Mobile, Southwest Alabama’s Scintillating Seaport

By Dorothea S. Michelman

Mobile, which celebrated its tricentennial just last year, owes its name to a happy juxtaposition of cross-cultural communication and historic circumstance. A variation on the familiar story of tourists stumbling over words in foreign languages, 16th-century Spanish explorers interpreted the native name for Mobile Bay ­ “Mobila” ­ as “Movile,” which the French then rendered as “Mobile.” In an intriguing twist to this linguistic adventure, the original French trading post established in 1702 was moved downriver in 1711 to what became a permanent settlement, so that Mobile had earned its name indeed.

Those early French settlers bestowed more on Mobile than its name. Poor drainage conditions at the original site (the reason for the move) could not dampen the colonists’ pre-Lenten spirits. Accordingly, they ushered in North America ‘s first Mardi Gras in 1703, with feasting and reveling on the day before Ash Wednesday ­ different in form than the festivities we know today, but surely no less jolly. Mobile’s younger sister, New Orleans, learned its lessons well in 1857, when the mystic society members arrived in town to share their expertise. Today, modern New Orleans makes merry on a grander (and more renowned) scale, while in Mobile it remains a more family-oriented affair, one reason both locals and visitors mark Mobile on their calendars when thoughts turn toward Mardi Gras.

Mobilians seem to have Mardi Gras on their minds all year round, as we discovered on our visit to Oakleigh, which actually is three museums in one. The complex includes Oakleigh itself, Mobile’s official antebellum period house-museum ornamented with period furnishings, paintings and decorative arts, the Cox-Deasy house, illustrating mid-19th century middle-class city life and the new Mardi Gras Cottage Museum, where summertime visitors can dream of costumed balls and picture themselves in the elaborate vestments and sparkling crown of King Felix III, who has honored his capital with an annual visit since 1903.

To explore more of Mobile’s fascinating past, I took a detour to the Museum of Mobile, housed in a National Historic Landmark building originally designed as an open-air market, and simultaneously the country’s oldest continuously operating city hall, with city council meetings held upstairs since 1857.

Beginning with the Paleo-Indian period, the visitor travels through time, drawn into an interactive encounter with Mobile’s history, enhanced by special exhibits and a children’s discovery room for smaller visitors.

Unlike time travel, the exploration of space remains fraught with immeasurable risk ­ as we have been so painfully reminded yet again ­ but at the same time continues to draw us beyond the confines of our fragile planet. For earthlubbers who have been wondering what it might be like to be a space tourist, without the $20 million price tag, there’s the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center’s IMAX mind-boggling alternative: Space Station: The Earth Tour. First running in Mobile (through October 1, 2003), it will be followed by a six-year “Earth tour” around the globe.

There is no age limit and no space suit required; just a short training session before being hurled into space from the safety of your seat, a breathtaking 220 miles above Earth traveling in the company of astronauts from the NASA Kennedy Space Center and cosmonauts from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The museum’s International Space Station leads you through life-sized replicas of crew quarters and science labs. En route, you can also learn the fine art of docking a shuttle and consider the advantages of the stringless laser harp in the Hands On Hall.

Much of Mobile’s architecture is reminiscent of that in New Orleans, especially its iron lace. The Italianate-style Richards-DAR House Museum, built in 1860 by steamboat captain Charles G. Richards, is a magnificent example of period craftsmanship: the four seasons sculpted in elegant iron lace in front of the mansion promised a visit inside just as delightful. And so it was, with carved Carrara marble mantels, chandeliers adorned with mythological figures… and an invitation to make ourselves comfortable anywhere (well, almost anywhere). Following the tour, the homelike atmosphere was made complete as we were welcomed into the dining room for tea and homemade cookies, a tradition cherished by both visitors and the hostesses.

The newly and generously expanded Mobile Museum of Art is a delight for art lovers, with a collection comprising some 6,000 works of art highlighting 2,000 years of cultural history. Of particular note are works by the French Barbizon School, masters of the 1930s, and Southern artists, but the Museum is certain to appeal to the most eclectic of tastes, with African and Asian art, contemporary crafts, textiles and more awaiting the visitor.

Forthcoming shows include “The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary” from the Vatican Museum (through July 6, 2003), presenting the images of Mary in painting and sculpture from the 1st to the 20th century by artists from around the world, and “Women of our Times: Photographs from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution” (August 8 through October 3, 2003), among them portraits of Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks.

Turning our gaze from the stars to the seas, we stopped at Battleship Memorial Park, for a self-guided tour of the battleship USS Alabama and submarine USS Drum, and a visit to the Aircraft Pavilion, where we experienced a flight simulator which brings you the joys of flight a bit closer to Earth.

A short drive south of Mobile to Theodore brings you to Bellingrath Gardens, Home and Museum, 65 enchanting acres of landscape gardens surrounding an exquisitely furnished historic mansion. Strolling through the gardens today, it is difficult to imagine that this magnificent floral landscape was once a humble fishing camp, a respite, on doctor’s orders, in the hope of restoring Coca Cola baron Walter Bellingrath’s failing health. His wife Bessie, an ardent horticulturist, transformed it into a garden paradise, where blossoms abound year round. My own visits to the gardens have always held a seasonal surprise, from bushes costumed as merrymakers during the Mardi Gras festivities to hundreds of chrysanthemums cascading from bridges and balconies on a balmy November afternoon, each an unforgettable sight.

Unforgettable as Mobile itself, whatever the season.

IF YOU GO:

Visitors’ Information:
Mobile Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 204
Mobile, Alabama 36601
Phone toll-free: 1-800-5-MOBILE
www.mobile.org

Accommodations:

La Fayette Plaza Hotel
301 Government Street
Phone toll-free: 1-(800) 692-6662
www.lafayetteplazahotel.com

Malaga Inn
359 Church Street
Mobile, AL 36602
Phone toll-free: 1(800) 235-1586

Monterey Manor Bed and Breakfast
1552 Monterey Place
Mobile, AL 36604
Phone (251) 479-0249
E-mail: montereymanor@aol.com
www.bbonline.com/al/monterey

Sightseeing:

Museum of Mobile
111 South Royal Street
Mobile, AL 36652-2068
E-mail:ewert@cityofmobile.org

Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center
65 Government Street
Mobile, AL 36633
Phone: (251) 208-6873
www.exploreum.net

Mobile Museum of Art
4850 Museum Drive
Mobile, AL 36608-1917
Phone: (251) 208-5200
www.mobilemuseumofart.com

USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park
2703Battleship Parkway
www.ussalabama.com

Bellingrath Gardens & Home
12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road
Theodore, Alabama 36582
Phone toll-free: 1-800-247-8420
www.bellingrath.org

Oakleigh Historic Complex
350 Oakleigh Place
Phone: (251) 432-1281
www.historicmobile.org

Richards-DAR House Museum
256 North Joachim Street
Phone: (251) 208-7320

Dining:

Roussos Seafood Restaurant & Catering
166 South Royal Street
Mobile, AL 36602
Phone/fax: (251) 433-3322
www.roussosrestaurant.com

Picklefish
251 Dauphin Street
Mobile, AL 36602
Phone: (251) 434-0000
www.picklefish.net

Loretta’s
19 South Conception Street
Mobile, AL 36602
Phone: (251) 432-2200

Wintzell’s Oyster House
605 Dauphin Street
Mobile, AL 36602
Phone: (251) 432-4605
www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com

Justine’s at the Pillars
1757 Government Street
Mobile, AL 36604
Phone: (251) 471-3411
www.justinrestaurant.com

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