Alabama's Azalea Capital Is Mobile - My Family Travels

Sweet Home Alabama is at its best in Mobile, where families can live the M-life touring historic sites and innovative museums.

Like its neighbor 150 miles away, the lesser-known city of Mobile also has a Mardi Gras. But this is where it all started. Mardi Gras began here in 1703, more than 61 years before New Orleans borrowed the occasion, historians generally agree. And today, every February, revelers on floats throw plastic beads at crowds, a la New Orleans. But there’s a difference. Mardi Gras in Mobile is not the somewhat seedy affair it has gotten to be in New Orleans. This event is G-rated or, as CNN says, “Mobile’s carnival is known for its family atmosphere and quaintness.”

If Mardi Gras in New Orleans overshadows its originator, it probably should come as no surprise. This city of 390,000, in a region rich with history, is often neglected as a vacation destination. One facet of its overlooked claims to fame is being the Azalea Capital of the World, with more 50 varieties in colors ranging from paper white to pink, red and lavender.

It’s all due to Fifsie Langlois who first brought the bright pink blossoms here from a relative’s garden in Toulouse, France in 1754. Did you know Mobile Bay was the first body of water in the New World to be accurately charted by the Spanish explorer Pineda in 1519? Mobile is also home to various well-known national events such as the Senior Bowl Football Game presented by Food World in January, the Azalea Trail Run marathon race in March, and the America Junior Miss Pageant in July.

Whether you make it here during Mardi Gras or not, Mobile is an ideal family getaway. With a mild climate, it has an average annual temperature of 67.5 F degrees. As a year-round experience, give it a G-rating. It’s 350 miles from Atlanta, Georgia and 40 miles from Memphis, Tennessee. According to the local chamber of commerce, Mobile is within a one-day highway drive from home for over 50 million Americans. A great part of its appeal is its history. But there’s also no shortage of museums and parks as well.

Historic Sights: In War & Peace

Founded by the French over three centuries ago, Mobile was once the capital of the Colony of Louisiana. It was later governed as a colony by both Britain and Spain. This was the place where Admiral David Farragut cried “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead.” Visitors can relive the battle today by touring the extremely well preserved fortress that guarded the entrance to the bay — Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island (251/861-6992).

Visitors also make frequent stops at Historic Blakeley State Park (251/626-0798) which has several claims to fame. It is the largest national Historic Register site east of the Mississippi River. It abounds with Prehistoric Indian Mounds and finally, it was the site of the last battle of the Civil War on April 9, 1865, when 26,000 troops took the field one last time. Families can also explore together on the 10.5 miles of magnificent nature trails, bicycle and horse paths.

Military-minded or not, families seem to relish walking through the vintage World War II USS Alabama Battleship at the 155-acre military Battleship Memorial Park (251/433-2703). Also on display are World War II tanks, the USS Drum Submarine, a Vietnam era River Patrol Boat and many aircraft, including seaplanes and spy planes. Admission is $10/adults, $5/children, reservations are not required but advance notice is appreciated for groups of 10 or more.

One of the Gulf Coast’s grandest antebellum mansions is the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion (251/471-6364). Built in 1855 and restored at a cost of $1 million, the massive house has 18 rooms built on a grand scale. Home to a judge and US Congressman, Judge Bragg’s brother, Braxton, the famous Confederate General, was a frequent guest here. During the Civil War, all the massive oaks around the house were cut down to give Confederate artillery free range to shell any oncoming Federal troops. On weekends, the mansion hosts dinner-mystery theatre events. Admission is $5 per adult, $4.50 for seniors, $3 for students from first grade through college, and free for children under 6.

The Museum of Mobile (251/208-7569) is located in the Old City Hall, itself a National Historic Landmark built in 1857. The museum shows off the area’s rich history of Native American, Colonial, African-American and Antebellum influences. There’s a striking display of wooden feet piled on top each other that shows how African-Americans arrived here, stacked up like pieces of firewood. There is also a special hands-on Discovery room, popular with kids. Contemporary art and special traveling exhibitions can be found at the largest coastal art museum between New Orleans and Tampa — the Mobile Museum of Art (251/208-5200). Its permanent collection spans 2,000 years of cultural history.

Interact With Nature & Science

Seventy-five years ago, Walter and Bessie Bellingrath began a horticultural endeavor that became one of the region’s preeminent gardens. Today, at the 65-acre Bellingrath (800/247-8420), there’s something is in bloom every day of the year and plenty of room to run around. A 45-minute Southern Belle Cruise shows off the stately waterfront estates nearby. Admission rates vary depending on whether families want to visit the home, cruise, or just tour the grounds. There are also special package rates to make your visit more economical for the whole family.

What’s a Gulf location without an aquarium? This area has Estuarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, an educational and research center (251/861-2141). A Mobile Bay area exhibit features a 9,000-gallon Bay tank with rock jetties, oysters reefs and historical replicas of lighthouses. The plant life of the Delta is featured and there are displays of various sea creatures, including a baby alligator habitat. The exhibit is located about 35 miles from Mobile. Admission is $7/adult and $4/children or students. If you visit in the summer, the Dauphin Island Campground is bordered by a 160-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary with walking trails and a lake. There are free boat launches to get you into the Gulf in five minutes.

In town, the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center and IMAX Dome Theatre (877/DDW-SHOW) has repeatedly been voted Mobile’s #1 family attraction. Two exhibit galleries, Hands on Hall and Minds on Hall, are filled with more than 10 science exhibits. Also here is the Gulf Coast’s only IMAX Dome Theatre.

Families can also get together for another purpose: walking Mobile. The city was established in 1702 by the French in their bid for an American Empire. Evidence of their presence is everywhere, but particularly on Dauphin, which was named for the son of Louis XIV. As the city’s principal commercial corridor, Dauphin Street acquired such a reputation for high quality that the phrase “walking down Dauphin Street” came to be synonymous with the best. A historic preservation movement has led to a Dauphin Street revival. A historic district walking tour map is available at Visitors can see buildings dating back to well before the Civil War.

Details, Details

If price is not much of an object, the best place to stay in town – although it’s out of town – is the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa (800/544-9933 ). The historic, 405-room resort is in Point Clear, about 23 miles from Mobile. It’s a modern-day four-Diamond survivor of the Civil War. Expect to pay more than $200/N during high season. The less expensive 377-room Riverview Plaza Hotel (866/749-6069) overlooks downtown Mobile. Ask for a room with a view of Mobile Bay. Rates run about $125-$180/N for a double room with two queen beds. For more information on accommodations and the region in general, contact the Mobile Visitor’s and Convention Bureau (800/5-MOBILE, 251/208-2000).

Among the great family places to eat are several locations of Wintzell’s Oyster House (where the sign-plastered walls include instructions on the best way to open oysters: “Get them drunk”). Lunch specials heavy on seafood offerings start at $7.99, but even the most finicky family members find grilled cheese sandwiches and Key Lime Pie to their liking. Children’s menus are also available.

Breakfast, lunch and brunch are served daily at the popular Spot of Tea (251/433-9009). Try Eggs Benedict or an omelet in the sidewalk café. Open seven days a week from 7am to 2pm. The Original Oyster House (251/626-2188) is a landmark seafood restaurant overlooking Mobile Bay that serves raw oysters and huge seafood platters. They appreciate children enough to offer a lighted playground.

This is a historic city, so for tasty fun, try the Three George’s Southern Chocolate candy shop (251/433-6726,wo locations.) Three George’s has been delighting visitor taste buds since 1917. Recipes have not changed since then, visitors are told.

I’m not the only one who thinks Mobile is kid-friendly. Recently Carnival Cruise Line (800-438-6744) inaugurated the 1,452-passenger Holiday to start Mobile’s first year-round cruise program. There are now highly popular, four- and five-day Mexico cruises departing weekly, often with passengers who choose to add a few days before or after their cruise to enjoy the city’s sites. Even aboard ship (as is the case throughout Mobile), families are hardly an afterthought — each cruise offers a supervised Camp Carnival children’s program.

David Wilkening, a Florida-based journalist, has contributed to Florida Trend, New York Times, Newsweek, Orlando Sentinel, Detroit Free Press, Palm Beach Post-Times, Toronto Sun, AAA magazines and the Wall St. Journal, and to travel trade publications such as Birnbaum’s, Travel Agent, Travel Weekly, and Zagat’s.

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