Winter in Chicago is often unpredictable. One week it’s snowing and a balmy 30 degrees (this is where I would like to be able to infer sarcasm with my tone), and the next it’s below zero and even the snow is afraid to show its face. The overbearing grey of Chicago’s sky finally got to me. I had to get out, if only for the long weekend. Lucky for me I know a couple snow birds that spend a couple months escaping the cold in Orange Beach, AL. Mam and Pap graciously hosted me for the long weekend I managed over President’s day. For those of you scratching your heads about this random holiday, President’s day is a holiday that only a few organizations still honor by giving its employees the day off. The government, banks, some schools, and the organization I work for are probably the only ones. Lucky me. But, just so you don't think I have it too good, I had to be in the office on MLK day.
So, I brushed a light dusting of snow off my car and headed to the airport on Friday. I got to Alabama via Atlanta and Pensacola. Mam picked me up and we headed to the first “southern” spot to grab a bite to eat: Waffle House. I’m sure I’ve been to a Waffle House before, but, in case you haven’t, I’ll do my best to describe it. The sign is yellow and the letters are blocky and black. Inside it booths but up against a galley style “kitchen” consisting of the flat top grill and fridge. The servers never have to roam about the restaurant because all the tables are in a line. In a foolish attempt to be “healthy” I order the pecan cranberry salad without the chicken, but then the grill top called my name and I had to order a side of hash browns, and, since I was on vacation Mam “insisted” we order a piece of chocolate pie. It's rumored that sometimes they serve this pie covered with melted butter. I did not even try to debunk the myth, the chocolate pie was good on its own.
The drive from Pensacola to Orange Beach is about an hour, and is driven with a view of the water for a majority of the trip. We passed Ono Island, which I learned was once part of Florida, but in the 70s it broke off and became an island. After a "no, it's ours!" "O no it's ours," kindergarten-type fight, Alabama won the land. It’s a gated community, but from the bridge the houses looked gorgeous and humongous. The condo Mam and Pap call home for the time that they are down south is right on the beach. There is nothing between their complex and the Gulf of Mexico but the white sandy beach. I immediately took advantage and headed down for a walk before dinner. It was a little windy, but my long cardigan sufficed for warmth. I took my shoes off, felt the grains of wet sand beneath my toes and listened to the small, but frequent, crashing waves. There is something about the sea air that helps clear my mind like nothing else. It has a way of making me feel small, yet reminds me that I am part of something larger even if I don’t know exactly what that is at the moment.
|My first Alabama sunset|
While I was walking, Mam was cooking a nice dinner of soup and grilled cheese with Velvetta. The kind of restorative meal I love. Pap got home from golf, a tournament had started that day and him and his biddies would be on the course daily for the next week. After dinner and catching up, we called it an early night. I set an alarm to catch the sun rise.
I was jolted awake by the ringing of my alarm, opened my eyes, and debated if I should get out of bed. Usually my weekend love of slothiness prevails, but I was pumped to see the sun rise out of the gulf. It was probably setting that alarm that solidified that it would be a cloudy start to the day. When I got to the beach, a three minute walk, tops, the clouds hadn’t cleared. I walked east with hopes of seeing the sun. It was about an hour before the sun poked out from behind the clouds. It wasn’t the sun rise I was imagining, but seeing the sun was still something that had been eluding me in Chicago.
|The sun finally peaking through the clouds|
Later that morning we went to Café Beignet, famous for New Orleans style powered sugar-covered light, airy doughnuts and chicory coffee. Chicory root has been known to be used as a coffee substitute/additive in parts of Europe and the Mediterranean. To me, since we ordered them au lait, it tasted like regular coffee to me. Next time I’ll order it black. The floor here was covered so covered with powdered sugar that we could see the server’s footprints from the kitchen. This restaurant serves beignets and coffee, that’s it. Just like Café Du Monde. Well, at least that is what I was told. I have never been to Café Du Monde, but these tasty warm doughy delights reignited my desire to visit New Orleans in the not so distant future. I’m thinking next Mardi Gras. Who’s with me?
