Family-friendly Mobile is a great southern draw

BY ROBERT SELWITZ Published: June 18, 2012

Since 1702, trade and commerce have been the raison d'etre of Mobile, Ala., which was created as the capital for French colonies in Louisiana. This year marks the 300th anniversary of the city's 26-mile move to its present site on the banks of the Mobile River with direct access to Mobile Bay.

Reasons for the move included struggles with indigenous peoples, flooding and bad drainage as well as a growing desire to be closer to the bay. The original site did host the first American Mardi Gras, however. That preceded New Orleans' better-publicized efforts since that city was not founded until 1718.

Under the flags of France (1702 to1762), England (1763 to1780), Spain (1780 to1819) and the United States (1819 to present except for the Confederate States of America between 1861 and 1865) Mobile's prosperity has been intricately linked to the water. Particularly critical was Mobile's role as a major exporter of 19th-century cotton and as a critical site for 19th- and 20th-century shipbuilding.

Today's visitors have plenty of reasons to pay a call. These include a superb collection of elegant homes, fascinating museums, enticing seafood and family-friendly attractions.

For example, there's the USS Alabama, a World War II battleship that is the star attraction of the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, as well as the Mardi Gras itself, full of parades and celebrations that emphasize tradition and heritage rather than heavy drinking and partying.

While the actual Mardi Gras dominates the two weeks prior to Lent, the Mobile Carnival Museum is open all year around. Gowns, crowns, scepters, masks, extraordinary capes, historic photos, ladies' dance cards, throws and paperweights are here in profusion. Also fascinating are displays of behind-the-scenes costume creation and float construction.

The USS Alabama, which launched in 1942 and saw action in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, was initially mothballed in 1947. It was transplanted to Mobile thanks, in part, to massive fund-raising efforts by thousands of schoolchildren.

Today visitors can follow three well-marked routes to living, medical and dining quarters, gun emplacements, the bridge and more. The self-guided tours do, however, involve climbing up and down ladders.

Also in the park is the USS Drum submarine that was on active duty 1941 to 1947 and that can also be explored.

Another Mobile favorite is Bellingrath Gardens, a favorite of horticulture fans since its 1932 opening. Covering 65 acres in suburban Theodore, it was the creation of Walter Bellingrath. He was one of a dozen original sales territory franchise purchasers of a then-new soft drink called Coca-Cola.

Bellingrath's 1903 investment of $1,500 led to a level of wealth that allowed him and his wife to convert a riverside fishing camp into a home for their antique collection and his namesake gardens.

But it's the grounds on which 300,000 azalea bushes were ultimately planted that draw some 150,000 annual visitors. Bellingrath is particularly popular between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the gardens and their 2 1/2 miles of walkways are wildly and cleverly festooned with decorative lights and displays.

Throughout the year the azaleas, mums, roses and other colorful flowers entrance worldwide garden lovers. The Bellingraths antique-stuffed, circa-1935, 10,500-square-foot home is also not to be missed.

The somewhat more modest childhood home of Major League Baseball's second-leading career home-run leader, Hank Aaron, is another popular attraction.

Originally located about eight miles from the present Mobile BayBears stadium, the owners of the Southern League minor-league team decided to save the home when it was threatened with destruction and moved it right next door to their ballpark.

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