Best of Alabama, 2017
Readers vote on their favorites about Alabama
By Allison Griffin
This time of year, the lines of people hungry for fresh peach ice cream in Clanton aren’t as long as they are in the sweltering summertime. That means a welcome break for Frances Gray, who makes the ice cream at her family’s Peach Park complex just off Interstate 65.
Alabama Living’s readers voted Peach Park as the place to buy the “best ice cream” in the magazine’s annual Best of Alabama contest. Each year, we ask you to choose your favorites in our state – the people, places and sights that make us uniquely Alabama.
Gray’s husband, Gene, started Peach Park more than 30 years ago as a small fruit stand, and today the business has grown to include a retail storefront that’s been expanded several times, a neighboring convenience store (which continues to sell the fresh ice cream during the winter months, when the larger store is closed), an RV park, a playground and more.
When her husband and the Barber’s milkman failed at making ice cream back in the 1980s, Frances stepped in and came up with a home recipe for a gallon machine, and after several batches, she hit on a perfect mix. Now, the business uses a 10-gallon machine, but she can barely keep up; she makes ice cream six days a week during the summertime.
As of early August last year, she used more than 1,400 buckets of peaches for ice cream – that’s more than 4,200 gallons of peaches. And she makes 16 other flavors, some of which rotate in and out seasonally.
As you might expect in a county known for the soft summer fruit, peach is the most popular flavor, followed by vanilla.
“We use our own peaches in our ice cream,” she says. “In the summertime, we freeze them in three-gallon buckets, and when we open in the spring before peaches come in, we use our own frozen peaches to make the peach ice cream.”
In the summer, she comes in early to get started before the crowds arrive, and she’s usually at the store for 9 to 12 hours each day.
“I do enjoy it, but it’s hard work. I’m getting too old to do this. I keep telling them, and they won’t listen to me,” she laughs. “I’ll be 77 in March. I haven’t found anybody to take my place yet. Every year, I say it’s going to be my last year.”
Her son, Mark, a board member of Central Alabama Electric Cooperative, co-owns and manages Peach Park; several other family members work or have worked here. A couple of her grandchildren aren’t old enough yet, but they’ll be trained to work, just as their older family members have.
Asked what she enjoys most, she says, “I guess just the satisfaction of making ice cream, and I feel like everybody’s enjoying it. I feel like I’m contributing.”
Read on to find out the other winners in the 2017 Best of Alabama contest.
Best fried chicken:
Martin’s Restaurant, Montgomery
This family-owned midtown Montgomery institution has served up country-style cooking since the 1930s. The meat-and-three lunch and dinner menu changes daily, but the fried chicken is a mainstay: The Alabama Tourism Department put it on the list of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die,” and it made Travel + Leisure magazine’s list of best Southern comfort dishes.
In addition to the traditional thigh, leg and breast pieces, Martin’s also serves “pulley bones” – rounded tops of plump, tender breast meat, fried to a crunchy crisp. You’ll want to savor every bite, even if you don’t make a wish after you’ve picked the pulley bone clean.
Martin’s Restaurant is located at 1796 Carter Hill Road in Montgomery; call 334-265-1767.
Best football player:
The multi-sport athlete from Bessemer lettered in football, baseball and track at Auburn University, and went on to win the Heisman trophy in 1985. He played both professional football and baseball before he retired from sports in 1995.
While Alabamians were long familiar with the talented athlete, Jackson gained an even wider exposure as a Nike endorser and the star of the “Bo Knows” ad campaign.
Since his retirement, Jackson has been active with entrepreneurial pursuits and several charities, especially those that serve children. Though he and his family live in Illinois, Jackson was moved to help his fellow Alabamians after the April 2011 tornadoes that devastated much of the northern part of the state. The sixth annual Bo Bikes Bama charity ride, which he formed to raise money to build community storm shelters, will be April 29, 2017.
Best campground and best state park:
Gulf State Park
With two miles of sugar-white sands, the famed beaches at Gulf State Park in south Baldwin County attract tourists from Alabama and beyond. But the park has more to offer than sand and surf: A championship golf course, new beach pavilion, rental cottages, tennis courts, camp sites, hiking trails, and a fishing pier that is 20-feet wide and extends 1,512 feet into the Gulf.
