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Mobile Alabama
By

Mark Glass - Click to Enlarge
By Mark Glass

Mark Glass is a journalist trapped in a lawyer's body, balancing his practice with
writing and broadcasting on travel, entertainment and professional sports.  

For most of the rest of the country, the southern part of the U.S. remains a charming enigma.

Some think everyone there talks like Jeff Foxworthy. Those who know better have learned one can find all the sophistication in Atlanta or New Orleans that San Francisco or New York offer, with lower prices and better parking.

Wiser snowbirds who winter in Florida have found that adjacent states enroute offer pleasures of their own. For example, it's hard to find a more elegant concentration of stately homes (many operating as luxurious bed & breakfasts) and lovely parks than the old section of Savannah. Just east of the Panhandle is another treat, largely unknown outside the region - Mobile, Alabama.

This medium-sized city (pop. 200,000) is surrounded by diverse aquatic environs, providing a unique range of aesthetic and recreational choices for the visitor. A web of rivers flows into the country's largest inland bay. Some are wide; others slow down and broaden to form fascinating swamps and estuaries. Mobile Bay's waters are calm, protected by islands at the southern end, where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico, offering a choice of sailing and boating options, depending on your skill and adventure quotient. Kids will delight in hands-on science exhibits at the downtown Exploreum, with its adjacent IMAX movie theater.

The jewel in Mobile's crown is clearly Bellingrath Gardens & Home, a twenty-minute drive to the south. Though privately owned, it rivals the botanical gardens of many major cities. The estate's 65 lushly landscaped acres feature over 250,000 azaleas, adorning rolling hills, picturesque ponds and rock formations. Tours include the 15-room house built in 1935 by Walter and Bessie Bellingrath, displaying many of their elegant furnishings, silver, crystal and china. A former garage houses an extensive collection of Boehm porcelains.

From Bellingrath's boat dock on the Fowl River, one can catch a sight-seeing cruise on the Southern Belle - a double-decked vessel, offering indoor and outside seating.

Those who wish to explore the backwaters can take a flatboat excursion with Gene Burrell - grizzled Southern-fried version of Crocodile Dundee. Or go out with
his less-grizzled son Tony, who not only learned the region's ecology from his dad, but worked with Hollywood producers filming there. The Burrells guide small groups through the waters on two-hour tours of swamps, marshes and bayous, ientifying the rich diversity of spotting flora and fauna. They can almost
guarantee a close-up meeting with several of the alligators who've come to recognize their boats.

For a broader view of the region's aquasystems, the Estuarium at Dauphin Island houses samples of the full spectrum in its airy, colorful10,000 sq. ft. exhibit
space, along with serving as a center for academic study. They were involved in the development of a dental adhesive using barnacles (thankfully, not applied directly to one's mouth) with the University of South Alabama. Historians of all eras will find treats, as well. Fort Conde, at the south end of downtown, and Fort Gaines, down the Bay's west shoreline on Dauphin Island, depict 400 years of our nation's development. These restored structures show traces of French, Spanish and British occupation. Guides in period attire provide vivid accounts of the various stages of occupation and conflict predating statehood.

WWII buffs will enjoy Battleship Memorial Park, which includes self-guided tours of the battleship USS Alabama, the submarine USS Drum, and the 36,000 sq. ft. Aircraft Pavilion, with various craft from WWII through Vietnam. Groups can even arrange for catered meals aboard the ship, using the troops' actual tin trays.

As I wandered through the Alabama, I found myself alone much of the time, faintly aware of 1940s popular tunes playing on the intercom, eerily blending with the gray metal surfaces for a sense of time-travel. Exploring the maze of living, working and combat areas filled me with both sadness and appreciation of the life these seamen led on board to protect us.

On a more festive note, Marriott's Grand Hotel and Resort at the southeast part of the Bay offers upscale accommodations and diverse recreational ctivities in a beautiful setting. In town, restaurants like Roussos and Mayme's provide dine dining in attractive settings. As you'd expect, the local seafood is splendid.

Finally, a little-known fact is that Mardi Gras started here, before growing into the large-scale celebration found in New Orleans. So if that level of revelry seems intimidating, you might try joining the natives for their smaller-scale festivities in Mobile.

Air travelers may fly to Mobile's airport or Pensacola's, about 50 miles to the east, depending on available connections from your home. For further information call Mobile's tourism office at 1-800-5-MOBILE (566-2453), or visit their website at www.mobile.org.

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Email:  lotekguy@swbell.net (Mark Glass)

Mark Glass is a Mark Glass is a freelance writer and broadcaster, based in St. Louis, covering travel, entertainment and professional sports for his readers and listeners. Mark was travel editor for "St. Louis Connoisseur", and now have that role for "Life in the Midwest", based in Indianapolis. For the last fifteen years, he's written and broadcast features on travel, entertainment and sports, while maintaining his law practice in the St. Louis area. (More about this writer.)

 

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