Mobile is a city of many charms, both old and new
MOBILE — We came to this bustling port city on the shore of massive Mobile Bay looking for vestiges of the Civil War as the 150th anniversary of the still-echoing conflict drew to a close. After all, this was the site of one of the biggest naval battles of the war and the place where Rear Admiral David Farragut issued his famous command: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Or words to that effect.
Civil War sites proved somewhat elusive; not surprising, perhaps, given the passage of time, development, and the fact that much of the action occurred on the water. But what we did find was a city, and a bay, filled with history, beautiful vistas, good food, and fun. Oh, and a really, really big boat.
That boat is the USS Alabama, a battleship launched in 1942 that saw action in the North Atlantic and in the brutal Pacific campaign against Japan. The “Lucky A” is amazingly immense: Displacing more than 44,500 tons, it measures 680 feet from stem to stern. It carries nine 16-inch guns in three turrets, along with a variety of other armaments, and its main batteries could fire shells as heavy as a small car, accurately, for a distance of more than 20 miles.
Below decks, the ship is like a small city, with accommodations for nearly 2,000 men to live and work. Permanently docked at Battleship Memorial Park and open to the public since 1965, along with the USS Drum submarine and a host of other military vehicles and aircraft, a visit to the USS Alabama is a must in Mobile. Be prepared, the self-guided tour can take several hours.
We drove into town from the west on Interstate 10 and went directly to the battleship before we even checked into our downtown hotel, the beautifully restored and appropriately named Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel and Spa. The Royal Street Tavern, just off the elegant lobby, was the perfect place to cool off with a cocktail after a hot afternoon spent touring a steel-plated warship. Some of the hotel’s rooms are located in the attached, 35-story RSA Battle House Tower, which is the tallest building in the state. Our rooms in the eight-story, old part of the hotel were spacious, nicely detailed, and quiet.
Our energy restored, we set out to explore historic Lower Dauphin Street, which is dotted with restaurants and bars, along with a number of empty storefronts. Mobile, which today has a population just under 200,000, got its start in 1702 as the first capital of colonial French Louisiana. It shares that background, and good bit of architecture, with New Orleans, along with a debate over where the tradition of Mardi Gras parades got its start. We won’t try to resolve that here, but you can find the schedule of next year’s celebration in Mobile at themobilemask.com.
We walked 10 blocks on a sultry evening to Wintzell’s Oyster House, the original location of what has become a small regional chain of restaurants that boasts of “75 years and still shucking.” The friendly, informal atmosphere was reflected in the decor that featured walls festooned with numerous witty sayings by founder J. Oliver Wintzell, accompanied, inexplicably, by numerous black and white portraits of former Teen Miss pageant winners. I happily disposed of a dozen plump Gulf oysters and a tasty wedge salad washed down with a couple of IPAs from Good People Brewing Co. out of Birmingham.
My companions opted for fried oysters, deemed light and delicious, along with Good People’s Snake Handler Double IPA (ABV 10%), which was deemed dangerous.
In search of a little late-night action, I stopped in Veets Bar and Grill, just down Royal Street from our hotel. A fixture on the Mobile music scene for nearly two decades, Veets features a long bar, cheap beer, and live music. On this Thursday, bar owner Doug “Veet” Previto was playing electric guitar accompaniment for folksinger Emily Stuckey. Doug’s daughter Gina Jo was behind the bar and she pointed out that the grandfather of former Red Sox pitcher Jake Peavey, a Mobile native, was in attendance. While it’s based on a small sample size, I feel safe in saying something fun is always happening at Veets.
The next day, we headed for breakfast to a place we’d passed the night before on Dauphin Street: Spot of Tea. Advertised as “The Place to Be” since 1994, Spot of Tea is run by formally dressed women who wear pearls behind the cash register and address everyone as “Dear.” Clearly under their influence, I went for two specialties of the house: strawberry iced tea and something called “Eggs Cathedral,” which consisted of a grilled English muffin topped with a crab cake, scrambled eggs and a seafood sauce made with blackened Mexican grouper and crawfish. Oh, and hash brown potatoes. After all that, I was ready to roll for a very active day with the rest of my sweet but strangely refreshing strawberry tea in a to-go cup.
Armed with our official guide to the “Civil War Trail, Battle of Mobile Bay,” we headed out on US Highway 98 to the East Bay. We got lost several times and it appears most of the Civil War sites are now covered by housing developments. But ultimately, we got on US 98 Alternate (Eastern Shore Parkway), which was a beautiful scenic drive south through Fairhope (an antiquing mecca and the place Jimmy Buffett calls his “home town”) and along the bay through Point Clear. Ultimately, we followed Route 180 all the way to Mobile Point, where we toured Fort Morgan, which Admiral Farragut was bombarding when he made his famous reference to torpedoes, which were actually mines. But enough of that.
The 40-minute ferry ride from Mobile Point to Dauphin Island on the west side of the bay took us past oil rigs and dolphins cavorting in the slightly choppy water. It’s definitely worth the price of admission: $16 for car and driver; $4.50 for each additional passenger.
On our way back north to Mobile, we detoured to Bellingrath Gardens and Home, a breathtakingly beautiful and expansive collection of gardens and landscapes created by Coca-Cola franchise owner Walter Bellingrath and his wife, Bessie Mae, and opened to the public in the 1930s. We were too late to tour the house, but the grounds are spectacular and meticulously maintained and they make the trek to the relatively obscure location along the banks of the Fowl River well worth the effort.
That evening, our last in the city, we enjoyed a taste of the new Mobile at NoJa on North Jackson Street. The menu blends Mediterranean and Asian influences with delightful results. My Ethiopian chicken was locally sourced, fall-off-the-bone tender, and featured a dark, flavorful sauce that was nearly a mole, but with zest. We sat in the secluded outdoor patio by a gently splashing fountain and toasted our trip to Mobile, a city with many charms both old and new.