By Lynn Houghton – May 2018 – 7 minute read
With white-sand on the Gulf Coast, the USA’s oldest Mardi Gras in Mobile and its historic heart in the middle of the state, Alabama is ripe for a road trip full of Antebellum atmosphere.
Rain on my parade
A light mist descends and envelopes the entire town as parade-goers slip and slide on the rain-soaked sidewalk.
It’s mid-day and the Floral Parade has just finished; soggy on-lookers head out, with the crunch of discarded beads underfoot. Nothing dampens the spirits of these Mardi Gras enthusiasts. Some will stay on for the entire two weeks of the Carnival and attend every parade.
Mobile was formerly a huge centre of cotton growing and slavery; this region was part of the ‘Black Belt’, where successive fires burnt the prairie over millennia and created rich, black soil.
This soil was the wealth of the Confederacy as cotton and tobacco thrived in this unique terroir and in the steamy hot climate.
Now, Mobile is most-visited for its beautiful antebellum homes and its annual Mardi Gras – festivities begin on New Year’s Day and culminate on Fat Tuesday. After the Civil War, Joe Cain, who had just returned from the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, decided that to lift everyone’s spirits he would singularly attempt to resurrect the celebration that had its start in 1703. He succeeded, and Mardi Gras is now a vast industry for the town.
Each krewe, or mystic society, has a coronation ceremony to crown their own king and queen and after nearly every parade there is an enormous ball for participants and their families. These are black tie, formal affairs and admittance is strictly by invitation only.
Everyone here gets into the spirit with townsfolk, shopkeepers and restaurant owners decorating their premises with purple-and-gold colours specific to this region’s celebrations. Revellers who plan ahead can stay in one of the city’s grand hotels including the five-star Battle House, which is historic, opulent, spacious and airy.
The screaming, shouting and sheer adulation of the crowds lining the streets during the parades is, well, indescribable.
I throw beads to by-standers while others toss moon pies (like Wagon Wheels), sweets and toys.
The night before, I helped the Original Dragons, an African American mystic society, celebrate their 82nd Mardi Grass Ball and Debutante Cotillion. The king and queen, plus debutantes, were in attendance, but the highlight of the evening is the Mardi Gras Strut. Yet another tradition in Mobile is to decorate umbrellas to bring along to these occasions. The ‘strut’ refers to the Jazz tradition of dancing down the streets with umbrellas when attending a funeral.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail
The development of modern Alabama was partly fuelled by the steel and coal industries of Birmingham, a city that sprung up after the Civil War and became a boom town. When limestone, coal and iron ore where discovered in the aptly-named Red Mountain, industrialists realised they had all the ingredients needed to make steel. A boom ensued and, the city grew so quickly, it was called the ‘Magic City’.
Men came flooding in to take the jobs the industry created. Most of the manual labour was done by African Americans. It wasn’t long before Jim Crow laws (Jim Crow was a white entertainer who ‘blacked up’) set about segregating white and coloured residents.
Today, drive through Collegeville, an African American neighbourhood, and you clearly see how those black workers had been segregated to marshland (a flood plain). Piles of iron ore and slag punctuate lakes of water that have collected after recent storms.
This is where the Bethel Street Baptist Church is located, one of the early ‘battle grounds’ for equal rights and a firm fixture on the new U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which was opened in January this year.
The pastor of the Bethel Street Baptist Church, The Reverend F. L. Shuttlesworth, was the President of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When the bus boycott came to Birmingham in December 1955, Shuttleworth’s house was bombed but he was uninjured and continued his fight for racial equality.
It was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which took the lives of four children, that changed the face of the Civil Rights Movement. This was when Dr. King gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech and began to actively promote non-violent demonstrations.
Visit the ‘freedom sites’
It is hard to imagine that important marches for voter rights were initially organised in the small rural town of Selma. Brown Chapel was the starting point for several marches including the Bloody Sunday incident where protesters collided with state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Eventually, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lead a the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital; afterwards delivering a speech on its steps –just a few yards from his home church.
Dexter Avenue, where the Capitol Building is located, and where slaves were once traded, is the location of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. King’s only posting as a pastor. The parsonage is in a nearby neighbourhood and now a museum dedicated to the memory of Dr. King.
All of these sites and many others can be visited by those following the U.S. Civil Rights Trail as it cuts through Alabama.
Food and drink
Traditional Southern cooking is all about BBQ, but Alabama also has Gulf Coast seafood. Some of the best seafood dishes are Shrimp ‘n Grits and Oysters grilled, stewed or nude (uncooked).
There is a vast array of restaurants in Birmingham, from Soul Food and BBQ at Rib it Up (known for Soul Food favourites Fried Green Tomatoes, Chicken Wings and Ribs) through to the experimental Roots and Revelry which has unusual pairings such as PB & J – no, not Peanut Butter and Jelly but Pork Belly and Jam! The Marble Ring speakeasy specialises in cocktails and is accessed through a Tardis in a hot dog shop!
Visitors to Montgomery should visit Chris’ Hot Dogs on Dexter Avenue, which has been serving up frankfurters for over 100 years.
For a more sophisticated touch, Vintage Year is a great choice for local dishes such as monkfish, oysters on the half-shell and Gulf crab cakes.
Beignets, a type of fried doughnut, are a favourite in Mobile. Panini Pete’s on Dauphin Street has every type of Beignet imaginable while the Kitchen on George is a top pick for Shrimp ‘n Grits.
Moon Pies are synonymous with Mardi Gras and are often used in banana pudding, an Alabama favourite. Meanwhile, A Spot of Tea on Dauphin Street is famous for its Banana Foster’s French Toast and Cathedral Eggs.
Don’t miss the beauty of the sugar-white sand of Alabama’s Gulf Coast shore. Dauphin Beach, Gulf Shore and Orange Beach are known for sand dunes, gentle surf and hot weather. It is also a nesting ground for sea turtles and the haunt of many sea birds. Accommodation is plentiful, with 17,000 units along the 31-mile coast offering everything from hotels to self-catering units; resorts to caravans.
The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum (barbermuseum.org) near Birmingham houses a vast collection of race cars and bikes. Among the cars is the world’s most extensive Lotus collection, anchored by the Lotus 21. Other exhibits include the 1962 Ferrari F-158, in which British driver John Surtees won the 1964 Formula One Driver’s World Championship. The museum’s 1,400 motorcycles span 100 years of production.
Where to book it
North America Travel Service has a 10-night Alabama fly-drive holiday that takes in Birmingham (three nights), Montgomery (two nights), Mobile (two nights) and the Gulf Shores (three nights). Priced from £1,974, the deal includes flights with Delta from Heathrow to Atlanta and AlamoGold car rental. Clients also receive a day-by-day itinerary and a Road Atlas.