Located between Fairhope and Foley just off U.S. Highway 98, this Mayberry-esque village maintains 600 residents, one restaurant, one hotel and the only remaining year-round nautical mail route in the country.
Take a Walk
Rose-colored sidewalks, oak-lined streets, historic buildings and minimal traffic make Magnolia Springs an idyllic place for an afternoon stroll. Start your walk in the heart of town at the Magnolia Springs Community Hall, which hosts gatherings such as birthday parties and bridal luncheons, exercise classes and, on the first Saturday of every month, potluck dinners. Magnolia Springs resident Sara Hart, who moved here in October 2015, says locals enjoy meeting new people at potluck dinners or any other community events.
“Everyone around here is like family, ” Hart says. “This community is truly a community. It’s very welcoming.”
Just across Magnolia Springs Highway are the quiet springs from which the town gets its name. Oak Street’s majestic canopy of oak trees, captivating camellia blooms and intoxicating scents of jasmine and magnolia blossoms make it one of the most peaceful, gorgeous roads in south Alabama.
Rock Street leads to public access of the beautiful Magnolia River, which feeds into Weeks Bay. Boaters can park and launch from this spot.
Grab a Bite
Across from the Community Hall on Oak Street lies Jesse’s Restaurant, a well-known fine dining destination that specializes in premium steaks and fresh Gulf seafood. Each night, the fish selections change based on what was purchased that day. Better yet, owner Steve Coltharp adds that diners can now use their smartphones to scan a QR code and learn where and by whom the fish was caught through the Gulf Wild TransparenSea Tracking System. Jesse’s is open for lunch and dinner, and its bar, The Cold Hole, offers martinis, specialty cocktails, wine and craft beer.
ABOVE Relax during a leisurely stay at the historic Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast. The quaint home with a quintessentially Southern wraparound porch exudes warmth.
Stay a While
To fully experience Magnolia Springs, a stay at the famous Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast is essential. The historic building dates back to 1897 and was bought and renovated by owners David Worthington and Eric Bigelow in 1996. Since then, David says, thousands of guests have enjoyed old-fashioned, concierge-level service and home-cooked, gourmet breakfasts — and not a single one of them has left a negative review.
“We have more than 220 perfect reviews, ” Worthington says. “We’re the number one-rated bed-and-breakfast in the state.”
It’s also interesting to note that almost 70 percent of the Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast’s guests come from less than two hours away.
“It’s a world away without the drive, ” Worthington says. “And Magnolia Springs is really like Norman Rockwell living in today’s world.”
ABOVE Around Bon Secour, shrimp boats dripping with gauzy green nets are just about as prolific as SUVs.
Bon Secour, the seafood hub of Baldwin County, is just 15 minutes south of Magnolia Springs on County Road 49. Well worth a visit, this hardworking community bursts with flavor and history. Visitors can choose from several seafood markets to pick up fresh shrimp, crawfish, royal reds, snapper, flounder, oysters and live crabs purchased straight from boats coming in from the Gulf.
History buffs won’t want to miss Swift Consolidated School, the oldest existing public schoolhouse in the county, or the Swift-Coles Historic Home, a 4, 900-square-foot mansion filled with beautiful antiques. The home is open for tours Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
ABOVE The circa 1882 Swift-Coles Historic Home allows visitors to step back in time. Today, the restored home also serves as a picturesque setting for weddings and events.
ABOVE The TIn Top Restaurant is a must along the road less traveled. Order up fresh oysters and bushwackers.
Chill and Chew
“I wasn’t sure what I was thinking opening a restaurant in a town with a population of 700 people, but I wanted a destination point, ” says Bob Hallmark, who opened Tin Top Restaurant with his wife Patty 12 years ago. “When we bought this place, I said, ‘If the food is good enough, they’ll find us.’”
And find it they did; Tin Top is one of Baldwin County’s most beloved eateries, despite (or possibly because of) its small-town location away from the hustle and bustle of the beaches.
Serving premium, hand-cut steaks, locally grown vegetables, fresh seafood, decadent homemade sauces and a slew of different styles of oysters, Tin Top has received countless awards and stays busy year-round. But don’t worry about dressing up to visit this one-of-a-kind establishment.
“I don’t call the restaurant fine dining, ” Hallmark says. “But I do call it the absolute finest of casual dining.”
