Travel

This History-Draped Alabama Hotel Is Grand, Indeed

POINT CLEAR, Ala. —"Fiddle-dee-dee!" exclaims Scarlett O'Hara in the movie version of "Gone with the Wind." "War, war, war! This war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream. Besides, there isn't going to be any war. If either of you boys say 'war' just once again, I'll go in the house and slam the door."

The fictional femme fatale was proven wrong, of course, and the nonfictional Civil War marched into the history books in 1861.

Standing against the ferocious winds sweeping over the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, on Mobile Bay, I thought of Scarlett and "Gone with the Wind" and that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of what many Southerners now term the "Late Unpleasantness."

I wouldn't have been braving those icy winds if I hadn't come to see a cannon fired. But a special cannon this was, so a few other plucky souls and I huddled together as Mike Hutchison, a local historian, musician, and Civil War re-enactor from nearby Fairhope, stuffed the solid bronze 6-pounder with gunpow der.

"We do this to remember history, both past and present, and to honor our military," says Hutchison, before lighting the fuse that was followed by a deafening explosion that gave me such a start that I leaped several inches into the frosty air. "Unless a lightning storm is bearing down," he went on to explain later, "the cannon fires every day, no matter the weather."

Scarlett would have felt right at home at the Grand Hotel with its fusion of history, tradition and quiet Southern beauty. First built in 1847 on the shores of Mobile Bay and enveloped by ancient oaks whose branches are so old and heavy that they sweep to the ground, the hotel is still permeated with notes of antebellum ambiance. And there are plenty of reasons why.

"It's the most prominent location on the bay," Hutchison points out. "If you look to the south, there's the Gulf of Mexico, to the west is Mobile, and to the north is the eastern shore. It has the best observation post for any traffic going in or out of the bay."

After it was built, the War of Northern Aggression, another Southern-inspired reference to the conflict, came to Alabama and to Point Clear.

"A lot of history revolves around the Grand Hotel," says Cathy Donelson, another local historian and retired journalist, adding that the hotel is a stop on Alabama's Civil War Trail.

She explained that the now-luxurious hotel served as a hospital during the war for wounded Confederate soldiers from the Battle of Vicksburg. More than 300 of the men who died there are buried at nearby Confederate Rest Cemetery adjacent to the hotel grounds, but their names and records were lost in a fire at the hotel in 1869. It also became a military training facility during World War II.

After its history, probably the most significant thing about the hotel is that it is a family place. As my husband and I wandered through the lobby and sat down for afternoon tea, I was reminded of the great old resorts of the Adirondacks, the kind that was featured in "Dirty Dancing" and where everyone dressed for dinner. Except now, says Donelson with a touch of wistfulness, gone are the evening gowns and tuxedos that have given way to resort casual.

"The Grand Hotel was always the social center of the area," says Donelson with a slight smile that indicated she was recalling a wonderful memory of the Grand. "There is nothing to rival it, and everyone comes from Mobile, New Orleans and Florida. It really is a grand hotel with grand traditions."

Part of the reason guests come is for the food. Hubby and I visited the Grand just after Christmas — the trip was really a getaway gift to ourselves after having heard so much about the hotel — so we were fortunate to be there for the scrumptious Sunday brunch that is a favorite not only with overnight guests but also locals from miles around.

As Marcus Johnson's Bay City Brass Band marched through the dining room sounding out New Orleans-style jazz, we sipped champagne and mimosas and grazed on grits, fresh seafood galore including crab legs and shrimp, prime rib, and dessert in every color and texture.

The resort's seven restaurants include the casual Saltwater Grill and Bucky's Birdcage Lounge to the jackets-required formalness of the AAA-Four Diamond Award Grand Dining Room, where we enjoyed the wine pairing with each course, the freshly made tableside Caesar for two, and a richly satisfying seafood ravioli. Each restaurant overlooks Mobile Bay and flower-filled gardens, towering magnolias and stately oaks, duck ponds, and swimming pools.

The Grand is on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, with two 18-hole championship courses aptly named Azalea and Dogwood. The courses, I'm assured despite with their innocuous sounding names, are challenging, with Spanish moss and real azaleas and dogwoods lining the fairways.

Because this year is a significant anniversary of the Civil War, and because the Grand was witness to the Battle of Mobile Bay, one of the last major battles fought between the Union and the Confederacy, the hotel is offering a historic package that includes deluxe accommodations, breakfast for two in the Grand Dining Room, participation in the processional and cannon firing, and other goodies.

One of the things that I really like about the hotel is that it is ideally situated so that you can branch out and explore other significant Civil War sites across L.A. —that's Lower Alabama, not Los Angeles — including the "Damn the Torpedoes" Civil War Trail stretching from Gulf Shores to Mobile, Spanish Fort, Fort Morgan Historic Site and Fort Gaines, each one significant in the Grant-vs.-Lee campaign for Mobile during 1864-65.

"We're blessed to have the Grand," says Donelson. "Everyone here feels that it is their own. Going to the Grand was and is the most wonderful treat, and it is a place of happy, happy times."

IF YOU GO:

For more information, contact the Grand Hotel Point Clear Resort & Spa by calling (251) 928-9201 or visiting www.MarriottGrand.com. The closest airports are Mobile and Pensacola, Fla. In addition to the history package, others are available.

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