Greetings From Fairhope, Alabama

Travel Features Alabama
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Cozied up to the eastern bank of Mobile Bay, little Fairhope, Ala., (population 17,000) is big on charm. It offers plenty of things to see and do, but a large part of this coastal community’s appeal lies in its invitation to simply be. An abundance of natural beauty and bay breezes beg you to slow down, stroll leisurely through shops and galleries, gaze at the horizon where sky and water melt together, and think deep thoughts.

It’s what drew the city’s founders to the spot in 1908, a place they believed held a “fair hope of success” for their progressive idea of a single-tax colony. Ever since, it has beckoned artists, writers and other creatives, and today, it draws visitors searching for a relaxed weekend full of good food, great shopping and a bit of outdoor adventure.

Day One

Begin your stay with some time in downtown Fairhope, one of Alabama’s prettiest small-town city centers, and head straight to Panini Pete’s. Tucked into downtown’s tiny French Quarter area, it’s a local favorite that’s garnered national attention with a selection of pressed sandwiches of the finest veggies, meats and cheeses melted together. You could wait for lunch, but its breakfast options are just as enticing. Try the Green Eggs and Ham Panino, a hot handful of basil-infused scrambled eggs, sliced tomatoes, mortadella and sharp provolone on sourdough bread. And don’t leave without trying Pete’s take on beignets—best enjoyed with a squeeze of lemon. Take your food outside to the courtyard and snag a seat by the bubbling fountain.

Panini Pete’s Photo: Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

Leave Pete’s and take a few minutes to learn about Fairhope’s multi-faceted past at the Museum of History, housed in the city’s first municipal building. The restored Spanish Mission Revival structure features exhibits and photos that outline its founders’ utopian dreams based on the philosophy of “collective individualism” as well as the area’s first fire truck and the original jail.

Next, visit the Eastern Shore Art Center, an education facility and gallery that offers classes and workshops and shows off the talents of the many artists who call the area home and are inspired by its beauty and free-thinking vibe. Browse the rotating exhibits to find watercolors depicting local flora and fauna, mosaics, funky pottery, folk art, and graceful sculptures.

There’s a good chance that some of the art on display will focus on the abundant seafood harvested from the bay and nearby Gulf of Mexico. If gazing at renderings of plump shrimp, big blue crabs and oysters has you salivating, you can sate that craving at the Gumbo Shack, just a few blocks away. A piano-playing pig in sunglasses dominates its sign, and a small porch fronts the “shack,” which isn’t much to look at, outside or in. But folks don’t flock here for the logo or the decor. They come for the rich, slightly spicy gumbo: Creole-style broth, thickened with a tomato-based roux and packed with chicken and Andouille sausage that you can embellish with your choice of shrimp, crab, crawfish or oysters (or all four).

After lunch, walk downtown’s flower-basket- and flower-bed-lined streets, where you’ll find myriad shopping options that can fill hours. Pass the old men lounging on benches and follow the herds of well-dressed women to upscale boutiques like Cat’s Meow and Luxx Studio, a new shop offering haute resort and active attire. To outfit your kitchen or dining room with cool vintage cooking implements and antique fine china, tables and chairs head to Aubergine. The best literary depot in town is Page & Palette, which occupies a corner and frequently hosts readings and signings with both bay area and other Alabama authors. Buy some art fashioned by Fairhope hands at the Christine Lindon Gallery to take a piece of your trip home.

Aubergine Photo: Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

On the edge of downtown, Pier Park is the place to rest your weary feet. Find a perch on the grassy bluff overlooking the bay or make your way onto the pier stretching over the water and pause to smell the sea air while watching gulls and pelicans scan the surface for their dinner.

When you’re ready for dinner, Dragonfly Foodbar is waiting to appease your appetite with eclectic cuisine ranging from gourmet tacos to noodle bowls and craft cocktails like the Damsel Fly, a refreshing blend of watermelon-lime purée and rum with a splash of soda for fizz. The tacos come al a carte, meaning you can try several. Make sure your order includes at least one oyster taco, with crispy fried oysters, tart pickled cabbage and a drizzle of chili aioli. Down a few more drinks at McSharry’s Irish Pub, an authentic Emerald Isle spot (the owner is from Ireland), or join in a sing-a-long at Wiseguys Piano Lounge inside Gambino’s Italian Grill.

Day Two

Forgo downtown in favor of some outdoor exploration, but start by fueling up at the Biscuit King’s Fun Barn, which sits on the side of a county road surrounded by open fields. Crowds fill its massive dining room every morning and chow down on soft-ball-sized biscuits baked around usual breakfast suspects like egg, bacon, sausage and cheese that the King calls “ugly,” but you’ll call delicious.

Take the scenic drive to Weeks Bay Plantation, an “entertainment farm” featuring an amphitheater with frequent concerts, archery course and an organic “U-pick” blueberry patch. Next, head over to The Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which protects 6,525 acres of land and water representing a unique ecosystem. Follow shaded boardwalks through forest and marshland to arrive at a picture-perfect view of Weeks Bay, part of the Mobile-Tenasaw Delta, the second largest river basin in the country. Watch for signs along the way that identify plants and animals that inhabit the area. You may see several different birds of prey, but the winged things you’ll definitely encounter are mosquitoes, so put on a coat of bug spray before you set out. Also visit the reserve’s pitcher plant bog where hundreds of these fascinating carnivorous flowers—found only in bogs in the Eastern United States—sway in a soggy field and tempt insects (their favorite food) into their beautiful, yet deadly, blooms.

Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve Photo: Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

You can score a meal at Big Daddy’s Grill, a great choice for lunch. Located on Fish River, this laidback joint is known for its Gulf seafood selections, but equally praised are its “hog wings,” fall-off-the-bone tender pork shanks glazed in a sweet-hot sauce. Enjoy them with plenty of napkins and a cold beer on the riverside deck.

If you want a more up-close-and-personal view of the waterways in the Delta—and the wildlife, including gators, that they hold—hitch a ride on one of Delta Airboat Express’ fast-flying crafts for an eco-tour. If you’d rather stay on land, book a tee time at Lakewood Golf Club, part of the lauded Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail family of courses found around Alabama. Its 36 holes on two courses will test your skills without souring your mood.

For your final dinner during your Fairhope visit, leave it and travel to tiny Magnolia Springs, 15 miles away, for a fine-dining experience at Jesse’s, a hidden gem that’s well worth the drive. Smothered in the shade of live oaks’ sprawling, fern-covered and moss-draped branches, this eatery’s renditions of classic dishes are created with fresh, local ingredients. Try the grilled shrimp salad with goat cheese, just-caught Gulf shrimp, orange sections, sun-dried tomatoes and tangy citrus vinaigrette. Next door is the old Moore Bros. general store, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jesse’s Restaurant Photo: Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

To Stay
The Grand Hotel Marriott Resort Golf Club & Spa in Point Clear (five miles from Fairhope) is a historic waterfront property with all the modern amenities. Make sure you stop in the Punta Clara Candy Kitchen just down the road and taste the heavenly homemade divinity that more than lives up to the confection’s name.

Sitting right in the middle of downtown Fairhope, the Hampton Inn Fairhope-Mobile Bay is a comfy, convenient choice.

Getting There
The Pensacola International Airport is about an hour’s drive away and is served by Delta, U.S. Airways, American Airlines and Southwest.

Jennifer Stewart Kornegay is a freelance writer based out of Montgomery, Ala. She writes about food and travel and traveling for food.

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