There is magic on Highway 98 as it hugs the shoreline of Mobile Bay heading down to the Gulf. I know there is because I have experienced it. One starlit night there was no escaping the urge to dance with my best friend and favorite lady on the veranda of the Grand Hotel.
If anyone else had been there at 2 a.m. they probably would have told you there was no music playing. There were no open bars. There was no small talk or sweet whispered nothings heard. If anyone else had been there, they would have been wrong. There was all of that and the gentle sound of water lapping at the tiny beach with two souls dancing to the beat.
Few roads along the Gulf Coast are so intertwined with the history and the environment of its setting than Highway 98 along the Eastern Shore. Within certain spans are the sights and experiences by which the Old South is remembered, great trees littered with Spanish moss, cabins in the woods, small shops filled with unimaginable treasures, cafes providing plates of catfish and cornbread and roadside vegetable- and fruit-truck vendors depending on the season.
Then suddenly there are the water vistas of a calm bay, difficult to navigate to the uninitiated, excellent fishing, and at certain times of the year, the impending feeling that a jubilee will break out at any moment. You just need to be there.
Image courtesy of coopqreg, stock.xchng, 2012
Begin your journey at the always-busy Interstate 10, from the east or the west, and leave that truck-heavy highway at the Daphne/Fairhope exit at the eastern edge of Mobile Bay.
Heading south down 98, on the right-hand side, is the Compleat Angler Seafood Grille and Bar, 29249 U.S. Hwy 98, Daphne. Bob Baumhower, who is self-labeled Head Fry Cook, was enchanted with a hotel and restaurant in Bimini of the same name that hosted many luminaries, including Ernest Hemingway.
Alabama’s answer to the infamous Bahamian destination does not boast souvenirs of a visit from Papa, but does have piña coladas, great gumbo, key lime pie and views of the sunset that will have you staring west until the last rays of light disappear over the Bay.
But we cannot linger too long as we still have miles to go.
Continuing south, 98 veers away from the water and you are now truly in the Old South. Even the pace of the traffic seems to have slowed just a tad. Daphne bills itself as The Jubilee City, and is now more than ever a bedroom community for Mobile.
At the southern end of Daphne, turn right onto Veterans Drive, Highway 98 Alternate Route. You will enter Fairhope, named a little more than 100 years ago by settlers who gave the place a “fair hope of success.” The community now has about 16,000 residents, so maybe it’s time to declare the project a triumph.
Don’t miss a stop at the Fly Creek Café, 831 North Section St. The décor here is Caribbean Island Rustic, and the food is Alabama Gourmet on the Water. The yacht harbor is always in motion with fishing boats and sailing vessels heading to and from Mobile Bay and the Gulf. Again, sunsets are bonus added to the ambience.
Image courtesy of ModMobilian, 2010
Take pride in your Southern roots as you pass through Fairhope, enjoying the respect for culture and heritage this small community maintains. Keep going south until you come to Fairhope Avenue; then take a right.
Following the main road, which will change names several times, takes you between the almost-land shore of Mobile Bay and the lowland to your left. Stop anywhere at a country store or market, grab a soft drink and engage the local folks in conversations. You will soon learn that Southern hospitality is not just a phrase but a way of life.
Continuing your trek south, you will come to the pride and joy of the Eastern Shore, the aptly named Grand Hotel at Point Clear. Now one of the premier resorts of the Marriott Corporation, and listed as one of the Historic Hotels of America, this stately destination on too-beautiful grounds will immediately charm and challenge you. Do you just kick back and be pampered? Or should you golf, tennis, hike, ride horseback, swim, ride bikes, work out in the health club, jet ski on the Bay, sail or get involved in a lively game of beach volleyball? Even making the choice is tiring and maybe you should just head for the bar, request a properly made mint julep and ponder a way of life that is no longer prevalent but not gone either.
One of my favorite ways to travel in any country is to motor all day, seeing and experiencing whatever comes along of interest along the way, then store the vehicle for the evening and into the night while you sink into luxury, dining, maybe dancing, then adjourning to complete comfort and sleeping the peaceful sleep of a fully satisfied traveler.
Image courtesy of FIT Power Hour, 2012
The Grand Hotel offers several choices for dining. Besides the very casual Dining Room, there is the more upscale Grand Dining Room. Creative names are evidently not necessary.
The menu in the Grand Dining Room is every bit what you would expect. Starting with the Escargot Tower all the way through the Dover Sole and the Ahi Tuna Pueblano, not just the preparation but the presentations will be of the caliber you would expect. Desserts can be traditional, with a Strawberries Romanov for Two, or the über-modern Liquid Nitrogen Snowballs.
After a couple of days at The Grand, and I do recommend at least that long, continue your southerly journey as you make your way to the Gulf of Mexico. Highway 98 leaves its waterside route and plunges into rural farmland surroundings, usually populated by pickup trucks and roadside stands laden with fresh vegetables and fruits, depending on the season.
Where 98 intersects with Highway 59 in Foley, take a right turn heading towards the beach – but first, stop at one of the largest discount malls in the state, Foley Factory Outlet Center. More than 400 stores, yes, that’s right, to satisfy the most savvy shopper.
Next stop, Gulf Shores, where the continent ends and beach fun begins.
Highway 98, never losing its southern charms and its satisfying features. Enjoy the ride.