Posted by: Mickey Goodman | January 14, 2010

Mobile on the Bay

Ante Bellum Mansion

“Can you hear me?” I whisper, standing, with my face inches from the whispering arch at the historic Battle House Hotel in Mobile, Ala. My friend, Mary, is at the opposite end, ready to receive my message. “Let’s stick around and eavesdrop conversations,” she whispers. We turn to face one another, then giggle like tweenagers, happy to have taken the double-dog dare to test the famous phenomenon.

The whispering arch is only one of the surprises at this elegantly restored grand dame in the heart of an invigorated downtown Mobile. I’m blown away by the original Tiffany glass ceilings in the lobby and dining rooms and the trompe l’oeil murals. Among other signs of the $220 million renovation for the hotel known as “Mobile’s living room” is a 1920s mural that rings the Crystal Ball Room and the smashing chandeliers, plus the very luxurious twenty-first century guest rooms and totally organic spa.

Mobile Carnival Museum

When it comes to vacation destinations, the city of Mobile lives up to the motto, “over the top, under the radar”– particularly for families. And especially for Mardi Gras (also known as Fat Tuesday, the day of revelry before the austerity of Lent). Mobilians are quick to brag, “We were the first Mardi Gras in America,” but as a former New Orleanian, I’m incensed. Alas, ‘tis true. The gargantuan celebration was first held in Mobile in 1840. It didn’t spread to New Orleans until 1857.

There are nearly as many similarities between the two celebrations as differences. Both cities have an extended Carnival season with numerous parades that take place long before the actual day. But while the merriment in New Orleans is wild and wooly with copious amounts of alcoholic beverages consumed, Mobile’s fete is family-focused with designated alcohol-free zones. In addition, the city has the only Carnival Museum in the world dedicated to Mardi Gras costumes. Talk about over the top bling! (Mardi Gras 2010 is Tuesday, February 16.)

Museums!

One of best things about downtown Mobile is the accessibility to museums, restaurants and shops. We stroll easily from the Battle House to the History Museum, the Mardi Gras Museum and The Exploreum, an interactive “edutainment” science center. I confess, it’s my favorite. I could live there – if my grandkids were along for the adventure.

In “My Body Works,” a gy-normous beating heart goes into cardiac arrest and its ever-faster beats bring medical “intervention” from museum goers. I test my blood pressure (happy to find I’m still alive) and calculate how many miles I need to walk to burn off the fried oysters and bread pudding I ate for lunch (oh my word!). I test my arm strength (no surprise, I’m a wuss); see how high I can jump (okay, stop laughing) and record the findings on my activity card. As I exit, I receive a health profile which I can compare to findings on my next visit (and there will be one). With interactive experiments, “breathing” dinosaur replicas and traveling exhibits, there is always something fun to see and do.

Mother Nature

5 Rivers Delta Center

After a day of museuming, we head to 5 Rivers Delta Center, a 250,000-acre wetland and water trail that stretches from Gadsden to Mobile. We climb aboard a skiff and encounter a flock of white pelicans that have stopped to rest before heading farther south. Our naturalist silences the engines. Overhead, the wide wing of the huge birds casts a large shadow over us. They soar as gracefully as a chorus of ballerinas dipping and swirling through the cloudless November sky. We’re mesmerized.

Glorious Bellingrath Gardens

Hooked on fresh air, we strike out for Bellingrath Gardens the next day. Our timing this mild November day is impeccable. By chance, we catch a dress rehearsal for Magic Christmas in Lights, known worldwide for the three-million light display that begins annually the day after Thanksgiving. If looking for a single reason to visit Mobile, this is it. The 65-acre Gardens and original home of Mr. and Mrs. Walter D. Bellingrath, are worth seeing 364 days a year (closed Christmas Day).

Food!

Mobile takes a backseat to none on the Gulf Coast when it comes to great food. For seafood on the casual, we eat our way through Wintzell’s Oyster House, Bimini Bobs and The Original Oyster House. I order oysters prepared every imaginable way. Add in a serving of bread pudding and I’m living large.