Hurricane Ivan devastated the park 12 years ago, demolishing the convention center, wrecking the facilities and erasing sand dunes. But now, major upgrades are in the works as part of the Gulf State Park Enhancement Project; besides a new 350-room lodge and conference center (which the state hopes to open in 2018), the project includes an education center, an interpretive center, miles of new trails and restoration of dunes.
The 496-site improved campground includes modern bathhouses, pull-through sites, back-in sites, waterfront campsites and ADA-accessible sites (and tents are also welcome). New to the park are 11 primitive camping sites that include grill tops and picnic tables.
www.alapark.com or call 251-948-7275.
Best small town art:
The charming, laid-back community of Fairhope, on Baldwin County’s Eastern Shore, features a downtown shopping district filled with blooming flowers, local restaurants and unique shops and boutiques. But it is the town’s abundance of public art, galleries and art-centered events that give it the feel of an artists’ colony. Perhaps its most iconic piece of art is a mural called “Aboriginal Sealife” at the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Church Street, painted by Ameri’ca Jones. “Fairhope acknowledges and values art, which is part of what I appreciate about it,” Jones said in an al.com article in June 2014.
Best prehistoric/archaeologic site:
Cahawba was once Alabama’s state capital (1819-1826) and a thriving antebellum river town, but it became a ghost town shortly after the Civil War, due to loss of rail transportation and flooding.
But its roots go back much farther; the remains of a large village occupied by mound builders of the Mississippian Period (100-1550 AD) lie underneath those of Alabama’s first capital, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
Now a historical park, visitors are encouraged to study Old Cahawba’s few striking remains of once-great houses and walk its deserted streets. The site is maintained by the Alabama Historical Commission, and the park includes a welcome center, picnic area, hiking trails, interpretive signs and a nature trail.
The address is 9518 Cahaba Road, Orrville; call 334-872-8058, or visit www.cahawba.com
Best waters to fish:
Lake Guntersville has historically been ranked at or near the top of bass fishing lakes nationally. Thousands of visitors come to the Jackson and Marshall County areas each year to fish, making it an important economic engine for the region.
Its reputation has been built over the years thanks to the great catches in tournaments, and most of the national trails visit the lake each year.
There are free boat ramps and private marinas around the perimeter of the lake, which stretches 75 miles from Nickajack Dam to Guntersville Dam. alapark.com/lake-guntersville-state-park
Best waters to play:
Lake Martin is also known for its bass and crappie fishing, but this 39,180-acre impoundment on the Tallapoosa River, with an astounding 700 miles of shoreline, is perhaps better known for its abundant water recreational opportunities.
Alabama Power Company impounded the waters of the Tallapoosa River in 1926 near Cherokee Bluffs, on the Elmore and Tallapoosa county border, to form Lake Martin. The lake was constructed primarily for flood control and to supply hydroelectric power to Alabama residents, but it also provides ample recreational opportunities to anglers and boaters.
The Alabama Department of Conservation operates facilities at Wind Creek State Park, Smith Landing on Sandy Creek, Madwind Creek, Kowaliga Creek, and Pace’s Point near Camp Alamisco. Numerous other recreational and boating access areas are set aside for public use and listed on lake maps. lakemartin.com
Best outdoor annual festival/jubilee:
National Shrimp Festival
Gulf Shores’ annual National Shrimp Festival began in 1971 as a way to keep tourists at the beach after Labor Day, which was traditionally the end to the summer beach season.
The event celebrated 45 years this fall, and shows no signs of slowing down. This free festival, on the second full weekend in October each year, attracts about 250,000 patrons, organizers say, and features more 300 vendors that offer fine art, arts and crafts, a retail marketplace, outdoor village and of course, shrimp!
Two stages offer continuous musical entertainment while the little ones’ attention is captured in the Children’s Activity Village. myshrimpfest.com
Best themed trail:
Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail
The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is a collection of championship caliber golf courses, designed by legendary course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr., distributed across the state of Alabama. The trail helped transform the state into one of the most popular golf destinations in the world.
The concept was created and executed by David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, to help diversify the assets of the state’s pension fund and economically help the state of Alabama.
