Sandy Southern Sojourn: Alabama’s Gulf Coast
February 1, 2010
Filed under Destinations
Last winter the stock market experienced a plunge to rival even the cold-weather temperatures of Colorado, my home state. With a spring snowstorm approaching and our retirement account in deep freeze, it seemed like a good time to get away from it all — without spending it all. We wanted sandy beaches, interesting sights, lush gardens and superb golfing. Alabama’s Gulf Coast offered all of that and more — at very reasonable prices.
Thirty-two miles of sugar-white sand beaches await on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. There are plenty of waterfront campgrounds, mostly in the $25 to $30 range, including Gulf State Park and Meaher State Park. We chose Wales West RV Resort. While not on the beach, it was centrally located in Silverhill, near Fairhope.
Ken and Ann Zadnichek, owners of Wales West, turned their cow pasture into a unique RV resort and train park. The Wales West Light Railway is the most westerly outpost of authentic Welsh Victorian steam railroading in the world. Building the two was no easy task; Ken had two obstacles to overcome: the bank and his wife. The bank wouldn’t give him a loan unless he included an RV park and Ann was skeptical about the train park. But after he named the Welsh Victorian steam-powered engine “Dame Ann” and painted it yellow, her favorite color, she couldn’t refuse.
Not only did Ken satisfy the bank by building an RV park, he also satisfied leagues of RVers with more than 70 sites (45 of them are 50-by-70-foot pull-through sites), free Wi-Fi, cable TV, a heated indoor swimming pool, a spa, laundry facilities and the on-site, three-acre freshwater Lake Victoria for fishing and swimming. Any day of the week, Ken takes campers on a free one-mile train ride around the property.
Music lovers gather on Tuesday nights from October through April for “Bluegrass by the Tracks.” For $5, you get two hours of great music and refreshments. Even better is the two-day “Thank You Snowbirds Bluegrass Festival” on the first weekend in March. It’s in a big tent. Bring $10 for admission and your lawn chair.
Once we were settled at Wales West, we hopped into our dinghy to check out the area. Our first stop was the Eastern Shore Art Center in Fairhope. Not only did it have five galleries with exhibits that change monthly, it also had Jennifer Meriam, the hospitality director who answered all our questions about where to go and what to see.
Without Meriam’s advice, we might have missed the Fairhope Pier, with its magnificent view of Mobile Bay; the New Orleans-style cobblestone courtyard in the French Quarter; and the Page and Palette, an independent bookstore. Any town that’s proud of its bookstore is my kind of town. Fairhope attracts creative, free-thinking people. Many artists and writers call this city home. With local authors such as Winston Groom (“Forrest Gump”) and Fannie Flagg (“Fried Green Tomatoes”), it’s not surprising that book signings are popular at the Page and Palette.
Meriam’s enthusiasm about the historical significance of the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort convinced us to check it out. The resort in Point Clear, five miles south of Fairhope, was used as a hospital during the Civil War and as a U.S. Army Air Force training school during World War II. The hotel remembers its history each day at 4pm with a procession around the grounds, concluding with a cannon-firing ceremony by the bay. You’ll hear a loud bang, but don’t bother looking for a splash — no live ammunition is fired.
Mike Hutchinson, the historian who fires the cannon at the Grand Hotel, offered his expert opinion on one of the outcomes of the Civil War. “After the Yankee army spent one winter in Alabama, they went home and told their friends and family how nice the weather was. They are still coming back, except now they are bringing Winnebagos and credit cards instead of cannons and muskets.”
After Hutchinson told us about Mobile Bay’s military history, we wanted to pay our respects to those brave souls who fought for our freedom. By making a loop around the bay, we could visit Fort Morgan, Fort Gaines and USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. Forts Morgan and Gaines were built after the War of 1812 to strengthen defenses along the southern coastlines. During the Civil War, Mobile Bay was guarded by the cannons of Fort Morgan on the east and Fort Gaines on the west, and in the bay tethered naval mines, then known as torpedoes. On Aug. 5, 1864, Union Admiral David Farragut ordered his fleet of warships to enter the bay with the now-famous command, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Eighteen days after the Battle of Mobile Bay, Fort Morgan surrendered to Union forces.
Today’s visitors enter the star-shaped Fort Morgan through a tunnel. Across the grassy courtyard stands a wall of casements, or arched rooms. I was tempted to imagine guns blazing under these graceful arches, but then learned that while they were designed to house the fort’s cannons, they were primarily used as storage.
