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Sassy Southern belle
Mobile entices suitors with museums, historic sites and plenty of charm

Oakleigh, built in 1833, illustrates the lifestyle of wealthy Mobilians of that era. /Mobile Convention & Visitors Corporation photo
By Lynn Edge
Published: Jul/Aug 2000

Mobile, Ala., is a sassy Southern belle, all proper sugar and spice–but with a red petticoat tucked away under those yards of satin and lace. The city speaks with a drawl of rich Southern history and when it does, it tells tales of a modern, thriving metropolis.

Over the almost 300 years of her history, this belle has had many suitors. The French, British, Spanish, Confederate and American flags all have flown over Mobile. Through the years, however, Mobile has not so much sought out history as history has sought out Mobile.

It was at Mobile Bay that Civil War Adm. David Farragut shouted, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.”

It was in Mobile that the non-stop party known as Mardi Gras began.

It was Mobile that gave birth to Henry Aaron, the man who swung for the fences more than 700 times and, in 1974, took from Babe Ruth the home run king crown.

And it is Mobile, with her delightful mix of old and new, that draws thousands of visitors each year. Through her museums and historic sites, this belle of the bay shares the story of her life with those who come to call.

Fort Condé introduces the past and present

Those who visit Mobile have learned that any trip to the city should begin with a stop at Fort Condé (150 South Royal St., 334-208-7304), a welcome center that’s a destination in itself. The first fort that stood on the site was Fort Louis de la Louisiane (1711). It was torn down in 1820 to make room for city growth, but a portion of it was rebuilt in 1976 after archeological excavations found artifacts from the original fort. Many of those artifacts are on display at the fort today.

Costumed guides at Fort Condé lead visitors through the Mobile of the early 18th century (above). /Mobile Convention & Visitors Corporation photo.
The fort is more than a welcome center and museum. There are cannons and costumed re-creators to guide visitors through the Mobile of the early 18th century before they send them out into the 21st century.

The welcome center is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are two days that visitors will find it closed–Mardi Gras (when just about everything in Mobile is closed) and Christmas Day. There is no admission charge.

From Fort Condé, visitors to Alabama’s port city can roam through pieces of Mobile’s past and present. A stroll down recently reborn Dauphin Street is a good way to start. A few decades ago, Dauphin was a thriving thoroughfare, Mobile’s premier business street. But, as in many cities, the downtown area fell out of favor and soon it was more of a wasteland than a commercial mecca.

That all changed with the revitalization project spearheaded by Main Street Mobile. The street of shops, museums, restaurants and arts venues is anchored by Cathedral Square and Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (10 South Claiborne St., 334-434-1565). The impressive structure, designed by Claude Beroujon, has been in use since 1850. The sanctuary is open to visitors from 8:15 a.m. to noon and from 12:45 to 3 p.m. Admission is free.

Museums and mansions

Tracing the story of Mobile means making a number of stops in the downtown area.

The Phoenix Fire Museum (203 South Claiborne, 334-208-7554), set in the old Volunteer Fire Company No. 6 building, houses an impressive collection of fire engines and other firefighting equipment as well as banners and other memorabilia from Mobile’s fire companies. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday–Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. There’s no admission fee.

One of Mobile’s house museums, the Richards-DAR House (256 North Joachim St., 334-208-7320) is an outstanding example of Italianate architecture. Those who tour it are immersed in the luxury of Cornelius chandeliers and Carrara marble mantles. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $4.

The Oakleigh Historic Complex (350 Oakleigh Place, 334-432-1281) includes Oakleigh, an 1833 antebellum home that illustrates the lifestyle of wealthy Mobilians of the period, and the Cox-Deasy House, which tells of a more simple lifestyle. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday–Saturday. The last tour begins at 3:30 p.m. Admission: $5, adults; $4, seniors and AAA members; $3, students 12–18; $2, children 6–11.

