Southeast travel: Alabama
Devotees of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright can quickly name two of his most acclaimed home designs: Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and Taliesin West in Arizona. They’ll also remind you of the Rosenbaum House (601 Riverview Drive, Florence. 256-718-5050, wrightinalabama.com) in Florence, the only home Wright created in Alabama and the only one of his plans in the Southeast that’s open to the public. Built in 1939, the low-slung one-story had about 1,500 square feet, but in 1948, the Rosenbaum family recruited Wright to design a 1,084-square-foot addition. The family lived in the home until 1999, when it was acquired by the city that raised funds to restore and open the property to the public.
Established in 1985, the 112-acre Huntsville Botanical Garden (4747 Bob Wallace Ave., Huntsville. 256-830-4447, hsvbg.org, @HSVBG) has long been a favorite of locals. Now the experience is even more pleasurable: In March, the property was enhanced with a $16 million, 30,000-square-foot facility that includes a welcome center, three event areas and Table in the Garden, serving lunch, brunch and to-go picnics. Just beyond its doors, visitors will find wooded pathways, open meadows, an aquatic garden, a children’s garden, a butterfly house, a nature center, a miniature railroad layout, vegetable and herb gardens, and a superabundance of flowers.
Odette (120 N. Court St., Florence. 256-349-5219, odettealabama.com, @odettealabama) has established a reputation for promoting locally sourced and house-made menus, from the charcuterie plates to the coffee. A few years ago, chef Josh Quick’s devotion to Southern cuisine earned him the chance to show off at the James Beard House in New York. Dine on house-ground beef burgers, crisp potato gnocchi, deviled eggs and whole fried okra for lunch, brunch, dinner and late night.
Take a Mediterranean menu, place it in the capable hands of an Alabama-born chef with Hungarian roots and the mix is a tasty delight that has found a devoted following. At Bellini’s Ristorante (6801 Cahaba Valley Road, Birmingham. 205-981-5380, ourbellinis.com), executive chef Ryan Zargo has put his own spin on manicotti, house-made ravioli, seafood risotto and lobster jalapeno mac and cheese. Despite a broad menu that includes veal, chicken and plenty of classic Italian selections, Bellini’s was also nominated as one of the best steakhouses in the state for its rib-eyes, short ribs and filets.
Long before trains laid tracks across the South, the stagecoach was the mass transit of choice. Even after locomotives connected major cities, stagecoach routes provided links between more rural communities. About 20 minutes east of Birmingham, the town of Leeds sat on one of those major routes, a path that dates back to the 1820s when it followed old Indian trails. The Leeds Historical Society has erected more than 20 signs to mark significant houses, churches and businesses along the way. The society also maintains the Rowan House (1900 Montevallo Road, Leeds. 205-699-1760,leedshistoricalsociety.com), a farmhouse that was a frequent stop for stagecoaches. Drive or bike this historic route, dotted with several bucolic spots along the Little Cahaba River or Lake Purdy for canoeing, horseback riding, fishing and exploring local history.
The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument (520 16th St. N., Birmingham. 205-328-9696, bcri.org, @bhamcivilrights), created earlier this year, isn’t just one sculpture or edifice. Rather, it’s about four city blocks in the heart of town that have been added to the National Park System. The area includes several properties that played significant roles in the civil rights movement, including the A.G. Gaston Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and colleagues such as Ralph Abernathy planned their strategies to battle the city’s segregation laws; the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of the infamous Birmingham bombing; and Kelly Ingram Park, where protesters faced down police dogs and water hoses. Also in the district is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute with exhibits that tell the story of the movement and make an excellent starting point to tour the area.
Pizitz Building Food Hall (120 19th St. N., Birmingham. 205-214-9999, thepizitz.com) is the intersection of classic Southern and international cuisines. Opened earlier this year, the upscale food court is home to a dozen market-styled stalls that feature local goodies (Alabama Biscuits, Busy Corner Cheese mongers, Birmingham-based Revelator Coffee) as well as Hawaiian poke, Nepalese dumplings, Israeli falafels and craft ramen noodles. Grab one of the 30 seats at the Louis, the centerpiece bar, or settle in to the full-service Fero (“iron”), an Italian restaurant whose name is a nod to the city’s industrial roots. Also in the mix: an incubator kitchen for up-and-comers ready to show off their culinary flair.
Another nominee for the state’s best steakhouse, Nolan’s (1140 Gulf Shores Parkway, Gulf Shores. 251-948-2111,nolansrestaurant.com, @Nolans_GS), features hand-cut filets, rib-eyes, tenderloins and prime rib that can be personalized with finishes such as a classic bearnaise or a roasted peppercorn cream. But being on the Gulf means plenty of attention is paid to local seafood, including shrimp, oysters, scallops, crab claws and soft-shell crabs that show up in the seafood feast platter. Can’t decide? Dig into the 12-ounce lobster tail paired with an 8-ounce filet.
