Sweet Home Alabama
Springtime in the south is an easy lure for me. I enjoy spring anywhere it is, and if it’s a few weeks earlier than ours, all the better. I was invited to spend a long weekend in Mobile, Ala., last April. I had been to Mobile just once before — for the reopening of the magnificent Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa in 2007. I had been impressed with the city’s beautiful gardens, architecture, parks and outdoor spaces, fresh local seafood, and its moderately-paced downtown crowned by a sparkling skyline; big shoulders, I thought, for a city of under 200,000 people.
Mobile has invested heavily in the arts as a tourism draw, adding to its already full complement of reasons to visit. (Next year will see the opening of the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum.) My visit, organized by the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, was billed as Arts Along the Bayou and offered gallery hopping, boutique shopping, festival going, architectural touring, and plenty of local dining.
If you can’t wait until springtime to visit Mobile, consider going in February next year for Mardi Gras. Mobilians have 300 years experience throwing the magnificent two-week party, which commences on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 12, 2013) and culminates on the day before Lent. Indeed Mobile is recognized as the home of the first-known American Mardi Gras celebration — even before New Orleans.
On this visit I stayed at The Malaga Inn, a boutique hotel in downtown Mobile near Cathedral Square originally built in 1862 (when the war was going well for the South) as twin townhouses by two brothers-in-law. My room was large and comfortable with a beautiful balcony accessed by floor-to-ceiling walkout windows.
Cathedral Square, at one time part of the 18th century Catholic cemetery, is a beautiful municipal park that during my visit was the center of a popular biannual music and art festival, Arts Alive! The park’s design reflects the neighboring Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Bordering streets offer plenty of good places to eat, galleries, and boutiques. Try Spot of Tea, which claims it is “The Place to Be” for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The Memory Project
Mobile’s progressive arts patrons founded, in 1999, the Centre for the Living Arts (CLA), a nonprofit organization operating gallery and studio space, as well as historic Saenger Theatre in downtown Mobile. CLA wants to create a national model for community building through the arts. The Memory Project is the first phase of this goal; I attended its opening in April and again Mobile impressed with an ambitious and entertaining display of visual art exhibits, film screenings, live music, and public forums and conversations — all examining individual and collective memory in the Gulf Coast and elsewhere.
The Memory Project runs through December, yet another reason to visit Mobile before spring.
Eastern Shore Outing
An easy and rewarding outing from Mobile is a quick drive along the Eastern Shore to Point Clear and Fairhope. Point Clear is home to the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa, a historic resort with a recent $50 million update resulting from Hurricane Katrina damage. I did not make a spa appointment and regretted the schedule didn’t permit it on this trip; that won’t happen again — the spa is exceptional.
At the Grand, I met Nall, whose art was prominently displayed throughout the hotel. Born Fred Nall Hollis in Troy, Ala., I quickly gleaned Nall had a large body of work in a variety of media. Later in the day, my travel group visited his remarkable studio and gallery space in Fairhope.
Fairhope sits on bluffs that overlook the bay. It was founded as a utopian single tax colony in 1894. Today, Fairhope, with a population of nearly 17,000, has transitioned from a utopian experiment to a town that is affluent, eclectic, and authentic — and the Fairhope Single Tax Corp. operates still today. (Fairhope is one of two single tax colonies remaining in the United States. The other is in Arden, Del.) The town impressed me with its beauty; its sidewalks and storefronts overflow with flowers.
Tour Historic Mobile
Back in Mobile, the long weekend awaits. There are seven historic districts in Mobile — all easily accessible from downtown. It’s more fun, though, to hire L. Craig Roberts, an architect who offers tours of historic Mobile. Roberts was extremely well versed in Mobile history and architecture — and very entertaining. He aptly pointed out the grand residences where the Mardi Gras parties were held. Mobile certainly is a city that knows how to host a party; no fewer than a half dozen wedding parties or other spring festivities were being readied on manicured lawns and lush patios as we toured the historic districts.
When You Go:
• Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau
• The Malaga Inn
• The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa
• Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa
• Spot of Tea
• Callaghan’s Irish Social Club
• Compleat Angler Seafood Grille & Bar
• Wintzell’s Oyster House
• Centre for the Living Arts
• Historic Mobile Tours with L. Craig Roberts: 251-343-8165
• A&M Peanut Shop
• Bienville Books
• Saenger Theatre
My enthusiasm for Mobile was shared by the photographer for this story. Kate Tindall, a Texan who had not previously visited Mobile, returned over the summer for a follow-up visit.