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Port Review: Mobile, Alabama

July 9-10 and 17-18, 2010

 

By Lisa Plotnick

 

On nearly every cruise, we make it a point to visit a place we had not been prior. For our July 2010 cruise on Carnival Elation, this new port was our embarkation city—Mobile, Alabama.

 

Knowing little about Mobile—I even learned later that I had been mispronouncing it for years—I set out to do some research. We planned two nights in Mobile—one pre-cruise, and one post-cruise.  We figured that this gave us time to explore historic downtown Mobile, visit the USS Alabama, and possibly take in a Bay Bears minor league baseball game at the Hank Aaron Stadium.

 

Yet, once we arrived, we were immediately enchanted with Mobile’s historic district, and opted to spend all of our time there.  Between a Dauphin Street Historic District Walking Tour map from Main Street Mobile (available in our hotel), the free moda! trolley system, and the advice of our hotel’s concierge and others we met along the way, we had a wonderful time on our first visit to this Southern city.

 

 

Hotel

 

Several months prior to the cruise, we made reservations for the Battle House Renaissance, located on the fringe of the historic district near the Convention Center. There are two Renaissance hotels in Mobile, roughly two blocks apart. We chose the Battle House, as I have a penchant for historic buildings. And, was I ever in for a treat.

 

The Battle House Renaissance consists of two buildings—the historic Battle House (built 1908 on the site of the original 1852 Battle House) and part of the modern RSA Tower Building (2007). The latter is the tallest building in Alabama, reaching 37 stories, with hotel rooms and meeting rooms on the first seven floors and offices above.

 

For our one-night pre-cruise stay, we were in a room on the fifth floor of the Tower, facing the Mobile River. The room was beautiful—dark woods evoking an older style, but modern amenities. The bathroom was a masterpiece, with separate tub and shower. The trash can was even lined with a doily! I liked how the designers and decorators gave a classic décor in the halls and rooms consistent with the rest of the hotel.

 

Post-cruise, we asked for a room in the historic building (for comparative purposes) and were given a lovely, large room on the seventh floor. The main room was a typical rectangle; a hallway led to the bathroom. The décor was similar to that of the room we had in the Tower. Even the carpeting in the hallway was the same, unifying these two distinct building styles and eras.

 

Either way, you can’t go wrong with the room, whether in the Tower or Historic Building. Keep in mind, however, that the Tower is a longer walk from the main entrance and lobby, if this is an issue.

Interestingly, part of our exploration of Mobile was touring the hotel.  The original Battle House opened in 1852, and hosted the first Mardi Gras Ball in the U.S. In 1905, the hotel burned, leaving nothing behind. It reopened in 1908, and operated until 1974. In 2002, plans to restore the building were approved, and it reopened, along with the new RSA Tower, in 2007. The restoration is, indeed, like stepping back in time. The lobby is extraordinary, and quite grand. The adjacent ballroom is lined with paintings depicting Mobile’s history. And, there is a lovely roof deck on the old building that offers a decent view of the city, facing west.

 

It’s pretty amazing when I’ve spent so much time writing about a hotel. This says a lot about its charm. I would, without hesitation, stay here again, for both its ambiance and location.

 

 

Touring

 

A main reason we enjoyed Mobile was its architecture, a mix of styles from the 19th to 21st centuries. Our first evening in Mobile, we capped off the evening with a post-dinner walk in the area around our hotel, and were completely enchanted. Within a block’s radius were several two- and three-story buildings with cast iron balconies (1870s), Mobile’s first skyscraper (1906, 11 stories), as well as modern office buildings and a convention center. Nearby was the beautiful Bienville Square and its lovely walkways and fountain. It was a pleasant way to start a vacation.

 

Most of our visit in Mobile took place post-cruise, when we had a full day to enjoy it. And we made the most of the day, mainly on foot, as Neil’s pedometer recorded nearly 3.5 miles.

 

Starting from our hotel (having checked in at around 10:00 am), we walked up Dauphin Street to catch the free moda! bus that loops around downtown. Our first stop was Forte Conde, a small-scale reproduction of an 18th century fort that once occupied the site. The original fort was built by the French, and was later in the hands of England, and then Spain, as each occupied Mobile. An on-site museum depicts the history of Mobile through photographs and artifacts. (The larger Museum of Mobile is across the street; we did not get the chance to visit.)

