May 27, 2013

A Trip to the Gulf Coast...

Sunset on Mobile Bay
As I was leaving for work last Thursday Morning, Mary Ann asked, "What would you think about going to Gulf Shores this weekend?"  That started a rapid-fire series of events that led to a really wonderful weekend.  She got on the phone and discovered that most of the hotels on the coast were booked up.  She found a couple of accommodations that were $1,000 per night with a seven-night minimum!  And finally, she found a Courtyard Marriott in Spanish Fort, Alabama, with a room available that we could get using some of my Marriott points.  She called me at work and I told my boss I was planning to take Friday off.  That was how it all started.

We got mostly packed on Thursday night, finished up on Friday morning and were underway by about 11:00 AM, loaded with coolers, baggage, hanging clothes, books and Kindles, shoes and sandals -- prepared for anything shy of a formal ball or presidential inauguration.  We had no trouble finding our location and were in our room around 6:00 PM.

The Original Oyster House
Technology is wonderful and especially nice when in a strange city and in need of a good place to eat.  We turned to Urban Spoon and looked for a good seafood restaurant near our hotel.  If you have this app installed on your iPhone it senses your current location and seeks nearby restaurants first.  One thing I like about Urban Spoon is that it includes ratings by customers and in many cases, the menu of the restaurant under consideration.  We ended up having dinner about 5 miles from our hotel at the Original Oyster House on Battleship Parkway (Highway 90).  We were in the queue waiting for a table when the bar manager came over and said, "I can seat you at the bar right now if you'd like.  Full service."  We accepted his offer and sat at the bar for a truly memorable dinner.  We started with a southern tradition -- fried green tomatoes.  Mary Ann had a sampler dinner of crab claws and shrimp while I had shrimp stuffed with crab in remoulade sauce.  Everything was perfect.  We arrived back at ground zero around 9:30 and crashed.

I arose early on Saturday and let Mary Ann sleep in.  I went to the lobby with my Kindle

"Father Bob" preparing
to hear confessions
(another marvel of technology) and read for about an hour and then brought some coffee to the room.  We discussed our plans for the day and decided to focus on Bellingrath Gardens and Home, a place I had visited briefly about 40 years ago.  Once more, I got into the Urban Spoon application to see where we might have lunch on the way.  I chose a place called "Spot of Tea" described as "in beautiful downtown Mobile, Alabama, across from Cathedral Square at 310 Dauphin Street.  This Historical landmark is located within the Lower Dauphin Street Commercial Historic District, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979."  This sounded interesting, the menu looked intriguing, and I thought it might be a chance to visit the Catholic Basilica Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a magnificent church completed in 1850.

The Cathedral interior -- Breathtaking!
We were not disappointed.  We found a parking place rather easily.  The old town neighborhood was charming with walkers and bicyclists everywhere, a concert of brass band music going on in the park, and the absolutely perfect weather.  We had a great lunch -- Mary Ann had a "Manhattan Reuben" sandwich, while I had "Eggs Cathedral" consisting of scrambled eggs served over a crab cake on toast with Hollandaise sauce.  After this "light" meal, we needed to walk, so we proceeded to the cathedral, which was open for visitors.  It's a spectacularly beautiful building, well worth a visit.  It's interesting to ponder on all the history that this building has witnessed -- from the age of slavery to the atomic age.  And also to consider all the severe weather events it has survived.  It was obviously built to last.

We left downtown Mobile and found our way to Bellingrath Gardens, which are on the western side of Mobile near the town of Theodore, Alabama.  The tour here takes you through the gardens, which cover some 16 acres, and through the home in which the Bellingraths spent much of their married life.  Mr. Bellingrath made his fortune as one of the earliest franchisees of the Coca Cola bottling empire.  Mrs. Bellingrath was the inspiration behind the gardens, the home, and the remarkable collection of antiques that furnish the home.  As an example, the enormous dining room table was formerly owned by Sir Thomas Lipton, the British tea baron.  There were eight different complete settings of china in the butler's pantry.  The silver serving pieces were beyond description.  And the gardens must be experienced to be believed.  As we were proceeding through the gardens, we encountered a busload of British and Australian tourists who were on a coast-to-coast excursion.  They were as impressed as we were.  We highly recommend this attraction.

