HOPING TO STEAL a march on spring, we sneaked a late-winter vacation to a state that says it "has it all." And - just four weeks after mushing through snow up to here in Washington - there we were, skipping and strolling (respectively) along a sandy beach, lulled by the mutter of the surf, basking in 80 degree sunshine. And paying under $30 fora beach-view room for two.
Well, that's Alabama for you.
Just when you figure you have it all neatly figure out - tumbledown shacks teetering on the edge of blackwater swamps, gaunt live oaks shaking their shrouds of moss, magnolia-blossom ladies simpering at good old boys sashaying by in their pickup - things shift.
Truth to tell, there's still a lot of the Sunthun hospitality and Suthun cooking and Suthun talk there - there - all the things Phil Harris taught us to expect in his "Thaths What I Like About the South, perhaps the first expression of Redneck Chic. But now the black-eyed peas and jasmine have to fight progeress and industry, including an impressive tourism industry, for a a Yankees's attention.
We missed Birmingham's statue of Vulcan, artisan to the gods, and the Boll Weevil Monument at Enterprise ("The Only Monument in the World Glorifying a Pest") because we held ourselves to Montgomery, Mobile and the Gulf Coast to the east; but what we found this time thant made up for some of the thngs we had to leave for another visit.
Beaches! That was the real lure, and when we saw our first palm tree as we drove south through Brewton, we knew we were in the right place.
Our first night on the beach was at Dauphin Island, which still is the way I'm told the entire Outer Banks used to be: very low-key, non-commercial, family-oriented. No "strip" or board-walk - just 18 miles of sandy beaches, with a few stores and two motels that we could find, and a respectable collection of beach houses, with a fort at the one end of the spit. The island's an-chored to the mainland by a toll-free three-mile bridge.
Besides the former Holiday Inn where we stayed (we could see some of its signs painted over, but never managed to learn the story behind the story) and the other motel, next door, there are campgrounds where the same $30 we spent for one night will buy a weekhs space - for a tent, trailer, pickup or what-gave-you - including water and electricity. And if flying's your thing, there's even a 3,000 foot airstrip. It all made us wish we had the money to buy a beach house and a plane and flying lessons, and so what if it's a long commute.
Nothing in the South seems to come without a history, I found, and Dauphin Island (pronounced Dauphine, locally, settled by the French in 1699 and the home of three French governors whose writ ran through everything that lay to the north and west) is surely no exception. Among other things, it was Jefferson Davis, in a previous incarnation (U.S Secretary of War), who ordered its fort built to guard Mobile Bay, where Farragut damned the torpedoes. As you tour it, you might envy the troops who have been garrisoned there in two world wars, while their comrades were sent to Chateau-Thierry or Guadalcanal.
Reaching out to Dauphin Island, across the entrance to the bay, is Pleasure Island - much larger and,in some places, discovered by the T-shirt and souvenir people. Fortunately, you can fight through them to little farming towns, to ethnic (German, Czech, Swedish, Italian) folkways and to the Gulf State Park Resort, where we stayed in a beachside motel room for less than $40.
The resort is concessionaire-operated but state-owned, a convention center plus motel plus cabins and campgrounds plus golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool and fishing pier . . . and it's not in a dry country, either. Dinner in the resort's dining room was delicous, fresh seafood with cocktails and wine; and, while we chose to skip it, there was a lvie act in the state park's nightclub - something new to me, at least.
But in talking of beaches and islands, we've hopped directly across Mobile Bay, which is something no one should do. What one should do, and what we did, is to drive (back roads, whenever possible) up from Dauphin Island to Bellingrath Gardens - about halfway between the island and the city of Mobile - to join the azaleas in running riot.
Gardens seem to be almos as strong a fixation in the South as history and hominy, and Bellingrath Gardens are a prime example - they're grand in all seasons. By now the azaleas and tulips will be giving way to the roses as we move into the summer; later chrysan-themums prepare the way for poinsetias and, shortly after, hybrid azaleas and camellias.
We wandered hours in the paths of the gardens, waving at the young good old boys playing with a speedboat and inner tube on the Isle-aux-Oies River alongside, but skipped the house tour, which is guided and costs a good bit extra.
On to Mobile itself, bustling and indusrial in a charming, Southern sort
Of way. We were lucky to land there during an old-homes tour, and the Yankee in me suspects that some such is always going on. Easy enough to find out: When you get to your motel check with Historic Mobile Tours, 432-5015.
Speaking of motels: There are several good ones, at under $30 a night, in or near the old-and-interesting part of town - just off Government Street. With my accent, I didn't think I should ask which government the street was named after.
