On the day before I leave for my annual December pilgrimage to Point Clear, I notice an online horoscope for my sign that reads
A strong craving for solitude tempts you to ask people to leave you alone today. Many animals hibernate for the sake of rest and revitalization; you’re not purposely pushing anyone away to hurt their feelings … Let everyone know you are not vanishing from their lives; you just need more sleep. This is one of those occasions when cuddling with your individuality rejuvenates the beast within…
I do not put much stock in astrology, but occasionally a horoscope – like a fortune cookie – will hit the nail on the head (not sure how I feel about rejuvenating “the beast within,” however).
I have made this December trip so many times that there is no longer pressure. I’ve thoroughly explored the landscape down here and don’t feel a need to venture forth too much if I don’t want to.
On this drive down, I am weary.
There is a time in that drive when I exit I-65 South onto AL 225 toward Spanish Fort. Taking that exit, I breathe. I open the car window to breathe in that air “below the salt line.” The air is brisk and chill and I savor its tonic.
By the time I drive through the gates of the Grand Hotel (www.grand1847.com), I am calm and relaxed. After checking in at the gate, driving onto the grounds, I hear the gate attendant say “Mr. Journey is here. He’s driving a gray Ford.”
Although I have heard the prompt, it pleases me when the valet opens my door with a warm “Welcome back, Mr. Journey.” I used to be a professional director and stage manager and I appreciate that attention to detail.
The low pre-winter sunset is intense on my balcony as I unpack and settle in for the all too brief pre-Christmas respite. The afternoon cannon firing at bayside occurs just as I open the balcony doors of my room in the spa building.
On a late afternoon stroll around the lagoon, with holiday lights beginning to flicker on, the squawking ducks, clamoring for food, distract me from the great blue heron standing like a statue just a few feet away. I have just enough time to snap a photo of the stately bird before he glides across the water, landing on the other side with a fish in tow which he quickly ingests.
This year, the lighting in the lagoon area has taken on a theme of arches, with Christmas trees sprinkled liberally along the walkways. In addition to archways scattered throughout the area, the natural arches created by the dipping branches of the ancient live oaks are dramatically accented along the way. The three fountains that dot the lagoon spray up like magnificent sparklers. The effect at dusk, with the golden lights illuminating the dripping Spanish moss and the silver lights on the fountains, is as magical as any magic I’m willing to believe in at this stage of life.
My annual Christmas present to myself – a warm stone massage with Claudia – is scheduled for my first morning at the Grand. I arrive at the spa early to relax in the calm of the quiet room and to catch up on news of my favorite attendants; Al Agee retired a couple of months ago after many decades at the Grand, and J.C., who was off that day, is still around. Michael, the attendant on duty, is a charming character and – like Al and J.C. – he has good stories to share.
I have described my massage with Claudia as “the shortest eighty minutes of my year.” On several occasions during the session, I hear myself expel a deep breath, often as bundles of nerves and tension begin to fade away.
Is it any wonder that I spend my year anticipating this annual respite?
With the Grand resort’s recent upgrades and renovation, the new Southern Roots restaurant is a most welcome addition, providing an inventive, locally-oriented menu featuring locally-sourced produce, seafood, meats, and desserts. The mixologists provide an inventive daily inspiration in the adjoining 1847 Bar. Everything is exceptional. I normally go out for dinner when I stay at the Grand but will be taking more meals on-site now.
Down the road in Fairhope, Dragonfly Foodbar continues to offer an inventive menu of tastes fueled by Asian and Mexican influences. I seat myself in a dining room at Dragonfly that is between two more crowded rooms and amuse myself with the interesting juxtaposition of music coming from each side. As one room plays classic rock, the other plays upbeat holiday tunes. This results in vivid aural contrasts: “It’s Raining Men” competes with “Carol of the Bells” followed by Elton John singing “Tiny Dancer” on my left with “Sleigh Ride” bouncing along to my right.
I tell the server that the random musical contrasts are pretty trippy. “Yeah,” she smiles, “I kinda love it.”
The trippy music trend continues later in the trip as I am sitting at 1847. Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Winter Wonderland” is playing in Southern Roots while, across the Grand Hall at the Bayside Grill, a live musician performs Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” And I would swear that I simultaneously hear The Supremes’ “The Happening” ghosting in from somewhere in the distance.
The Wash House (www.washhouserestaurant.com), a long-time favorite just down the road from the Grand, is bustling with holiday and birthday celebrations on the night I am there. I decide at the last minute to dine at the more quiet bar tucked away to the side of the main dining room. Seafood is always fresh and local at the Wash House.
The next night, at Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com), I start my meal with a half dozen Isle Dauphine oysters from west Mobile Bay near Dauphin Island. These tasty oysters are harvested not far from where my current favorite Murder Point bivalves originate near Bayou La Batre.
Interspersed among my dining experiences are drives around the bay, the search for interesting landscapes and architecture, and the opportunity to photograph favorite spots, both new and old. The dock at one of the city parks along Scenic 98 has long been a favorite. Later, I pull up to Harrison Farms on the main highway for bags of satsumas, to B&B Pecan Co. for local pecans, and to Punta Clara Candy Kitchen for preserves to include in the traditional New Year’s Day meal.
The Sacred Heart Chapel, just down the road from the Grand, is a small church from 1880 facing the bay. It’s closed in the winter, but its grounds provide a pleasant stroll. It’s a quiet spot that has seen its share of hurricanes and battering weather over almost a century and a half, with a porch that is a good spot to rest and take a breath.
The final full day is a special one – although rain persists throughout the day. Early, I go down to Bucky’s, the hotel’s stalwart lounge in the main building, and enjoy West Indies salad, a Mobile original – a chilled salad of crabmeat, chopped onions, oil and vinegar, and seasoning. Later, I return to Bucky’s to join friends Deborah, Jeana, and Emily for a generous and delicious serving of fried crab claws that takes us all back to memories of Grand visits in the past. Emily, who manages a Mexican restaurant near Mobile, introduces me to the Paloma.
On that final evening, I join the Brunson family at Allison and Richard Brunson’s home on the bay. As soon as the front door opens, the aromas of homemade gumbo have filled the house. It’s lovely to sit at table with my friends and their family. As the only one around the table who is not a Mobile native, I enjoy hearing the reminiscences of long-ago days of a Mobile childhood. After an exceptionally delicious slice of Allison’s pecan pie for dessert, I go back to the hotel to rest for my rainy drive back to Birmingham in the morning.
All of these moments go into my storehouse of Christmas memories.
After checking out of the hotel, I have one more errand before I hit the road: I stop at Market by the Bay (www.marketbythebay.com) on the way through Daphne and pick up a shrimp po’boy to go. Back in the car, I put the open-faced sandwich on the passenger seat beside me and pop succulent fried shrimp as I drive. The sandwich is gone by the time I get to I-65, take a breath, and merge onto the crowded highway.