|As delicious as they look|
That afternoon Mam took me on a scenic drive through Gulf Shores to Mobile Bay and onto Fort Morgan. The woman guarding the pay-to-cross entry way led us to believe that she gave us both the senior rate out of the kindness of her heart, but when she came back with our tickets admitted with a laugh that she didn’t have change so taking the ten was easier. This former military base, from all the reading materials onsite, is where “full speed ahead” was first uttered by anyone, ever, during the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay. I had to do some digging to figure out that the South actually lost that battle. The base, completed after the war of 1812, just wasn’t up to the task of protecting against the latest Civil War technology. The last time it was occupied by soldiers was during World War II. Since 1946, the state of Alabama has been the caretaker of the pentagon-shaped base including its concrete batteries and hotshot furnace. The entrance way, a tunnel with an arched roof, had the beginnings of stalactites hanging from the warn red bricks. From the fort I could see out into the bay, where about a handful of oil rigs were in full view. I had never seen anything like that before, a reminder of where this fuel I use daily comes from and the kind of impact it can have on a place and its waterfront views.
For dinner, after I walked along the beach for sunset, Tom met us back at the condo and we went to a seafood/steak house called Cottons. Inside the décor was upscale rustic. The artwork was mostly renditions of cotton trees and crooked driftwood type branches, and the lighting made it an intimate setting. They had a Cajun Chicken Alfredo that I was able to adapt to be chicken-less and still enjoy the Cajun flavors. The appetizer, cheese-stuffed mushrooms, had a great spicy kick to them. The mushrooms weren’t the only things stuffed after this meal. On the way home we stopped in at Florabama. This bar straddles the state lines of Alabama and Florida. It used to be just tarps, but after the latest hurricane, they rebuilt to actual wooden structures with ceiling beams that must have been begging to be covered with bras because that is what happened. It’s a music venue too, so I’m assuming that’s where the underwear came from. They also smoke inside Florabama. I don’t think I’ve been to a bar where people were smoking since I was 21. It was gross and reminded me why I’m thankful they finally passed that law.
Sunday, my last full day in Alabama was gloriously relaxing. I slept in, then went for a walk on the beach before lunch. Mam and I checked out Lulu’s, Jimmy Buffet’s sister’s restaurant. The chips, guac, and veggie burrito would have been great on their own, but they upped the ante with their Krispy Kreme bread pudding. Lulu has apparently been in an on again off again relationship with the Krispy Kreme CEO. It led to an awesome dessert. The atmosphere there is what vacation should be. It has a laid back feel, but it is clear that no detail has been overlooked. Outside there is a stage for live music and huge mounds of sand for kids to play in. Inside the walls open to the water and the tables are set with paper towels giving it a carefree feel. After lunch we made a quick stop to the wharf, which had a few cute shops, but is unfortunately in need of some revitalization. I hope if I come back that it will have found its groove and become the popular place it is obviously trying to become.
After the quick shopping trip we went back to the condo and I found myself in the indoor pool while Mam took a nap. The water was almost as warm as bathwater, and it felt great. I can’t remember the last time I went swimming. Maybe this past summer. Maybe. Either way, I had the pool to myself for most of the time took advantage by doing handstands and summersaults underwater like I used to do as a kid. From the pool, I went back out by the beach for my last chance to soak in the sound of the waves and the feel of the sand in between my toes. After my sunset walk we had a left over dinner from the great restaurants we had gone to and watched terribly fabulous tv. It was the perfect way to end a relaxing weekend.
Monday morning I was back on a plane headed toward reality, and the day after President’s day it was back to work. It was nice though, on Tuesday to put my hand in my coat pocket and realize I had forgotten to take out some sea shells I found on my escape to Orange Beach.