Mobile’s Charms and Sarasota’s SurprisesCreate Your Own Adventure at These Drivable Destinations
By Audrey Peaty Swisher and Rosanne Dunkelberger
If you need some time away from home to regroup and be refreshed, a weekend getaway might be just the ticket. Sarasota boasts Snooty the Manatee, Portavant Temple Mount – a 1,200-year-old Indian mound – and many other attractions. And in Mobile, Ala., you can pamper yourself at the 10,000-square-foot Battle House spa and enjoy Eggs Cathedral – eggs, crab cake and seafood sauce piled on an English muffin – at the quaint eatery Spot of Tea. These getaways, both within driving distance, have all the amenities you need to stimulate mind and body so you can return home revitalized.
MobileWhat’s Old Is New Again in Historic Southern Downtown Mobile
By Audrey Peaty Swisher
If your inner explorer is seeking something new, there’s a surprise waiting for you in Mobile, Ala. Things are changing; you can see it in the skyline with two new hotels, a new convention center and the RSA Tower piercing the bright blue sky with its promise of new beginnings.
Start by exploring the historic Battle House, A Renaissance Hotel, which reopened this year after 30 years of retirement and a $70 million restoration. Located on historic Royal Street, the hotel was built in the 1850s on the site of Andrew Jackson’s military headquarters and was named for the three brothers who created it. Designed in the Beaux Arts style, the 5,600-square-foot grand lobby is a breathtaking entry and a must-see for anyone who appreciates historical architecture. Trompe-l’oeil painted portraits of the early rulers of the old port, such as King Ferdinand V, King Louis XIV, King George III and George Washington, decorate the sweeping arches above and lead to a beautiful, 100-year-old stained glass dome that fills the lobby with golden light.
The Battle House’s newest addition is the luxurious 10,000-square-foot spa, where quiet rooms – featuring eucalyptus steam and a Zen-like fire pit – and whirlpool baths will relax away your stress. The Battle House Spa is open to the public with an extensive list of services and hotel guests may use the spa’s amenities for $25 a day.
The next beautiful new building on the skyline is the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel, newly transformed from the historic Adam’s Mark Hotel. After a $50 million renovation, the hotel reopened with 375 guest rooms and one of Mobile’s best restaurants, The Harbor Room, featuring exceptional seafood and steaks and spectacular views of Mobile Bay. Mobile is the home to the country’s original Mardi Gras, and its annual parades pass in front of the hotel during Carnival season.
Both The Battle House and the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel are located in the heart of downtown and a quick walk from the Museum of Mobile, the Carnival Museum and the Exploreum Science Center & IMAX Theatre, with its new exhibit, “My BodyWorks.”
The third building to break the sky and reach higher than any other in Alabama is the Retirement Systems of Alabama’s 41-story Battle House Tower. All three of these properties are part of a renaissance being ushered in by city planners, setting the tone for the revitalization of Mobile’s historic port and kicking off a $300,000 master plan to recreate the downtown area.
But it doesn’t stop there. The progress of new construction extends across the bay, where one finds the new Shellbank Visitor’s Center. There, visitors can rent a kayak or canoe or board a pontoon boat for a leisurely cruise up one of the five rivers that converge in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Located on U.S. Highway 90/98 across the bay from Mobile in Spanish Fort, Ala., the new Shellbank Visitor’s Center sits on the edge of the Blakeley River.
The architecture of the visitor’s center is as relaxed as the river beside it, and the builders went to great lengths to use materials found in the area. Delta Hall, with its knotty pine wood in the walls and floors, huge rock fireplace and vaulted ceilings, welcomes guests in sweet Southern style and is available for rental. Learn more about the area at the Apalachee Exhibit Hall, which houses an amazing collection of taxidermy wildlife found in the area, including a 12-foot-long alligator found in the Blakeley River. Don’t forget to stop at the Cypress Gift Shop, which features unique nature-themed artwork and jewelry.
What hasn’t changed are Mobile’s great restaurants, such as Felix’s Fish Camp Grill, known for its crab dishes, including the West Indies Salad – jumbo lump Gulf crab meat marinated in a vinaigrette with sweet Georgia onions. Another favorite is the Grouper with Crab Oscar Sauce. Felix’s is located on U.S. 90/98, known locally as Battleship Parkway, with the best views of the sunset no matter where you sit in the restaurant.
