The town of Magnolia Springs is as you would expect -- a touch of old school Americana straight out of a classic novel. What is unexpected though is that it is so close to the resort towns of the Alabama Gulf Coast. What seems like a million miles from civilization is a mere 15 minutes drive from the luxury resorts of the Gulf towns of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores.
There aren't too many towns like Magnolia Springs, Alabama left. Mail is delivered by boats along the bayous, just as it has been done for almost 100 years. There's one general store, Moore Brothers' Market, but rather than selling canned goods and old-fashioned favorites, it stocks quality gourmet products, fresh fruit and vegetables, organic meats and a selection of hundreds of local and imported wines. Next door is the town's only restaurant, Jesse's (www.jessesrestaurant.com). A relatively recent addition to the town, Jesse's is far from a local diner. It's a fine dining establishment with a superior wine list and its chef, Joey Gilley prepares haute cuisine from the finest fresh Alabama produce. Try Jesse's Whiskey Steak (a 16 ounce slab of rib-eye infused with Jack Daniel's finest) and the champagne crab bisque, both house specialties, or perhaps a local favorite of Shrimp and Grits or Grouper Almondine. Both the store and the restaurant sit on a historic site of the original general store and post office that operated here for close to 60 years. It took local resident, philanthropist, and now Mayor, Charlie Houser's devotion to the town he grew up in to restore the building and create a culinary destination where there was none.
Leafy, massive oak trees line the streets and provide shade from the midday sun while the town's 600 or so residents greet you with a warm southern hello. In the spring, the town's namesake magnolias are in full bloom, some the size of large dinner plates. This is the town that was home to Forrest Gump author Winston Groom and is also the setting for Fannie Flagg's (author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café) more recent novel A Redbird Christmas. Classic Victorian manor houses and cottages sit proudly at the end of manicured lawns and flaming red cardinals prance about, jumping between giant tree limbs. The occasional car passes by, but usually at low speed -- nobody seems to be in a hurry here.
The gently flowing Magnolia River is a peaceful oasis. While away your day on one of the River's floating pontoons or stand on the edge of the bridge and imagine that you are in a Mark Twain novel, complete with wooden rafts and the scent of honeysuckle lingering in the air. The lifeblood of the area, the rivers of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta are a haven for swimmers (beware, there have been alligator sightings), canoeists and kayakers. Take off from the floating dock at Bartram's Landing and follow the Bartram Canoe Trail (www.outdooralabama.com/outdoor-adventures/bartram). Delta boat tours and airboat tours of the area are also available for charter from Bartram's Landing.
Down here, you don't mention the "H" word. Instead, the locals like to call hurricanes "Tropical Occurrences." Considering the devastating effects that Ivan had on this community in 2004, it is remarkable to see that like the Alabama people themselves, this town is resilient and has bounced back.
There's only one hotel, the immaculately restored Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast (www.magnoliasprings.com). With only five rooms, you won't want for personalized service and attention from the ever-gracious inn keeper, David Worthington. That, plus afternoon teas, homemade evening desserts and a traditional turn down service with chocolates are some of the fine touches that make the property stand apart from standard accommodation options. The hotel is floor to ceiling original wood with ornate Victorian architectural features, historic artwork and antiques. Prices start at $179 plus tax per room per night including a sumptuous and indulgent three-course breakfast. David can also arrange to rent a boat for you for some personal discovery along the bayous.
Magnolia Springs also runs special events like the Culinary Class Weekend package to be held September 26 to 28, 2008 and again from January 30 to February 1, 2009. This weekend of relaxation and food includes two nights' accommodations and starts with a wine tasting session at the B&B on the Friday evening led by an expert from Gulf Coast Culinary Institute, followed by a dinner at Jesse's (dinner not included in the package price). On Saturday, wake up to a gourmet three-course breakfast and then attend a Gulf Coast Seafood Extravaganza cooking class at the Gulf Coast Culinary Institute. After a brief lecture on the foods and wines of the Gulf Coast, work with the rest of the class to prepare a four course meal that the class will enjoy together, along with a selection of wines. On Sunday breakfast is a lighter fare of fruit, muffins, coffee and juices and then back to the Institute for a morning class in healthy ways to prepare excellent tasting breakfast/brunch casseroles and desserts followed by a chance to savor your creations for lunch. This package is priced from $608 for two people.
Five miles down the road from Magnolia Springs you'll find the slightly larger town of Foley. Sure, Route 59 may go straight through the town and a few chain restaurants seem to be invading the city's outskirts, but the town still has classic Alabama charm and local businesses that make it an attractive day trip and stop over when visiting the coast. There are three sizeable antique stores -- more like mini antique malls housing a variety of vendors. You can pick up local memorabilia, artifacts, and an array of furniture and bric-a-brac. Shop owners are never afraid to strike up a lively conversation and provide anecdotes about themselves and the town of Foley. Seafood lovers shouldn't miss the Foley Fish Company store (tel. 251/943-6461) on the main drag -- South McKenzie Street (Highway 59). Fresh fish, shrimp, crab, oysters and even frogs legs are plentiful, as is a delicious selection of prepared specialties like Cajun Crawfish, Shrimp Gumbo and authentic etouffes. Best of all, they ship anywhere in the U.S. and the prices are very reasonable so you needn't leave Alabama without bringing home some of its most famous culinary souvenirs. Stacey's Rexall Drug Store (tel. 251/943-7191) is a classic early 20th century drug store complete with working soda fountains and a historic dispensary. Nothing here has really changed in decades except perhaps the cost of a house special key lime milkshake or a root beer float. The coffee is still ten cents a cup and the jukebox plays music for free.
Another must-see is the Wild Outdoor Collection store (tel. 251/943-6021), home to every type of stuffed and mounted animal you can imagine (vegetarians and PETA supporters best skip this one). If it has horns and teeth, there's a dead one for sale right here, alongside exotic mountain style home made furniture and miscellaneous cabin gear. Jan's Art Studio (tel. 251/971-3836) features paintings and sculptures by local artists plus they regularly hold evening meet the artist events. Foley Archives & History Museum (www.cityoffoley.org) is home to the agricultural history and artifacts of Foley's early years. Just behind the Archives, you'll find the Foley Alabama Railroad Museum (F.A.R.M.), home to an "O" gauge model railroad exhibit. The Caboose Club, a group of model train builders, worked for a year designing and constructing the quarter-mile of track and twelve different railroad lines. The train exhibit operates every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10am until 2pm and the Archives and History Museum is open weekdays from 10am to 4pm.
A stay at Foley's Hotel Magnolia (tel. 251/943-5297; www.thehotelmagnolia.com) completes the small town experience. The lovingly restored historic landmark is currently celebrating its hundredth year. This elegant inn with its two-story wrap-around porch has guests sleeping in antique filled rooms on 800-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and waking to a traditional country breakfast. Room rates start from $135 per night plus tax.
Note: This trip was sponsored by the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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