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Winter hangs on forever--so it seems during these long gray months. It causes one to dream of blooming flowers, warm sand, fishing reels, and sunshine. It's time for a trip to southern Alabama. Spring arrives there a full month before it is scheduled on the calendar.
Mobile Bay extends from the Gulf of Mexico inland 35 miles to the mouth of the Mobile River--the location of the city of Mobile. The city has a long and colorful history dating from the time the Spaniards first explored the region in 1519. The French were through the area next, establishing a town that served as the capital of French Louisiana from 1711-1720. The name, Mobile, comes from a French adaptation of the name of a local Native American tribe, the Maubilian--which means "canoe paddler." Ceded to the British in 1763, it was captured by the Spanish while the British and Americans were battling the Revolution. In the War of 1812 Mobile was taken by the Americans and incorporated as a city in 1814. In the Florida Purchase of 1819 (from Spain), title to the city was finally clarified--Mobile officially became a US city. During the Civil War, Mobile was one of the Confederacy's most important ports. During both World Wars the city played an important role as both a port and ship-building center. The city remains an important US port today, ranking 12th in cargo container tonnage passing through it.
The city contains around 600 churches, including the 12,000-member Dauphin Way Baptist Church and the Catholic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception--the largest Catholic church in Alabama. Over and over I heard residents refer to Mobile as "a party town." I am not sure how to reconcile that statement with the city's many churches.
Residents love the many live oaks found growing in the city, which are protected by law. Streets and sidewalks have been built around some of these ancient giants to avoid disturbing them.
"Live oaks in Mobile are like cows in India," lamented one resident who wasn't totally thrilled with the city's preservation policy.
The nine square-block Mobile Historic District contains many historic homes, such as Oakleigh--which is well worth checking out. Operated by the Historic Mobile Preservation Society, construction on this ante-bellum home started in 1833. This Greek-Revival style home was designed by owner and builder Mobile merchant James W. Roper. The home sits on three and half acres of landscaped ground and features an excellent collection of period furniture, china, and silver.
Battleship Memorial Park, in Mobile, is one of Alabama's leading tourist attractions. Here one finds the W.W. II battleship USS Alabama at permanent anchor. Children love touring this massive piece of war machinery--as do military veterans from all service branches. The USS Drum submarine is moored just forward of the USS Alabama and is also open for touring. Set up for one way tour traffic, the quarters on the Drum are cramped. The Aircraft Pavilion houses military aircraft from W.W.II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam-era. Display boards detail the aircraft mission and the part played in history by each model on display. Also available for riding is the flight simulator. Squeals of delight sound out from children as they enjoy the ride. A word of warning to those prone to motion-sickness, you may want to think twice before riding the simulator. I tried it. Wished I hadn't.
Outside Mobile, the place to get that early fix of blooming flowers is Bellingrath Gardens and Home. The Bellingrath family made a fortune in Coca-Cola. Walter Bellingrath purchased one of Coca-Cola's original 10 franchises, allowing him to produce, bottle, and sell the product. He built the family mansion for his wife Bessie, furnishing it with treasures from around the world. The gardens were first opened for public viewing of their azaleas in 1932. The event was so popular with the public, the Bellingraths decided to expand the gardens and began charging an entrance fee. Today the azalea collection encompasses over 250,000 azaleas. Late February sees a profusion of tulips, pansies, daffodils, hyacinths, and other dazzling varieties bursting firth in brilliant color.
Open year-round, the gardens offer 65 acres of blooming splendor. Several species are in bloom at any given time during the year. The gardens contain many points of interest including the rose garden, butterfly garden, Oriental-American garden, and the River-front Walk among others. The Bellingrath home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open as a museum. The home is furnished with 19th Century American and European furnishings. Two Hundred-Fifty year-old French rugs decorate the formal dining room. A large collection of Boehm porcelain is on display--some pieces of which are two centuries old.
Then it's down to the Gulf Coast for fun in the sun and sand--32 miles of sand and turquoise sea to explore. Fishing is an excellent way to spend some time on the coast--whether surf, freshwater, or deep-sea fishing. Nearly 100 boats are available for charter--from a half day to several days at sea for those going after the big ones. More than 200 artificial reefs have been created off Alabama's Gulf Coast and the fish love these feeding grounds. Fishing right from shore, either surf-fishing or enjoying Gulf State Park's 824' fishing pier, is an option that appeals to many. Looking for freshwater species? Then try the 700-acre Lake Shelby or the Bon Secour River, but don't forget to purchase your Alabama fishing license. Feel real lucky? Then enter one of the 15 fishing tournaments held in the area between June and September each year.
Gulf State Park and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge offer ample opportunities to get a little closer to nature. Bon Secour NWR's 6,200 acres were set aside in 1980 to preserve the coastal barrier island habitat encompassing maritime forest, coastal marsh, and beaches. Located along the migratory flyway, the refuge is a favorite with bird-watchers during the spring and fall migrations. The refuge also serves as a nesting site for green and loggerhead sea turtles. There are five miles of hiking trails on the refuge, where I spent an afternoon whiling away my time observing the flora and fauna.
One of the most enjoyable ways to explore the area is via bicycle. I picked up a rental from Surf 'N Cycle Rentals in Orange Beach and spent the day riding--from Orange Beach, to Gulf State Park around Lake Shelby, past Gulf Shores to Bon Secour NWR and back. It was enough biking for a long while. I recommend a less ambitious outing--take two or three days to explore the same area. If the winter blues have you down, know this--warm weather is waiting in southern 'Bama.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher