There’s something about our little corner of the world that creates a magical childhood unlike anywhere else. It is a glistening estuary where a laid-back coastal vibe and good old Southern hospitality meet the cultural influences of a metropolis. So it’s really no surprise that twentysomethings who have left their Bay-area nests always seem to flock back to settle their own families in their charmed homeland – to bring up their own brood in a place Eugene Walter called “a vanished world of big dinners at high noon, afternoon naps, suppers at twilight, and long evenings of hide-and-seek and rocking on the front porch.”
Whether they’re shouting for beads atop Dad’s shoulders at a Mardi Gras parade, exploring a historic fort on a class field trip, fishing from a bay boat beneath an oil rig or scampering around with friends at the neighborhood block party, our youngsters revel in all that this enchanting habitat has to offer. They grow up with sunburnt cheeks, knotted hair, calloused bare feet, wholesome manners and unequivocal hometown pride. See why a childhood spent in “sweet lunacy’s county seat” is the very best kind.
1) Because we live where everyone else vacations
We’re just a cast-net’s throw away from beaches, rivers and hunting camps. Kids can earn their sea legs before learning to walk on dry land, and many even shoot their first deer before their 10th birthday. Thanks to the diverse terrain in our geographic paradise, an early morning of duck hunting or deep-sea fishing can quickly turn into an afternoon of hiking the trails at a state park or freshwater fishing in the Delta.
2) Because our backyard is a science lab
While high school biology pupils typically dissect frogs, Bay-area youth examine anatomy of marine life specimen, such as perch fish, baby sharks and squid. In addition to extensive marine and environmental classes, a plethora of museums offer top-notch hands-on learning experiences. Quintessential field trips include Alabama’s official marine science research facility, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Estuarium; the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center; and the Sea, Sand and Stars Science and Nature Center at Orange Beach Elementary.
3) Because we value volunteerism
Our fun-loving community spirit is balanced out by an emphasis on giving back — even for adolescents. Many local schools require their students to complete service hours as part of the curriculum. Additionally, churches youth groups and high school sororities and fraternities also add to the foundation of helping others in need, making it a lifelong value.
4) Because there’s no limit to our circles of friends
We socialize everywhere we go: family get-togethers, church, school, the ballpark, our own neighborhoods, the grocery store and the list goes on. In short, socially speaking, our proverbial horizons stay broad and well rounded. Yet, simultaneously, there is a small-town feel; everybody knows everybody, which is actually a great incentive for a kid to behave. Otherwise, Friday night’s shenanigans are bound to get back to Mama!
5) Because our first words are “yes, ma’am, ” and we learn to waltz while still in braces
“Oops — yes ma’am!” This exchange is all too familiar to local moms and their kids. And everyone from the cashier at the grocery store to great-aunt Alice will reinforce our unique set of pleasantries. Children here have no choice but to adopt them. Manners are further ingrained with charming and unique rites of passage, including etiquette lessons, ballroom classes and cotillion dances. Miniature Southern ladies and gentlemen? Please and thank you!
6) Because we can have a sleepover in a real battleship or fort
Who needs to pitch a tent on a dirt campground when we can unroll our sleeping bags in bona fide military barracks? Fort Gaines, Fort Morgan and the U.S.S. Alabama are a few of the most popular out-of-the-box campsites for scouts and other outdoor enthusiasts — guaranteed to take the obligatory game of capture the flag to the next level.
On a late summer afternoon, Harris Cooper perfects his cast-net throw into the calm, prolific waters of Mobile Bay.
Photo by Adair Freeman
7) Because our waters offer wholesome nightlife
Just because the sun’s gone down, it doesn’t mean kids have to stay cooped up inside. Parents grab gigs, nets, buckets and flashlights and head to Alabama Port, Coden Beach or Port of Pines to take the young’uns frog gigging, floundering, or soft shelling. Also, local sportsmen know that some of the best fishing is done at night around a well-lit pier. If it’s unseasonably warm, some Mobilians have even been known to ring in the New Year by reeling in a big one. Not to mention the granddaddy of all night water sports: jubilees. On the Eastern Shore, during the summer, listen out for the ringing of the bells or the phone tree call, signaling the natural phenomenon in which oxygen levels send swarms of sea life to the shores, where they can be scooped up for a massive seafood dinner for your family – and half the block.
8) Because there’s a section on boating milestones in our baby books
First Boat Nap: A leisurely spin on the boat has been known to put an infant to sleep faster than a car ride.
First Time Skiing: Some Bay-area toddlers learn to water ski before they are even potty trained. While others bloom later, it is a skill one must master before the teen years.
First Time to Drive: Kids around here learn how to steer a vessel as soon as they can see over the wheel while sitting in dad’s lap. They make it official by getting their boater’s license at age 12.
First Time Launching a Boat: While backing up might be tricky for the average 16 year old to tackle on their driver’s test, Mobilians pass with flying colors thanks to the years of practice they’ve gotten from helping Dad maneuver the Stauter into the launch.
9) Because our little athletes have big hometown heroes
A slew of our gridiron and diamond greats, such as Hank Aaron, Pat White, AJ McCarron and Jake Peavy inspire hard work and dedication on and off the field. Perhaps, the next Satchel Paige is on the mound at Municipal Park this very minute. Plus, Mobile BayBears and Senior Bowl programs provide all sorts of opportunities for local kids to hang with talented players.
10) Because every day of summer is a grand adventure
Camp Beckwith: Since 1932, kids have been spending their summers canoeing, kayaking, sailing and swimming at the camp on Weeks Bay. They can also challenge themselves on the rock climbing wall and ropes course during their week at the grounds. Bonus, the camp is Christian-based, so kids also get a healthy dose of spirituality. Sailing Camp: All three of the local yacht clubs (Mobile, Fairhope and Buccaneer) offer summer sailing camps. Most, though, have an age limit and require that kids pass a swim test. Surfing Lessons: While the waves at Gulf Shores don’t exactly rival those of Hawaii or even the east coast of Florida, a few decent ones have been known to pop up on occasion. Apparently, surfing was all the rage back in the days of the original Hangout. For budding grommets, Innerlight and Waterboyz surf shops give private and group lessons.
11) Because best-selling authors are our neighbors
When your kid is checking off his summer reading list, there’s a chance his best friend’s daddy wrote the book. Fairhope boasts more award-winning novelists per capita than Washington has politicians. OK, so maybe that’s a hyperbole, but the Eastern Shore is home to an impressive set, including the legendary Sonny Brewer (“The Poet of Tolstoy Park”); Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg (“All Over But the Shoutin”); Fannie Flagg (“Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café”); W.E.B. Griffin (“The Brotherhood of War” series); Winston Groom (“Forrest Gump”); Howell Raines (“Whiskey Man”); and MB’s own Watt Key, Frye Gaillard, John Sledge and Roy Hoffman, just to name a few. Not surprisingly, the town is also home to Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts and one of the best independent bookstores in the South, Page and Palette, which is complete with a quaint little coffee nook where the local creatives sit around, sip cappuccinos, philosophize and talk shop.
12) Because we live in a mystical land where dragons roam the streets, MoonPies rain from the sky and little girls really can grow up to be royalty
Besides the fact that we’re the home of the original Mardi Gras, our festivities are family friendly so even the youngest of kiddos can revel in the magic.
13) Because we are liberal with our arts
Performing arts meccas, such as the Azalea City Center for the Arts, cover lessons in anything from oil pastels to guitar to drama, singing and jazz dancing. Playhouse in the Park is always looking for youth to take on acting roles in theatrical productions. If you’ve got the next Celine Dion or Josh Groban, the Bay area is home to Mobile’s Singing Children, which has a range of choirs for beginners to seasoned vocalists. Mobile Symphony Orchestra sponsors the Youth Orchestra so budding Beethovens can work one-on-one with local professionals. The symphony spearheads strings classes at participating public schools. For prima ballerinas, look to Mobile Ballet, which has been training performers in classical ballet and jazz for 26 years. Their students have moved on to nationally acclaimed dance programs, such as Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. In West Mobile, The Fit Nest trains aspiring Cirque du Soleil performers in aerial silk acrobatics. Picasso wannabes can pick up a brush at Mobile Museum of Art’s after-school programs or summer camps. The Centre for the Living Arts hosts activities that encourage kids to experience current museum installations. And, creative outlets abound on the Eastern Shore, with pottery Mud Camp at The Kiln, visual arts classes at Eastern Shore Art Center and more.
14) Because we have an expanded culinary palate
Our toddlers cut their teeth on eerily pink Dew Drop hot dogs, fresh oysters from Wintzell’s, fried alligator bites at the Bluegill, spanakopita at Greekfest, collards at Mama’s on Dauphin and key lime anything anywhere. And how many other places can you name where preschoolers suck crawfish heads?
15) Because we are a gumbo of cultures
Growing up near a port means constant exposure to a melting pot of people. While our early heritage includes Creek Indian, French, British, Spanish and Greek influences, local fishing villages, such as Bayou La Batre, are now home to large clusters of Vietnamese immigrant populations. In recent years, influx of local industry, with companies such as Austal and ThyssenKrupp, has created a surge in Aussies and Germans. Mobile International Festival, held each November, assembles folks from hundreds of nationalities that call Mobile home. Plus, we boast 15 exotic sister cities, from Kosice, Slovakia to Ichihara, Japan.
16) Because we know the farmer who grew our veggies and the fisherman who caught our seafood
No trip down to Dauphin Island is complete without a visit to Gloria’s Produce Stand, no jaunt to the Gulf without a pit stop at Burris or Allegri. Saturday mornings in Mobile between April and July mean a walk around the Cathedral Square farmers’ market, where we shake hands with the man who grew our organic zucchini and the lady who churned our fresh goat cheese. And, around here, we know that seafood is always better when it’s fresh off the boat, especially if your uncle, your neighbor or Capt. Joe Schmo down at the docks reeled it in. Bayou La Batre’s annual Blessing of the Fleet is a sight to behold, and the National Shrimp Festival, held each October in Gulf Shores, celebrates one of our favorite local commodities with more than 300, 000 of our nearest and dearest friends.
17) Because we respect our roots
History is all around us – on every corner and up every tree. What other place in the U.S. boasts four forts, a black history trail complete with an Underground Railroad bike tour and a 200-year-old live oak named for a legendary American general? In addition to enriching institutions, such as the History Museum of Mobile, the Mobile Carnival Museum and Mobile Medical Museum, dozens of historic homes on both sides of the Bay schedule guided tours. And then there are the teenage girls in antebellum dresses – the Azalea and Dogwood Trail Maids – on hand at most any community event ready to educate us on our heritage.
18) Because our future is brighter than Middle Bay Lighthouse and the Gulf State Fair combined
As two rich shores flanking those imperative, wellspring waters of Mobile Bay, we bask in the warm glow of opportunity that promises to stream over us, again and again, in constant cyclical motion. To which we tip our Wayfarers and say, “Home sweet home!”