As if the beaches and quaint seaside towns weren’t enough of a draw, the coast now has 520 more acres of fun. Just opened this year is Owa (10113 Foley Beach Express, Foley. 251-923-2111, visitowa.com, @VisitOWA), a $500 million complex about 10 miles from the beach. Owa means “big water” in the Muscogee Creek language. The property includes a 150-room Marriott hotel, shops, restaurants and a theme park with 21 rides of varying thrill levels and four roller coasters. The main attraction: the Rollin’ Thunder coaster that claims to be one of the longest coaster rides in the country. An indoor events center and a sports complex with 16 fields are set to open this month.
Just opened in June, Hotel Indigo (22843 Perdido Beach Blvd., Orange Beach. 251-981-1737, ihg.com/hotelindigo) serving the towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach bills itself as the Gulf Coast’s “first upscale beachside boutique” property. The setting is exceptional, between the sandy beaches and the natural charm of Gulf State Park. Inside, guests will find a fitness center, indoor/outdoor pool and 62 rooms, a few of which gladly welcome four-footed guests. The on-site restaurant and bar, Hunter’s Bend, serves breakfast and dinner dishes that showcase local seafood, produce and vendors; the Southern Grind Coffee House provides java and go-with goodies.
It’s more than a ship: The “Mighty A,” as this World War II USS Alabama Battleship is called, is just one of the attractions in this 155-acre park (2703 Battleship Parkway, Mobile. 251-433-2703, ussalabama.com, @USS_ALABAMA). The aircraft pavilion recently welcomed Marine One, a restored helicopter that served five presidents, to the 27-piece collection that includes an A-12 Black Bird spy plane used by the CIA. To mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, a new exhibit features a Model T Ford and a diorama of what it was like to fight in the trenches. Explore tanks, artillery and the USS Drum submarine before having a picnic on the grounds. Overnight stays and parties can also be arranged in advance.
Think “Mardi Gras,” and most people immediately conjure images of street parties in New Orleans. In fact, Mobile was the site of the first Fat Tuesday revelry back in the early 1700s. Last November, the city created Mardi Gras Park (148 S. Royal St., Mobile. 251-432-1638, downtownparksconservancy.org) at the corner of Royal and Church streets to remind visitors and locals of that distinction. Anchoring the grounds that once held an old courthouse, the park is dotted with colorful statues of carnival kings and queens, all reminiscent of the party spirit. Across the street is the History Museum of Mobile; the Mobile Carnival Museum, with its collection of costumes, is a few blocks away.
Twenty years ago, famed Atlanta Braves player and Mobile native Hank Aaron tossed out the first pitch in Hank Aaron Stadium (755 Bolling Brothers Blvd., Mobile. 251-479-2327, mobilebaybears.com). The stadium’s address also has a historical context: Bolling Brothers Boulevard was named for hometown boys and major league players Milt and Frank Bolling. And it sits at the corner of Satchel Paige Drive, a nod to another home-grown talent who was among the first Negro League players honored in the Hall of Fame. Today, “the Hank” is home to the Mobile BayBears minor league team that just this year became affiliated with the Los Angeles Angels farm system. The 6,000-seat field includes 23 luxury boxes just 52 feet from home plate.
Fans of the Food Network’s “Ginormous Food” show might recognize Von’s Bistro (69 St. Michael St., Mobile. 251-375-1113,vonsbistro.com) as the site where chef Von Larson created a foot-long spring roll stuffed with rice, pork, pork belly, shrimp and crab. Larson is noted for blending Asian, Southern and seafood — in much smaller sizes — using many recipes passed down from her family. Gulf crab wontons, pho soup and pad Thai share the menu with shrimp and cheese grits and fish tacos for lunch, brunch and dinner.
If just the thought of staying in a tent makes you start scratching, here’s an option that blends outdoors with not too terribly rustic camping. Head to Roland Cooper State Park (285 Deer Run Drive, Camden. 334-682-4838, alapark.com), about an hour southwest of Montgomery, where four new “tiny house” cabins are a step up from a traditional campsite. The 408-square-foot designs sleep four to six and come with furnishings and a full kitchen (even a fridge with an icemaker). Need more elbow room? The park also features five two-bedroom, fully furnished cabins. Those who prefer being close to nature will find 47 campsites with picnic tables, grills and electric and sewer hookups. Thirteen primitive sites are also available. The park is an ideal spot for fishing, boating and bird-watching.
Before she was the glamorous wife of celebrity author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Sayre was the belle of Montgomery society. Her husband called her “the first American flapper,” and the pair married in 1920. After traveling the world, the couple returned to Zelda’s hometown and lived in this two-story, Georgian-style house from 1931 to 1932, the last time they shared an abode with their only child as a family. Today the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum (919 Felder Ave., Montgomery. 334-264-4222, thefitzgeraldmuseum.org, @FitzMuse) is the only museum devoted to them. The nonprofit that oversees the house not only has amassed a number of Fitzgerald artifacts; it also works to encourage young writers and to promote the reading of the author’s works.
Curious about how all the moving parts come together to produce a car? Wonder no more. These behind-the-scenes tours of the Hyundai factory (700 Hyundai Blvd., Montgomery. 334-387-8000, www.hmmausa.com) take the mystery out of the process. Spoiler alert: The Sonatas and Elantras the factory turns out are largely the effort of robots and human supervisors. See the steps from beginning to end during these free excursions offered from Monday through Thursday. An advance registration is required.