Another of Mobile’s museum houses, the Condé-Charlotte House (104 Theatre St., 334-432-4722) is owned by the National Society of Colonial Dames in America. Antiques and art found there cover five periods of Mobile history. On the grounds are cannons from the original Fort Condé and Fort Charlotte. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday. Last tour begins at 3:15 p.m. Admission is $4 adults, $3 children older than 6.

The National African-American Archives (564 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., 334-433-8511) is the home of the Hank Aaron Fan Club. Also at this museum are exhibits about the African-American history of Mobile, including the part African-Americans have played in Mobile’s Mardi Gras. Hours are 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday–Friday. Admission is free.

The gardens of Mobile

In a city known for its profusion of azaleas, the gardens are a must see. The Mobile Botanical Gardens (5151 Museum Drive, 334-342-0555) has 100 acres of natural woodlands and cultivated gardens. Special fragrance and texture gardens open the enjoyment of the gardens to the physically challenged. The garden is open from dawn to dusk daily. Admission is free.

In 1917, businessman Walter Bellingrath’s doctor told him to learn how to play, so Bellingrath bought a fishing camp in Theodore, a small town near Mobile.

Today at fishing camp is Bellingrath Gardens (12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore; 1-800-247-8420), 65 landscaped acres blooming with one plant or another year-round. The Bellingrath home is open for tours and a boat ride on the Fowl River also is available (February–November).

Various admission packages are available. Call for details.

Written on the water

Mobile’s history has been written, in part, on the water. From the first moment some early explorer made his way into Mobile Bay, the city and the water have been united.

One of the best ways to get an understanding of the relationship is a cruise on the Cotton Blossom Riverboat (334-438-3060). The sternwheeler is one of only four boats in the nation to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Docked downtown behind the convention center, the vessel makes one-hour narrated sightseeing cruises at 2 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, late May–early September; Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, early September–late November. Price for the tour is $8.50 for adults and $4 for children between 2 and 12.

Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. from March to November, the boat makes a 3 1/2-hour environmental cruise with a naturalist on board. A continental breakfast is served. Price for the cruise is $17.50 for adults, $16 for seniors, $10 for children.

Two-hour Sunset Dinner Cruises are available at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday from mid-February to mid-November. Cost for that cruise is $29.95 per person.

Dauphin Island is south of Mobile, nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay. There, visitors will find The Estuarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (101 Bienville Blvd., Dauphin Island; 334-861-7500) with its live exhibits illustrating the animals and plants of the Mobile River Delta, Mobile Bay, the Barrier Islands and the Gulf of Mexico. Hours are (June 1–Sept. 30) 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday–Saturday, 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday; (Oct. 1–May 31) 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday–Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $6 adults, $5 seniors, $3 children (5–18).

It doesn’t go anywhere anymore, but the USS Alabama Battleship (2703 Battleship Parkway; 334-433-2703) still cuts an impressive figure as it reigns over Mobile Bay. The ship won nine battle stars in World War II. Also at Battleship Park are a Blackbird spy plane, a B-52 and the submarine USS Drum. Visitors can clamber all over the Alabama and explore the inside of the Drum. Hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission is $8 adults, $4 children 6–11. Parking fee is $2.

Early fall visitors find warm weather, travel deals

Fall is a perfect time to visit this belle. The crowds of Mardi Gras have departed and the summer heat begins to give way to cooler temperatures. Highs still can reach the low 90s, but more often are in the 80s. Lows range from the low 70s to the high 50s.

Early fall visitors will find “Mobile’s 2000 Summer Specials,” offering bargains through Sept. 30. Included in the specials are reduced room rates at select hotels, admission discounts to Battleship USS Alabama, Cotton Blossom Riverboat, The Mobile Zoo, Bellingrath Gardens and Home and the Gulf Coast Exploreum Museum of Science. There also are restaurant and golf specials at select locations. To receive the special prices, visitors need a Summer Specials coupon. To get the free coupon, call 1-800-5MOBILE (1-800-566-2453) or go by Fort Condé Welcome Center.

Whatever time of year you choose, this belle will be waiting in all her finery. And even before your first date is done, you’ll probably be planning a second.

Lynn Edge is a new contributor from Birmingham, Ala.

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