Southern Boating

Fairhope, Alabama

A Welcome Respite

Beneath sprawling moss-draped oaks with their seconds standing by as witness, two sailors from New Orleans marched off fifteen paces between each other and fired. The men were settling an “Affaire d’Honneur” from a perceived slight towards a young lady the previous evening at a post regatta ball on the grounds of the Grand Hotel at Point Clear. The year was 1852, and as the smoke from their black-powder pistols joined the early morning mist, both sailors were left standing and they agreed the affair was settled. The men then returned to their schooners anchored on the eastern shores of Mobile Bay long a destination for cruisers and racers, and today the arts colony of Fairhope is a jewel on those bluffs rising on the Alabama coast.

A welcome respite or starting point for cruisers traversing the Tombigbee River and the Great Loop, Fairhope is well known to “Loopers,” and the town is well appointed to serve transients. Easily located from the water by the historic Ecor Rouge or “Red Bluff” outcropping on the bay, this red clay cliff is the highest coastal point between Maine and Mexico and has been used by mariners as a navigational point since the first Spanish explorers plied these waters in the 1500s. Due south of Ecor Rouge is the channel to the entrance of the full-service Eastern Shore and Fly Creek marinas, as well as the Fairhope Yacht Club.

Mobile Bay itself is quite shallow with an average depth of around 10 feet, yet sandy and shifting shoals abound, and it’s best to stick to the maintained channels. Fairhope Yacht Club is full of Southern charm and with proper advance notice, quite welcoming and accustomed to transients. Located about a mile from Fairhope’s bustling town center, scooters and bicycles are recommended, however, the adjacent Eastern Shore Marina offers a courtesy car to transients. Otherwise, a short dinghy ride to the municipal pier will leave you only a few blocks’ walk into town.

Fairhope was founded in 1894 and has a unique history as a “Single Tax Colony,” where a large portion of the land is owned by a managing authority that leases out the individual parcels—although the majority of the town has grown outside of those initial boundaries. Downtown Fairhope—a walking town—and her surrounding old Southern neighborhoods are stunning in their quiet allure, with beautifully landscaped streets and quaint antique shops, art galleries and boutique clothing stores.

Fairhope is, perhaps, best known for the legendary Page & Palette bookstore that draws in any writer worth their salt for book signings—large crowds have become old hat to the locals. The old Fly Creek bar on the marina was notorious as a Gulf Coast literary watering hole with writers such as John Grisham, Rick Bragg and Winston Groom frequenting to drink, smoke cigars and enjoy the sunset over the bay with the local shrimpers and oystermen. Fairhope today has that same feel, something akin to New Orleans, Ocean Springs and Apalachicola—that strange mix of coastal waters and the Deep South that feeds pages of novels.

Downtown Fairhope is growing as a culinary destination with the fertile estuaries of Bon Secour and Bayou La Batre located only an hour’s sail away along with their incredibly fresh catches. Gentrified buildings converted to host white tablecloth dining are popping up at places like Camellia Cafe where the Executive Chef is re-introducing Black Drum to the locals. Thyme, located on the bluff overlooking the bay, has become a destination for the “ladies-who-lunch” crowd in a quaint Gulf Coast house surrounded by towering oaks. Old school restaurants such as the Dragonfly and the Washhouse are legendary on the Alabama Coast. Right in the heart of downtown is Panini Pete’s, Pete Blohme’s flagship restaurant for his budding food empire. Regularly spotlighted and featured on the Food Network (and a Culinary Institute of America graduate), Pete is also branching out to reopen the aforementioned Fly Creek restaurant at the marina whose closing is long lamented by the old-school locals.

Only a few miles down the coast is Point Clear and the Grand Hotel, constructed in 1847. Part of a trend of waterfront destinations throughout the northern Gulf Coast in the 1800s, these resorts served the wealthy plantation owners, bankers and cotton brokers from New Orleans and Mobile. The Grand Hotel is one of the few that has survived nearly 200 years. Today, the resort is full of modern amenities and a world-class golf course. The Grand Hotel at Point Clear also holds great docking and slip facilities for transient cruisers.

Timing your visit with the migration of the Loopers will add to the camaraderie on the piers, but Fairhope in the spring is unmatched. With the azaleas and dogwood in bloom, the town comes alive. The 63rd Annual Arts & Crafts Festival will run in March of 2015. Like many towns on the northern Gulf Coast, Fairhope has an amazing legacy of coastal artists and the festival attracts over 250,000 visitors—pay special attention to the “found metal” sculptors and the potters who utilize the unique clay of southern Alabama.

The Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay also has a direct tie to the three-centuries-old Mardi Gras celebrations that reach back to the first French explorers bouncing along the northern Gulf Coast in 1699. Across the bay, Mobile hosts a celebration that is only surpassed by New Orleans, and Fairhope puts on her own show with three parades running through her downtown in February of 2015.

A bit further to the east along the coast lie perfect Gulf Coast beaches starting in Fort Morgan, with Orange Beach and Gulf Shores stealing the show. The Alabama coast also has great destination marinas such as Jimmy Buffett’s sister’s place, Lulu’s on the ICW, as well as The Wharf in Orange Beach. Nearby, Saunder’s Yachtworks is a world-class boatyard with state-of-the-art facilities.

The eastern shores of Mobile Bay have long been a cruising destination since schooners plied these waters two centuries ago. The bluffs shrouded in pines, oaks and azaleas hide quiet cruising destinations just miles away from the sugar sand beaches and emerald waters of Alabama’s barrier islands. Local artists, chefs and residents are waiting for you and will define what southern hospitality truly means as you drop those lines and tie up in Mobile Bay.

By Troy Gilbert, Southern Boating August 2014