USA: Sweet home Alabama

usa With a coast to rival Florida’s heritage and hot hotels, Alabama is worth a look.


Lower Dauphin Street — or LoDa — for nightlife, galleries and colonnaded French Quarter architecture

Lower Dauphin Street — or LoDa — for nightlife, galleries and colonnaded French Quarter architecture

They tell an interesting story at Mobile’s Springhill Avenue Temple about a mitzvah a poor congregant performed in the days of slavery.

Too poor to own slaves himself, the congregant was so horrified by the sight of an African family about to be split up at the local slave auction, that he somehow mustered the wherewithal to buy the lot — then dispersed them among friends and family. That was philanthropy, southern-style.

When I reached Alabama myself in 1965 the slaves were free, but equality still seemed light years away.

It took me 15 minutes to figure why I was not getting served at a bus station lunch counter — I had unthinkingly plopped myself down at the black section and server and diners alike thought it best to keep their heads down rather than give me the heads up that I needed to move over.

Today, those segregated diners once relegated to the back of the bus have successfully battled for their civil rights, the US has a black president and the only fight being waged in today’s Alabama is for the tourist dollar.

In particular, this green state which epitomises the Deep South boasts a fine coastline giving neighbouring Florida a run for its money.

Sweet Home Alabama — as the state marketing people have decided to rename it — offers an intriguing mix of history and hedonism, and nowhere more so than Mobile, a laid-back yet vibrant city on the Gulf coast which lays claim to a host of landmark events.

Here, mardi gras was first celebrated a century before it reached New Orleans, the last slave ship to dock in a US port is said to have landed there, and debutantes in pink dresses continue to be a fixture of the social scene.

As in New Orleans, Mardi gras — which falls in the middle of February next year — features nightly parades with elaborate floats and brass marching bands. But unique to Mobile is the astonishing costuming of the festival kings and queens, with huge, elaborate trains which cost tens of thousands to embroider and personalise, only to be discarded and created all over again for the following year.

These fantastic creations mostly end up in the excellent Carnival Museum, which tells how mardi gras has developed in the city over three centuries and displays costumes and debutante ephemera in a lovely old mansion once owned by a Jewish merchant.

Not to be missed either is the town’s civic museum, which has an exhibit related to the last slave ship to arrive in the US, half a century after transporting Africans to America was banned. Elsewhere, husbands and sons will enjoy touring the battleship and World War II submarine of the USS Alabama, set in its own memorial park, along with 20 rare aircraft and a flight simulator.

But there’s much more to Mobile than museums; this compact town is awash with eclectic shops and restaurants, including the seafood dive Wintzell’s, for which the phrase “finger-licking-good” could have been invented.

This is the place to taste the fried green tomatoes for which the state is famous and an unlikely treat of pickled cucumber slices dipped in cornmeal and fried. Before or after dinner, tour LoDa — as Lower Dauphin Street is dubbed — to enjoy not just nightlife and galleries, but colonnaded French Quarter architecture punctuated with elegant squares.

To the east of Mobile lies Fairhope, an elegant little shopping town with a great casual eatery of its own in the Old Bay Steamer.

It’s a paradise for fashionistas with a penchant for the eclectic, who are recommended to check out Utopia (affordable new clothes with a vintage feel), 4Bags and Alla Mano. Those in search of branded designers may want to save their dollars for the nearby outlet mall at Foley, anchored by Ralph Lauren and Banana Republic.

The well-heeled are drawn to this eastern shore of Mobile Bay not just by shopping but by the presence of one of America’s great 19th century hotels, the Grand at Point Clear. It sits on 550 waterside acres incorporating tennis courts, golf courses and a huge pool. Previous guests include Lady Thatcher, Barbara Bush and Dolly Parton, and there is a cemetery for 300 unknown Confederate soldiers (the hotel was converted into a hospital during the American Civil War).

It’s vital to arrive before 4pm not to miss the tradition of firing a cannon out to sea at four in memory of servicemen past and present. After that people gather round the cosy, fireplace for tea — though it’s vital to save appetite for dinner in the grand dining-room. And for breakfast, too, which is served from a dozen silver chafing-dishes and includes southern delicacies like grits and biscuits.

Alabama’s best hotel, however, is surely the Grand’s sister, the 150-year-old Battle House, known as “Mobile’s living room” for its importance to the city’s upper crust social life. An unexpected treat for such a historic establishment is the new spa, where massage has been developed to a fine art, harnessing best practice from both east and west.

Attractions to the west of Mobile include the stately Bellingrath Gardens and 1930s mansion, while to the east lie miles of beautiful white sands and two quintessential beach bars. Lulu’s, a vast barn of a restaurant with tables on the water, is a hopping, family-friendly place with tasty salads, sandwiches and tropical drinks (Lucy, the owner, is the sister of singer Jimmy Buffett of Margaritaville fame). Florabama, on the other hand, is a real dive on the Florida stateline, with bras proudly displayed on a washing line and a raucous atmosphere, though the live music — a mix of rock and country — is great.

Given that a car is a must to get around Mobile Bay, it could also be used to visit the state capital, Montgomery, which has a fine civil rights centre, and the historic trail to Selma, along which vast plantation homes once made a striking juxtaposition to the marches against segregation. Golfers may also want to follow one of America’s most famous golf trails, the Robert Trent Jones, peppered with luxury hotels as well as several of America’s finest courses.

Birmingham, the state’s largest town, has resident theatre, ballet, symphony and chamber music ensembles as well as a plethora of art galleries and antique shops. Old rock’n’rollers may wish to make a pilgrimage to Sheffield in the north-west of the state to visit the Muscle Shoals studios where the Rolling Stones once recorded. The town also has a charming art deco cinema.

A word about timing: the Alabama coast has suffered its share of catastrophic storm damage, so plan visits before or after the hurricane season (June to November) which affects the shoreline only. But the upside is that winter sun is positively guaranteed.

Travel facts
Go America (0800 316 0194; www.goamerica.co.uk) has return flights to Mobile from £439. Holiday Autos www.holidayautos.co.uk (0871 472 5229)offers a week’s car hire from Mobile or New Orleans airports from £143 per week. Double rooms at the Grand Hotel Marriott (00800 19271927; www.marriottgrand.com) from about £120; at the Battle House Renaissance (001 251 338 2000; www.battlehousemobile.com) from about £115. Information at: www.touralabama.org; 020 8339 6122

Jewish Alabama
● Jews arrived in Mobile in 1765. It has two synagogues including the beautiful Springhill Avenue Temple which grew out of the original community, one of America’s oldest.
● The largest community is in Birmingham, with four shuls, and there is another in Montgomery.
● In the town of Dothan, a $50,000 reward is being offered to Jews who take out synagogue membership and stay at least five years.
● One couple praises Jewish life in the bible belt via a weekly podcast, www.jewsinalabama.com.

    Last updated: 12:22pm, July 20 2009