Sitting on the
dock of the bay

Fairhope puts an elegant
spin on small-town charm

Photo: The streets of Fairhope. Marylin Johnson/AJC file

My brother-in-law will hate me writing about Fairhope. He’s not worried that I’ll say bad things about his adopted home on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay; he’s concerned about the good things I’ll write about this highlight of LA. (Lower Alabama).

A lovely, laid-back community of about 15,000 (according to the 2010 census), Fairhope has been drawing increasing amounts of attention, from both word of mouth and the national press: Southern Living magazine named it the second-best town in the South in 2007. My brother-in-law dreads that so many people will get wise to Fairhope, they’ll ruin its quiet pleasures. (As someone who left Atlanta partly to escape its overcrowding, he’s got a point.)

My wife and I first passed through in the early 1990s on the way back from a Gulf Coast beach, and became immediately infatuated with its well-appointed downtown and cozy yet spacious residential streets. From a high bluff overlooking Mobile Bay, Fairhope has a Norman Rockwell quaintness while still feeling contemporary, like a smaller-scale version of Asheville, N.C., or Athens, Ga. I wouldn’t call it a destination for adventure, but it’s a nice place to mellow out.

Sunset in the Live Oaks in Fairhope. Bill Giles

Photo: The Page and Palette bookstore, a Fairhope, Ala., mainstay since 1968, features a cafe, artwork and dozens of titles from local authors. Andrea Sachs/Washington Post

Fairhope was settled in 1894 by single-tax colonists, and the city, established in 1908, remains one of two such colonies in the United States. In the early 20th century, Fairhope became a Mobile Bay resort community, with famous visitors including authors Sherwood Anderson and Upton Sinclair. It’s easy to imagine the town’s vintage inns and bed-and-breakfasts giving Southern Great Gatsby types a quiet place to sleep off a wild weekend.

My wife and I usually visit every few years, but never stayed overnight until last February when we came for Mardi Gras weekend. We stayed at a rental apartment next to downtown’s Fairhope Playground, a well-equipped but unmemorable park that recently replaced the quirky but deteriorating wooden play fort that had been a favorite feature.

Every morning, we took advantage of being a 90-second walk from Fairhope’s “French Quarter,” a little nook of shops sharing a modest courtyard and a New Orleans motif. The sandwich shop Panini Pete’s lives up to the Crescent City connection with terrific beignets, every bite of which releases delectable flavors of fried dough and powdered sugar. Some residences and offices have second-story wrought-iron balconies, which reinforce the New Orleans vibe.

Fairhope’s streets offer a showcase for flowers and leisurely window-shopping. Our perennial favorite is the Page & Palette, an independent, family-owned bookstore nearly 50 years old, boasting a smart selection of titles as well as its own coffee shop and ice cream parlor. It serves as the center for Fairhope’s book clubs and literary community. Other favorites include Cat’s Meow clothing boutique; Metal Benders, which features handcrafted jewelry by 25 different artists; and the many antiques shops.

Fairhope has the overall feel of an artists’ colony, featuring plentiful public art and galleries. (Lyons Share Custom Frame and Gallery boasts cold beer on tap for while you wait on your framing.) Downtown holds First Friday art walks, arts festivals in March and October, and a film festival in November.

Its neighborhoods are full of charm, with cottages and Craftsman-style houses situated amid live oaks, longleaf pines and Southern magnolias. Stroll along the shady streets down the hill to Fairhope Pier, the de facto town square for fishing, socializing and watching the sunset. More than 100 years old, the pier was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina but rebuilt in 2006, and now offers a 1448-foot-long boardwalk with marina and restrooms, as well as scruffy beach on either side. Its small park includes a picturesque duck pond not far from a sign that warns, “Beware of alligators and snakes.”

Photo: A Great Blue Heron on the Fairhope Pier at Municipal Park, a stop on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. Blake Guthrie

Golf courses and tennis courts are plentiful in the Fairhope area, and one of the best places for walking and biking is the paved Eastern Shore Trail, which stretches for 32 miles and looks over the bay — with part of its most picturesque section in Fairhope itself. The pier provides an approximate dividing point from the flatter trail to the south and the hillier route to the north, which at times is just highway shoulder.

If you’re interested in local flora and fauna, about 10 miles from Fairhope the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve provides an educational habitat with fish and crustaceans, with guided tours on elevated boardwalks as well as two miles of ground trails.

The area’s most unique natural attraction is the “jubilee,” a phenomenon that sees aquatic animals such as blue crabs, flounder and eels converge on the shallow water, making them easy to catch from the shore. It’s not predictable, but when a jubilee occurs, residents will drop what they’re doing, notify each other and head for the bay with nets and fishing gear, no matter what time of day or night.

Visiting Fairhope in the warmer months means you’ll have access to locally-grown produce. This part of lower Alabama offers miles of flat, fertile farmland where Silver Queen corn, tomatoes and blueberries grow happily. Take a drive across the countryside and visit Krupinksi Farm to see what they’ve got (but call first, 251-943-1495, to make sure they’re not sold out).

It’s also easy to schedule a visit around local Mardi Gras festivities in the “micropolitan” area of Fairhope and smaller towns Daphne and Foley. Mobile boasts the oldest Mardi Gras in the United States (dating to 1703), so the area’s Carnival has historic roots. Given the ribald reputations of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, parents can rest assured that Fairhope’s parades — held from the last weekend of January until Fat Tuesday — are relatively family friendly.

On our visit, we saw costumed krewes throwing beads and other goodies from floats with such themes as candy and 1950s Americana. Replete with horses, marching bands and bar-rock acts, all of the area’s parades have a cheerful buzz of excitement without devolving into an R-rated, boozy bacchanal.

Fairhope may not offer quite enough attraction for a full week’s vacation, but it’s a terrific stopover for a weekend — or to live in year round. I guess I’ll owe my brother-in-law an apology the next time I see him.

Insider tip

For a tasty breakfast in a memorable setting, check out the Biscuit King’s Fun Barn, which is technically located in Fairhope while on a remote-feeling stretch of County Road 24. It’s worth the drive for inexpensive, no-frills food like its signature dish, “the ugly biscuit”: eggs, sausage and cheese baked inside a large butter biscuit.

Where to stay
Hampton Inn Fairhope-Mobile Bay, 23 North Section Street, Fairhope, Alabama. 251-928-0956

Where to eat
Panini Pete’s, 42 1/2 S. Section St., Fairhope. 251-929-0122

Biscuit King’s Fun Barn, 9555 County Road 24, Fairhope. 251-928-2424

What to see
Page & Palette Bookstore 32 S. Section St., Fairhope. 251-928-5295