In the Gulf South, L.A. stands for Lower Alabama. Seasonal delights appear at every bend, especially along the coastline circling Mobile Bay. Two venerable attractions promise to brighten up your visit with flowers, fun, and a sense of wonder.
Bellingrath Gardens and Home
Huge oaks, tempered and bowed by a hundred years of hurricane winds, stand gnarled watch over 65 acres of cultivated color along the Fowl River near Mobile. Beneath their leafy canopies, bright swaths of azaleas, hydrangeas, and roses enchant visitors. Welcome to Bellingrath Gardens and Home, where plants bloom year-round, but the cool breezes of April make this the perfect time and place to celebrate spring.
You know you're in a special area when you see pots of flowers adorning the tops of trash cans. Blossoms burst forth everywhere. Vibrant tulips appear to be lit from within as light collects in their upturned petals. Roses wink and nod in a formal garden. Resurrection ferns and Spanish moss wave from twisted branches of ancient oaks. Orchids peek shyly from their perches in the Conservatory. And the azaleas and hydrangeas serve as brightly hued punctuation marks, underscoring and highlighting the gardens that Walter Bellingrath and his wife, Bessie, created and opened to the public in 1932.
Arrive early-we suggest 8 a.m.-for a quiet and magical walk through this springtime delight. A stroll around Mirror Lake is a must. The still water reflects azaleas adorned with pink, lavender, red, and white blossoms, giving a double image of the season. Another favorite spot for quiet contemplation: the fountains outside the Bellingrath Home. Serenity awaits here among all the colorful flowers. From the terrace, you also have a great view of the Fowl River, where daily cruises take visitors through the habitats of osprey, blue herons, and egrets.
No Place Like This Home
Allow time to view the Bellingrath Home; tours take place on the hour from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. While waiting, walk next door to The Boehm Gallery to see a unique porcelain collection. The house-a combination of styles that designer George Rogers termed English Renaissance-features 15 rooms, all containing original furnishings. The handmade bricks, salvaged from an 1850s Mobile residence, shelter a treasure trove of antiques, porcelain, silver, and glassware that took the Bellingraths 40 years to collect. Don’t miss the stunning Chippendale dining room banquet set and Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier.
Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa
One of the best ways to enjoy Bellingrath Gardens is to stay at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama, which rests regally on the other side of Mobile Bay. This venerable lodging, having recently undergone a $50-million renovation after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina's storm surge, offers a special package that includes accommodations, breakfast buffet, and two tickets to Bellingrath. Still, that's not the only reason to stay at this fabulous spot.
Hotels have stood sentry on this point of land by the Mobile Bay since the 1800s, but they were nothing like today's grand resort that offers almost every amenity imaginable to its lucky guests. A fabulous spa, redesigned golf courses, beautiful pool complex (complete with waterfall, two whirlpools, and a slide), and an inviting beach area keep guests relaxed and entertained. The more active pursuits include sailing on the bay, fishing from the pier, and bicycling the shady paths on the property.
Four restaurants offer taste-tempting regional cuisine; you can partake of a complimentary tea each afternoon. Younger guests find plenty to occupy them as well. A Kid’s Camp features pint-sized activities such as croquet, games, and crafts. A resort fee includes high-speed Internet access, morning coffee in the Coffee Shoppe, tours of the property, driving range golf balls, daily arts and crafts, water aerobics, the use of kayaks and sailboats, bicycles, tennis courts, horseshoes and croquet equipment, and two daily shuttles to Fairhope for shopping. As you enjoy these activities, don’t miss some recent arrivals to the property: 500 new roses; 2,000 azaleas; an herb garden; and 50 trees planted since Katrina.
Take the free shuttle into nearby Fairhope for a shopper’s delight and another chance to see the bay area in bloom. Charming boutiques line the flower-adorned sidewalks. You’ll find delightful one-of-a-kind gifts at such stops as Metal Benders, which features handcrafted jewelry by 25 different artists, and Clementine, offering French table linens. Refuel for more shopping with a stop at Mary Ann’s Deli for a turkey-cranberry sandwich.
You can also enjoy one of the many seasonal events on the Eastern Shore. On April 19, Bay Area Earth Day takes place on the Fairhope Pier, and on April 25, the Baldwin Pops will fill the air with music at the Fairhope Centennial Celebration. But then, there’s lots to celebrate in the colorful, blooming world of L.A. •
The Scenic Route
Drive north from the Grand Hotel on Scenic U.S. 98/Mobile Street. Take U.S. 98 to the Causeway. From the Causeway, turn left to go through the tunnel, and when you come out you’ll be on Government Street. Turn left onto Bellingrath Road, and follow the signs to Bellingrath Gardens and Home. It’ll take about two hours, but you’ll see some amazing displays of azaleas along the way.
When You Go
Bellingrath Gardens and Home: 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore, AL 36582; www.bellingrath.org, (251) 973-2217, or 1-800-247-8420. Gardens and home admission: $18 adults, $11 ages 5-12. Gardens only admission: $10 adults, $5.50 ages 5-12.
Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa: 1 Grand Blvd., Point Clear, AL 36564; www.marriottgrand.com, (251) 928-9201, or 1-800-544-9933. Rates: start at $219. Guided tours of the beautiful grounds are offered at 9:30 a.m. daily.
For more information on Fairhope, visit www.eschamber.com, or call (251) 621-8222.