Sweet Visit Alabama: Mardi Gras in MobileNovember 24, 2011 No Comments
Of any state we’ve traveled through, Alabama is probably the state where my children and I consumed the most sugar. We were constantly trying sweet iced tea, sweet mint tea, fresh limeade, lemonade, and sweet fruit ices. And it wasn’t even summer when we were there. In fact, we visited at Mardi Gras time.
Mari Gras is for New Orleans, right? Well, yes, but along with high prices and noisy celebrating that might not be quite so child-centric, as much as we loved New Orleans, we made our southern Fat Tuesday celebration elsewhere – in Mobile, Alabama. Here the parades and revelry are tamer in a city that claims it, not the Crescent City, is the birthplace of the tradition in the U.S.
When Mobile’s pre-Lent tradition began three hundred years ago, the city was known as Fort Louis de la Louisiane. Today’s modern Alabama version of the celebration describe their celebration as “America’s Original, America’s Family Mardi Gras.” And it lives up to its name. While more low key, you’ll still find a great and colorful parades as well as children’s mask- making workshops, a fascinating Carnival Museum and a beautiful old hotel – the Battle House – to stay in for a fraction of the prices of New Orleans. And substantially less liquor flows, too.
Did I say parades, plural? Yes, I did because it’s true. There are six parades in Mobile on Fat Tuesday, with other parades preceding them in the month leading up to the festival. The parades are individually organized by the city’s secret parade planning society and social groups -ehre called mystics – the equivalent of New Orleans famous krewes. These mystic members ride the floats, build them, toss out glittery cheap necklaces and fake coins to the eager spectators lining the streets. And back to all that sugar we consumed in Alabama – we even snagged a couple of chocolate Moon Pies tossed from a float designed to look like – a moon.
We were delighted by how orderly the streets felt – crowded, yes, claustrophobic, no, although crowd estimates can be up to a hundred and fifty thousand in attendance city wide. There are lots of small children, elementary age and teen age children standing everywhere, and parades are scheduled during day time as well as evening hours. One of the reasons for all the children in tow is the fact that public schools are closed on both Monday and Fat Tuesday itself, encouraging family participation. My son wondered if they had to write reports about the experience.
As a supplement to the actual parade or if you’ve missed Mardi Gras season, you’ll enjoy a visit to the Mobile Carnival Museum, located in the lush surroundings of a 19th century mansion. Throughout the mansion’s rooms, you’ll see costumes worn in Mardi Gras celebrations’ past, gowns worn by kings and queens crowned at exclusive, invitation only galas.
The museum also acknowledges the Civil Rights issues in the Mobile area in times all too recently past. Segregated festivals are thankfully no longer in existence, and while the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association parade starts in African American neighborhoods it continues on through the streets of downtown Mobile.
Besides the Mardi Gras itself and the Mardi Gras Museum, what else is in Mobile Alabama? As the only port town in the state of Alabama, the downtown area offers some great water front views, and the USS Alabama Battleship Park. An impressive attraction for historical and military significance, it’s also just plain fun for the kids to explore a giant battle ship. The self guided tour took us about two hours, but you could easily spend more time here. Although we did not, you can also tour a submarine.
Where to stay? We splurged on the Battle House, an elegant and historic spot in the heart of downtown. Marriott now runs the historic hotel, and service is excellent. While rooms can be on the small side, it’s a great location to watch the Mardi Gras parades and has a charming restaurant with surprisingly reasonable pricing. For breakfast, the Trellis Room had a wonderful buffet, and the kids prices for a huge spread of fruit, fresh waffles and more was decidedly budget saving. The hotel was quiet, accommodating, and elegant without being stuffy. And again: location is key.
It’s conveniently located not just to the Mardi Gras activities but to other must -do historical sights such as the Museum of Mobile. Contained in what was once city hall and what is one of the oldest buildings in Mobile, this museum offers a widely encompassing look at the city’s history, culture, and diversity. The exhibits are well laid out and extensive. We learned so much about the city’s past effortlessly. Nearby, the kids will love a trip to Fort Conde, a reconstructed fort built on the site of the fort’s original location. The fort was built to protect Mobile and its citizens by the French as a defense against British and Spanish attack, and the original stood from 1723-1820. Today, along with the history it offers, the site is a terrific place for kids to explore. And where else can you tour such an historic site while wearing Mardi Gras beads? And follow that up with some lemonade, sipped while watching – another parade!