MOBILE, Ala. - Though it has some of the best public golf available anywhere in the country, this historic port city of 200,000 has plenty more for visitors besides greens and fairways.
Founded more than three centuries ago, Mobile is steeped in tradition, but because it's been an international seaport for hundreds of years, it's also more cosmopolitan and hip than anyplace in Alabama - and in the entire Gulf Coast region, except for a little place to the west called New Orleans.
And speaking of the Big Easy, though its wild and wooly Mardi Gras celebration grabs much of the world's attention, the annual party originated right here in Mobile, in 1703, several years before New Orleans adopted the celebration. Mobile's version is considered more family-friendly.
The Mobile Carnival Museum, which is open year-round, displays the jeweled crowns, lavish robes, and intricate gowns worn by Mardi Gras royalty for 300 years. Guides explain the mystic societies that run the annual street party, and visitors can climb onto a rocking float and toss "moon pies" into the crowd.
Among the other must-sees in Mobile:
•Bellingrath Gardens is one of the South's top horticultural attractions. The 65-acre garden estate's winding paths are lined with azaleas, Easter lilies, mums, marigolds, geraniums, and lots more. A 75-year-old, 15-room mansion, with its "ultra-modern 1935 bathroom," is open to visitors.
•The USS Alabama Memorial Park features a 42,000-ton, World War II-era battleship and a WW II submarine, both of which are open for self-tours.
•The Gulf Coast Exploreum science center, where full-scale interactive labs allow visitors to learn about the body and perform virtual heart-bypass surgery.
•The 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center has 250,000 acres of waterways, wetlands, and woods for canoeing, kayaking, airboating, and pontoon safaris.
•Fort Gaines is famous for the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay and Admiral David Farragut's command, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" Costumed rangers demonstrate how soldiers lived and fought centuries ago.
•Alligator Alley's 20 acres of cypress swamp is home to more than 150 gators, and a boardwalk lets visitors safely observe them eating, mating, and nesting. The star of the show is Captain Crunch, a 13-foot-long, 800-pound monster whose nearly 3,000-pound bite is the strongest ever recorded by an alligator. Brave souls can even hold some of the young gators.
The dining options in Mobile are endless, and much of the cuisine revolves around seafood and traditional southern fare. At Wintzell's Oyster House, the little mollusks are served "fried, stewed, or nude," while the Shed BBQ and Blues Joint has baby-back ribs, pulled pork, and chicken, served up in dripping Styrofoam boxes. Good thing there are big rolls of paper towels on all the tables.
Tops among the off-the-beaten-path places are Callaghan's Irish Social Club, a friendly neighborhood pub known for its live entertainment and bacon cheeseburgers; and Cream & Sugar, which features gourmet desserts served with champagne.