Tag Archives: Point Clear

Notes from the Point – 2017

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.

Merry Christmas. Peace on Earth. 


“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

Leaving Point Clear: December 2015

DSCN0037 On my last day in Point Clear I was awakened early by a tornado warning. I walked out onto my balcony to watch the storm system move from Mobile over the bay to the Eastern Shore. The wind picked up; the ancient live oaks around the lagoon shook fiercely as a single white ibis took flight from the water, startling white against the dark grey clouds. The storm was clearly moving to the north of me, toward Daphne and Spanish Fort. Most of the worst of the weather system had moved still farther to the north when I pulled away from the resort a few hours later and began to drive toward ominous skies.

I finagled an abbreviated version of my annual pre-Christmas retreat to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear on Mobile Bay this year despite plenty of concern; my calls back and forth to Mother and the hospital were frequent.

DSCN0041It was a shortened stay with welcome warm temperatures (despite the less than ideal weather threat) and I was able to find time to do some of the things that make this annual holiday season visit so essential to my mental well-being. Shortly after arrival on Sunday afternoon it was time to meet a contingent of the Brunson family for afternoon tea in the Grand lobby. The holiday crowd was large and festive. We adjourned from the Grand to Allison and Richard Brunson’s inviting bayside home where their oldest son John had been inspired to make a Chicago-style deep dish pizza which was savory, rich, and delicious and which seemed to exceed everybody’s positive expectations – including John’s and the brothers who assisted him. At least four other pizzas in delicious combinations were baked to accompany John’s masterpiece and we all overindulged – except for family friend Kenneth who sensibly made a salad for himself from unused pizza toppings.

On Monday, time was spent resting and reading, walking around the grounds, and exploring Fairhope and environs in search of fresh satsumas, a juicy citrus that makes its appearance in Baldwin County right around Christmas and may often be found in my New Year’s Day ambrosia. A massage was scheduled for Tuesday and it was a pleasure to catch up with Judy at the front desk; the massage therapist, Claudia; and the wonderful attendants in the quiet room, J.C. and Al. All of them provide a comforting and stress-free escape from the tension beyond the spa’s peaceful walls.

My good friend Kitty from graduate school and, later, from professional theatre gigs, was visiting with her family in Spanish Fort and met me for dinner in Fairhope on my final night. Dragonfly foodbar was the destination as we savored foodsmith Doug Kerr and staff’s always creative concoctions.

On that drizzling final morning before the trip back to Birmingham, I swung by Punta Clara Candy Kitchen to grab the requisite pralines.

St. Francis on the Point church sits across the road from Punta Clara Kitchen and the Wash House restaurant. Leaving Punta Clara, there was a sign in front of the tiny St. Francis chapel that said “CHAPEL OPEN FOR PRAYER.” I have photographed that chapel many times and have used it on my annual Christmas card but the doors have always been locked on those previous visits. I have tried to photograph the interior through the windows in the past so it was a treat this time to be able to go and sit quietly inside.

The warm and peaceful chapel provided meditation, shelter, and comfort from the various storms I faced on the drive home to Birmingham and, later, farther north to Huntsville and my house north of the Tennessee River. I was grateful for all the people who are “lifting us up” as my family faces the day to day of serious illness. “Lifting up” is my friend Judy Prince’s phrase for prayer.

As I compose this, I am sitting once again in my father’s Birmingham hospital room looking across Shades Valley at the foggy but brightly lit visage of Vulcan standing sentry over this valley and downtown Birmingham beyond Red Mountain. I will still be sitting here in a few minutes when midnight comes and it is Christmas Day. Somehow, with Dad sleeping peacefully at the moment, the twinkling lights of Homewood in the distance, and the stained glass windows of a church down below, this seems a good refuge to sit out the remains of a Christmas Eve. I will be here still when the sun of a fresh Christmas morning glimmers over the mountain to the east.

Merry Christmas. May you find comfort and joy with those you love.DSCN0040

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

Postcard from The Grand

     IMG_0938  Point Clear, AL. People have been coming to a hotel at this spot for rest and rejuvenation since the 1830s. For me, a visit to The Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama, (www.Mariott.com/Point-Clear) has become an annual December event. I occasionally get down here at warmer times of the year but the pre-Christmas visit is my constant.



