres offers inspiration to artists and romantics alike. It’s not surprising then to learn that Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes, lives here.
The name Fairhope itself is interesting – it comes from the fact that when the town first started, it had a “fair hope” of being successful. But success it has certainly had and even today locals don’t feel any need to lock their cars or doors. And so popular has it become as a tourist destination that this town of 16,000 actually has 700 hotel rooms. But don’t confuse upscale with prudish the town has had its share of colorful characters – including 3 nudist colonies.
Check out the local art center with its Dale Chihuly-style chandelier in the entrance, actually produced by Ed Pennebaker. Two glass exhibits are currently going on at the moment. If you have a spare $18.000 you can buy the twin towers sculpture that is on display.
While you’re here, don’t forget to check out the French Quarter, where quaint village shops nestled in an alcove area invite you to check out their handicrafts and upscale wares.
Shopping is big in Fairhope, just as it is in Foley. This little town of 13,000 people has 5 million visitors per year. They come to see the outlets center and the quaint cafes.
Lack of snow in this sunshine village brought about the idea of bringing in some snow and that’s exactly what the locals do every winter. Their “Let It Snow” campaign lets children experience snow where they normally wouldn’t.
Train buffs shouldn’t miss out on the Train Depot and Model Train Display. Any model train lover will be in his glory, the whole display is sixty feet long and twenty-two feet wide and boasts having tunnels, a miniature town, a plethora of freight trains and lots of activities going on. You’ll see, for instance, that there’s a drive-in movie where the model waitress roller skates to the waiting car to deliver her drinks. And check out the model fire station that has the fireman sliding down the pole as the bell goes off. Note that the value is $300,000 just for the layout. The era depicted by the train museum is 1930-1960s – note there is no McDonalds! It took 14 months of hard work to put the train museum into this building.
In addition, check out Stacey’s Old Time Soda Fountain and the Holmes Medical Museum. One of the docents at the museum was one of the babies born at the hospital. Take a look at the birthing chair and the forceps on display and if you are a mom, you’ll be glad medicine has come a long way since then!
One of the best ways to see dolphins frolicking in the wake of a boat is on a Dolphin Express Cruise. As the boat speeds up on its 90 minute cruise, these beautiful sea mammals seem to delight in showing off their jumping prowess, much to the delight of the boat’s passengers. Dolphin sighting are guaranteed on this trip.
But the top of everyone’s list has to be the visit to Monroeville, about 2 hours drive from Mobile. This is the home of Harper Lee, author of the much-loved To Kill A Mockingbird which has sold over 15 million copies worldwide. Visit the courthouse that features so prominently in the novel. Harper’s own father was a lawyer and as a child Harper spent many a day watching her father at work. It’s likely that Atticus in the book was modeled after her father and Maycomb is fashioned after Monroeville. Dill is said to be her friend, Truman Copote, who has admitted to being quite pleased with his character.
Once headed for demolition, the courthouse in the village was saved and restored by a determined group of local residents. Over $30m was raised to renovate it. Harper, long since a recluse who doesn’t give interviews, is now in her 80s, while her sister, a lawyer, is now in her 90s. Lee’s best friend was the openly-gay Truman Capote (as children they would write stories together in their tree house). If you ask any of her classmates, they will tell you Lee never had a date that they knew of. Nobody knows why. What they do know, however, is that her book became a classic and is one every schoolchild continues to love. You can tour the museum, the exhibits and the grounds. The town does a sold-old presentation of Mockingbird every April and May, with an all-local cast.
Another presentation worth seeing is that of beautiful Bellingrath Gardens, two hours from Mobile. Flowers are in bloom throughout the grounds and a stroll here will restore your sanity (just in case in the rat race of life you’ve somehow managed to lose it). This was the home of Walter D. Bellingrath who was Mobile’s first Coca-Cola bottler and the gardens were originally called Belle Camp. They were intended as a fishing camp for Walter D. Bellingrath and his wife Bessie (his doctor had told him to get some rest and enjoy life and stop working all the time – Bellingrath was the retreat that resulted from then). Fashioned after the gardens and country estates in England, the gardens and 15-room home were opened to the public for the first time on April 7, 1932 to cheer up a depression-weary public. However, a major traffic jam was the result and after that admission was charged to care for and maintain the gardens. The home has been featured on A& E’s America’s Castles series.
History also comes alive at the USS Alabama which was originally destined for scrap. Thanks to the schoolchildren of the 1960s who donated their nickels and dimes to save the Alabama, the sum of $100,000 was raised. The ship was towed 5,600 miles through the Panama Canal to bring it to its current location. This historic battleship, which became famous in Steven Segal’s movie “Under Siege” is dedicated to all Alabamians who have served. It was opened to the public in January 1965 and served 37 months of active duty in its lifetime. Explore its 12 decks for an insight into what this ship, which earned 12 battle stars and shot down 9 enemy planes (all while losing no lives) was like. Not surprisingly, the boat and the submarine beside it have had over 13 million visitors since opening day. Did you know that battleships are no longer made?
One thing that was made on the USS Alabama, however, unlike on other warships, was ice cream. This was given out to delivery people when deliveries were made to the boat. It was also given out to the sailors on board the boat, whose average age was 21 and who were still young enough to appreciate it (note the youngest sailor was actually 15 but he had lied and used his brother’s information to sign up).
An interesting feature of living on the Gulf Coast is that the residents get to enjoy the benefits of Jubilee. This is where the oxygen is so low in the water that the sea life, literally, walks out onto the beach to get some air. In doing so, they get picked up by the locals who take them home to fill their freezers and fridges. “The creatures don’t even resist,” says Alex Robinson of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. This is only one of two places on earth that has this phenomenon.
Another great phenomenon to check out is the Exploreum. Is this for kids or is it really for kids of all ages? See into the human body and try your hand at performing an operation. Practice heart surgery or knee surgery or how about testing your skill at how much you know about healthy shopping? You’ve no doubt played an “air guitar” but how about trying an “air harp” – it has no strings, but rather it works by laser. Just listen to the music you can play on it! It’s all here at the Exploreum where everything is state of the art. For good reason the Exploreum has been voted Mobile’s #1 family attraction, with more than 100 hand-on exhibits. There even a 12 foot “beating” heart model that shows what happens when a heart attack occurs and how medical attention can repair it.
Mardi Gras Carnival Museum
And hearts are certainly beating when it comes to Mardi Gras and all those beads are being thrown out. You can relive the history and traditions of this event which goes on for two weeks in Alabama at the Mardi Gras museum. The city boasts over 30 Mardi Gras parades and this city is the one that actually originated the North American carnival. Bet you thought it was born in New Orleans. No, it was actually brought to life in Mobile by a Mr. Joe Cain who wanted to cheer up his friends by creating a ruckus with pots and pans in the streets. These days the pots and pans have been replaced by colorful, lively floats. Mardi Gras in Mobile has been called the largest street party in the country and the coronations of the kings and queens rival those of European heads of state.
Alabama might well have a lot of small towns, but those small towns sure make a mighty big impact! Don’t miss them. You might not even have missed that football and those football schedules you had assumed Alabama was all about.
Mobile Carnival Museum: www.mobilecarnivalmuseum.com
USS Alabama: www.ussalabama.com
Spot of Tea, which serves food: www.spotoftea.net
Hotels: Battle House Hotel, Grand Hotel and Riverview Plaza offer upscale accommodations (www.rsabattlehouse.com)
Condo rentals are available at: http://www.youngssuncoast.com
Dolphin Express Cruise: http://www.dolphinexpresscruises.com