But decidedly, the most unique dining establishment in Mobile is the Tiny Diny. I never would have discovered it without help from my cousin, Phyllis. “Do you want to have breakfast at one of my favorite places?” she asks. “It’s funky and fun and when Rick Bragg was here on a book tour, he loved it.”

“If it’s good enough for an author the caliber of Rick Bragg, it’s absolutely good enough for this author-wannabe,” I tell her.

Her route takes us down Government Street where ante bellum homes exude southern elegance and magnificent live oaks form a canopy overhead. A scant distance down the road and we enter a neighborhood clearly down on its luck. The Tiny Diny sits on one of the tackiest stretches and next door, a large billboard attracts my attention. It reads, “Go to the Church of your Choice” and once hid the topless car wash establishment next door.

Miss Trudy, the owner, needn’t have bothered hiding the car wash. Neither it nor the eclectic neighborhood dissuades customers from enjoying the old timey atmosphere with the friendly “mornin’ y’all” service. It is frequented by an eclectic group of politicians, business men and women, Rotarians and working folks all enjoying the piping hot eggs, grits, pancakes and famous homemade pies.

The Grand Hotel

On our last day, we drive four-miles east across Mobile Bay to The Grand Hotel which has drawn generations of southern gentry for 150 years. Despite numerous hurricanes and the resulting renovations, this regal lady on the Gulf, still stands tall. The sprawling resort with one foot in the past is firmly grounded in the present. The state-of-the-art spa, private sail-in dock, golf course, world renown restaurant and white sand beaches attract young and old. And, if anyone asks for my vote on the best bread pudding in the Mobile area, it would be the Grand’s. I swoon in the remembering.

Travelgram Tips:

  • Mark your calendars for Mardi Gras 2010 on February 16/
  • Reservations are recommended at the Battle House and Grand Hotels.
  • Take comfortable shoes. Mobile is a walking city.
  • Add Dauphin Island to the itinerary. A short drive away, it offers the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, miles of beaches, historic Fort Gaines Park, a pier and camp grounds.
  • Direct flights are available from Atlanta but it’s cheaper to fly into Pensacola and rent a car. You’ll need it to see Bellingrath Gardens or Dauphin Island.
  • Mobile is an easy six-hour drive from Atlanta.

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Responses

  1. Great article, Mickey!

  2. I’m originally from St. Petersburg, Fl and have been in Mobile, AL for about 1 year 6 months. I love this article, because it mirrors my thoughts on all the beauty and charm I’ve found in this little town since moving here. I miss my old home, but at least I’ve found a wonderful new one. Glad to hear others think so too.

  3. Great article. I agree with all of it. Having lived here for 12 years I’d recommend Gulf Shores or Orange Beach which are 1/2 hour away and a lot closer than Dauphin Island from the Grand Hotel.

    At both beaches at both (Orange, Gulf Shores) water is cleaner (farther from Mississppi River), larger, safer, in better shape with way more to do in that area with a better view (no oil rig views) compared to Dauphin Island. The difference is HUGE. Dauphin Island is out of sand and the “current events” for that area are finding a sand source to replace.

    Rule of Thumb…
    Things done one side of Mobile Bay is for “Beauty” (East) and the otherside is for “Tours” (West). Eating the “best seafood” (Middle-Restaurants on the Mobile Bay Causeway)

  4. Am a huge fan of Wintzell’s and try to stop there everytime I’m in Mobile. Tell me, Travelgram, what is your favorite thing on their menu?

    • Hard to choose between oyster loaf and “nude.” Also loved Rockefeller, and Bienville. I’m ready for more!

  5. Enjoyed your trip, Mickey. Mine is in the issue on our homepage, http://www.reuinonsmag.com. i think it starts on page 32.

  6. whoops!!
    The web address above should be http://www.reunionsmag.com. Sorry!


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