Along the eastern shoreline of Alabama's Mobile Bay, pristine wooden piers run parallel to weathered pilings. These skeletal remnants, now roosts for pelicans, once resembled their intact neighbors. A couple of blocks from the water, the main drag of Old Towne Daphne manifests the same haunting blend of present and past.
"Somebody came into the bar recently and said, 'I haven't been here in 20 years and nothing's changed,'" recalls longtime resident Gwen Manci. "I replied, 'Look closer. I'm older.' " At Manci's Antique Club, folks sip Bloody Marys while discussing the latest Mardi Gras parade or Jubilee (a regional phenomenon during which marine life rushes to the beach).
Daphne, dating to 1763 (when it was commonly known as "The Village"), retains a small-town feel. Spanish moss-draped oaks shade quiet streets where preteens skateboard beside jogging parents. The scent of gardenia drifts on bay breezes through cozy neighborhoods. In the town's center, homes of yesteryear have been converted into distinctive cafès and boutiques.
This community became a resort destination for Mobile and New Orleans residents prior to the Civil War. Wealthy families flocked to the area's elegant hotels, one of which currently houses Bayside Academy prep school. In the early 1900s, Italian families settled here and brought their tradition of great food and wine. This rich cultural heritage and Southern hospitality continue to draw newcomers.
"Be careful," says Susan Daniels, owner of Bay Coffee Company, as she helps a girl balance hot cocoa and an icing-swirled cinnamon roll. "See, I treat you like my own child." Nearby, a little boy presses his face against the glass-front case full of croissants and muffins.
"One thing I really like about Daphne is that my customers become friends," Susan says. "We play bunco together and watch each other's kids play football." In fact, she can name only one drawback of this tight-knit burg: "Even if you're just going to Wal-Mart, don't think you're going in without makeup, because you will definitely run into someone you know."
Brian Banta and John Cauley, who own a chic jewelry store in Daphne, moved here two and a half years ago. "I left L.A. and South Beach because I missed Southern charm," says John. "This is a hometown, not a tourist destination." Though residents only a short time, they already feel like emissaries. "When people come from out of town," says John, "we just welcome them into our little circle."
That circle has widened to include many young families and active retirees. With a growing population, the area has added the new city Bayfront Park, civic center, and recreation facility to its already scenic streetscape. In the works: a fountain in front of city hall that features a bronze Daphne, a nymph in Greek mythology. By honoring its past, Daphne looks forward to a classically beautiful future.