MOBILE, Ala. —Somewhere in bureaucrats' heaven, several are looking down on the Alabama Gulf Coast and kicking themselves.
Not long after the Civil War, Florida agreed to sell a certain expanse of gleaming white sand beach in its northwestern arm to Alabama. Cost? A million bucks.
Officials in Alabama quibbled over the price, opponents of the plan judged the land to be "a sand bank and gopher region" and lawmakers in Alabama put off a deal. The offer died of dithering.
Oh, those shortsighted bean counters ... Today, quite a few travelers barrel past Alabama's 32 miles of powdery strand — all the state holds of the Gulf Coast's long stretch of talcum sands. They slather their sunscreen at the booming beach-lovers' nirvana of Florida's Panhandle, missing not just those satiny sands south of Mobile, but a bulging beach bag of attractions that garlands Mobile Bay.
A three- or four-day, dawdling circuit of the shallow, teardrop-shaped bay is enough to show that whatever those long-gone officials let get away, plenty of drawing cards remain.
Weigh two strategies for cruising the rim of the bay, much of it included in a new scenic byway, Alabama's Coastal Connection. Option One: Leaving Interstate 10 at Mobile, take in the western shore, with its fewer but worthy stops, connecting to the eastern side via a car ferry at the bottom of the bay where it opens to the Gulf of Mexico.
Or (Option Two), circle starting with the eastern edge, which has hours and days of enticements. Either direction, it's a drive of about 120 miles, compact enough that you could base yourself in any town and have access to the whole.
End with at least a day at Mobile, because it would be a mistake to miss the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center, where kids can perform virtual heart surgery or design a roller coaster; the splendidly renovated Battle House Hotel; the Mobile Carnival Museum, where robes of Mardi Gras royalty glitter; the rebuilt, 18th-century Fort Conde; the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park; and the good eats on Dauphin Street.
My exploration with Edith Parten, communications director and Gulf Coast regional director for the Alabama Tourism Department, started with the eastern edge, and our inaugural stop was Burris Farm Market in Loxley for a bag of boiled peanuts ($2.29), which she loves and I found to be an acquired taste.
We had no intention of cooking, so we left behind Burris' heaps of produce. We had our eye on a half-dozen or so restaurants with Gulf and down-home offerings. These would include a veritable aquarium of seafood and some of the best grits and bread pudding this side of granny's.
Of the several inviting, low-key, eastern-shore towns, we visited two, Foley and Fairhope.
Foley's Holmes Medical Museum, in a former hospital, is a time capsule of medical practices from the early- and mid-20th century. It's both fascinating and unnerving with its gimcrack gadgets and reputation for being haunted. A large model-train layout at the Foley Museum will settle any lingering shivers, or you can brace your bravado with a cup of coffee (10 cents) at the old-time Stacey Rexall Drugs.
Fairhope could fill a day and any art lover's heart. Founded as a communal colony and evolving into an art and culture center, the little town is so charming that it seems only right that flowers bloom atop trash receptacles on downtown streets. Its Eastern Shore Art Center displays and sells museum-quality paintings and sculptures by area artists. The Fairhope History Museum is better and bigger than you might expect in a little town. It engages with a rich mix of artifacts and a staff willing to make your questions feel right at home.
Ah, but Fairhope is also a shopper's summit. About eight city blocks are fringed with shops ranging from In the Company of Angels, which specializes in seraphs, to the marvelous jumble of Fairhope Hardware, where serious fix-it folks can find what they need and the rest of us will navigate the untidy aisles and love spotting things we haven't seen for years plus a lone boat seat beached behind a batch of rocking chairs.
Take a load off in the shady courtyard of the town's (barely Gallic) French Quarter, and eat the tomato and homemade-mozzarella panini you just got at Panini Pete's Cafe & Bakeshoppe. All of Pete's prices are in fractions, and this healthful sandwich costs $7 1/2 . Or, Wintzell's Oyster House is a local favorite for bivalves and bread pudding, eaten while reading the walls hung with pithy sayings from founder J. Oliver Wintzell.
Alabama's short but sweet 32 miles of white sand lie on the Gulf of Mexico between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, at the southern end of the bay. Spring breakers, families, bird-watchers, winter Alabamians and nesting turtles share the shore. Condos and hotels sprout like seagrass from the beach, but close behind the shore, Gulf State Park's spacious cabins offer a relative bargain in lodging for families and outdoor enthusiasts. Set on Shelby Lake, they're minutes from walking trails and moss-hung pines.