Crossing Mobile Bay is easy these days, with absolutely no threat of torpedoes. The Mobile Bay Ferry connects Fort Morgan visitors to Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island. If you want to take your motorhome, it’s a good idea to make a reservation. One-way fares are $16 for an automobile and $35 for a motorhome. The fare includes one driver, and each additional passenger costs $4.50. A bridge connects Dauphin Island to Mobile.
The last and most impressive stop on our tour of historical military sites was USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, which is, according to the park’s brochure, “America’s most unique military attraction.” We had to agree. The park sits on 175 acres on the north end of Mobile Bay. Three self-guided tours allowed us to imagine life on the USS Alabama. The ship earned nine battle stars during World War II. We saw the navigation bridge, radio central and sick bay. Next door, the 36,000-square-foot Aircraft Pavilion is home to more than 20 rare historic aircraft, including an A-12 Blackbird spy plane and a B-52 bomber — in fact, 12 of the pavilion’s 24 aircraft are located outside of the pavilion itself, including the B-52. The USS Drum Submarine, recipient of 12 battle stars for valor, is permanently displayed on dry land behind the Aircraft Pavilion. Imagining life inside the confined quarters of a submarine made me appreciate those World War II heroes who lived there even more.
Nobody had to tell us to visit Bellingrath Gardens. From the moment I Googled “Mobile Bay,” I knew I wanted to go there. Every day of the year you’ll find 65 acres of blossoms. Once a simple fishing camp, the home of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath is now one of our nation’s preeminent gardens. Take the time to tour the 10,500-square-foot home with its antique European porcelain and sterling silver collections.
Even my husband, Jim, who was initially more enthusiastic about the guns on the USS Alabama than dainty dishes, was fascinated by the realistic collection of porcelain birds. Between March and November, you can take a 45-minute river cruise aboard the Southern Belle. Adult admission ranges from $11 for the gardens only to $27 for the gardens, home and river cruise.
Any Alabamian will proudly tell you the first known American Mardi Gras celebration was in Mobile in 1703. Today Mobile is home to “America’s Family Mardi Gras.” From mid-January through Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday), the calendar is filled with parades and balls.
Since we missed Mardi Gras season, we visited the Mobile Carnival Museum instead. Without all the crowds, we saw the costumes, imagined the pageantry and learned the history of Mardi Gras in the first American city to commemorate this French tradition. The museum is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Because the museum has very limited RV parking (on the western streetside only), you may want to drive your dinghy.
No matter where we travel, there are certain things we always do: browse interesting shops, play golf and eat at restaurants featuring local fare. While browsers like me might be satisfied with the unique boutiques and galleries in Fairhope or Gulf Shores, power shoppers will want to head for the Tanger Outlet Mall in Foley. With more than 120 brand-name factory stores to choose from, there’s something to please everyone. If you’re traveling with kids, even they will be thrilled to go along if you let them ride the carousel or play in the interactive water fountain.
Golfers can play year-round at the numerous courses in the area. While courses on Alabama’s famous Robert Trent Jones Trail can be pricey, there are less expensive courses in the area. I played at Quail Creek under near perfect conditions: bright blue skies, no wind and uncrowded fairways. My only disappointment was four-putting on a par three after landing my tee shot five feet from the hole. The regular price for 18 holes with a cart is $27 at Quail Creek (near Fairhope) and $40 at Gulf State Park. Both offer senior discounts.
Good restaurants are plentiful on the Gulf Coast. I would have driven right by Lambert’s Café in Foley if its claim of being “The Home of Throwed Rolls” hadn’t made me curious. Throwed rolls — is that how they make them, or how they serve them? As soon as I entered the restaurant I had the answer. A waiter pushed a cart of hot buns down the aisle, throwing rolls to eager diners.
Clearly, the owners have a sense of humor. They also have big hearts. According to the hostess, Michelle Mathis, people in wheelchairs are like VIPs at Lambert’s: “Anyone who brings their own chair gets a free meal.”
My husband and I are seafood lovers, and even the advertisements for the Original Oyster House made our mouths water. We weren’t disappointed. A dozen delicious oysters on the half shell were just $8. The view of the Mobile delta at sunset provided a perfect end to a perfect evening.
Maybe it was the Southern hospitality, or the gentle sea breezes. Something made this snowbird feel like I belonged there, right along with the pelicans and sea gulls.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Battleship Memorial Park
Wales West RV Resort