We had a nice conversation with the representatives at the Welcome Center adjacent to Forte Conde, who recommended Wintzell’s Oyster House for lunch.  It was some distance away, so we got back on the moda! bus, and the driver stopped directly in front of the restaurant to let us off. (See below for more detail on the meal.)

 

We then walked back along Dauphin Street admiring the various architectural styles. My favorite was the Crown Theatre (1909), now named Atlantis, as I loved its arches, windows, columns, large crowns atop, and the lion faces on the façade.

 

Cathedral Square, a fairly new park (1979) was serene and pretty, anchored by the gorgeous Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (1849-1895). After a stop in Bienville Books (used and new), we returned to our hotel, before heading out again for dinner and another stroll around the historic downtown.

 

 

Dining

 

Our first two meals in Mobile were taken at our hotel. On Friday, after checking in, we went to Joe Cain Café, inside the hotel, where the three of us shared a cheese pizza, peach cake (like a bread pudding), and peach ice cream. We enjoyed the food and the ambiance, and were also pleasantly surprised by the low expense.

 

The following morning, we had a great buffet breakfast in the beautiful Trellis Room just off the lobby. This room was also stunning and evoked an earlier time.  The buffet was small in size, yet large in variety and flavor. I especially enjoyed the grits, biscuit and gravy—we can’t find these too easily in the Northeast.

 

When we returned to Mobile post-cruise, we enjoyed our remaining meals in town. As suggested by the volunteers at the Welcome Center, we headed to Wintzell’s Oyster House on Dauphin Street for lunch. We all loved the interior, including the humorous quips taped to the wall, and the chart showing the results of oyster-eating contests. The food was superb. I ordered the Lunch Shrimp ‘n’ Grits, containing six grilled jumbo shrimp in a large bowl of cheese grits with Cajun crawfish sauce. It was so filling that I couldn’t finish it.  Our son had fried oysters with fries, and Neil enjoyed the J.O. Platter, consisting of fried jumbo shrimp, catfish strips, oysters, and okra. Wintzell’s is an enjoyable, casual place that I highly recommend.

Dinner was also had on Dauphin Street. Those who know my son know that he loves pizza, and we wanted to try a place in town. The hotel concierge recommended Hopjack’s on Dauphin Street, where we ordered two small pizzas (from an extensive menu) and appetizers. The food was good, yet the service could have been better. (We had to remind our server of the appetizers, and the final bill needed an adjustment.) The following morning, preceding our return to the airport, we had breakfast at Serda’s Coffee Shop down the street from our hotel. We had stopped in here for a snack the day prior, and were pleased—besides, this was one of few places open early on a Sunday morning.

 

 

Transportation Matters

 

Most passengers we met on our cruise drove to Mobile. As we flew in, I share our experiences for those planning to do the same. We decided against renting a car, as we planned to either walk or taxi everywhere. (In our home town, we are accustomed to walking or taking public transportation, so this wasn’t a stretch for us.)

 

We landed at the Mobile Regional Airport around 3:30 pm on a Friday, quickly found our luggage, and sought a taxi to take us to our hotel.  The ride, via the Interstate, was metered and cost us $43 plus tip. The reverse trip from the hotel to the airport  took exactly one-half hour on city roads on a Sunday morning, registering a little over $30 on the meter, $10 less than taking the Interstate the other way on a Friday night. Our driver that morning said that the Interstate is usually faster, but not so on a Sunday morning. She was right. So, cruisers using Mobile’s airport should count on $35-$50 with tip each way.

 

As we did not have a parking package (offered by many of the hotels in the area to those who drove and booked this in advance), we took taxis to and from the cruise terminal. Although it was a short distance away, there was a fixed rate of $15 each way. I do not know if this was a per-person charge of $5 each (as there were three of us) or a per-car charge, yet we felt it reasonable as we would have otherwise had to transport luggage over uneven terrain (including active train tracks) in the heat. Post-cruise, taxis were not readily available; we found someone from the port to assist us, and were in a taxi within minutes.

 

 

Closing Thoughts

 

Our entire family enjoyed Mobile, and we would not hesitate to return again in a few years. The Dauphin Street area is still up and coming, with empty storefronts here and there, yet we also saw some rebuilding and maintenance. The combination of Federal, Italianate, and Victorian architecture was stunning, and the local populace could not have been any more welcoming and friendly. While a taxi ride from the airport is costly ($40-$50), the trip is well worth it and is certainly a wonderful way to complement a cruise vacation.

 

 

 

Mobile, Alabama