MOBILE, Ala. – It all meets in Mobile.
The Mobile River meets Mobile Bay and the bay soon meets the Gulf of Mexico, which all makes the city of 190,000 people one of the busiest seaports in America.
The French met the Spanish met the British met the Confederates, and all flew their flags over the city at one time or another.
Fresh water fish meet saltwater fish, most of the time on the same table at Wintzell’s Oyster House.
All of this meeting has made Mobile one fascinating place for visitors to see and explore with a blend of museums, music, restaurants, outdoor adventure and fun hard to find anywhere else.
Downtown fun and food
Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville stands with great pride in Cooper Riverside Park and with good reason. The statue of the city’s founder has a view of the port before him. There, seagoing ships holding thousands of shipping containers are being unloaded with huge cranes. Across the river, gleaming military vessels are under construction. Behind the founder is the downtown skyline topped by the tallest building in Alabama: the 35-story, 745-foot RSA Battle House Tower.
The city has come a long way since the French colonist established a settlement here in 1703.
Lead singer Jimmy Hall entreats fans gathered at the annual Ten65 Music Festival to “Keep On Smilin”, which isn’t hard to do on this comfortable night. Hall’s Mobile-based band, Wet Willie, has been wailin’ its brand of Southern rock since 1969.
The smiling comes easy along Dauphin Street in the city’s eating and nightclub district. Mobile’s many festivals launch on Dauphin Street.
Folks like to point to attributes where Mobile has it all over New Orleans, foremost of which is the fact that Mardi Gras was begun here, not in the Big Easy, with parades and parties still erupting for weeks before and through Fat Tuesday, just like in that “other place.”
Some of the Mobile cuisine also has New Orleans topped. The muffuletta at Panini Pete’s on Dauphin gets my nod for No. 1. The restaurant’s beignets are lighter and more flavorful than those at New Orleans’ legendary Café Du Monde.
For some literally high-end dining, Dauphin’s resides on the 34th floor of the RSA-Trustmark Building. Owner Bob Baumhower has gained almost as many fans with his fine dining restaurants as he did playing defensive line for the University of Alabama and the Miami Dolphins. Executive chef Steve Zucker creates new spins on seafood, and the steaks are as unbeatable as the view of the city. Esquire magazine named him one of the top 10 “chefs to watch.”
In the historic Oakleigh neighborhood at Kitchen on George, executive chef Bryan Cates stirs up the menu with sweet tea pork schnitzel and lavender honey duck leg among the entrees.
Executive Director Brent Beall says people have gotten seasick while steering a make-believe boat through Mobile Bay on a simulator at GulfQuest National Maritime Museum. Architecturally, the building is designed in the shape of an ocean liner and even has a bridge on top. At times, the Carnival Fantasy cruise ship docks nearby in the harbor, and from the museum’s bridge, a visitor can look directly into the bridge of the Fantasy.
“You won’t find many artifacts in this museum,” explains Beall. “We’re all about hands-on and interactivity.” Visitors can play navigation games, operate cranes, steer sailboats.
Among other places of interest are the Alabama Contemporary Art Center, the History Museum of Mobile, the Mobile Carnival Museum, Bellingrath Gardens and Home, and the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, where visitors inspect the World War II vessel top to bottom.
The city itself is a museum with more antebellum structures than any other place in America. Visitors learn the history of African-Americans in Mobile by following the Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail. The trail includes a stop at the former site of the city’s slave market. The Clotilda, the last slave ship to come to America, docked in Mobile in 1860.
The kayak seems to glide on its own, slipping through channels around cypress groves and marsh grasses.
Though the October day has been hot, by early evening, the air has cooled, the sun has dipped toward the horizon and kayaking life has become just about heaven.
Even the alligators get along. A big one takes a casual look at the half dozen kayakers paddling 30 feet away and nonchalantly disappears underwater for some peace and quiet. Guides assure us that the gators aren’t planning an attack; they want nothing to do with us.
A paddler can literally go on for days exploring the ins and outs where the five rivers come together to form the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the second largest delta in the nation behind the Mississippi River Delta.
A good starting point for a kayak adventure is the 5 Rivers Delta Center. The $10 million facility also holds a trove of area wildlife. Educator Kathy Hicks lifts a kestrel from its cage for closer viewing or lets a visitor hold one of several snakes.
Captain Crunch has the lazy-eyed swagger of the baddest of the bad. A 13-foot, 782-pound alligator, the Captain holds the official bite force world record with a clamping power of 2,982 pounds. He tends to hang out and snooze at Alligator Alley in Summerdale, Alabama, just east of Mobile. He is one of around 450 alligators in residence at the alley. They have a good home with plenty of space, especially in a marsh that visitors can explore on an elevated wooden pathway well out of chomping range.
The really great thing about Dauphin Island is that it has remained the same for decades with little cafés and doughnut shops satisfying hungry guests as they have for years.
The Estuarium at Dauphin Island Sea Lab provides insight on the four ecosystems of coastal Alabama: the Delta, Mobile Bay, the Barrier Islands and Gulf of Mexico. Visitors can pet a sting ray or get a close look at a variety of fish in tanks that collectively hold 30,000 gallons of water.
The island is considered one of the top spots in the Southeast for bird sightings with 346 species identified here. The Audubon Bird Sanctuary provides 164 woodland acres for viewing.
On Dauphin Island’s eastern point, Robert Bean dresses in period attire as he leads visitors around the Fort Gaines Historic Site. The fort played a big role in the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay. Rear Admiral David Farragut led the Union to victory over a smaller Confederate fleet that was supported by three forts, including Fort Gaines.
Staying in style
Looking out the window from the 22nd floor of the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel on to Mobile Harbor is bucket-list material. The view of the harbor is fantastic with the city glistening and huge ocean-going crafts coming and going in the harbor.
Yes, life is good.
The nearby Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel and Spa, in addition to being the state’s tallest building, holds much history. It is built on the site of a military headquarters established by Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812.
The Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa in nearby Point Clear opened its doors in 1847 and this year completed what owners call a three-year grand transformation renovating nearly all aspects of the resort from dining rooms to spas to meeting facilities.
This “Queen of Southern Resorts,” as it is called, holds 405 guest rooms, offers two 18-hole golf courses, and covers more than 600 acres near the laid-back beach community of Fairhope on Mobile Bay.
Steve Ahillen is a freelance travel writer based in Knoxville.
If you go
For more information on things to do and places to stay in Mobile, visit mobile.org.
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