Quick, what community was the first capital of French Louisiana in 1702? Okay, which city staged the first Mardi Gras celebration in America, along with the first formally organized Carnival Krewe in 1830?
If both of your answers were not Mobile, Ala., maybe it’s time to get to know this town. Mobile is likely the most “Southern” city along the entire Gulf Coast. Great oaks and noble magnolia trees form a beautiful canopy against which grand buildings, and even modern architecture, are set.
Right off, let’s get the pronunciation straight. It’s moe-beel. Emphasis on the last syllable. And it’s the third largest town in Alabama. One of the most important ports along the Gulf, too. The name is derived from a tribe of Indians the French found on the site, the Mobila.
Situated on the Mobile River, with direct access to the Gulf through next-door to the east Mobile Bay, this is the 12th largest port in America. And what is really terrific is that the Bay provides not just a pretty setting, but also some great seafood. More on that later.
The early history of Mobile included the French, Great Britain and Spain. The area was brought into the U.S. in 1813 when President James Madison annexed the Spanish territory of West Florida. Alabama became a state in 1819.
Today, Mobile is a recognized cultural center with a talented symphony orchestra, a professional ballet company, several excellent art museums, and a number of community theatre groups. The city is justifiably renowned for staging over-the-top, first-class festivals several times a year.
Probably the most visible of Mobile’s museums is the Battleship Memorial Park complex, clearly seen from very busy Interstate 10 as it passes over Mobile Bay. Centerpiece of the park is the USS Alabama, a World War II era battleship which saw a lot of action in both the Atlantic and Pacific war theatres. Also in Battleship Memorial Park is the USS Drum (a World War II submarine) and a host of planes and monuments, all of which are open to the public.
Mobile offers a full range of hotel accommodations, both in price and location. If you wish, and you should, staying in the middle of downtown Mobile puts you in the middle of the Mobile-style and the history. We recommend The Battle House. Old in style, modern in luxury (recently restored and updated), The Battle House provides guests a high level of service and luxury, boasting a well-appointed spa, fitness center and pool. A few of the rooms overlook the Mobile River and you can, if you wish, just sit in your room and watch the activities along the Port of Mobile.
If your pleasures run to more suburban delights, and thankfully in Mobile nothing is very far away, then there are two options that make perfect sense. To the west is Bellingrath Gardens, a resplendent oasis featuring all manner of flora, and nearby is a quite comfortable Hampton Inn from which you can enjoy Bellingrath. When you are in this area, head a bit further down the road and visit the fishing village of Bayou LaBatre. Go just a tiny bit further down south on the same road and check out the Gulf of Mexico.
Heading the other way, to what locals call the Eastern Shore, is Point Clear, featuring the Grand Hotel Resort, Golf Club and Spa. This one-stop destination resort will have you parking your car and traveling the picturesque area on bike. If the definition of a vacation is to change the pace and change the scenery, The Grand accomplishes all of that. Across the Bay, Mobile’s skyline seems like a long world away, instead of only about 40 minutes.
Dining in Mobile feeds the need for just about any type of cuisine. But keep in mind, you are surrounded on three sides by water, fresh, brackish and salt. So your focus should be on what comes out of that water in the freshest fashion and taking the shortest route to your table. I’ve had some delicious scallops along the Gulf Coast, but I cannot get the thought out of my mind that they are not from here. I’m passing over a lot of fresh fish to have something that just had to be frozen to arrive along the Coast in edible condition.
Anyway, get yourself in a Mobile state of mind by heading out to the Original Oyster House. Sitting over the water right at Battleship Memorial Park on Battleship Parkway, the Original Oyster House has been at it for a long time. Don’t expect any bargains just because it’s a little run-down. The seafood is the deal here and nothing else need get in its way.
The Bull is a restaurant of local renown. The food here is authentic and honest, and the service is excellent. While it bills itself as a Tex-Mex restaurant, there are not that many dishes that claim south of Texas as their origin. Mostly it’s about redfish, or whatever is fresh that day, and meat, including steak, pork chops and chicken, prepared in a Southern style.
Speaking of the South, what would any truly Southern town be without a first-rate barbecue joint. Mobile’s is called The Brick Pit. All the requisite barbecue essentials are here: pork, beef, ribs and chicken. Many of the sides are in the “excellent” range, and, at first, use the sauce sparingly. Can be a bit sweet, for my tastes.
A word of caution when reading barbecue restaurant reviews: take everything you read with a great deal of salt. There are so many barbecue styles, and so many variations on those styles, that just because some of the comments in the review of a barbecue restaurant are not positive, you don’t know who wrote the review. You don’t know whether they like Texas-style, or Memphis-style, or St. Louis-style. You don’t know if they like a ketchup-y, molasses-infused barbecue sauce, or a mustard-based tangy sauce. You don’t know if they like dry-rub or wet.
Barbecue restaurant reviews are all over the place, and when you read a negative one, go further with your research. Check out where the reviewer is from, and check out other reviews from people who hail from other places.
On that note, we will end our overview of Mobile. When you go, and you should, bring your sunscreen, bring your bathing suit, leave the ties and fancy dresses at home, and get to know the history and culture of this often overlooked, right-on-our-doorstep community that has so much to offer.
Besides, aren’t you always looking for a place where everyone else is someplace else? You’ve found it here in Mobile.