Fairhope Bestows Grandeur, Southern Charm
Road Trippin’ the Gulf Coast of Alabama to Fairhope / Point Clear
Since I was heading to Mississippi on assignment, I decided it would be a perfect opportunity to knock another state off my list. Neighboring Fairhope, Alabama, the Heart of Dixie, would mark the 49th state I have visited. I never set out to visit all 50 states, but since I began to get close a couple years ago, I’ve now made a concerted effort to do so. The only state I have left is the Last Frontier…the great state of Alaska.
I only had a few days to explore, so I thought I would pick one area and see as much as I could. With the swirling motion of my mouse in Google Maps, I landed on the Fairhope area, which is in the Gulf Coast of Alabama, about half an hour southeast of Mobile. I had no idea what to expect or where to stay, but I was very excited. I researched a few places for lodging and settled on the Marriott Grand Hotel, which ended up being an excellent choice!
My road trip started in New Orleans and my Mississippi assignment was to the historic town of Vicksburg, famous for one of the most important battles of the Civil War. After I finished my visit in Vicksburg, I headed east on Interstate 20 toward Jackson, MS. I was soon on Highway 49, just past Hattiesburg I got on Highway 98 heading southeast, straight into Mobile. Highway 49 skirted DeSoto National Forest, which was named for the 16th-century explorer, Hernando DeSoto, whose presence is felt throughout Mississippi Delta. When I reached Mobile I needed to continue south toward Mobile Bay and the route took me along a number of bridged roadways that I found quite interesting. I guess the idea of traveling over bayous on an inter-connected road system was a bit of a novelty for me.
As I got closer to Fairhope, the scenery became stunningly beautiful, even idyllic. The streets were lined with massive Oak, Cypress and Maple trees each woven with a confetti of ivy and Spanish moss. The sun had a difficult time piercing through the denseness that blanketed the trees, but when it did, the sun-flares sparkled in a way that made me feel like I was driving through the scene straight out of a fairy tale storybook. The coast was dotted with docks and boathouses, one right after the other. The homes were finely crafted in a style that could best be described as southern cottage. The look of the area was unique to me, so much so that I had to wonder if it was indigenous to the Gulf Coast. I was so enamored of the unique beauty that I could not wait to explore further, but first, I needed to check into my hotel.
As I drove up to the Marriott Grand Hotel I was greeted by a guard at the gate entrance who looked up my reservation and promptly opened the gate, providing me with instructions on how to get to the lobby. The property at the Grand Hotel is, well, grand! The grounds encompass 550 pristine beachfront acres, part of which juts out into Mobile Bay, providing stunning views in either direction.
After checking in, a staff member is at the ready to take guests to their accommodations by way of a large golf cart. I declined as I needed to move my vehicle and did not have my luggage in tow. In hindsight, I wish I had taken the offer as I soon discovered the Grand Hotel property was massive, and, I later discovered the room numbering system to be a bit odd and I initially went to the wrong building, even the wrong floor. Once I finally arrived at my accommodations, I was pleasantly surprised. The room was quite spacious and decorated in elegant beach tones. The highlight of the room was the deck with remarkable views of the marina in one direction, and the bay in the other.
After getting settled I noticed the time, it was just 10 minutes to 4pm. I had been informed that at 4pm each day there is a canon firing ceremony. This sounded intriguing, so I made my way back to the lobby where people were gathering. A moment later we headed outside where a small procession was making its way through the property, with a flag-bearer and drummer leading the way. Upon arriving at the canon, a presentation explained the reason behind the production, followed by a pledging of the flag that preceded the ultimate firing of the canon.
The Grand Hotel has a long and storied military history. The historical Alabama Gulf Coast hotel was built over 160 years ago in 1847. Shortly thereafter, the Civil War broke out. During the war the hotel was turned into a base hospital for Confederate soldiers. Three hundred soldiers ultimately died while at the hospital, and are buried at the on-site cemetery. The soldiers were buried shoulder-to-shoulder, in mass graves. In 1869 a fire destroyed the documents that identified the deceased and a monument to the unknown, which stands today, was later constructed at the cemetery.
After the Civil War the hotel returned to business as usual—until World War II. In 1944, the Grand Hotel was turned over to the Army Air Force for use as its Maritime Training School. The basic seamanship, marine, and aquatic training became known as Operation Ivory Soap. Everyone who lived on the property at this time followed strict “Navy style” rules. All floors were referred to as decks, and men kept time by a ship’s bell. In total, 5,000 Army Air Force servicemen were trained at the Grand Hotel. Today the hotel continues to honor the military influence.
Once the ceremony concluded, I strolled more of the hotel grounds. The weather had been absolutely picture perfect, low 70s and very little humidity. Around every turn I was struck by the expansive beauty of the property. As the sun was getting a bit low on the horizon I decided to go for a drive and further explore the Point Clear area. I soon found myself on Highway 1 South, driving past some amazing beachfront homes. I had my eye open for public access to the water, but hadn’t found anything until I finally came across Mullet Point Park. For the moment, I had the entire park to myself as there wasn’t a soul in sight. I got out of my car and promptly walked out onto a public boat ramp dock and looked down the coastline. It was just stunning. There had been a big storm just a few days earlier, so the water was a chocolate brown, which sort of added to the beauty and this memorable photo I took. The park has a large grassy area, several picnic tables and an awning area for large gatherings. I must have spent an hour there taking photos and flying my quadcopter down the coast for some footage you’ll see in the video above.
I continued down Highway 1 South until it ended at Pelican Point, at the mouth of Weeks Bay. The Weeks Bay Reserve is over six thousand acres of coastal wetlands and water bottoms that provide a diverse habitat for a variety of rare plants, fish, crustaceans and shellfish. There is also an estuary (where a river meets the sea) and is an important site for scientific research on the ecology of the area. This was another spot I thought was perfect to fly my quadcopter and capture a few shots. Even before doing that I caught a graceful stork in flight with another camera. The reserve is a wonderful place to watch foul in such a rich habitat.
It was getting late and I was famished, so I stopped by Wintzell’s Oyster House, which is just down the street from the Grand Hotel, for some take-out. Wintzell is a Gulf Coast institution and has been in the area for 75 years. I sat on my hotel room deck with a glass of wine and some tasty Southern Seafood enjoying the end to a perfect day.
The next morning I was up bright and early. It was another fantastic day and I was eager to get out and further explore the area. I headed toward Fairhope and started off with a stop at South Beach and Knoll Parks. South Beach Park has a series of winding footpaths that meander through the park with a bubbling brook in the center that forms a pond for the ducks to play. I saw people fishing off the pier and kayaking in the bay. On this stunningly perfect day, I was surprised to see only a few people enjoying the beach. Perched on a knoll just above South Beach is the aptly named Knoll Park, a spot of land left in its natural state, which I discovered is a popular spot for bird watchers. While I was there the park’s hundreds of azalea bushes were in full bloom displaying beautiful reds and pinks.
I then drove up the hill to downtown Fairhope, which is a small, artsy community home to some notable artists and writers, including Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg. I strolled the charming streets for a while before stopping at Page and Palette, a well-known third generation bookstore and coffee shop. While thumbing through some of the books, I daydreamed about seeing my own book, Lines, Signs & Forks, being displayed in the window of a store just like this one.
A short time later I had lunch at Panini Pete’s, a fantastic sandwich shop located in the French Quarter of downtown Fairhope. The shaded outdoor patio, along with the sound of water fountains echoing off the courtyard walls made for the perfect dining experience. The food was sensational and I was so glad I took the advice of half a dozen people who told me not to miss eating at Panini Pete’s!
After lunch I drove around sightseeing for a while as I was just enamored by the landscape. I came across a beautiful home with an old wagon in the yard. It was clearly a business, but at first glance I wasn’t sure what kind. Punta Clara Kitchen (Spanish for “Point Clear”) is a sinfully decadent candy shop. The “kitchen” part is what threw me and made me think it was a restaurant, but as soon as I walked in and smelled the sweet scent of fudge being made, and the hallway lined with candy treats, I knew it was a sweet palace.
Punta Clara Kitchen started as a hobby in 1952, but after sixty years, that hobby has been a sweet success for several generations. During my stop I had an opportunity to visit with Kim Clay, granddaughter of Dorothy Pacey who started the business in the backyard, and where the business still resides to this day. Kim was kind enough to say a few words for my video above.
Back at the Grand Hotel and Resort, I freshened up and headed to the Saltwater Grill, one of the restaurants located on the property. As the name implies, they use fresh, local seafood which I enjoyed while gazing out at the gorgeous bay-front scenery. During dinner I learned a fascinating meaning for the word “jubilee.” Apparently, under optimal conditions during the summer months, a natural phenomenon can occur known as jubilee. A jubilee is a rare occurrence when fish, crab and other marine life in search of oxygen-rich water wash ashore in droves, making the surf boil with activity. The eastern shore of Mobile Bay is one of the few places in the world where such an event happens, usually in the twilight hours of a warm summer day when the tide is rising. Additionally, the winds need to be easterly and the previous day’s sky has to have been overcast (among several other indicators known only to experienced locals). If you’re staying near the beach when a jubilee happens, you will know it! The locals feverishly ring bells and yell “Jubilee!” Swarms of people crowd the beaches to scoop up shrimp, crab and flounder by the bucketful.
After dinner I walked out to the beach and took a seat in one of the lounge chairs to enjoy a stunning sunset. It was yet another perfect end to the day and would mark the last for my road trip around the South. The next day I drove along the coast toward my destination of New Orleans where I would take a flight that evening. I made a number of stops along the way, but ended up spending most of my time in Biloxi, a place I’d love to return and explore further.
Click here to see more of my photos from Fairhope, AL. If you’ve ever been to Fairhope and/or Point Clear, please leave a comment below and share your favorite activities, sights or experiences. Fairhope should be on your list for southern towns to explore.