The Trail started with 378 holes at eight sites throughout the state, but has grown to 468 holes at eleven sites. The courses are considered world-class yet still affordable, and the trail has spawned several state-financed projects in other Southern states. rtjgolf.com
Best family outing location, and best “spur of the moment” weekend trip:
Alabama’s Gulf coast beaches – Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, Dauphin Island – won both of these categories, and it’s easy to understand why: the sugar white sands, the family activities and restaurants available in the charming towns near the coast, and ample opportunities for enjoying nature and learning about wildlife. The coastline is one of the state’s greatest economic and environmental assets.
Best sports venue:
Bryant-Denny Stadium is home to one of the most storied programs in college football history. Originally named for former president George H. Denny (coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s name was added in 1975), the Crimson Tide’s home has a seating capacity of 101,821, making it the seventh largest stadium in the U.S.
Until the early 1990s, Legion Field in Birmingham hosted most of the Tide’s marquee games. Expansions over the years added luxury skyboxes, additional seating and massive high-definition video screens.
Alabama’s won more than 80 percent of its games played inside Bryant-Denny over the last 84 years, according to Saturdays Down South.
We chose this category before the crippling drought that strangled Alabama last fall, which left Noccalula Falls in Gadsden a trickle. In wetter times, it features a 90-foot waterfall with a gorge trail winding through its basin.
Above Noccalula Falls is a nine-foot-tall bronze statue of a young Cherokee woman, who, according to local legends, plunged to her death after being ordered by her father to marry a man she did not love.
There’s more than just the falls at the public Noccalula Falls Park. Check out its botanical garden, pioneer homestead, nature trails, picnic areas and year-round campground. noccalulafallspark.com
Best Native American site:
Moundville Archeological Park
Prehistoric native Americans farmed, hunted and fished the area known as Moundville, south of Tuscaloosa. Today, the Moundville Native American Festival, held each fall, the park’s most prestigious event, celebrates the culture and heritage of Southeastern Indians, past and present. Performers, artists and craftspeople entertain and educate visitors about the rich culture and heritage that made the Southeastern native Americans unique. www.moundville.ua.edu
Best wildlife park or sanctuary:
Alabama Wildlife Center
The Alabama Wildlife Center, housed at Oak Mountain State Park, is Alabama’s oldest and largest wildlife rehabilitation facility, caring annually for almost 2,000 wild bird patients from more than 100 species.
Since AWC’s inception, well over 50,000 native Alabama wild animals have been helped because of the center’s efforts. The organization has been in continuous service 365 days a year for over 30 years. AWC presents more than 350 conservation education programs throughout Alabama. www.awrc.org
Best thing about living in Alabama:
Alabama’s weather can be diverse, but its winters are generally mild, a fact no doubt appreciated by those who’ve lived in northern climates and who’ve had their fill of winter snowstorms. Snowfall is more common in the northern region of the state than in the south, but snow is still a relatively rare phenomenon in Alabama.
Our moderate climate is a major factor in two of the state’s most important economic activities: agriculture and tourism. The usually abundant year-round precipitation and mild winters afford the state a long growing season, and also make it attractive to snowbirds eager to escape brutal winters.
Best compliment you hear about Alabama:
Friendly people, Southern hospitality
The act of hospitality is referenced in no less an authority than the Bible: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
We’re well known for showing graciousness, kindness and warmth to people, whether they’re new acquaintances from the neighborhood or out-of-towners. The art of receiving and entertaining guests, socially or commercially, is no doubt one of our greatest assets.
Your favorite article in Alabama Living this past year:
Beloved college coaches, recipes
When we travel the state, readers always tell us that the recipe feature is their favorite, and it’s easy to see why: Each month, our team picks the best reader-submitted recipes that match the monthly theme, prepares the dishes, takes studio photos of the food and picks a cook of the month, who we interview for the magazine. Thank you to all our talented home cooks who share their beloved recipes with us!
Freelance writer Emmett Burnett contributed a story for the September issue on some of the state’s beloved college coaches. He interviewed Gene Stallings, Larry Blakeney, Pat Dye and others to ask them about their legacies at their respective schools, and to find out what they’re up to today.
Sand Mountain reader wins Best of Alabama drawing
David A. Bruce, a member of Sand Mountain Electric Cooperative, was randomly chosen as the winner among the readers who voted in our “Best of Alabama” contest. His name was drawn from more than 1,300 online and mailed entries this year. Bruce lives in Higdon and enjoys reading his Alabama Living magazine every month. Unable to work because of a disability, he said the $250 prize money would certainly be a welcome gift. Thanks to everyone who voted in the contest!