No, there are no unicorns in Fairhope, but there is a pelican that hangs out at the Fairhope Pier and tries to steal fish from everyone fishing there. While other pelicans are diving face-first in to waters of Mobile Bay to catch fish – a sight to see in its own right – Henry, the name the guy fishing with a net called the pelican, waits for other people to catch fish and just give them to him.
Fairhope is a small town situated on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. The skyline of the City of Mobile can be seen across the bay, but this little town has, mostly, been spared from commercialism – or at least city leaders have been able to keep the historic district historic, and the business district out on Highway 98, away from the history.
We went to Fairhope for a long weekend earlier this month. It was our second trip there, our first was about 15 years ago. As with our previous trip, we stayed at the Grand Hotel at Point Clear. The Grand dates back to 1847 and, like most buildings that old, has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times. The Grand served as a hospital during the Civil War, or the War of Northern Aggression if that’s the way you learned it.
You know, if we could set aside our need to be right about everything, hearing how people who grew up in different parts of the country were taught American history is fascinating. There is truth in all of our history lessons, but we’ve turned in to a society that can’t have a civil debate without applying labels. But I digress.
When the Union Army blockaded strategic ports in the south to stop the flow of goods to the Confederate troops, they blockaded Mobile Bay – and The Grand was there to see it. You can stand on the point of the resort (the point at Point Clear) and imagine ships patrolling the bay, with volleys of cannon fire from ship to shore and back again – or at least I tried to. The Grand also served as an Air Force training facility during War World II, and the firing of the cannon is a daily ceremony at The Grand that pays tribute to the property’s military history and serves as a salute to veterans and active military. (The cannon is LOUD, by the way.)
Situated on the bay, the beach area isn’t the white, sugary sand that you get with gulf coast beaches. Those beaches begin about 30 miles further south and to the east. The beach at The Grand is made of a pebbly, tan sand that reminded me of the beaches in Delaware. The bay doesn’t have the surf of the ocean, however, so The Grand is able to offer paddle boats, kayaks and sailboats for use, which is pretty cool. We didn’t spend much time on the sand this trip because someone was having one of her “I don’t like sand” moments, so we retreated to the pool.
Having an excellent pool has become a staple of the Marriott resorts that string through Alabama as part of the Robert Trent Jones Trail, and the pool at The Grand is no exception. Complete with a slide, waterfall, zero-entry area, hot tub, splash pad and sprinklers, the pool was the favorite location for our kids.
When we were able to get the kids out of the pool, it was a short drive to Downtown Fairhope where we shopped at Running Wild, an awesome running store, and visited Page & Palette, a great little bookstore, and generally tried to avoid the hottest part of the day.
In what was a disappointing food trip, Panini Pete’s, as seen on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, was the unanimous choice for best meal of the trip. This is a funky little joint situated in the French Quarter area of downtown Fairhope. We ate breakfast paninis and beignets to start our day, and loved it so much we decided to go back for lunch the next day. Unfortunately, a summer storm blew-up when we went back for lunch and the kitchen wasn’t able to activate the ventilation system. I didn’t pry, but I assume that rain would have come in to the vents, so they were unable to create any menu item that had to be grilled or fried. That was kind of a bummer because Jack, always on the search for the world’s best cheeseburger, and Layne weren’t really interested in the lunch panini offerings. But, we’ll be back.
The other dining highlight was the Original Oyster House, located on the causeway that connects the towns of the eastern shore to Mobile. The food was just okay, but lining the walls are photos and newspaper clippings showing the restaurant under water after each hurricane. Ivan, Charlie, Dennis, Katrina, and others took their shot at the Original Oyster House, and each time the owners rebuilt and reopened. Such is life along the gulf coast. The best thing that we ate was the fried alligator, followed closely by the gumbo. Actually, the best thing that we ate was the Gator Sauce, which was good on the gator, chicken, shrimp, gumbo and the plain saltine crackers. I may have accidentally got some on a spoon and ate it straight.
On the western end of the causeway sits the USS Alabama, the attraction that started our planning of a trip to Mobile Bay. In an odd turn of events, we actually didn’t make it to the battleship on this trip, but we had a great time in a great city and we will definitely be back soon. I would be remiss to not thank our unofficial tour guide, my cousin Donna who lives on the eastern shore and who I don’t see often enough. She made sure that we vacationed like locals, and for that I am truly grateful.
If you’re looking for a less beachy beach vacation, give Fairhope a look. You won’t be disappointed, unless it’s raining and Panini Pete’s can’t make you a burger.