Point Clear, Alabama. The long etymology of the word “vacation” seems to suggest that it’s more about what you’re leaving behind than where you’re going.
That works for me.
I have been making an annual pre-Christmas getaway to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama, just down the eastern shore of Mobile Bay from Fairhope, for about fifteen years (www.marriottgrand.com). There is a time on the trip down from north Alabama when I forget that I have a job and that is one of the rewards, for me, of any sort of vacation time.
The first time I came to the Grand there was a rare hard freeze and it was miserable outside during my short stay. Even so, I wandered the resort grounds, explored the public walkway that runs between the bay-front houses and the water, ate some great meals in area restaurants, and decided that a December tradition had instantly begun.
Most Decembers the weather is milder; occasionally it’s tee-shirt and shorts weather. This time it’s somewhere in between – slightly chilly with a warm front threatening to bring some rain before my visit is over.
The drive down seemed better than usual; traffic was just right and my spirits were heightened by the results of the recent special election for an Alabama U.S. Senate seat. For a change, Alabama voters came through; I will be embarrassed again by Alabama politicians and Alabama voters – and soon, probably – but for the holidays I am going to cherish and savor the current hopeful moment. Everything looked brighter and more beautiful on the drive down. I always love my home state, but this week it looks brighter than usual. Maybe it’s my imagination, but people seemed friendlier.
Near the end of the drive, at a traffic light in Fairhope on a Friday afternoon, two women shoppers burst into spontaneous dance to the holiday pop music piped in from a street speaker. When they got their signal to walk, they beamed brightly and continued to dance across the street, doubling over with laughter as they reached the sidewalk.
It’s easy to forget that the 2017 hurricane season was brutal but I was reminded as I drove down Scenic 98 and saw that every pier along the waterfront was damaged by Hurricane Nate, including a public pier that I have photographed many times.
The Grand itself is undergoing a massive (non-hurricane-related) property-wide renovation and upon arrival I passed barricaded construction sites. The main building is completely closed. Upon check-in I was told that my usual room on the top floor of the Spa Building was not available. After some searching and discussion, a manager determined that it was available and, if I’m not mistaken, I am the first guest in that room post-renovation.
After staying all over the Grand property in my first years coming here, I honed in on my favorite room and I have vowed to stick with it. It is on the top floor of the tallest building and faces out over the lagoon and property. From the balcony, one can view the property with the bonus feature that one can also see over the live oaks and across the wide part of the Bay past Gulf Shores to the open gulf. Looking to the west, one can see across the pool to Mobile Bay just before it widens significantly at the place that gives Point Clear its name.
The footprint of my favorite room is the same but the re-model has made it seem more spacious, more luxurious, and much more contemporary. It is perfectly curated with less furniture – but what is there is more practical. In my king room, the reclining sofa against one wall with a movable tabletop is a welcome addition and one I spent hours using for rest as well as more productive activities.
The room still includes the ubiquitous Nall print – common, it seems, to all properties that are part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, but the new selection is less dense and more easily lived with.
Since the main building is closed, the Jubilee Poolside Grill in the pool pavilion has been tasked with all of the dining service for the property. The dining staff is doing a really good job with limited kitchen and dining space and I ate well there – from gumbo on arrival to a plate of peel-and-eat Gulf shrimp for my final dinner there.
After my first night’s sleep, I had an appointment for a warm stone massage at the Grand Spa at 9:00 a.m. The Spa, too, is undergoing massive renovation like the rest of the property but the attendant, J.C., who has been taking care of me since my first spa visit, and my favorite massage therapist, Claudia, are still on hand to make me feel as welcome and pampered as ever. I am not a man who indulges in many luxuries but the annual warm stone massage has become an essential part of my December holiday and I will feel no guilt for that particular indulgence.
As I drive back to the hotel after a dinner at Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com) in downtown Fairhope at 9-something on a Saturday night, I see a figure walking hurriedly along the sidewalk on Scenic 98. As I get closer, I realize it is Jesus in full white robe, blue under-garment, sandals, and a flowing mane. He clearly has a purpose, looking straight ahead with a determined stride. I’m not sure why Jesus would be walking quickly down Scenic 98 on a Saturday night nine days before Christmas, but the image sticks with me.
I’m sure it wasn’t really Jesus, but he definitely had something. I probably should’ve taken a picture but He didn’t look like he wanted to be disturbed.
The next morning I attended an Anglican Advent service at St. Francis at the Point (www.stfrancisatthepoint.org), a stunning modern white church building full of rich wood tones and light streaming through towering clear glass windows. The windows are decorated with magnolia leaves and white candles and a towering Christmas tree fills the arched window of the church façade. The tiny old chapel at the corner of this same church property was my Christmas card image a few years back.
I always return from Baldwin County with bags of satsumas – the efficient little citrus fruit that thrives along Mobile Bay. I heard several rumors that there was a smaller than usual satsuma crop this year and that I might not be able to find any.
The search for satsumas took me on a drizzly drive over to Silverhill, a Baldwin County town founded as a settlement by Scandinavians in the 1890s. Silverhill was a charming place – new to me – but there were no satsumas to be found.
That night, I had a rude encounter with political reality as I dined at the Wash House (www.washhouserestaurant.com), my favorite Point Clear restaurant. A loud and bitter Republican, unfortunately within earshot, was spouting excuses for his candidate’s recent loss in the Senate election. Inevitably his vitriol settled on the various accusers in the various current political and celebrity sexual misconduct scandals.
“I’m sorry they decided they didn’t have fun forty years later,” he snorted. “I’ll bet they enjoyed it back then!” He then felt the need to recount to his relatively silent male dining companion the women who could come forward to accuse himself of previous encounters; he seemed to believe there were quite a few. “I’d tell them they seemed to enjoy it at the time …” he bragged, and more.
Unfortunately, I had no volume control, but I felt privy to a new strategy of excuses for sexual misconduct. Nevertheless, my Wash House meal was still excellent, despite the abrasive live vocal soundtrack interfering with the more pleasant holiday music.
On my final full day on the bay, I visited with my friend Richard to deliver cheese straws to him and his family at their inviting home overlooking Mobile Bay. I mentioned my satsuma search and he pointed me to an orange tree full of fruit on the edge of his property, near the house of his recently deceased aunt-in-law, Bessie Montgomery – doyenne of Fairhope’s popular French Quarter shopping district. He filled me a bag of Bessie’s oranges for the road.
Thus armed, I headed over to B&B Pecan Co. on the main highway. Just before I got to B&B, a sign proclaiming “SATSUMAS Now” beckoned me to a truck bed with bags of fresh satsumas and an honor box with instructions for paying. Finally…
So our Christmas ambrosia will again be graced with Baldwin County citrus and pecans.
After a lunch of a wild ostrich burger at Locals (www.localsburger.com), a new downtown Fairhope eatery, I headed back to the Grand and a final walk along the grounds and the Bay before a cloudy, foggy sunset. My walk coincided with the Resort’s daily military history lesson and firing of the Civil War cannon. On this particular afternoon, a boat full of rowdy boys emerged from the fog to observe the cannon firing and to play, loudly, the national anthem at the conclusion of the observance.
My final night at the Point was quiet, foggy, and peaceful. I safely harbored on the sofa, catching up on reading, with a streaming soundtrack from the “Peace, Be Still” channel on the Hearts of Space website playing in the background.
It was a good night of rest with a wet day of driving to follow, buoyed by pleasant memories of another blissful respite at Point Clear.