Tag Archives: The Grand Hotel

Cancelled

Based on years past, I should be a couple of hours away from my annual December getaway to Point Clear on Mobile Bay as I type this sentence. A couple of months ago, I optimistically booked a room at the Grand Hotel for December 13 through 18. I knew I might have to cancel, but I wanted to be ready just in case things had changed by now.

When I booked my room, the resort was still dealing with damage from Hurricane Sally in September. I have been exceptionally conscious and careful during the pandemic and was impressed with the safety protocols the resort has in place. My plan was to stay close to my room, reading and writing, to take regular walks around the grounds and community, and to have room service and takeout. It seemed to me to be a responsible way to get a break and finally to celebrate my retirement.

As the dates got closer and the news reports grew more grim, I realized that the responsible thing is to cancel for the time being. The world around us and people depending on us make it feel imperative to take a stand. And, as my friend Deborah says, now that I’m retired, I can go down any time I please … once the health crisis has passed, anyway.

It will be the first time I have missed the December escape since 2005 – the year of Hurricane Katrina and its extensive damage to Mobile and Baldwin Counties.


Even as I entered my cancellation, the music and memories of Baldwin County and Mobile Bay invaded my thoughts. I think about downtown Fairhope, the intersection of Section Street and Fairhope Avenue, and the light-bedecked trees along the sidewalks. The planters, hanging from the light posts, complement the plantings of poinsettias and pansies in the ground-level beds.

I think of the Camellia Café, Dragonfly, Panini Pete’s, the Wash House, and other places to grab a great meal. I think of Market by the Bay and its abundance of fresh catch seafood.

I think of drives to lonely overlooks across the bay, to Magnolia Springs, and to the search for bags of fresh local pecans and satsumas.

At the Grand, the gentle surf grazes the docks and, beyond the marina, the lights of Mobile, across the bay, glisten beyond the traffic of the causeway.

The Grand sunset, usually spectacular, will still be there when I return. And, upon that return, I think I will cherish the place more than ever.


For now, I slowly and surely prepare my house to sell and keep my eyes and ears open for possible places to move in Birmingham.

To stay grounded, I read as much as possible. After reading stacks of magazines, a few books, and news articles, I have found comfort and solace in reading a couple of very good cookbooks. Sean Brock’s second book, South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations, is as thoughtful and thorough a consideration of Southern foodways and contemporary thought on the subject as one might find. Kelly Fields’s chatty The Good Book of Southern Baking: A Revival of Biscuits, Cakes, and Cornbread is as inspiring as one might expect from the dedicated and well-travelled James Beard Award-winning pastry chef.

I feel grateful, as I read these books on food, to have spoken with and experienced meals prepared by both of these chefs. I first had Brock’s food at an unforgettable dinner at Alabama Chanin’s factory in Florence. I met and broke bread with Fields at two dinners at the same place. Her New Orleans bakery and restaurant, Willa Jean, is a singular New Orleans experience.

I am also, grudgingly perhaps, becoming more susceptible to the necessity of streaming video. I have even fallen prey to the New Age-y call of calm.com, and especially its hypnotic video series, “The World of Calm.” My most frequent stream, however, has been the Spike Lee-directed concert movie, David Byrne’s American Utopia, which is a most hopeful document of our country and its current situation. I have lost touch with how many times I’ve watched it already.

To satisfy my former habit to watch a movie in an honest-to-goodness cinema, I have been able to venture to Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center in the basement of the Pizitz building in downtown Birmingham. The not-for-profit indie theatre limits each screening to twelve patrons in well-spaced seats in a 100-seat theatre and I have enjoyed welcome escapes there to view films like On the Rocks and Mank. Each visit to Sidewalk Cinema makes me more anxious to move back home to Birmingham when the time is right.

Holiday season 2020 is a unique and memorable one. Perhaps it has made us a little more aware of the pleasures of the simple things. Be safe as we move into a promising new year.

Fear Not

My annual getaway to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear just ended and I am here to report to all of the people that harbored trepidations about the resort’s recent overhaul that I think it will be okay for them to go back; they’ll be fine with the changes.

A Grand Hotel has been located on the “point” of Point Clear on Mobile Bay’s eastern shore since 1847. When I visited in December 2017, much of the facility was a construction site and I was told that “every inch” of the facility was being touched by a massive renovation. I was eager to see what the final results looked like and am happy to report that they are finished and the place looks great.

Driving through the gate, one is not aware of all of the work that has been done. The grounds are immaculate as always, the live oaks are decked out for the holidays, and what blooms this time of year is blooming in profusion. My recently planted camellia bush did not have a single bloom this year so I was a tad jealous of the profusion of camellias all around the lagoon.

Most of the renovation work is interior and the result is a fresher, lighter, and more open effect with calm shades of blues and greys predominant.

The most visible change in the main building’s lobby area is a new casual food option, Local Market, in the space once occupied by the gift shop. A gift shop boutique, Oak and Azalea, is now located off the Grand Hall. Bayside Grill and Southern Roots are new dining options flanking the Grand Hall, as is the new 1847 Bar. The Grand Hall itself is now the setting for an afternoon High Tea in addition to breakfast and Sunday brunch. On one afternoon as I passed through, groups of hat-wearing ladies were enjoying the High Tea service. Gone is the 4:00 p.m. community tea that was a beloved tradition in years past, but the warm aromas of a wood fire from the fireplaces still waft through the main building on a crisp December evening. 

Old traditions remain. The Sunset Bell still rings thirty minutes before sunset, summoning guests to gather for the usually spectacular Mobile Bay sunset. The historical salute to the Grand’s military history is still an afternoon tradition, culminating in the firing of the Civil War-era cannon on the edge of the Bay.

One of the first things I checked was if Bucky’s Lounge was still there. Bucky’s, a gathering spot overlooking the Bay, is named to honor Bucky Miller, a mainstay who worked at the resort in many capacities over sixty years from the 1940s to his death in 2002. A life-size statue of Bucky, right hand outstretched to greet a guest, has stood outside the lounge for years. A subtle new touch is Bucky’s image smiling on the guests from one of the lounge walls.  More patio firepits have expanded Bucky’s out and closer to the Bay.

I do have to register one gripe about the changes: One of the stalwarts of the Grand’s appetizer offerings has always been an order of crab claws. For some reason, crab claws are missing from the current menus. I asked one of the wait staff for confirmation that the popular appetizer is, indeed, gone from all menus. It seems like a slight omission, but it is also something that is so simple and popular that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to get rid of it. If I have a complaint to register about the updates, it’s simply that I want crab claws back on the menu. 

Throughout the various buildings of the resort, the fresher theme persists. In my favorite room with a spectacular view in the Spa building, the footprint is the same but the furnishings are somehow more functional and comfortable. In my room, I spent a lot of time lounging on a corner chaise that was a perfect spot for reading, writing, and napping.

The Grand is still a great spot to relax, both indoors and out. Any worries about the changes should be calmed by how well those changes were handled. I hope to be going there for holiday retreats for years to come. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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