Mobile Bay: Part 1 of 2
Discovering the Perks of Mobile Bay
The shimmering skyline of Mobile, AL, is the gateway to a host of interesting visitors diversions from historic antebellum homes to eco-activities, from a World War II era battleship to world-class art. The city also provides a backdrop for the annual Mardi Gras celebration.*
By Susan J. Young
Like many people, my exposure to Mobile, AL, was simply to buzz by it. I viewed the city’s skyline many times while driving on Interstate 10 en route from Florida to New Orleans.
But this year I got off the highway and lingered in the Mobile Bay area. I took three days, but I wished I'd had a week. From a traveler’s perspective, Mobile is an enchanting surprise – from its Carnival Museum to its World War II-era battleship (the USS Alabama), from its Exploreum science center to Robert Trent Jones golf trail courses and eco-areas in the Mobile Bay estuary.
More is on the way, as the highly anticipated Alabama Motorsports Park, a Dale Earnhardt Jr. Speedway, opens in 2009 in Mobile County. And with new hotels and upgrades of existing properties – visitors have a slew of accommodations choices.
Fort Conde Visitors Center
On first blush, downtown Mobile is a mishmash of different building architectural styles. Within the core downtown area are towering skyscrapers, 1920s-30s commercial facades and historic homes.
At left, cannons at the city's visitor center contrast with the city's modern skyline.
Downtown redevelopment is robust. But beneath the mix of styles, lurks the the city's storied history. The Spanish first explored here in the early 1500s.
Over the centuries, Mobile was colonized or occupied by the Spanish, French and British. The city served as French Louisiana's capital from 1699-1701.
A great place to begin your tour of Mobile is the Fort Conde Visitor Center (251-208-7569 or www.museumofmobile.com/html/other_museums.php), 150 S. Royal St.
Just west of the skyscrapers and near the the cruise port, this reconstructed 18th century French fortress (shown at right*) houses a visitor information center, extensive gift shop, restrooms and a small museum of military artifacts.
Costumed guides lead tours, fire muskets and cannons. They’re also happy to pose with eager tourists (see photo at left*).
Definitely climb to the top of the walls. You'll be rewarded with superb views of the city and port area. Inside the walls of the fort on the lower level you'll find the museum exhibits, including this vignette of life in the Enlisted Men's Quarters (see photo at right*).
The Fort Conde Visitor's Center is open seven days a week with the exception of Christmas, Thanksgiving, and of course, Mardi Gras day. Entry to the center and the museum is free.
Historical Tours and Cathedral Square
Pick up the Dauphin Street Historic District Walking Tour brochure (with map) at the Fort Conde Visitor’s Center or ask your hotel concierge.
You can walk the entire route or just pick a point on the tour to begin – based on your interests. For example, you might choose Cathedral Square.
Pop inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (251-434-1565 or www.mobilecathedral.org), 2 S. Claiborne St.
The cathedral’s cornerstone was laid in 1835 and the building was completed in 1850.
It's worth a short visit simply to admire the architecture, particularly the ornate ceiling (shown at left).
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the cathedral is the official church of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile. Admission is free. Interestingly, the design of the park in front of the cathedral reflects the basilica’s floor plan.
Worth a look is the nearby Cathedral Square Art Gallery (251-694-0278 or www.cathedralsquaregallery.com), 260 Dauphin St.. Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., this artist cooperative features works from regional artists.
Also nearby is the small Mobile Police Museum (251-208-6306 or www.cityofmobile.org/mobilepd/html/divisions/museum.html), 320 Dauphin St. Located in a downtown precinct office, the museum showcases the city’s law enforcement history. For example, it chronicles the arrest in Mobile of Patricia Krenwinkle, one of the infamous Charles Mansion “family.”
In the same block as the police museum, stop in for breakfast, lunch, brunch or dinner at a Spot of Tea (251-680-0936 or www.spotoftea.net), 310 Dauphin St..
Frequented by Mobile’s locals and government and corporate officials, Spot of Tea serves up an incredibly hearty and tasty cooked-to-order breakfast (see photo at right*). The venue is open daily.
