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Published: Sunday, 2/18/2007

Mobile, Alabama: Surprise in the South


MOBILE, Ala. It was early Saturday evening, and we were people-watching in the spacious second-floor lobby of our hotel, the downtown Riverview Plaza.

Groups of women wore classic black tuxedos with long tailcoats, and there were several men in white tie and tails as well. But a number of the men made quite a different fashion statement, strolling through the lobby in colorful sequined frocks. One burly guy with a full red beard strained the seams of his glittery blue gown, and through the gauzy shawl that was draped across his shoulders we could see a big tattoo of a butterfly on his ample upper arm.

Elsewhere in the lobby stood knots of strapping young men wearing sweatshirts and ball caps from major colleges across the country. They, too, couldn t help but stare at the colorful passing parade some maybe a little too openly.

Hey, there, Bubba, like whatcha see? inquired one of the sequin-clad gentlemen, a cigarette holder hanging loosely from the corner of his brightly painted lips.

The moment provided a revealing snapshot of this historic port city of 200,000 people that s tucked into the southwest corner of Alabama, not far from the Gulf of Mexico. The state s oldest city and its only seaport, Mobile is not the kind of place you d expect to find in the Deep South.

And that s the way the folks here like it.

We don t even market Mobile as part of Alabama, said Landon Howard, vice president of the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. We market it as part of the Gulf Coast.

As for that peculiar scene in our hotel lobby, the gaily dressed folks were on their way to the annual Osiris Ball, being held that night across the street at the city s glittery new convention center. Each year, the invitation-only party for gays, lesbians, and all manner of free spirits is the unofficial preamble to the city s biggest event, its 2 -week Mardi Gras celebration, which this year runs Feb. 2-20. (See accompanying story.)

And the young jocks were some of the 100 or so college football players in Mobile for the Senior Bowl, an All-Star game played here each winter to showcase top NFL prospects. The players were in early for the all-important workouts, where coaches from every professional team would be watching closely and taking note of possible selections in the league s April draft.

Mobile (that s Moe-BEEL, by the way, not MOE-beel, according to the locals) might be one of the more surprising cities in the South, and it s definitely one of the most delightful. It s got all the tradition you d expect from a community that predates the formation of the United States, but because it s been an international port for centuries, it s both cosmopolitan and hip.

Since its founding more than three centuries ago as the first capital of French colonial Louisiana, Mobile has spent time under the flags of both Britain and Spain before being seized for good by the U.S. in 1813. During the 1800s, it became one of the busiest port cities in the country, a major shipping point for cotton and other raw materials.

The city played a key role for the Confederacy during the Civil War, producing the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel in combat. It was also the scene of a major naval battle in 1864 during which a Union commander was said to have uttered the famous line: Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Mobile s shipyards churned out impressive numbers of naval vessels for World War II, and a major military air base here was the area s biggest employer until the mid- 60s, when its closing signaled the beginning of a downward spiral in the local economy.

During the 1990s, as casinos in nearby Mississippi raked in millions in tax revenues, Mobile saw none of that growth. Gambling was, and still is, illegal in Alabama, except for Indian reservations.

In recent years, however, Mobile s fortunes have been turning around. The city has revitalized much of its economy, relying on growing industries such as shipbuilding, aerospace, health research, and, more recently, tourism. And it s still a busy port city. With one of the largest deepwater ports in the country, it handles upwards of 50 million tons of cargo a year.

Since 2004, Mobile has also been the home port of Carnival Cruise Line s 1,450-passenger Holiday, which makes year-round 4 and 5-day trips to Cozumel and the Western Caribbean.

A big part of the financing for the city s resurgence has come from the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the pension fund for state employees and teachers. RSA has pumped more than $300 million into a six-block area of Mobile s downtown, paying for the new cruise ship terminal, a $32 million facelift at the Riverview Plaza, and the $200 million restoration of the historic Battle House Hotel.

The beautifully restored hotel is scheduled to reopen within the next few months, and an adjoining office tower will be the tallest office building on the Gulf Coast this side of Houston.

Hurricanes have been an unpleasant fact of life along the Gulf Coast, but Mobile has been largely spared from the worst effects of high winds and flooding. The city is 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, sheltered by Mobile Bay, and it s nearly 20 feet above sea level. Even 2005 s deadly Hurricane Katrina dealt Mobile only a glancing blow. Although parts of the city incurred damage, reconstruction left the city in better shape than it had been before the storm.

One local attraction that didn t fare so well was the USS Alabama, a 42,000-ton, World War II-era battleship that is the centerpiece of a memorial park just off the causeway that crosses Mobile Bay. Also on display there is a WW II submarine, the USS Drum, and dozens of retired combat aircraft. Brought to Mobile in the mid- 60s, the Mighty A has attracted more than 12 million visitors to the memorial park.

But the ship, and the rest of the park, were closed after Katrina s surge lifted the 84 million-pound vessel off of its moorings and plopped it back down in the mud of Mobile Bay. The damage to the ship and other parts of the park was estimated at $7 million.

