Fairhope, AL. I first learned the phrase “south of the Salt Line” from the great boulevardier and Mobile native Eugene Walter, who is worthy of his own post and will get one from me soon enough. It was Walter’s contention, based on growing up in his beloved Mobile, that “folks who live below Alabama’s salt line are a little crazy.”
He means “crazy” in a good way. Walter’s philosophy is extensive but it has to do with the belief that Southerners who live with ocean salt in the air tend to be a little less uptight, reserved, and conservative. He felt it applied to people in south Alabama, the Mississippi coast, and the environs of New Orleans in particular. I hope he’s right because whenever I travel down this way, regardless of the weather, I like to roll down the window and breathe a little of the salt air. It frees me up, somehow. On the other hand, there are a lot of Republicans down here.
An added benefit of my annual sojourns to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear is my proximity to the chain of little Baldwin County towns south of the Salt Line along the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. When I hit the northeastern start of the Bay, I travel through Spanish Fort, Daphne, Montrose, and Fairhope prior to my arrival in Point Clear and The Grand on Scenic Hwy. 98. Continuing past The Grand along Scenic 98 to regular 98, I cross the Fish River and Weeks Bay and arrive in Magnolia Springs.
I could spend my entire vacation on the grounds of the Grand and in the environs of Point Clear, but explorations of the surrounding communities make the trip richer and even more special. I like to contrast Baldwin County’s Eastern Shore with a popular stretch of Highway 30-A in the Florida panhandle that has become a mecca for striving professionals. The village of Seaside is lovely and had the best intentions but its appeal and success have caused a desecration of 30-A in many ways. The once undeveloped byway is now congested with developments, each seeing how they might out-pastel and out-gentrify the other. 30-A developers slash the landscape and then build homes and business districts evocative of the turn of the previous century, causing gridlock, exorbitant prices, and desecration of a once pristine local landscape. The towns of Alabama’s Eastern Shore naturally have the authenticity and character that all of those Seaside-inspired communities struggle mightily to achieve.
Fairhope, Alabama, was founded in 1894 as a utopian “single tax” colony. Historically, it was a place that encouraged progressive free thinking. The downtown is thriving with locally-owned businesses and the area is a draw for artists and writers. There are art galleries, specialty shops, antiques, and other treasures throughout the walkable downtown which is beautifully and seasonably landscaped year-round. Page and Palette (www.pageandpalette.com) is a particularly fine independent bookstore. The Kiln (www.thekilnstudio.com) is a ceramics gallery and studio that I never fail to visit and usually I walk out with new items for gifts or for my ceramics collection. Owner/artist Susie Bowman has beautiful tastes and a beautiful shop.
Over time, I have found my favorite Fairhope eateries at each end of the price spectrum.
Last night I had another great meal at Camellia Café in downtown Fairhope (www.camelliacafe.com). Chef Ryan Glass presents an impressive array of fine dining options in a cozy and relaxed setting. Down the street from Camellia Café on Section Street is Master Joe’s (www.masterjoessushi.com), a startlingly fine sushi place in the middle of fried fish territory.
Other great options downtown include Panini Pete’s (www.paninipetes.com), a bustling place that spills out into an attached conservatory and onto the courtyard of Fairhope’s French Quarter shopping district. I love the muffaletta panini but everything on the menu is worth a try. In a new downtown location – or new to me, anyway – is Dragonfly Foodbar (www.dragonflyfoodbar.com). “Foodsmith” Doug Kerr presents an ever-changing menu of creative small plates, bowls, and tacos. Dragonfly continually offers fine dining dishes at affordable prices in a dive-y setting. Now that they have moved from the former hot dog stand location on Fairhope Avenue to larger digs on Church Street the wait is no longer hours like it used to be.
Farther out, Wintzell’s (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com), with a Fairhope location just down scenic 98 from The Grand, is a Mobile establishment that has branched out with a handful of locations on the coast and farther inland. It provides a large variety of seafood options with its signature Gulf oysters served “fried, stewed, or nude.” Wintzell’s is usually the destination on my first night in the area, a familiar and comfortable place after a long drive.
Market by the Bay (www.marketbythebay.com) has added a Fairhope location to complement its original location in Daphne. I like to order the Market’s shrimp po’ boy that has so much shrimp in it that I have started calling it “box full o’ shrimp.” The Market’s location in Daphne is a great seafood market in addition to a cozy eatery.
Closer to The Grand in Point Clear is the Wash House restaurant (www.washhouserestaurant.com). The Wash House is located in a rustic building, part of which housed the washing facility for the large country house on the main road. I have dined alone and with friends at the Wash House on many occasions and the experience always feels like a special occasion. The restaurant is behind the old farm house that is now the home of Punta Clara Kitchen (www.puntaclara.com). Punta Clara is my local stop for pralines to carry back home. They sell all kinds of handmade specialty foods, jams, jellies, and preserves. Punta Clara Kitchen products are usually well-represented at my New Year’s Day lunch for friends.
I always enjoy traveling the expanse of Baldwin County but I usually find myself staying in the area surrounding Point Clear and The Grand resort. A short trip down the coast on Highway 98 takes me through huge pecan groves, farms, and homes. Shortly after crossing the Fish River and Weeks Bay, I arrive in the town of Magnolia Springs, which is as idyllic as its name suggests. Residents along the Magnolia River in Magnolia Springs still get mail delivered by boat to boxes on the edges of their piers. Live oaks arch over the narrow streets and I usually find myself ditching the car and taking long leisurely walks through the streets and along the river. A popular dining option in Magnolia Springs is Jesse’s (www.jessesrestaurant.com).
For those who wonder why I always return to the same place for my December getaway, it’s hard to explain the attraction of the place unless they experience it for themselves. When I first started coming down here, I felt an obligation to venture away from Point Clear and would plan side trips into Mobile, or down to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, or over into coastal Mississippi. Eventually, I realized that it was enough – and exactly what I needed – to just come to The Grand and relax, occasionally venturing out to places that are minutes away. I feel like there is still plenty of Baldwin County to discover and explore.