Then, continue your walking tour or head for your car. If you've picked up the Mobile Historic Districts Driving Tour brochure at the Fort Conde Visitor’s Center, you'll have a good resource for a drive tour.
This brochure will guide you through the Church Street East, Detonti Street, Oakleigh Garden, Lower Dauphin, Leinkauf, Old Dauphin Way, Ashland and Midtown Historic Districts. Look for the Mobile Historic District Building (MHDB) markers proudly displayed on many of the structures.
Sights along the drive tour include 1830s brick buildings from the “King Cotton” era, small cottages, ornate Italianate mansions, buildings with cast-iron railings and more.
Editor's Note: We enjoyed just driving slowly along non-busy city streets on a Sunday morning. The commercial district was practically deserted, traffic was minimal and we could pull over at will to view a spot of interest. It was a relaxing way to tour.
Did you know that Mardi Gras was observed for the first time in the New World in 1703 by French pioneers at Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff, the first settlement of Mobile? True.
In 1711, Carnival was born at its present site in Mobile, as a papier-mache bull was pulled down Dauphin Street. That's reportedly the first carnival “parade” in North America.
Over the years, Carnival grew and prospered in the city. Wars were the exception. While canceled for that “War of Northern Aggression,” (what northerners call the Civil War), the city celebrated the 100th anniversary of the arrival of official Carnival parades in 1935.
A colorful float from a recent Mobile Carnival parade is shown above right.*
And, in 2005, the Mobile Carnival Museum (251-432-3324 or www.mobilecarnivalmuseum.com) opened at 355 Government St. If you go to Mobile, DO plan a visit here. The artifacts and costumes are incredible and superbly presented.
Housed throughout two and one-half floors in the historic Bernstein-Bush mansion, the story of Carnival in Mobile is told through exquisite gowns, robes and coronation artifacts, dating from 1921.
At left and right are two large jesters that adorn the front porch of the mansion.*
During this 90-minute experience, visitors will experience the frivolity, pageantry, history and fun of Mardi Gras. The museum also has a well-stocked gift shop of Mardi Gras beads, gifts, attire and decorations. Parking is available in an adjacent lot.
A sampling of the many exquisite costumes from the Mobile Mardi Gras Museum is shown above.*
The museum is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The $5 per person admission is a bargain. Kids are admitted for $2.
Battleship and Historic Aircraft
One top attraction in Mobile Bay is the U.S.S. Alabama Battleship Memorial Park (800-426-4929, 251-433-2703 or www.ussalabama.com), 2703 Battleship Parkway.
The star, of course, is the USS Alabama (shown at left*), a World War II-era battleship that’s open for tours.
The 680-foot-long USS Alabama was launched on Feb. 16, 1942, saw serious action during the war in the Pacific Theater, and survived the war, bringing veterans back from Tokyo.
The USS Alabama was called the "Lucky A” because during World War II, no American lives were lost aboard the vessel due to enemy fire. She did, however, shoot down 22 enemy aircraft and earned nine battle stars on the Asiatic-Pacific Service Medal.
While she’s a relic in today’s high-tech world, her nine 16” guns located in three turrets are impressive; each could shoot a 2,700-pound shell up to 21 miles.
But there’s much more to see on this 175-acre site than simply the battleship. For example, you’ll view a 1941-era submarine, the USS Drum, as well as a cornucopia of military artifacts and equipment -- tanks and a Vietnam PBR River Patrol Boat to name just a few.
Military aviation buffs will appreciate the 20-plus historic aircraft on site.
Among them are a B-17 Flying Fortress (see photo at right*), an A-12 Blackbird Spyplane, a B-52 and a Tuskegee Airmen’s P-51D Mustang.
With Vietnam and Korean War Memorials on site, the attraction is also a place for reflection and remembrance for all veterans. On April 10-13, 2008, the USS ALABAMA Crewmen's Association will hold its 2008 reunion and annual meeting at the battleship site.
The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sept. 30, and then through 4 p.m. between October and March. If you don't have the time or energy to traipse all over the battleship, you may simply pay a $2 parking fee to enter the site.
Then you may peruse the battleship's exterior fairly close up, as well as view tanks, many historic aircraft and the memorials. To enter the battleship, submarine and interior aircraft museum, purchase a ticket at the building in front of the battleship.
