Christmas on the Gulf
By Marilyn Jones
Editor’s note: Travel writer Marilyn Jones visited coastal Alabama last December and found several events visitors can enjoy during the holiday season.
Our first stop is Fort Gaines and what is billed as “Christmas Through the Ages.”
Located on Dauphin Island, a barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay, there is little protection from the wind whipping in off the Gulf of Mexico. It’s unseasonably cold for this part of Alabama, but the chill in the air lends itself to the holiday festivities in full swing as we enter the historic fort.
Costumed interpreters are outfitted in Confederate uniforms and civilian dress of the mid-1800s. My friend Enola and I walk along the perimeter of the fort where docents go about their chores making bread, creating decorative items in the blacksmith shop and cooking over an open fire. Soldiers protect the fort, and while we watch, fire a cannon at an enemy from the long ago past.
To add to the enjoyment of the day, Christmas festivities include lively music, ornament-making for children, a craft sale and, of course, Santa Claus.
Next we head for Bellingrath Gardens and Home in nearby Theodore.
The sprawling estate began as a fishing lodge and grew to its current status when Walter Bellingrath’s wife Bessie began “making improvements.” The gardens first opened to the public in 1932 when a national garden club meeting was taking place in Mobile. Mr. Bellingrath placed an ad in the newspaper announcing that anyone who would like to see the spring garden was welcome to. The response was so overwhelming the couple decided to keep the gardens open year-round, beginning in 1934.
This time of year the 65-acre estate celebrates the holidays with “Magic Christmas in Lights.” More than three million lights on more than 1,000 displays are scattered throughout the gardens.
Arriving before dark, we have a bite to eat at The Magnolia Café and then spend a long while in the expansive gift shop before we head for the house.
On a guided tour, we are ushered from room to room — each seemingly more beautiful than the last. Christmas trees are in nearly every room, garland is draped over fireplaces and other festive accents punctuate the already grand home. We are told the furnishings, including Mrs. Bellingrath’s extensive collection of decorative art, all belonged to the Bellingraths.
After the tour, we walk through the gardens, past light displays befitting their location and the season. The intimacy of walking past the displays, being able to really take in their beauty against the night sky, makes this a very memorable holiday attraction. It’s a glorious sight and one that will put anyone in a holly jolly frame of mind.
We spend the next day shopping. From Tanger Outlet Center, Pier 1, Old Time Pottery and other national chains to locally owned gift shops at The Wharf in Orange Beach, we have a lot to choose from.
The Wharf also offers other activities for its shoppers. There’s the signature ferris wheel, ice skating and a visit with Santa Claus.
December’s calendar has a host of other events to choose from on the coast, including music, parades and arts and crafts. The Coastal Alabama Business Chamber presents “Christmas with Aaron Neville” Dec. 3 at 5:30 p.m. at the Orange Beach Event Center at the Wharf. The 5th Annual City of Gulf Shores Christmas Parade will be Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m., starting at Club House Drive on Highway 59 and ending at the Gulf Shores Public Beach. The 3rd Annual Merry Market, a gifts and arts and crafts expo, will be Dec. 12 and 13 at the Orange Beach Events Center, and the next day a Lighted Boat Parade will start at 5:30 p.m. from Lulu’s and finish at Zeke’s Marina.
Alabama’s Gulf Coast region offers a great getaway any time of year, but during the holiday season hotel prices are reduced, restaurants aren’t as busy, you can still walk along the beach and the shopping opportunities are nearly limitless.
No matter where you roam this holiday season, be safe, have fun and remember the reason for the season.
If you go:
Bellingrath Gardens and Home, 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore; www.bellingrath.org;
(800) 247-8420. “Christmas in Lights” is Nov. 28 – Jan. 3 (closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1).
30th Annual “Christmas through the Ages,” Dec. 6, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Fort Gaines, 51 Bienville Blvd., Dauphin Island; dauphinislandtourism.com; (251) 861-6992.
For a complete listing, times and locations of other events, visit alabamacoastalchristmas.com; (251) 968-6091.