Another popular dining option is breakfast at the Spot of Tea, located in the heart of downtown Mobile across from Cathedral Square. Eggs Cathedral, the signature breakfast choice, features an English muffin topped with a crab cake, eggs and seafood sauce. With dishes such as Seafood Eggs Benedict with blackened shrimp and French toast topped with Banana’s Foster sauce and sliced bananas, you know you are in the South.
Wintzell’s Oyster House, located on historic Dauphin Street, is famous for award-winning gumbo, bread pudding with bourbon sauce, and oysters – the last prepared “fried, stewed or nude.” A landmark since 1938, Wintzell’s – with walls covered with old photos and Southern phrases – offers a journey back in time.
Another landmark restaurant, Roussos Seafood Restaurant and Catering, has been a part of Mobile’s history since 1954, when it was opened by George Roussos, a Greek immigrant known for his philanthropy. Now located across the bay in Daphne on U.S. Highway 98, Rousso’s is known for its stuffed flounder and original Greek salad, both selected for the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die” award by the Alabama Tourism Department.
Southern food is wonderful, but your trip to Mobile isn’t complete without a visit to the Battleship Park Museum, located on Battleship Parkway. The 175-acre park features a 36,000-square-foot aircraft pavilion and is home to the battleship USS Alabama and the submarine USS Drum. The park is a self-supporting memorial, attracting more than 13 million visitors since its opening in 1965.
Another historic mainstay is Bellingrath Gardens and Home, located in Theodore, Ala., just minutes away from Mobile on Bellingrath Road. More than 75 years of history has been made by this horticultural wonder, which was the life’s work and love story of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath. Located on the scenic Fowl River, the 65-acre garden has become famous for its Cascading Mums and Winter Light Show, created new each year. In the spring, enjoy the annual bloom, when 250,000 azaleas explode with vibrant color. The Bellingrath Home hosts tours daily, and the Delchamps Gallery of Boehm Porcelain is known to have the finest collection of Edward Marshall Boehm sculptures in the United States. Be sure to bring your camera, and plan to stay for lunch.
To get there:
Take Interstate 10 west to Mobile, Ala. Go through the George C. Wallace Tunnel and exit on Water Street (26B). Turn left on Government Street to enter the historic waterfront district.
Distance: 110 miles
Travel Time: about 2 hours
Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau
The Battle House, A Renaissance Hotel
5 Rivers – Alabama’s Delta Resource Center
Battleship USS Alabama
Spot of Tea
Wintzell’s Oyster House
Roussos Seafood Restaurant and Catering
Felix’s Fish Camp Grill
Bellingrath Gardens and Home
SarasotaWhen the Coast Is Crowded, Sarasota and Manatee Counties Have Room to Spare
By Rosanne Dunkelberger
No matter what your getaway agenda might be – relaxation, romance or family fun – there’s something for everyone in the stretch of islands along the coasts of Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Each island has its personality – Anna Maria has a flip-flops and weathered wood vibe while the long and skinny Longboat Key gets a little more upscale the further south you travel. Peruse the Web sites and guidebooks and you’ll be sure to find an accommodation that fits your style, with everything from a rental house to an elegantly appointed condominium to resorts such as the 102-room Hilton Longboat Key Beachfront Resort.
An interesting fact of life makes these islands attractive, even for those with beach resorts nearby. The busy season here is the exact opposite of Northwest Florida beaches.
The rates and crowds are at their highest in the winter, while there are fewer people and great rates to be found down South in the summertime.
The beaches are wide and perfectly situated to give a picture-perfect view of sublime aqua and orange sunsets. And when the charms of the sand and surf wane, there’s a plethora of activities to be enjoyed – particularly for families.
In Sarasota proper you’ll find the 10-acre Sarasota Jungle Gardens. It has the charm of an old roadside attraction, with tropical birds that perform and sit on your shoulder for photo ops, as well as alligators and other reptiles on display. While wandering along its pathways – where you’ll find more than 500 plant species – a particular delight is a flock of flamingoes that you can feed out of your hand!
The gardens are just down North Tamiami Trail from another kids favorite – the Circus Museum – part of a 66-acre cultural campus that includes the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and Ringling’s Venetian-inspired house, Ca d’Zan. Several exhibits of interest to children and one of the most fascinating sights can be found at the Tibbals Learning Center – a 3,800-square-foot model of a miniature circus built over 50 years by Howard Tibbals. The model includes eight main tents, 152 wagons, more than 800 animals and a 59-car train.
