I’ll bet your family has driven through Mobile, Alabama, a time or two. I’ve often glimpsed its downtown skyline as a blur from I-10, as I’ve headed to the sugary shores of the Florida coast. But Mobile has a tangy flavor all its own. I recently explored the city, courtesy of the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, and discovered some interesting new offerings as well as familiar favorites that make this a fun destination for families.
Must See: GulfQuest, National Maritime Museum of the Gulf Coast — Although exhibits hadn’t yet been installed at my visit, the scope of this museum promises to be impressive. Its aim is to educate visitors on the ecology, maritime, and economic aspects of the Gulf of Mexico. A variety of displays will help kids learn about the health of the Gulf, some that show the amazing array of garbage that washes up on its shores. Kids and parents alike will be impressed by one area where barges and cargo containers soar 10 stories high, driving home how much freight travels through Gulf Coast ports to world-wide destinations. Be sure to take a walk on the uppermost deck, with its panoramic views of the neighboring ship building docks. Opens Summer 2014. • gulfquest.org
5 Rivers Delta Center — Did you know the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is the second largest river delta system in the continental U.S.? Here the Mobile, Tensaw, Spanish, Appalachee, and Blakely Rivers flow into Mobile Bay. The 5 Rivers $10-million facility includes six campsites, classrooms, and an exhibit hall. Kids will love the nature center, with many hands-on displays, stuffed animals native to the region, and terrariums filled with creepy crawlies. Even better are the hour-long boat rides with guides who describe life in the delta. 5rds.com or • outdooralabama.com
If there’s time: — Take a delta eco kayak tour on the Bartram Canoe Trail. The tour I took was very relaxed and our guide was informative. Being on the river gives you an up close experience. We saw an alligator surface briefly and an eagle circle overhead. $45/person.
Must See: Dauphin Island Plan to spend a day on Dauphin Island, since there’s plenty to discover here that will suit both young kids and older sibs. Dauphin is just a 45-minute drive from downtown paralleling Mobile Bay, but with its Gulf location, has a more relaxed, beach-like atmosphere.
Estuarium at Dauphin Island Sea Lab — Though this is a small marine center, it does many things right. An outdoor display lets kids touch live stingrays. Inside, colorful displays, terrariums, and hands-on exhibits teach visitors about the life in the estuary. Many families I saw were drawn into the exhibits • disl.org
Fort Gaines — This Civil War era fort, shaped like a pentagon, is open and faces the gulf. Most interesting here are the interpreters, who dress in period costumes and talk enthusiastically about how the fort’s soldiers protected residents of Mobile during the Battle of Mobile in the Civil War.
If There’s Time: Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary — This 164-acre park is a popular destination for birders, since more than 300 species have been recorded here. Take the shady .3 mile hike on the boardwalk to Gaillard Lake. Have binoculars handy; you might spy resident herons and shore birds.
Must See: Fort Conde — To get a feel for Mobile’s rich and varied heritage, pay a visit to the colonial Fort Conde. A popular destination for area schoolchildren, this replica of the city’s original fort was built to tell Mobile’s colorful Colonial past, with its French, British, and Spanish roots that stretch to its founding in 1702. Many artifacts on display here were uncovered during the expansion of Interstate I-10 in 1968. As part of the park’s recent reinterpretation, kids will enjoy discovering the role pirates played along the Gulf Coast. They can also stand on stools to get a bird’s- eye view of a fort diorama or try shouldering a black powder musket.
U.S.S. Alabama — This naval battleship, with its crew of 2,500 sailors, performed 37 months of active duty in the South Pacific during World War II before changing technology led to its decommissioning in 1947. With 12 floors and many original features, it is a fascinating vessel to tour. Kids can try out the bunks where sailors slept, and see the huge kitchen that ran 24/7 to feed hungry troops. Tours are self-guided, and as you’d expect, there are lots of stairs and narrow hallways, so leave strollers at the entry. The grounds also house an impressive collection of aircraft that span all decades, as well as a submarine worth touring.
Special note: The U.S.S. Alabama runs an overnight program open to Boy and Girl Scout troops. There’s also an app you can download to plan your trip. $15/adults, $6/6-11, under 6 free. • ussalabama.com
If There’s Time:
Mobile Carnival Museum — Downtown sports several interesting museums but most colorful is the one dedicated to Mobile’s extensive (and still wildly popular) Mardi Gras tradition. Mobile’s Carnival Museum chronicles the select families who have maintain this long tradition. With many displays of opulent gowns and capes that belonged to former kings and queens, it’s rather staggering to see the expense Carnival families have gone to ensure their King or Queen of crewe was the most bejeweled. • mobilecarnivalmuseum.com
Bellingrath Gardens (bellingrath.org) – This house museum, built by a Coca Cola bottler in the 1930s, is along the lines of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, but with a larger, more ornate garden and an elegant home filled with decorative arts. No touching here, but both the home and gardens are exquisite, particularly in the springtime when tulips, azaleas, and roses bloom. Kids will enjoy roaming the wide-open spaces, but they’ll have to be on their best behavior inside the home, as it is more for a grown-up audience.