words: Marla Cantrell
images: courtesy Marla Cantrell, 5 Rivers photo by Debbie Denson; Dauphin Audubon by ABBT and Jeffery Greenberg; Dauphin Restaurant by Dauphin’s; Visit Mobile; other vendors
I stayed at the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel, a lovely hotel that looks out over the water. As I walked down Water Street, the sun kept catching those beads, green and gold and purple. Hanging on the then-barren limbs, they seemed to say, Let’s you and me remember how to party. Let’s not waste too much time before we party again.
If I learned one thing while I was there, it is that Mobile is the home of Mardi Gras, holding claim as the first U.S. city to organize its celebration in 1703. Ask about New Orleans, and you’ll get the same answer: New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, while grand in its own right, was never first.
That distinction sent me to the Mobile Carnival Museum. But Mardi Gras is just the beginning of what’s unique about Mobile. Downtown has a self-guided walking trail that lets you see the outdoor art. (While you’re there, check out the Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel and Spa with Mobile’s only Four Diamond restaurant. Opened in 1852, it’s hosted celebrities, a president, even a king. And Elvis stayed there, making it a must-see.) Old houses in neat rows branching out from the downtown area look a lot like the neighborhoods you’ve come to love in New Orleans. Porch ceilings are often painted that baby-soft blue, as they have been since the houses were built. Some say the color kept away haints. Others say wasps wouldn’t nest on the blue boards, that spiders scattered.
Ask about the backstory of Mobile, and you’ll hear how the French claimed the city as a colony in 1702. Next, it belonged to Britain, then Spain, and finally the United States. Ask about the waterways, and you’ll learn it’s Alabama’s only saltwater port. Take a ride on the Gulf Coast Ducks, and you’ll learn even more about the 300-year history of this dynamic port city.
Here are a few of the highlights from my trip as a guest of
What Makes Mobile Mobile?
Mobile Carnival Museum
355 Government Street, Mobile
In a two-story house laced in wrought iron, lives the carnival museum, complete with floats. Many rooms are filled with the gowns and suits worn by the kings and queens, along with their crowns and scepters. Each king and queen works with a specially trained seamstress on their costumes, which are as symbolic as they are opulent. On them, you might see a family crest, a cross to symbolize faith, a flower that has significant meaning. Follow
the evolution of the robes, and you’ll see how they’ve become grander and heavier. One on display weighed 120 pounds, and because it did, the seamstress had to add wheels at critical locations on the hem, so that the queen could carry it.
If you’re wondering what those on the floats toss to the crowds, it’s beads of course, but also Moon Pies, a delicacy in the Deep South. On this visit, I met the 2013 Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association Queen, Edra Finley. Edra’s great-grandfather James A. Franklin was one of the founders of MAMGA, so the honor of serving as queen was a monumental experience.
If you want to see Mobile’s Mardi Gras for yourself, plan a visit in February or early March 2019. There are thirty-four parades planned between February 15 and March 5, Fat Tuesday.
History Museum of Mobile
111 South Royal Street, Mobile
Schedule some time here, because this museum covers 300 years of Mobile history, beginning with Native Americans, its first inhabitants. The museum is housed in the old courthouse, which is 180 years old.
Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail
111 South Royal Street, 2nd Floor
Remember Edra Finley, the 2013 MAMGA queen? Her father, Eric, was my tour guide for the African-American Heritage Trail. The tour included forty sites around town with historical significance. Eric offered stories that chronicled the contributions of the African-Americans in Mobile, including baseball greats Hank Aaron and Satchel Page. Stories from the days of the slave trade through the Civil Right era abound with examples of courage and determination.
Fort Gaines Historic Site
East End of Bienville Boulevard, Dauphin Island
Fort Gaines sits on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and is the site of the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay. Completed in 1861, it lives today with military reenactments including the firing of old cannons, and live demonstrations by an expert blacksmith. If the fort sounds familiar, it’s because of Admiral Farragut’s famous command, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” On May 19 and 20, there will be a two-day naval battle reenactment depicting the siege of Fort Gaines.
Put on Your Walking Shoes!
Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary
109 Bienville Boulevard, Dauphin Island
Dauphin Island is just a short drive from Mobile. You’ll see fishing huts, colorful houses, and water as far as the eye can see. Have lunch at Lighthouse Bakery where everything’s freshly made. Try the Cinnamon Pecan Roll! Then head to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, 164 acres of woodlands with trails through pines, oaks, and magnolias. Known as one of the best places to see “neotropical migrants,” a term for birds flying south each fall to the tropics, and north each spring. Also, if you have the experience I did, you’ll see at least one alligator in the swamp. Yikes!
Gulf Coast Duck Boats
2703 Battleship Parkway, Mobile
If you like a laugh while you learn, tour Mobile Bay, downtown, and Mobile River on the duck! Your guide will show you the sights on land and water and educate you on the 300-year history of this vibrant town.
5 River Delta Center
30945 South Rivers Boulevard, Spanish Fort Wild Native Tours wildnativetours.com
The Delta center sits on the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, where the Mobile, Spanish, Tensaw, Apalachee, and Blakely rivers flow into Mobile Bay. The center has six campsites, a kayak and canoe launch, a theater and exhibits. To see the wildlife and learn things like why alligators bury themselves tail-first up to their heads over the winter, take a Wild Native Tour on the Osprey to see the Mobile Tensaw Delta.
Bellingrath Gardens and Home
12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore
Azaleas, 250,000 of them, were starting to bloom when I toured the sixty-five-acre piece of paradise. There are tons of other flowers, but what tops it all is the story of the couple who created this estate in the 1930s, Walter and Bessie Bellingrath. He was the frugal one, making his fortune in Coca-Cola, and she was the gardener whose generosity became legend. During the Great Depression, she would often stop to ask a family, down on their luck, if they realized their azaleas were extremely rare. Bessie would then offer them cash for one of the plants. Of course, the flowers were not rare, but that didn’t matter. She was helping families keep food on the table while preserving their pride. Walk the garden paths, and then tour the family’s home, built in 1935.
Get in My Belly!
107 St. Francis Street, Suite 3400, Mobile
Fine dining doesn’t get any better than Dauphin’s, and neither does the view. Housed atop the Trustmark Bank Building, you have a view of seventy-five nautical miles of the Mobile Bay. Try the Fried Alligator, Fried Green Tomato and Alabama Shrimp Remoulade, and Airline Chicken, sautéed in lemon, garlic, and rosemary sauce.
Wintzell’s Oyster House
605 Dauphin Street, Mobile
The history of Mobile resides in this iconic eatery, founded in 1938 with only six seats at the oyster bar. Fresh Gulf seafood, gumbo, crawfish etouffee, bread pudding, crab cakes, steaks, and of course oysters “fried, stewed, or nude.” My favorite dish was Oysters Bienville, with shrimp, crabmeat and parmesan.
The Noble South
203 Dauphin Street, Mobile
This new take on Southern cuisine is a great addition to the food scene in Mobile. Try the Pepper Jelly with Blue Cheese Mousse on Toast, and the Redfish with Chive and Fennel Spaetzle, Arugula and Turnip Salad, Meyer Lemon Beurre Blanc.
For more information, check out mobile.org.