One of the things I love most about traveling is returning home with a discovery, and I'm here to say that the historic, gracious, and utterly fun-loving Gulf city of Mobile, Alabama, is one of my all-time best discoveries. And being the home of a full-press, family-friendly, nonstop multiweek Mardi Gras celebration is just the beginning.
So let's get counting. Here are seven (actually, way more) things I love about Mobile.
#1 Mardi Gras.
Last spring, during my first visit to Mobile, I spent a sunny Saturday afternoon hanging out with a number of locals (see gracious, above) who extolled the virtues of their hometown Mardi Gras. "It's family-friendly," they told me, "and it's every bit as big as New Orleans!" I pictured a few quaint floats rolling down the main street. I returned for this year's Mardi Gras and realized how very, very wrong I'd been. Thirty-nine full-blown Mardi Gras parades roll through the historic streets of Mobile over the course of a little more than two weeks, with marching bands, big floats, horseback riders, and lots and lots (and lots!) of throws (beads, yes, but also Moon Pies, the hometown confection).
(I snagged all these awesome parade views from my digs at The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa, right on the main parade route.)
And when I say they throw, they throw:
" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>
And then this happened...
In divine contrast, a series of formal balls are held throughout the city, and I was lucky enough to attend one of the oldest, hosted by The Mystics of Time.
So I donned a gown (no ankles can show at the MOT Ball!), felt all Cinderella, and met all kinds of lovely folks who shared bonhomie with me, not to mention sharing how much they love their city. And I believed every one of them.
#2 Joe Cain Day (Mardi Gras, Part II).
This is Mobile's personal, idiosyncratic people's day that is in many ways the climax of Mardi Gras season (although it happens on the Sunday before Mardi Gras Day). Named for the colorful renegade icon who is credited with launching the modern people's parade right after the Civil War, Joe Cain Day is filled with revelry of every kind, and has a kaleidoscopic diversity and high-spirited sensibility that's utterly infectious.
This is Joe's grave site in Mobile, with a little MG finery:
And this is Joe's former house, which is in the gorgeous, historic neighborhood of Oakleigh. It's a private home, but the owner graciously allows visitors to make mini-pilgrimages, including a Joe Cain Day collection of "widows" who amass on his front porch and toast their dear, departed "husband."
So Joe Cain Day has widows, a beloved local who dresses up as Joe—who himself started the whole thing by dressing up as Slacabamorinico, a fictional Chickasaw chief (are you keeping this straight?)—and, most of all, a parade. The Joe Cain Day Procession, as it's called, is Mobile unfurled in all its quirky glory. A counterpoint to the society-run parades, this is the people's parade, beloved for its inclusive quality, and in which I was very lucky to be a guest parader, with a krewe of saucy, irresistible pirates, including these folks:
Here's a glimpse of all of us getting ready to march:
" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>
Let's just say my pirate beads are hanging on my wall in my office, along with a strand from one of Joe's widows, plus a strand with Joe's head(s). Some serious Joe Cain Procession shrining going on, and I'm already marking my calendar for next year.
#3 Dauphin Street.
This is Mobile's little sister to New Orleans's Frenchmen Street, and it's a blast. Honky-tonk bars keep company with fashion-forward restaurants, an independent movie house, and a killer bookstore. Pedestrian good times ensue, all hours of day and night.
#4 Restaurant life.
Every time I go back to Mobile, there's a new restaurant upping the culinary game. On my first visit, I loved the updated take on Southern cuisine at The Noble South—this plate blew me away with its assemblage of duck confit, lima beans, and white barbecue sauce with duck fat biscuits. I repeat: Duck. Fat. Biscuits.
This time, I fell in love twice. First, with Dauphin's, a sophisticated redo of a private club on the top floor of a downtown skyscraper (with sweeping views of the city, riverfront, and Gulf beyond), and with Saisho, a Japanese gastropub with a drop-dead cocktail menu and truly innovative take on modern American fare, with Asian inspirations. Look out, Charleston.
#5 Bar life.
In one evening, here's what I can do in downtown Mobile: I can open with a super-crafted cocktail at the fabulous (and recently opened) Merry Widow (Mardi Gras to-go sensibility is hiding a beautiful Goat Island Ice Tea (peach black tea–infused Wild Turkey 81, angostura bitters, and rich mint syrup) ...
... and then I can saunter a few blocks to Loda Bier Garten, a true bar-lover's destination. Great (and vast) selection of drafts, ridiculously good hamburgers (they were putting out a special Moon Pie burger during Mardi Gras), and supremely good retro music on tap (Grateful Dead, you're never far from my heart). Then, of course, there's the redoubtable Callaghan's Irish Social Club, a landmark dive that has launched and supported many of the South's best musicians.
One of the Gulf Coast's oldest establishments (it was founded as the capital of colonial French Louisiana in 1702), this city is straight-up historic. Not only does the downtown feature beautiful commercial architecture, but Mobile is home to stunning small neighborhoods with a wealth of historic homes. De Tonti Square Historic District is a mini-Garden District straight out of New Orleans, while Oakleigh could be Savannah, with its verdant squares (like this one, below). (I'd move here in a heartbeat, if Coastal Living would allow me to commute.)
It's an embarrassment of riches, people. We're talking museums here devoted to art, science, Mardi Gras, history ... and, most recently, the jaw-dropping GulfQuest, the National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico. Right on Mobile's riverfront, this supremely interactive museum explores all aspects of life, commerce and culture on the Gulf. I spent two hours, and I should have planned two days. It's that rich. (And yes, there's a container ship inside the museum. You have to see it to believe it.)
Which returns me to the whole beautiful "problem" of Mobile. Every time I go, I reluctantly leave with a stack of things I haven't yet done, restaurants I haven't yet visited, and perhaps most of all, people I just met and want to spend more time with. It's that place that just keeps drawing you back. In other words, I'll see you there.
Love to discover new places?