The Grand Hotel is located on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, a short distance south of the town of Fairhope, at a point where the bay broadens as it gets closer to the Gulf of Mexico. The various buildings overlook the Bay and out toward the Gulf on one side and a peaceful lagoon surrounded by ancient, Spanish moss-dripping live oaks and walking paths on the other. The grounds are expansive and beautifully landscaped with paths along the bay. Pathways open to the public radiate beyond the resort and one is welcome to stroll past the private sides of bay-front Point Clear homes and get a sense of local living.

In the warm months the place bustles. A huge swimming pool is full of sun-worshippers and all kinds of outdoor activities – biking, kayaking, croquet, beach bonfires, etc. – are available throughout the grounds.

Now, in December, it is more quiet and less crowded and I have found that this trip is a perfect and much-needed way to shake off my job after a demanding semester and to brace for the holidays with family and friends.


As might be expected from such a place, there is a feel of tradition. Hurricane Katrina did massive damage to the Alabama coast in 2005 and the hotel was closed for over a year while renovations occurred. When I returned in December 2006 after the renovation, I was relieved to see that the restoration had taken pains to restore the look and feel of the place prior to the storm.

The site has history and tradition and it manages to retain the feel without overwhelming one with the past. Every afternoon there is a small military procession through the grounds ending at a Civil War-era cannon. After the hotel’s military history is recounted – it served as a military hospital during the Civil War, was fired upon during the Battle of Mobile Bay, and the grounds include a Confederate cemetery containing the remains of many casualties of the Battle of Vicksburg (which happened 250 miles away) – the cannon is fired and can be heard throughout the area.

While the cannon fires outside, an afternoon tea is held around the grand fireplace every afternoon at 4:00. There is a blazing fire and a huge Christmas tree this time of year.


Outside Bucky’s Birdcage Lounge, also located in the main building, is a sunset bell that is rung thirty minutes before sunset each day. It is a reminder to move toward the lounge and toward the Bay-front to observe and celebrate what is almost always a spectacular sunset. “Bucky” Miller was a beloved employee of the Grand for 61 years and a life-sized statue of Bucky stands outside his namesake lounge, his hand extended in greeting. Bucky’s cats still roam the grounds – or by now maybe Bucky’s cats’ descendants. I was greeted by one of Bucky’s cats as I went into the main building for check-in yesterday.

IMG_0933    IMG_0925

I have heard about the Grand my whole life but I didn’t start coming down for regular visits until over a decade ago in the early 2000s. Several years ago an acquaintance who used to come to the Grand for decades remarked, when I told him I was about to come down, “I hear the Grand isn’t so ‘grand’ anymore.” (Isn’t there always that guy?) Things change and the events of the past may not be happening with the velocity they once had, but my Grand experience is always peaceful and invigorating and exactly as grand as I want it to be. The fact that I always splurge and treat myself to a massage at the hotel’s highly-rated spa makes my experience that much more grand.

In the earlier years of the Grand’s history, it was owned by individuals and families. It is now a Marriott resort owned by Retirement Systems of Alabama, part of Alabama’s much lauded Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (the property includes Lakewood Country Club). The staff is international and far-flung in origin but there are many locals who work here too and there are faces and names that are familiar to me trip after trip. It may all be an act, but I will say that the employees at the Grand always seem happy and they make every guest feel special and welcome. It’s a wonderful place for families and couples but I am usually here as a single and feel totally at home and comfortable as such.


I was already in my 40s when my recurring “Grand experience” began. I know people who started coming here with their families when they were very young. There are always happy children and young people at play when I make my visits. However, I have always felt that I started coming at just the right time for me – at a time when I was looking for stability and peace of mind in my life. I worry that if I had started my annual treks even a decade earlier I might have found the place a little staid and slow.

I have a long list of places I still want to visit in this world, but, for me, if I want to relax and regroup, coming back to a place I know and a place where I feel like I can just sit on the balcony and while the day away with a good book is the ticket to a perfect vacation (New Orleans is another of those places for me). After staying in buildings all over the resort, I now have and always request my favorite room in the Spa building. IMG_0911


So, the Grand it is and the Grand it will be for this December and, I hope, many Decembers to come.