Mobile, Alabama: A city that’s “born to celebrate”
By Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca
MOBILE, ALABAMA. – It was called the “Paris of the Confederacy” and the “Southern Buenos Aires”. It was a city that was ruled under seven flags through its more than 300-year history. It was a city where container shipping was born and whose port and shipyards played an integral part in the successful Allied war effort during World War II. And it’s a city where 14 of its districts are officially registered as national historic sites.
But mostly, Mobile, Alabama is known as a city that is “born to celebrate”.
And the moment you arrive in the Azalea City, which is located on the banks of Mobile Bay on the south western tip of Alabama’s Gulf Coast region, you can’t help but notice that celebratory spirit that envelopes the city throughout the year, which was quite evident during a recent press tour that I took to Mobile.
Perhaps the city’s greatest claim to fame is its association with Mardi Gras. Although New Orleans usually comes to mind when you first hear about Mardi Gras, Mobile has a historical claim to this festive celebration. In fact, Mobile was the first city in North America to celebrate Mardi Gras, with its first carnival taking place back in 1703. With the exception of a five-year hiatus because of the Civil War, Mardi Gras is a major part of Mobile’s cultural scene, with a total of 39 parades taking place throughout the city during a two-and-half-week period, and a wide assortment of related festivities and events that are hosted by 72 different mystical organizations between January 6 and Ash Wednesday.
When I arrived in Mobile (which was in late February of this year), the Mardi Gras celebrations had already concluded, but there were still remnants of the revelry throughout the city, from the countless strings of beads that were thrown at revellers during its many parades that were found hanging on tree branches and its trademark ironwork balcony railings, and the giant MoonPie that is always dropped to signal the beginning of each parade.
Another permanent aspect of celebrating Mobile’s Mardi Gras legacy is the Mobile Carnival Museum (www.mobilecarnivalmuseum.com). Housed in a former mansion on Government Street, the museum has 14 galleries that showcase every part of Mobile Mardi Gras and its very rich history, from why participants throw MoonPies and beads (and spend thousands of dollars on these “throws” every year), to the legend of Joe Cain (who revived the Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile back in 1866), to why fire trucks symbolize the end of the annual festivities.
But what was so impressive about the museum (which is also available for rent for special events and celebrations), are the displays of the elaborate and intricately designed costumes that were worn by participants on the parade floats or during many Mardi Gras balls and parties that take place (some cost as much as $100,000 and are thematic in nature, whether they celebrate an aspect of the city’s or state’s history, or even the University of Alabama Crimson Tide football team).
Another aspect of Mobile that is well celebrated is their pride of being part of the Gulf Coast region, which they share with the states of Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. And this regional pride is strongly exhibited at GulfQuest, (www.gulfquest.org), a 120,000 square foot museum located on the riverfront of downtown Mobile, which is the only maritime museum in the world that is dedicated to the Gulf of Mexico’s history and culture.
Shaped like a typical container ship that’s exclusive to Mobile, GulfQuest, which officially opened last September, attracts between 200 and 700 visitors a day to its 90 mostly interactive exhibits. Visitors get the chance not only to immerse themselves in the region’s history and its geographic beauty, but also experience what it’s like to live and work along the Gulf Coast in a highly interactive manner. And the interior of the museum is also a faithful reproduction of the eight levels that make up a Mobile container ship, complete with piped in maritime sound effects, stacks of shipping containers and surrounded by 50,000 gallons of water.
After experiencing the magic that is the GulfQuest museum, there are several exhibits that I highly recommend: the two simulators that give you an idea of what it’s like to endure a Gulf Coast hurricane storm; the Discovery Hull Theatre, and its eight-minute film “Port of Victory”, which effectively takes you back to the time when Mobile was an important shipping and shipbuilding hub during World War II (and the sound effects, lighting and fog really add to recapturing the atmosphere of this crucial period in the city’s history); the GulfQuest Theatre, which
features “The Gulf Coast: A Place Like No Other”, a 16-minute three-screen multi-media presentation that focuses on the beauty of the Gulf Coast, and the people from the five states who make this area their home and place of business; the “Hunley”, in which visitors travel back to the Civil War and get to experience the story of the Mobile-built Confederate submarine (and its rather cramped, confined surroundings), which became the first ever submarine to destroy an enemy warship; and “Take the Helm”, an incredible simulator exhibit, where you get the chance to pilot your choice of marine vessel (civilian, container ship or Coast Guard) through either the Port of Mobile, Mobile Bay or the Tombigbee River through six different scenarios. I got the opportunity to try out this simulator (which is actually used to train professional boat pilots), as I helmed a Coast Guard vessel during a stormy night patrol on Mobile Bay, and speaking from a former technical editor who edited marine systems proposals and manuals, operating one of these simulators for the first time proved to be quite an adventure.
Mobile also celebrates its unique artistic heritage with the Alabama Contemporary Art Center (www.alabamacontemporary.com). Located in the downtown area’s Cathedral Square, the museum is situated in the former facilities of the city’s daily newspaper the Mobile Press-Register, and although the museum makes good use of its 8000-square feet of space, somehow you still see traces of the building’s journalistic past. The museum’s mission is to showcase the works of contemporary artists from across the city, region and country that relate to issues and concerns that affect the Gulf Coast area. During our visit, the featured exhibition was called “History Refused to Die”, and displayed a large variety of works by African-American artists from the area that were literal and symbolic in nature, and showed the strong legacy of modern African-American art in the United States.
It was during our time at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center that we got a surprise visit from William S. Stimpson, the Mayor of Mobile. He told the group of journalists and travel writers who were gathered at the museum about the city’s efforts to revitalize Mobile and its downtown core as an ideal tourist and business destination, not to mention its “Born to Celebrate” rebranding campaign.
“It’s like a blank canvas, and the canvas is ready for an upgrade,” said Mayor Stimpson. “It’s our vision to make Mobile the ideal city for business, families and tourists by 2020.”
…And now a few words about the food: you can’t experience a certain city or region without getting a taste of what the local cuisine has to offer. And Mobile has its share of delicious fare that’s unique to the Gulf Coast region. First, there’s Dauphin’s, a restaurant that recently opened its doors, and is located on top of the RSA Trustmark Building in the heart of downtown Mobile. It offers a menu of delicious dishes that are exclusive to the Gulf Coast, as well as items that are inspired by Creole and soul recipes. This luxurious restaurant, which offers a spectacular bird’s eye view of the city, is owned by former NFL player Bob Baumhower, who proved to be a perfect, genial host, as he shared some great stories with us about his career in the NFL during the 70s During our dinner there, we were treated to such excellent southern dishes as fried green tomatoes, gumbo z’herb and pecan encrusted fish.
Finally, continuing on the seafood angle, we enjoyed another memorable dinner at Wintzell’s Oyster House, a Mobile dining institution since 1938. With six locations across the region (we settled at its downtown location on Dauphin Street), Wintzell’s is a wonderful dining experience, and will give you a new appreciation for seafood (especially if you’re not a regular seafood eater, like myself). With its walls crammed with memorabilia, autographed celebrity photos and assorted whimsical sayings by Mr. Wintzell himself, the restaurant offers a vast menu of southern and Gulf Coast seafood dishes, including their signature oysters, which are served “fried, stewed or nude” (and are delicious all three ways).
* * *
For more information about visiting Mobile, Alabama and what it has to offer tourists, contact the Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-5-MOBILE (toll-free), or visit their website at www.mobile.org.