Tag Archives: Mobile Bay

“In the Bleak Midwinter”

  dscn0020 Point Clear, Alabama. The thing that makes me happiest about the Winter Solstice is that the daylight begins to creep up minute by minute and the days begin to get gradually longer. I do not care for long dark nights and cold temperatures when my seasonal allergies are always at their worst.

I made my annual escape to the Grand Hotel at Point Clear, Alabama, on Mobile Bay this week before Christmas – a pleasant and much needed break in a challenging year. When I arrived, temperatures were in the 70s and shorts and flip flops were much in evidence.

dscn0587The seasonal shift became tangible and abrupt on Sunday. The morning was still warm and I was drinking coffee on my balcony when a dark cloud appeared over on the Mobile side of the bay moving rapidly toward the eastern shore. Suddenly the wind was howling and vicious, the trees were bending, and the ducks in the lagoon were quacking crazily. There were whitecaps on the bay and in the lagoon as the rains moved in. Minutes later the temperature had dropped drastically and monsoon rains enveloped the area. The good part is that this area, like the rest of the state, is suffering a drought and rains are much needed.

After a couple of dreary days, the first day of winter is showing some promise for rising temperatures and more sunshine. Last night’s final sunset of fall was stunning. The sun, which had been invisible all day, suddenly dipped beneath a heavy layer of grey cloud cover and provided a bright brief and brilliant fuchsia flash to what had been a colorless cold day. Just as quickly, it was gone. dscn0594

Early now on the first day of winter, as I pack to head north, temperatures are brisk but climbing and the sun is promising to make more than a perfunctory appearance. Christmas day temperatures here are projected to be back in the 70s.

It has always pleased me that there is a Christmas carol that captures the gloomier aspects of the season. “In the Bleak Midwinter,” with 19th century lyrics by Christina Rossetti of Pre-Raphaelite fame, does not skimp on references to the gloom and dreariness of the winter. Years ago, in my directing days, I opened a production of A Christmas Carol with a group of darkly-clad carolers singing “In the Bleak Midwinter” in a dusky light. It seemed a fitting way to introduce Ebenezer Scrooge’s pre-transformational world.

“Earth stood hard as iron,” Rosetti writes, “Water like a stone / Snow had fallen, snow on snow / Snow on snow / In the bleak midwinter / Long ago.” I particularly like that repetition of “snow on snow” – it gives me a chill to type it now.

Fortunately the bleak midwinter I am heading to in Birmingham and more northern climes of Alabama will not hold snow on snow. In fact, warmer temperatures are forecast. and it promises to be a warmer contemplative time after a difficult year.

Here in Point Clear I have reunited with old friends, had some memorable meals both at restaurants and at the home of friends, and started some new traditions. It is a preview, I hope, of pleasant hours spent with family on Christmas day and a hopeful new year ahead.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, wherever you may be, and however bleak the winter. img_1005

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South of the Salt Line

IMG_1004   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. IMG_0999Continuing 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.

IMG_0982Fairhope, 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.

IMG_1006 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). IMG_0980 “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. IMG_0987 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. IMG_0990 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). IMG_0997

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.

With that in mind, I take a deep and relaxing breath of salt-infused air, take a left when I ought to take a right, and check out the next treasure south of the Salt Line. IMG_0962