This tiem we left our lodgings to eat at a place whose ad in the phone book looked interesting - constantine's - and it turned out to be in another motel, the Rodeway. But later a member of the Historical Society told us we'd chanced on the finest seafood restaurant in town, comfirmimg what our palates had already suggested. I must confess that most Washingtonisans would be as shocked at the bill as I was: cocktails, salads, two stunning fresh crabmeat entrees (no cartilage), vegetables on the side, wine, beer and coffee (no dessert) came to less than $30, plus tip.
Friends had said that Mobile "is New Orleans, but with more taste adn less commercial instinct" - which may be true, but there's a good side and a bad side to everything.
A lot of phone calls and face-to-face questions - including calls to such bohemian dens as newspaper offices - produced only one place alleged to have Dixieland jazz . . . and when we got there, we found it had turned into a disco joint, which did'nt suggest either an excess of taste or a total lack of commercial instinct to me, but what do I know? I'm from Wisconsin, myself.
I must admit, though, that Mobile is finely equipped with museums that suggest taste, if not (since most are free) commercial instinct. Besides a restored fort that dates from the French (Fort Conde), there are Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines, guarding the entrance to the bay, and the retired battleship USS Alabama which earned nine battle stars in World War II. More peacefully, there's Carlen House, and example of a local variant of French Colonial architecture (Creole Cottage); the Phoenix Steam Fire Company No. 6, which has fire fighting memorabilia from 150 years and more ago; the Bernstein-Bush House,which is a city museum depicting Mobile's life under five flags (French, English, Spanish, Confederate and American); and other ante-bellum homes that are open on varying schedules, usually with an admission charge for some civic or charitable cause.
But I've been talking as if Alabama were just Mobile and encirons, and it's not:
It's also Montgomery, where the capitol flies a Confederate flag (between the American flag and the state flag); and where you can see the building where the order was sent to shell Fort Sumter; and where there's a far less elaborate but no less impressive, more personal and idiosyncraftic but less formal, garden (Jasmine Hill, in Wetumpka); and where the best restaurant in town is the Elite (pronounced locally ee-light) Cafe, and where a question about news-paper from out of town is answered with a litany of places that get the Birmingham papaers.
And alabama is also Point Clear, whose pomp and discreet display of opulence put me in mind of the Hamptons and Greenbrier, with a Southern accent.
And it's a place where restaurants often don't sell beer but filling stations generally do: Several times we were told that the only placeto go to get a hamburger and a beer, both at the same time, was the local Holiday Inn. Reluctant to believe that we'd come all this distance just to lunch in a HolidayInn, we checked out the local eateries one by one to find that, by gum, we'd been told the genuine truth. All the while passing places with a sign that said "ser. Sta - Cold Beverages," which meant more than Dr. Pepper. Figure out a place where beer mixes better with gasoline than with sandwiches.
And it's Magnolia Springs, where a place inprobably named Geno's sells delicious barbecue (pork or beef, sliced or shredded) next to a dried-up filling station with walls of pressed tin formed to imitate the old-tiem cement blocks that were formed to imitate natural stone - and the tin walls were painted with aluminum paint, but the walks to the restaurant were of real crushed shells from the Gulf shore.
And it's a state that's so sure it "has it all" that it printed up a booklet showing you 23 different off-the Interstate excursions. Thogh nearly half of the 54.7 million "travelers" the state counted in 1978 were Alabamians, the booklet seems clearly aimed at the out-of-staters - especially since more than 60 percent of the people surveyed said their main reason for travelling in Alabama was "passing through."
Because the state survey, done by an Auburn University marketing professor, counted people whose destination ws outside Alabama, and counted everyone more than 50 miles from home for any reason other than a regular commute to work (the U.S Travel Sevice's definition uses a 100 miles from home standard), it's difficult to see hwo Alabama ranks nationally. By the Census Bereau figures this year, slighty under 7 1/2 million people traveled in Alabama in 1977, compared to more than 55 million people in the country as a whole: That's oen of every 71 travelers; to put it another way, slightly less than 1 1/2 percent of all U.S. travelers were Alabama travelers.
By Alabama's own figures, 1978 travel was about 36 percent higher than that in 1977, and moey spent in sthe state by tourist rose by 28 percent in 1978 over 1977.
I don't know Alabama well enough to know if it has it all or not, but I found the Old South, the New South, and history and hospitally adn industry and poverty adn commerce and warmth. I found a woman bartender in a Greek tavern who ended a dispute between a white and a black by 86ing the white patron, and I found, several times, people who waved at our rented car with its Michigan license plate.
For more details on anything I found in Alabama, or to learn about things that are there though I may not have found them, just check with Caroline Cavanauhg, head of the sate's Bureau of Publicity and Information: 532 South Perry St., Montgomery 36130. Or call toll-free: 800-863-5761. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Terry Dale for The Washington Post; Pictures 1, Jasmine Hill Garden, at Wetumpica, Ala; Picture 2, teen-agers on a river south of Mobile; Picture 3, and the First White House of the Confederacy, Montgomery; photos by Dan Griffin - The Washington Post.