I suggested that we try to find a place to eat on the way home.  Again, Urban Spoon came to our rescue.  Based on a high approval rating and several favorable comments, we ended up at Baudean's in Theodore, Alabama.  It's not impressive on the outside, but our meal was delightful.  I wrote a very favorable review for a site called Trip Advisor, another of my favorite rating sites.  We each had a small portion of broiled shrimp with a side salad and baked potato.  The food was fresh, well prepared, nicely served, and delicious.  We were overfull on the small portion.  I'd hate to see what the large portion looks like!
We made it back to our hotel and retired for the night.  After awakening on Sunday, we enjoyed a little coffee, got ready to go forth. and had lunch at a nearby Japanese hibachi restaurant, Japanese Express.  The grilled food -- Mary Ann had shrimp/beef combo, I had scallops --was perfectly cooked and served over a bed of rice with a pungent sauce.  The side servings of steamed vegetables were nicely done and still firm.  The side salads were ultra fresh and cold.  We lucked out again.  Then we headed for today's first tourist activity, the USS Alabama and its associated attractions, an aviation museum and a World War II submarine, the USS Drum.  The drive across the bay took no time and before we knew it we were parking the car within a couple hundred feet of this beautiful fighting machine.  It's a majestic example of a bygone era when giant ships slugged it out with enormous guns at ranges in excess of twenty miles.

According to Wikipedia, "USS Alabama (BB-60), a South Dakota-class battleship, was the sixth ship of the United States Navy named after the US state of Alabama,   Alabama was commissioned in 1942 and served in World War II in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. She was decommissioned in 1947 and assigned to the reserve duty. She was retired in 1962. In 1964, Alabama was taken to Mobile Bay and opened as a museum ship the following year. The ship was added to the National Historic Landmark registry in 1986."  She displaces around 35,000 tons.  (Compare this with the displacement of 2,250 tons for my first ship, the USS Hugh Purvis, a destroyer.)  The Alabama is just shy of 700 feet log and has a beam of about 100 feet.  To a former destroyer sailor, it seems really HUGE.

Mary Ann and I paid our entry fee to the park and proceeded up a ramp to the main deck, still covered with teak, as it was built.  We entered the superstructure and Mary Ann decided she would remain above the main deck while I explored.  I descended about four decks in the aft part of the ship and saw huge crew bunking areas as well as the service spaces that were needed to care for her 1,800 officers and crew.  There was a large barber shop, a tailor shop, and even a cobbler's shop.  The brig had for separate cells.  The bakery and food preparation areas were enormous.  The presentation was beautifully done, with arrows pointing in the direction of self-guided tours, mannikins dressed as crew members carrying out their duties, and an abundance of explanatory plaques and museum displays.

The engine room main control panel
After I "did" the stern tour, I tackled the midships tour which included the engine rooms.  On this class of ship, there is an armor deck that appeared to be two or three inches thick that was a couple of decks below the main deck and was meant to protect the delicate machinery below.  There were gyroscopes for guiding the ship and enormous mechanical "computers" to solve the equations of trajectories used in guiding the giant gun turrets.  I walked through all these spaces on the third and fourth decks below the main deck before I saw the signs indicating another ladder would take me down into an engine room.

My interest in this aspect of the ship stems from the fact that I was Main Propulsion Assistant on a destroyer and later the Chief Engineer of a destroyer escort, the USS Maloy.  I love ship's machinery!  I was not disappointed.  The engine rooms are very much intact and available to visitors.  I simply had to take a picture of this ID plate on a ship's generator cooling coil made in my home town of Schenectady, N.Y.

After I got my fill of below decks exploring, I rejoined Mary Ann, relaxing in the air-conditioned comfort of the officer's wardroom (dining room to you landlubbers).  We proceeded to the aviation museum near the battleship.  I half-seriously said to Mary Ann, "Maybe we'll see an F-8 Crusader like my brother flew."  Sure enough, in a very nice collection of well-preserved military aircraft, there was an F-8.  My brother Bill logged over 2,000 hours in that type of airplane.

The Chance-Vought F-8 "Crusader" - The plane my brother flew in the 1960's
After seeing the aircraft, I left Mary Ann once more to visit the USS Drum (SS-228), a Gato-class submarine with a distinguished war record.  Again, according to Wikipedia, "Drum was the twelfth of the Gato class but was the first completed and the first to enter combat in World War II. She is the oldest of her class still in existence."  I had some previous experience riding a diesel-powered submarine.  This tour, walking from the forward torpedo room to the aft torpedo room, brought back a flood of memories and reminded me of the sacrifices made by the submariners in World War II.

Interior of USS Drum - Tight Quarters!
We left the Battleship Park and drove to Foley, Alabama to the Tangiers Outlet Mall.  Thank God for GPS!  We found the place with no trouble, shopped for a little while, found a nice shirt for yours truly at Brooks Brothers, and headed home.  I suggested we find a place to eat at between Foley and Spanish Fort.  We ended up at Champy's Fried Chicken in Daphne and hit another home run.  Does this entry sound like an eat-a-thon?  We arrived back at the hotel by about 6:30 PM, tired but having enjoyed a wonderful day.

Monday morning, we got packed and dressed and proceeded for a late breakfast at a nearby IHOP.  When we left Spanish Fort, the GPS said we'd be home by 6:42 PM.  We made a few convenience stops and one stop for fuel.  Picked up a dinner pizza in Huntsville, and were still at the house right around 7:00.  We were tired but happy.  It was a most relaxing and enjoyable getaway.

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