Mobile's tourism industry will receive a shot in the arm starting November 2016, when the 2,052-passenger Carnival Fantasy begins offering jaunts to Cozumel, Costa Maya and Progreso, Mexico. It is the cruise industry's first return to Mobile after pulling out in 2011.
The late writer Eugene Walter called Mobile "sweet lunacy's county seat." Walter's grave, which can be found in the historic Church Street Graveyard only a mile west of the Mobile cruise terminal on oak-canopied Government Street, is marked by a tombstone etched with the words, "When all else fails, throw a party." Mobilians are certainly good at that. They have been doing it since the city was founded as the first capital of French Colonial Louisiana in 1702. This predilection for an active nightlife has often given rise to comparisons with New Orleans, as have the city's French street names (some of which are identical to those in New Orleans' French Quarter), architecture, Cajun and Creole cuisine (fresh seafood is always on the menu), and an economy centered around a bustling seaport. But Mobile has a spirit all its own.
Situated on Mobile Bay with Gulf beaches only a short drive away (it's the largest coastal city between New Orleans and St. Petersburg, Florida), beach culture runs deep in Mobile. Singer-songwriter -- and beach life aficionado -- Jimmy Buffet spent part of his childhood here and played some of his first gigs in the city. Bring your seersuckers and flip-flops, and you'll fit right in.
Also known as the Azalea City, for the vivid flowering bushes that blanket yards and parks in the spring, Mobile boasts a mild subtropical climate with high temperatures in the 90s during the summers and 60s in the winters. Be sure to bring an umbrella: Mobile is wetter than Seattle with approximately five feet of rain each year.
Mobile's downtown and riverfront has evolved into a full-fledged tourist destination, with an eclectic array of shops, restaurants and museums within a five- to 10-minute walk of the cruise terminal. Both Fort Conde Museum and Welcome Center and the Cooper Riverside Park are less than a quarter mile from the port, as is the 90,000-square-foot GulfQuest maritime museum, which boasts a gift shop modeled after a sunken Spanish galleon and interactive exhibits showcasing marine archeology, Gulf marine life and shipbuilding. GulfQuest boasts the only restaurant immediately overlooking the Mobile River; called The Galley, it serves local specialties such as shrimp and grits, and mahi-mahi prepared a variety of ways.
Dauphin Street: With its wrought-iron balconies and eclectic array of restaurants, art galleries, boutiques and bars, Dauphin Street -- in the historic heart of the city -- often draws comparisons to New Orleans' Bourbon Street. But it is decidedly more calm and family-friendly. You're more apt to run into families attending events such as ArtWalk, rather than wild revelers -- although those certainly are present at times. Held the second Friday of each month (except in February), ArtWalk is a festive gathering of artists, craftspeople, musicians and food trucks. Nearby galleries open their doors and offer complementary wine and cheese, while vendors sell their wares on the street.
Crescent Theater: While exploring Dauphin Street, be sure to check out this historic, intimate theater that shows independent and locally produced films and serves wine and beer. Be sure to arrive early to score one of the theater's ultra-comfortable leather recliners. (208 Dauphin Street, 251-438-2005; open seven days a week, hours vary)
Three Georges Southern Chocolates: Established in 1917, this is one of Dauphin Street's best candy shops. It offers favorites such as pralines, heavenly hash and pecan pie, as well as gift baskets. (226 Dauphin Street, 251-433-6725; Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Wintzell's Oyster House is another landmark on Dauphin Street; it serves an impressive selection of Gulf seafood including its famous gumbo and West Indies Salad (chilled lump crabmeat and onions marinated in an oil and vinegar dressing). You can spend hours reading the witty sayings of founder J. Oliver Wintzell, which cover the walls from floor to ceiling. (605 Dauphin Street, 251-432-4605; Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
William & Emily Hearin Mobile Carnival Museum: Discover the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the United States at this museum where visitors can browse full-size replicas of parade floats and displays showcasing dazzling costumes -- crowns, jeweled trains and scepters included -- of Carnival kings and queens of yesteryear. The museum is wheelchair accessible and offers lively guided tours. (355 Government Street, 251-432-3324; Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Church Street Graveyard: An historical cemetery surrounded by handmade brick walls with an iconic gate made of Mobile-wrought iron. It contains elaborate monuments covered in moss, dating as far back as the early 1800s. Joe Cain, the man said to have founded the modern celebration of Mardi Gras in Mobile in 1832 (more than two decades before New Orleans), is buried here. In early spring, both his and author Walter's graves are adorned with sparkling plastic beads from the most recent Mardi Gras parades, which take place in February and March of each year along with their more famous New Orleans counterparts. (On four acres adjacent to the Ben May Main Library, 701 Government Street)
USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park: Here you'll find the the USS Alabama, which saw major action in World War II in the South Pacific, as well as other vessels and aircraft from WWII to more recent conflicts. (2703 Battleship Parkway, 251-433-2703; April to September open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., October to March open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Christmas Day)
History Museum of Mobile: Located in the Old City Hall, this museum has both permanent and touring exhibits. (111 S. Royal Street, 251-208-7508; Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.)