At the Orange Beach Art Center, visitors watch glass artists work in the Hot Shop, or they can sign up for classes and create their own objects in the superheated medium. Sessions in cooler media are offered, and a shop stocked by regional artists tempts those who appreciate art but don't want to make it themselves.
Dining is casual and always tinged with Southerners' appreciation of golden-fried-this or creamy-that. Fried green tomatoes, black-eyed peas in balsamic vinaigrette, fried shrimp and bread pudding made with Krispy Kreme doughnuts are among pleasures at Lulu's at Homeport Marina in Gulf Shores. (Yes, Lulu is singer Jimmy Buffett's sister.) Also in Gulf Shores, family-owned Sweetie Pies turns out irresistible desserts — pecan and beyond.
Nearby in Orange Beach, Tacky Jacks' breakfasts include the Wheelhouse, a plate-sized pancake that could appease two appetites for less than $6. Cosmo's in Orange Beach is more upscale, with entrees such as Chilean sea bass in a banana leaf. Named after a rescued dog, Cosmo's welcomes pets on its patio. Cosmo's close-by sister restaurant is Cobalt.
Save room for Sunday brunch at the serene Grand Hotel at Point Clear, or order the scrambled-eggs-with-lump-crab specialty any day. Plan a few moments to pay your respects to the soldiers — young and old, named and unknown — at rest in the Confederate cemetery a few minutes from the Grand's front gate. The hotel served as a hospital during the Civil War, and those lost to their wounds were brought here.
That conflict also echoes at forts Morgan and Gaines, which guarded the east and west sides of the bay's opening to the Gulf. Both historic sites, now open to visitors, were captured by Union forces, Gaines in the Battle of Mobile Bay, and Morgan afterward.
Wildlife and nature are on tap in the east at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center at Spanish Fort and at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge at Gulf Shores, and on the west at the Estuarium and Audubon bird sanctuary on Dauphin Island, a car-ferry ride across the bay's mouth. The middle unit of 7,000-acre Bon Secour (the only public unit of the refuge's three) is threaded with paths where birds surprise and sightings of foxes, gators and bobcats are possible.
Swimming and basking in tanks at the teaching-oriented Estuarium are water creatures of the region, including fish, turtles, jellyfish and octopus. There's no theme-park pizazz here, but eager children press noses to glass to see what elsewhere is hidden by the water's surface. It's here that you learn that the great bay — 32 miles tall and 23 miles at its widest — averages just 10 feet deep and must be dredged to give ships a channel for sailing between the gulf and docks at Mobile's busy port.
Northbound now and on the west rim of the bay, our goal is not wild things, but clipped and cultivated life at Bellingrath Gardens and Home. The 900-acre estate beside the Fowl River was built by Mobile's first Coca-Cola bottler, Walter D. Bellingrath. His great wealth built a 10,500-square-foot house, elegant yet down-to-earth, and the green cloak around it that blooms in every season.
At Mobile, we cross back onto the eastern edge and celebrate completing our circuit with crawfish and grits at Felix's Fish Camp, a rambling bastion of steak and seafood. We share a milkshake-like Chrissie (a smooth blend of vanilla ice cream, vodka and liqueur) then return to Battle House for the night.
What could have been a ghost (several have been reported at the hotel) moaned and growled and racketed loudly in my room. "Be at peace," I quietly urged the upset specter, and the noise stopped. Amazing.
Later, I wished I'd said, "Hey! Don't feel so bad. You missed out getting the Florida Panhandle, but what you have is pretty darned nice."
It might have been a comfort.
IF YOU GO:
Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center, 65 Government St.; 251-208-6852; www.exploreum.com
Museum of Mobile, 111 S. Royal St.; 251-208-7569; www.museumofmobile.com. Historic Fort Conde Museum (150 S. Royal St.) is affiliated.
Mobile Carnival Museum, 355 Government St., downtown; 251-432-3324; www.mobilecarnivalmuseum.com
USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, 2703 Battleship Parkway; 251-433-2703; www.ussalabama.com
WEST SIDE OF BAY:
Fort Gaines, 109 Bienville Blvd., Dauphin Island; 251-861-6992; www.dauphinisland.org
Bellingrath Gardens and Home, 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore; 1-800-247-8420; www.bellingrath.org
Estuarium at Dauphin Island Sea Lab, 1-866-403-4409; www.sealabestuarium.org
Audubon Bird Sanctuary, 109 Bienville Blvd., Dauphin Island; 251-861-3607; www.dauphinisland.org/bird.htm
EAST SIDE OF BAY:
5 Rivers: Alabama's Delta Resource Center, 30945 Five Rivers Blvd.; Spanish Fort; 251-625-0814; www.alabama5rivers.com
Holmes Medical Museum, 111 W. Laurel Ave., Foley; by appointment
City of Foley Museum and Model Train Exhibit, 125 E. Laurel Ave.; 251-943-1818; www.foleyrailroadmuseum.com
Stacey Rexall Drugs, 121 W. Laurel Ave., Foley; 251-943-7191
Eastern Shore Art Center, 401 Oak St., Fairhope; 251-928-2228; www.esartcenter.com
In the Company of Angels, 328 De La Mare, Fairhope; 251-928-2800
Fairhope Hardware, 301 Fairhope Ave.; 251-928-9266
Gulf State Park, Gulf Shores; 1-800-252-7275; www.alapark.com (click "Find a Park")
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, 12295 State Highway 180, Gulf Shores; 251-540-7720; www.fws.gov/bonsecour
Fort Morgan, 51 Highway 180 West, Gulf Shores; 251-540-7127; www.preserveala.org (click "historic sites")
Orange Beach Arts Center, 26389 Canal Road; 251-981-2787; www.orangebeachartcenter.com
WHERE TO EAT:
Burris Farm Market, on State Highway 59, Loxley; 251-964-6464. Fruits, veggies and boiled peanuts for the road or condo.
Cosmo's Restaurant & Bar, 25753 Canal Road, Orange Beach; 251-948-9663; www.cosmosrestaurantandbar.com
Felix's Fish Camp, 1530 Battleship Parkway, Spanish Fort (about 10 minutes from downtown Mobile); 251-626-6710; www.felixsfishcamp.com. Fish, shellfish, steaks and more.
Lucy Buffett's Lulu's at Homeport Marina, 200 E. 25th Ave., Gulf Shores; 251-967-5858; www.lulusathomeport.com
Panini Pete's Cafe & Bakeshoppe, 42 1/2 S. Section St. 2, Fairhope; 251-929-0122; www.paninipetes.com
Spot of Tea, 310 Dauphin St., downtown Mobile; 251-433-9009; www.spotoftea.net. Try Eggs Cathedral.
Sweetie Pies, Pelican Place at Craft Farms shopping center, State Highway 59 in Gulf Shores; 251-943-8119. Pies, cafe.
Tacky Jacks Tavern & Grill, 27206 Safe Harbor Drive, Orange Beach; 251-981-4144; www.tackyjacks.com. Beloved for breakfast.
Wintzell's Oyster House, 805 S. Mobile St., Fairhope; 251-929-2322; www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com. Among other locations, downtown Mobile at 605 Dauphin St.; 251-432-4605.
WHERE I STAYED:
Battle House Hotel, downtown Mobile; 251-338-2000; www.marriott.com (click on "Find a Hotel"). Historic, hospitable. Spa rated one of world's best by Shape magazine in 2009.
Caribe: The Resort, Orange Beach; 1-888-607-7020; www.caribresort.com. Upscale. Rent condos by day or week.
Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, at Point Clear near Fairhope; 251-928-9201; www.marriottgrand.com. Hotel on 550 landscaped acres on bay, popular Sunday brunch, private dinners in Secret Garden, and Marriott's No. 1-rated spa worldwide.
The area has many hotels, motels and condos available. Among options, 20 cabins at Gulf State Park (1-800-252-7275; www.alapark.com/gulfstate/cabins) in Gulf Shores.
National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola (30 miles east of Orange Beach); 850-452-3604; www.navalaviationmuseum.org
Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-745-7263; www.gulfshores.com or www.orangebeach.com
Alabama Tourism Department, 1-800-252-2262; www.alabama.travel
Alabama's Coastal Connection, the recently designated scenic byway; www.byways.org (click on outline of state in map) or www.alabamascoastalconnection.com
Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, www.eschamber.com
Fairhope: www.cofairhope.com, www.downtownfairhope.com/Fairhope
City of Foley Convention & Visitors Bureau, 251-943-1200; www.foleycvb.com
Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-566-2453; www.mobilebay.org