Tickets for those 12 and up are $12; those 6-11 pay $6. Younger children are admitted free.
The park doubles as a great picnic site. But if seafood suits your fancy, head east on Battleship Parkway's causeway to a selection of seafood restaurants.
One option is the Original Oyster House Steamer (251-626-2188 or www.originaloysterhouse.com).
This family-friendly restaurant (shown at right*) has an extensive menu, good "po boy" sandwiches among other fare, and great backwater bay views.
Another excellent option is Felix’s Fish Camp Grill (251-626-6710 or www.felixsfishcamp.com), 1530 Battleship Pkwy. Spanish Fort, AL. Felix’s savory food and attentive service matched the rewarding water view.
Can't decide what soup to order? Opt for Felix's “One, One, One,", which is three demi-cups of the restaurant’s savory soups – gumbo, crab and turtle – for $5.95. The presentation is shown at left.*
I also opted for the "Hook, Line and Sinker" sampler of three kinds of oysters - shown at right.* The plate of two Oysters Rockefeller, two Oysters Casino and two Oysters Felix was priced at $6.95.
A friend chose the large fresh, steamed whole shrimp (head on), which she said were also tasty.
And, for the main course, one of us ordered the $8.95 cornmeal battered oysters with one side dish; the oysters were cooked to perfection, crispy on the outside, moist and juicy on the inside.
The other person ordered this luscious shrimp dish (shown at left*).
The vegetable we received with our meal -- green beans with almonds -- was very tasty and cooked to perfection.
Felix’s is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. View the full lunch menu at www.felixsfishcamp.com/menus/FFCSFlunch10-20-06.pdf.
Art, Edu-Tainment and History
If you want to soak up high-quality art, visit the 95,000-square-foot Mobile Museum of Art (251-208-5200 or www.mobilemuseumofart.com), 4850 Museum Drive in Langan Park.
The museum is the largest along the Gulf of Mexico coastline between New Orleans, LA, and Tampa, FL.
The facility has a stunning, soaring atrium with an exterior deck that overlooks the park; see the photo at left.*
But the real treasures are the exhibit galleries. Permanent collections display American, European, Asian & African art. One enticing draw is the Riddick Collection of contemporary glassware.
Upcoming rotating exhibitions include Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Drawings, from Oct. 8 to Jan. 13, 2008; Alabama Folk Pottery from Oct. 12 to Jan. 6; and M.C. Escher: Rhythm of Illusion from Oct. 12 to Jan. 6. In addition to perusing the exhibit halls, visitors might try their hand at ART Adventures in the education wing or shop at the Collage gift shop.
Hours are Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for students.
Got kids in tow? If so, definitely head for the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center & IMAX Theater (251-208-6879, 877-625-4FUN or www.exploreum.net), 65 Government St. Located downtown, this edu-tainment attraction is within moderate walking distance of the cruise pier.
Exploreum features rotating and permanent exhibits, hands-on science experiments, and, of course, a massive IMAX theater.
Through Oct. 4, the IMAX is showing “Hurricane on the Bayou,” about Hurricane Katrina. Witness the culture, bio-diversity and warm spirit of the people of Louisiana, and then experience imagery of a major hurricane and all its power. After you’ve seen the IMAX film, step into the science center’s hurricane simulator to feel what it’s like to be inside the storm.
Debuting Jan. 11, 2008, “Our Body: The Universe Within” will give Exploreum visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the elegant design of the human body’s form and function up-close in an artful, compelling and dignified way. The exhibit features actual human bodies.
In addition to the illuminating specimens on display, OUR BODY: The Universe Within will contain areas devoted to education about the history, art and science of anatomy. The Exploreum says it decided to welcome the exhibition (which has been both highly praised and yet controversial in showings elsewhere) after working closely with an advisory committee comprised of leading members of the local medical, religious, cultural and educational communities.
“After careful consideration and advisement, the Exploreum overwhelming feels that the exhibit has significant educational value and will have a positive impact on the region,” said the science center’s press release. OUR BODY: The Universe Within will be on display seven days a week from Jan. 11 to May 11, 2008.
