Courtland W. Richards

This "sweet home Alabama" town charms new arrivals with its peaceful bayfront and lively locals.

By Sarah Brueggemann

Along the eastern shoreline of Alabama's Mobile Bay, pristinewooden piers run parallel to weathered pilings. These skeletalremnants, now roosts for pelicans, once resembled their intactneighbors. A couple of blocks from the water, the main drag of OldTowne Daphne manifests the same haunting blend of present andpast.

"Somebody came into the bar recently and said, 'I haven't beenhere in 20 years and nothing's changed,'" recalls longtime residentGwen Manci. "I replied, 'Look closer. I'm older.' " At Manci'sAntique Club, folks sip Bloody Marys while discussing the latestMardi Gras parade or Jubilee (a regional phenomenon during whichmarine life rushes to the beach).

Daphne, dating to 1763 (when it was commonly known as "TheVillage"), retains a small-town feel. Spanish moss-draped oaksshade quiet streets where preteens skateboard beside joggingparents. The scent of gardenia drifts on bay breezes through cozyneighborhoods. In the town's center, homes of yesteryear have beenconverted into distinctive cafès and boutiques.

This community became a resort destination for Mobile and NewOrleans residents prior to the Civil War. Wealthy families flockedto the area's elegant hotels, one of which currently houses BaysideAcademy prep school. In the early 1900s, Italian families settledhere and brought their tradition of great food and wine. This richcultural heritage and Southern hospitality continue to drawnewcomers.

"Be careful," says Susan Daniels, owner of Bay Coffee Company,as she helps a girl balance hot cocoa and an icing-swirled cinnamonroll. "See, I treat you like my own child." Nearby, a little boypresses his face against the glass-front case full of croissantsand muffins.

"One thing I really like about Daphne is that my customersbecome friends," Susan says. "We play bunco together and watch eachother's kids play football." In fact, she can name only onedrawback of this tight-knit burg: "Even if you're just going toWal-Mart, don't think you're going in without makeup, because youwill definitely run into someone you know."

Brian Banta and John Cauley, who own a chic jewelry store inDaphne, moved here two and a half years ago. "I left L.A. and SouthBeach because I missed Southern charm," says John. "This is ahometown, not a tourist destination." Though residents only a shorttime, they already feel like emissaries. "When people come from outof town," says John, "we just welcome them into our littlecircle."

That circle has widened to include many young families andactive retirees. With a growing population, the area has added thenew city Bayfront Park, civic center, and recreation facility toits already scenic streetscape. In the works: a fountain in frontof city hall that features a bronze Daphne, a nymph in Greekmythology. By honoring its past, Daphne looks forward to aclassically beautiful future.

(published 2004)

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