To find more family fun on the islands, take a scenic drive across Sarasota Bay and around St. Armand’s Circle (a stop here is an absolute must for shopping, dining, strolling and general people watching) before heading up Longboat Key to the Mote Marine Laboratory. There’s an aquarium, shark tanks and touch pools as well as an Immersion Cinema that’s sure to please any young gamers in the family as they try to work their way up the ocean’s food chain in an interactive educational game. In addition to the fun stuff, Mote is also a research and rehabilitation facility, where you’ll find scientists, experiments and sea creatures being rehabilitated after they were rescued.
A must-do on the mainland in Bradenton for families is a visit to the South Florida Museum. A tour of the facility gives visitors a comprehensive look at the state’s history – from the time of the mastodon (you can even hold dinosaur bones that were actually unearthed locally during recent construction projects!) until today, with particular emphasis on the state’s prehistoric and natural history. The most famous resident is of a more recent vintage – a 60-year-old manatee named Snooty. Snooty has a palatial pool to swim in – with built-in windows for underwater views as he munches on lettuce – and a parade of manatee pals who share the space with him. He came to the museum as a youngster and can never be released. Snooty’s poolmates, however, are usually young or ill manatees being rehabilitated to be returned to the wild.
Snead Island in the community of Palmetto is home to the Portavant Temple Mount at Emerson Point Preserve overlooking the Manatee River. The rise in the land you find there is not a hill, but an Indian mound (built for worship) and middens (trash piles) dating back 1,200 years. You can read the interpretive signs as you walk along, or arrange to have naturalist Karen Fraley from Around the Bend Nature Tours bring the park alive with a special eco-tour.
It’s easy to catch the local flavors – and I mean that literally – of the region by visiting the Web site freshoriginal.com. No chains are listed on this site, and it still features descriptions and menus from more than 50 independently owned restaurants, each offering a unique dining experience.
If you’re an epicure, save an evening for Longboat Key’s Euphemia Haye restaurant. The menu and décor are eclectic, but every dish is a delight. Euphemia Haye is reknowned for its duckling – roasted or barbecued – and the seafood and beef dishes are creatively prepared. After feasting in one of the downstairs rooms, parties adjourn upstairs to finish the meal in the Haye Loft. Patrons are invited to view an impressive array to make their choice of sumptuous homemade desserts. The Loft is also available to those who might want a more casual – but still gourmet – meal.
A local group has four restaurants, all called Mattison’s. But each location has its own culinary personality – a steakhouse in Longboat Key, an alfresco Italian grill in downtown Sarasota, an elegant Mediterranean location highlighting seafood in Sarasota and an Asian-inspired waterfront locale in Bradenton.
No need to dress any fancier than Beach Casual at the beachside Gulf Drive Café on Anna Maria Island. You’ll definitely want to eat breakfast there, which is no problem since it’s served all day. There’s a typical selection of breakfast favorites – and a gargantuan list of specialty omelettes, waffles and pancakes that you can enjoy on a breezy porch.
Also on Anna Maria is a great place to end the day, the Sun House Restaurant. Its third-floor location gives you a perfect view of the sunset, which is important, because once the sun slips into the watery horizon, one lucky patron gets to bang a gong while diners sing and toss back a “Green Flash” shooter. It’s named for the phenomenon that (rarely) happens at sunset. Even better is the “Floribbean Cuisine” created by Executive Chef Darrell Mizell, featuring the freshest steak, chicken and seafood in a fusion of flavors such as coconut, plantains, curry and pineapple.
It’s worth the drive to get a taste of Florida’s “other” Gulf Coast.
To get there
Take U.S. 331 North to Interstate 10 and head east toward Tallahassee. At the junction of Interstate 10 and Interstate 75 turn south toward Tampa and take exit 296A. Take the Fruitville Road exit west toward Sarasota.
Distance: 485 miles
Travel Time: 7 hours 25 minutes
Sarasota Convention & Visitor’s Bureau
Bradenton Area Convention & Visitor’s Bureau
Sarasota Jungle Gardens
Around the Bend Nature Tours
Mote Marine Laboratory
South Florida Museum
Euphemia Haye Restaurant
The Sun House Restaurant & Bar