Mobile Museum of Art: Art lovers will want to check out this museum, which features an array of permanent, traveling and seasonal exhibitions. (4850 Museum Drive; 251-208-5200; Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center & IMAX Theater: This museum offers breathtaking IMAX films, prestigious touring exhibitions and permanent interactive exhibits popular with kids. (65 Government Street, 251-205-6893; Tuesday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.)
Bellingrath Gardens and Museum Home: Located approximately 25 miles south of the port, Bellingrath has more than 60 miles of lush grounds to view a dazzling array of foliage such as the azaleas for which the city is famous. (During the holidays, they have elaborate light displays.) The home itself was built in 1935, using bricks salvaged from 1800s Mobile buildings, and is filled with antiques. (12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore, 251-973-2217; open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.)Farther Afield: The Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay offers wonderful shopping, particularly in Fairhope, a historical burg overlooking Mobile Bay with a downtown that has a wealth of quaint shops and restaurants. Beyond that are Alabama beaches with their crystal blue-green waters. A little over an hour to the west is the Mississippi Gulf Coast, providing a wealth of seafood restaurants and casinos, most of which are concentrated in Biloxi.
On Foot: Attractions such as GulfQuest, the Exploreum, Fort Conde and downtown are within walking distance of the Mobile cruise terminal.
By Taxi: Should one want to venture further afield, there are a variety of options. Cab companies include Yellow Cab of Mobile (251-545-3265), for which the one-way fare between the airport and cruise terminal is approximately $40, and recent arrival Uber, which has become a popular option among downtown revelers as a way to get around.
Mobile's restaurant scene is expanding and evolving, with an impressive array of ethnic offerings joining the Southern cooking and seafood mainstays for which the area is famous. Barbecue restaurants also continue to multiply. Many of the city's best restaurants, from fine dining to bar food to fusion, can be found within the confines of downtown.
Mama's on Dauphin: This restaurant offers reasonably priced Southern favorites such as red beans and rice with locally made Conecuh sausage, chicken fried steak and collard greens. Owned and operated by the same folks who run The Galley, Mama's also has seafood platters and specialties such as crab cakes. (220 Dauphin Street, 251-432-6262; Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., closed on the weekends)
Spot of Tea: Farther west, try breakfast, brunch or lunch at this local favorite, which has been serving up house dishes such as Eggs Cathedral (an English muffin topped with a crab cake, scrambled eggs and a sauce made with blackened Mexican grouper and crawfish) since 1994. You can also enjoy al fresco dining overlooking Cathedral Square, the park for which the dish gets its name. (310 Dauphin Street, 251-433-9009; Monday to Friday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
The Blind Mule Restaurant & Bar: This eatery is another popular brunch and lunch spot just off Dauphin; it's known for its hand-made fried cheese planks and, on Sundays, brunch specialties such as The Hangover, a giant pancake filled with Conecuh sausage and topped with a fried egg and bacon. (57 N. Claiborne Street; Monday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 4 a.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
OK Bicycle Shop: On the west end of Dauphin you'll find this historic bicycle shop-turned-bar. Recently, the bar has expanded to include the Dauphin Street Taqueria (think gourmet tacos and items such as housemade chorizo queso dip) and Liquid Sushi, which offers interesting takes on sushi. (166 Dauphin Street, 251-432-2453; Monday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.)Moe's Original B Que: If barbecue is what you're after, there is no place else to be than Moe's, right across the street from the OK Bike Shop at the intersection of Dauphin Street and Springhill Avenue. (701 Springhill Avenue, 251-410-7427; open daily 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.)
The Mobile Cruise Terminal is a two-story, 66,000 square-foot facility with an attached 500-space parking garage. The garage has six covered pick-up/drop-off lanes and is accessible via four elevators, an escalator and stairs. The terminal is within minutes of numerous banks and ATMS, hotels, restaurants and other attractions. It is a half-mile from Interstate 10, and six miles from the junction of I-65 and I-10. To herald the return of Carnival, the terminal is working with the city's architectural department to unveil a new look featuring artwork and a new color scheme. Wi-Fi is available.
Name pronunciation: Just as New Orleans natives scoff when out-of-towners say "New OrLEENs," Mobilians prefer you pronounce their city's name properly: "MOH-beel," rather than "moh-BILE."
The United States dollar is the only currency accepted in Mobile. You'll need to find a nearby ATM if you need to withdraw cash.
English is the language spoken.
Look for Mardi Grad beads, doubloons, cups and masks from the Mobile Carnival Museum gift shop, or Wintzell's "Fried, Stewed and Nude" (a reference to ways you can eat their oysters) T-shirts or koozies from the restaurant.