Advance tickets are on sale at the Exploreum Box Office and on-line at www.exploreum.com. Prices are $20 for adults; $18 for seniors (ages 60+) and youth; and $17 for children (ages 2-12). Included are the exhibit access plus access to the Exploreum’s Hands on Hall, Wharf of Wonder, Minds on Hall, Ciba Lab and Digital Journeys Virtual Theater. For $5 more, visitors can add an anatomy-focused IMAX film to their experience.
If you’re more into ethnic history, head for the National African-American Archives Museum (251-433-8511 or http://community.al.com/cc/nationalafricanamericanachivesmuseum), 54 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.
On display are portraits, biographies, carvings, artifacts, books and the history of Carnival from the perspective of people of color. (see photo at left of visitors perusing the museum's Carnival artifacts*)
In addition, baseball fans will appreciate the museum's display of memorabilia from Mobile native Hank Aaron. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Sunday by appointment. Admission is free.
Historic Tours and Homes
Built in 1855, the 20-room Bragg Mitchell Mansion (251-471-6364 or www.braggmitchellmansion.com) is a stunning antebellum home.
With period furnishings, artwork and décor, visitors will feel they’ve stepped back in time as they tour the double parlors and lavish dining room. Outside, the site features live oaks and azaleas.
At right, the Bragg Mitchell Mansion exudes an Old South aura.*
The home is open for tours from Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last tour of the day at 3:30 p.m. However, this mansion is frequently booked for weddings and private parties, so call ahead to assure it's not closed for a private event; that's good advice for any of the area's historic mansions.
Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for kids from first grade through college. Children under six are admitted free.
Another home open for touring is the Conde-Charlotte Museum Home, (251-432-4722 or www.angelfire.com/al2/condecharlotte, 104 Theatre St.
Built in 1822-24, this home (shown at left*) was actually Mobile’s first jail! The exposed jail floor and jail doors are still visible.
The museum home features French, British, Confederate and American period furnishings and a walled Spanish courtyard. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for kids 6-17, and free for those 5 and under.
The Oakleigh Historic Complex (251-432-1281 or www.historicmobile.org), 350 Oakleigh Place, is another option. Built around 1833, Oakleigh is a T-shaped Greek Revival mansion. Led by costumed docents, visitors will peruse fine furnishings, silver, porcelains and portraits.
Oakleigh is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $3 for children, and free for kids under 6.
About a 45-minute drive from downtown Mobile into the western suburbs you’ll find Bellingrath Gardens and Home (251-973-2217, 800-247-8420 or www.bellingrath.org), 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Rd., Theodore, AL.
Since 1932, more than 25 million visitors have journeyed to this attraction for its 65 acres of year-round floral blooms.
In addition to taking a self-guided tour of the gardens, visitors might take a guided tour of the Bellingrath Home, filled with antiques and furnishings, or take a scenic cruise on Fowl River aboard the Southern Belle River Cruiser.
Plan on a minimum of two hours at the attraction and much more if you plan to do it all. Just fyi, the gardens are handicapped accessible, but the cruise and the home are not.
Hours are Monday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with extended hours for the Magic Christmas Lights program late in the year. Rates are bundled in terms of your interests.
If you only want to stroll the gardens, admission is $7.50 for adults, $4.50 for children, for the gardens and the home tour or the cruise, the price is $13.75 and $9.75, respectively. If you want to do the gardens, home and cruise, the cost is $20 for adults, $15 for children. You may add lunch to any package for $8 for adults, $7 for kids.
This concludes Part 1 of 2 about the enticements of Mobile Bay. Part 2 of our Mobile Bay visitor's guide is here! It delves into a sampling of historic homes and tours, eco-fun, gators, birds, forts, golf, holiday lights, accommodations and more. Or, you can access the story from our Front Page.
For More Information
Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau
800-5-MOBILE or 251-208-2000
For discount coupons, visit www.mobile.org/vis_coupons.php.
Susan J. Young is the Editor in Chief of SouthernTravelNews.com™ and SouthernCruising.com™. She is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and that organization's Editors Council. She also freelances for many national and cruise travel publications and is a contributing editor to Travel Agent Magazine.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Susan J. Young, Mike Henderson, Tad Denson of www.myshotz.com, or the Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos.