That’s what I tell myself every time I visit Mobile Bay in South Alabama and I mean it in the best possible way. With its gnarly moss-covered live oaks, everyday-is-Sunday pace, and air thick and sticky with humidity, it is indeed different from any place I’ve ever been.
Coming into this little hidden pocket of the world is a weird experience for most people, even those who have lived their whole lives in the South. It’s like walking into a scene from a movie, not a box office blockbuster, but slow-burner indie. You feel different here – your walking begins to slow and your thoughts follow pace. Soon your attention turns to the water; and you begin thinking about different ways of living. Mobile Bay messes with your head. Still in the best possible way.
I can’t remember the first time I came here, but it was so long ago the place feels like part of my very existence. Now, I’ll admit that I’m a very fortunate girl who has had the privilege of experiencing the Bay for the most part from the oh-so deluxe perch of the Grand Hotel. Every chance I get, whether it’s for an anniversary weekend, girls trips, or just a few nights of solitude; I make my way south to the Bay and to the Grand.
Let me also readily admit there’s more than a little irony in my frequent escapes to this particular place. When I’m traveling around the world, I find myself almost offended by the thought of staying in a large, resort-y hotel. I’m always on the search for a great local apartment, an intimate guesthouse, or maybe just a cool hostel.
On the surface, The Grand would seem to be exactly the type of place that I normally shun: a sprawling complex designed to keep visitors on the grounds during the entirety of their trip.
So what’s so grand about The Grand?
How do I put this in short, hmmm…everything. Maybe I’ve spent enough time here to get beyond the surface and have to come to love this place not really for what it offers but for what it represents.
On the “offer” end of things, it’s everything you can dream about: a gorgeous Bayfront location, adult and kid’s swimming pool, an amazing spa, and enough lawn games and water toys to keep the whole family occupied from sun up ‘til dark (think: bikes, catamarans, bocce ball, horseshoes, putt-putt, and you get the idea.) It’s like summer camp for everyone.
Yet for me, those things wouldn’t be meaningful without the history and essence that is the Grand. Serving as a reminder of the area’s age and past, the sprawling estate is covered with majestic oaks and magnolias that tower over a low-slung series of buildings housing guests, restaurants, and the spa.
The hotel came to life in 1847 and spent its first few years as a haven for wealthy travelers who, at the time, arrived by steamboat as there were no accessible roadways to the area. That era was to be short lived. Soon the Civil War would change everything for the country and for the Grand. The hotel became a base hospital for Confederate soldiers, many of whom are buried in the property’s on-site cemetery. The history only gets more interesting from here and includes fires, hurricanes, floods, as well as a stint as a maritime training base in WWII.
Today’s Grand may ooze calm and retreat, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing for long. Like everywhere along the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 delivered a walloping punch to the property that took over a year to recover.
Fascinating history, right? (For more, check out this link: http://traveltips.usatoday.com/history-grand-hotel-point-clear-alabama-34510.html) Still, why devote all this time and space to talking about a hotel that most people will never visit? (And, that I’m not affiliated with in any way.)
There’s something about The Grand to me that’s symbolic of the entire area and its essence. The experience here certainly speaks to southern hospitality; but it’s more than that.
Being here where the past and present intertwine around you, you begin to understand the thread that runs through the Gulf Coast. It’s resilience. I can’t walk these grounds without thinking about everything that has happened here and yet it still stands. With all the history and hardships the whole area and its people have seen, it always comes back. Each time a little grander than before.
SEE & DO
There’s so much to see and do on the Bay and around the area.
You don’t have to stay at the Grand to enjoy the luxurious spa. Visitors can pay a day fee and take advantage of all the services and amenities. Just spending an hour relaxing in the famous “quiet room” makes the trip worth it.
Point Clear Boardwalk
Near the conference center at The Grand, there’s an entrance most people don’t know about to this waterfront boardwalk. The one-mile stretch takes you by turn of the century homes with picturesque docks and boathouses. It’s a quaint, quiet stretch and the locals want to keep it that way.
The town of Fairhope’s founding goes a long way in explaining some of the area’s sense of otherness that still exists today. Began in 1894 by the followers of economist Henry George, Fairhope was created as the embodiment of a belief in citizens living together equally under a fair tax system. Hence the name “fairhope.” Today it’s one of the quaintest small towns in the country and has become something of an artist mecca. It’s also becoming popular with retirees, but these aren’t your classic snowbirds. Those who tend to settle in the area are easy-going, active, and embrace the area’s eccentric air.
5 Rivers Delta
If you’re in to kayaking, this is a great spot for you. This is the area where the Mobile, Spanish, Tensaw, Apalachee and Blakeley rivers flow into Mobile Bay, and it’s spectacular. Again, talk about history.
Mobile Bay & Jubilee
The area’s tourism tagline (which cracks me up) is “South of the South. North of Expectations.” That says a lot, right? In the area’s defense, expectations are probably low because they’re non-existent. Unless your family has been coming here for generations, most people don’t think of Mobile Bay when they think vacation.
It’s roughly 100 miles from the tip of the eastern shore of the bay in Ft. Morgan to the barrier on the western front, Dauphine Island, but you can get a feel for the bay by slow crawling around the small towns of the eastern shore including Fairhope, Point Clear, and Daphne.
The natural phenomenon known as Jubilee hits these parts, and only these parts, sporadically enough to qualify as often (usually at least once a year.) Jubilee is indeed a time for celebrating for locals and visitors alike. In the pre-dawn hours, reacting to a change in the water’s oxygen levels, schools of sea-creatures including crab, shrimp, and eels make their way to the shore and become easy pickings for hungry revelers.
Located at the head of the bay is Alabama’s third largest city, Mobile. It’s home to the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the country – yes, older than it’s more famous cousin in New Orleans – and a great place to eat fresh local seafood and visit a few historic naval sites including Battleship Memorial Park whose star attraction is the battleship USS Alabama. There is also an intriguing array of sites, memorials, and museums in the area focused on the culture and history of Native Americans.
Wash House Restaurant
There are many great restaurants in the area, but don’t visit without having a meal at the historic Wash House in Point Clear. Try the Wash House salad with fresh local greens, candied pecans, and warm, breaded goat cheese. Yum! Oh, and the shrimp stack, or the seared tuna lettuce wraps, or…I could go on and on.