The park reopened last year, and both the Alabama (surprisingly spacious, even the crew s bunks) and the Drum (surprisingly cramped) are once again open for self-guided tours.

There are lots of other links to military history in Mobile, including Fort Conde, a replica of the original 18th century French fort where the city began. It s located right in the middle of downtown, and houses a city welcome center and costumed tour guides. It s a good first stop for visitors to Mobile, with free maps and brochures of local attractions.

There s also Fort Gaines, a five-sided rampart on nearby Dauphin Island, where a costumed ranger will fire a cannon if you ask him nicely. But if you value your eardrums, have somebody else take the picture while you plug your ears, because the cannon is really loud.

Many of the city s boulevards are lined with oak trees draped with Spanish moss, and walking tours pass by antebellum mansions, handsome Queen Anne Victorians, and stately Federal town homes. Some of the buildings downtown have balconies like those in New Orleans, lined with ornate ironwork.

Like many cities of its size, Mobile s downtown has its share of boarded-up storefronts, and some sidewalks with weeds poking through the cracks, the lingering signs of a once-depressed economy. But the city encourages use of the downtown with free electric trolley service, and volunteers are usually available to help people with stalled cars, give directions, or even serve as escorts.

Several museums are scattered around the city. Among the best:

wThe Exploreum Science Center, whose current exhibit, A Day in Pompeii, features items that were buried under 30 feet of volcanic ash for 17 centuries. There also are body casts of some of the volcano s victims caught in their final moments of life. (The exhibit is here until June 3).

wMobile Museum of Art, with exhibits of Linda McCartney s candid photos of 60s rock stars, and photos by Ansel Adams (both until April 15).

wMuseum of Mobile, with an emotionally charged exhibit on the transatlantic slave trade (until Sept. 2).

wThe Estuarium, part of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a marine education and research center that studies the ecosystems of coastal Alabama.

wMobile Carnival Museum, where masks, crowns, scepters, floats, and other Mardi Gras paraphernalia celebrate the oldest celebration of the annual carnival in North America.

For outdoor lovers, there are plenty of opportunities nearby for hiking, fishing, boating, birding, and other activities. A new facility called 5 Rivers is a gateway to 250,000 acres of waterways, woods, and wetlands. It even has four floating camping platforms that can be used by boaters.

Just outside the city is one of the South s top horticultural attractions, the 65-acre Bellingrath Gardens, where azaleas, camellias, lilies, mums, roses, and other flowers bloom year-round, and visitors can poke around in a 70-year-old English Renaissance mansion full of original furnishings, including the world s largest collection of Boehm porcelain china.

The city also prides itself on its culinary offerings. One of the oldest and most famous places in town is Wintzell s Oyster House, a casual joint where it s hard to look away from the thousands of silly signs plastered all over the walls ( Alcohol and gas do mix, but they taste terrible, says one.) long enough to enjoy the oysters, which are served up fried, stewed, or nude.

Other top choices include 219, a gourmet downtown sandwich shop; Felix s Fish Camp, which has a spectacular view of the bay; and the Original Oyster House, which was rebuilt after being leveled by Katrina in 2005. Many of the restaurants in town feature an unusual concoction called West Indies salad, made from crabmeat, grated onions, oil, and vinegar.

Mobile has also become a noteworthy golfing destination. With dozens of courses nearby, Golf Digest magazine places Mobile in its Top 10 areas in the country for year-round golf. One of its best courses is Magnolia Grove, the southernmost stop on the famous Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a collection of 10 championship-caliber clubs across Alabama. (The Golf Trail, too, was financed by the state retirement system.)

Another sport that will figure prominently in Mobile s future is auto racing. A former four-term mayor of Mobile, Mike Dow, is heading an investment group that s working to bring a $600 million racing and entertainment complex to the area.The motorsports portion of the complex will be the first anywhere in the world to include four different types of racetracks: a 7/10-mile lighted oval, a 3/8-mile dirt track, a 3 -mile road course, and a quarter-mile dragstrip.

The complex will also include hotels, restaurants, a 5,000-space RV park, four music halls like those found in Branson, Mo.; a water park or theme park, and a 7,000-seat arena. Construction is scheduled to start next year.

Besides Mardi Gras, Mobile maintains an almost continuous lineup of festivals throughout the year BirdFest, Mum Fest, Greek Fest, Pecan Fest, Jazz Fest, Beer Fest but none is bigger than its annual BayFest in October, which has featured such entertainers as B.B. King, Al Green, 3 Doors Down, Patti LaBelle, and Taylor Hicks.

There s no denying that Mobile has come a long way from its days as a tiny French colonial settlement, and local officials are optimistic that it s on the verge of becoming a big-time tourist destination.

This is a great coastal community, said Leon Maisel, president of the Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. We re of the same genre as Savannah and Charleston. Now it s our time to be known.

Mike Kelly is a retired Blade travel writer. Contact him at kelly.writer@yahoo.com.

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