ABOVE Perdido Trading Co. is an antiques shop of the rustic variety. Owners Beth and Len Love always enjoy culling through the goods to find new purposes for items. On Saturdays, a group of local bluegrass musicians congregates on the back porch for a jam session.
Elberta and Lillian
On the eastern side of Highway 98 lie two of the most genuine, intriguing little towns in all of Baldwin County. In addition to hosting the famous Elberta German Sausage Festival every spring and fall, Elberta is home to the Baldwin County Heritage Museum and several agritourism destinations (see last month’s “Baldwin Fresh”). In nearby Lillian, amazing antiques and local artists take center stage at a myriad of captivating shops. This is definitely the detour for those who long to revisit a simpler time.
Right next door to each other in Lillian are two antiques shops that couldn’t be more diverse. Black Eyed Susie’s is packed with dainty treasures and local arts and crafts, while Perdido Beach Trading Co. offers rustic yet functional finds.
Susie Broxson opened Black Eyed Susie’s six years ago and has been supporting local artists ever since. “When I opened, my primary goal was antiques, but when I saw all the great art we have locally, I knew I needed to feature it, ” she says. “All of our artists are from right here in Lillian, except for one (who is from Fairhope).”
Each week, Broxson rearranges the store, coming up with new ways to present furniture, hand-loomed rugs, candles, glass art, tapestry handbags, birdhouses and all sorts of antique trinkets. “I want to show people how they can combine old and new beautifully, ” she says.
Just a few feet away from Black Eyed Susie’s stands Perdido Beach Trading Co., opened by Beth and Len Love three years ago. The building has housed a gas station, grocery store and
juke joint. In the 1840s, it was even a French customs checkpoint.
Although he’s passionate about antiques, Len doesn’t focus on teacups and fine furniture. “This is a man cave, ” he says with a smile. Packed into every nook and cranny of the building’s interior and exterior are vintage fishing lures, old signs, wagon wheels, guitars, bottles and more.
Len shares, “I used to go to antiques auctions with my grandmother as a kid. Since then, I’ve always wanted to save stuff and repurpose it. We used to call that being poor, but now it’s trendy.”
The shop is also a gathering place for local bluegrass musicians. Saturdays at 12:30 p.m., a group plays together on the back porch.
Elberta Grocery offers all the essentials: food, gas, produce, a lunch counter and everything else you’d expect to find at a store, plus a full-service butcher shop — one of only three in Baldwin County. Jeremy Merchant, a third-generation butcher, works every day with his father, Terry, to cut fresh steaks and prepare specialty items, such as stuffed pork chops, stuffed mushrooms and 10 different kinds of sausage.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 14, ” Jeremy says. “It’s all I’ve ever done, and it’s all I can see myself doing.”
If you’d rather let the pros handle the cooking, too, the same quality ingredients can certainly be prepared for you at several local restaurants. For breakfast, Grits-N-Gravy on State Street serves huge portions of traditional Southern breakfast food at an affordable price. Just down the street, the Roadkill Café is well-known for its downright delicious Lower Alabama lunch buffet. And for superb burgers and bushwackers, Pirates Cove, a pet-friendly waterfront bar and grill tucked away on Wolf Bay, is accessible by land or boat. The third generation of the Mueller family runs the laid-back, 80-year-old hole in the wall.
ABOVE Owner of E.T. Antiques Guy Moordgad has beaucoup business experience, which he uses to bring a number of vintage treasures back to life for the folks of Robertsdale.
Robertsdale may look like a sleepy small town on the outside, but this surprisingly diverse community boasts some of the area’s best food and shopping. It’s also the hometown of Apple CEO Tim Cook, and each fall, the town hosts the state’s oldest county fair.
When Cottage Attitudes owner Kathryn Grotefend retired from teaching, she decided to pursue her passion for art and open a store.
“My first degree was in art, so I wanted my shop to allow me to do what I love, ” she says.
Grotefend has combined antiques, gifts, clothing and art to create a lovely store in the heart of Robertsdale’s historic downtown. Many regular customers first discovered Cottage Attitudes
while hunting for the oh-so-popular Annie Sloan Chalk Paint.
“We became Annie Sloan stockists before anyone knew what it was, ” she says. Only one other shop in south Alabama carries the popular product, so customers drive from all over the region to buy paint at Cottage Attitudes. While there, they fall in love with Grotefend’s quirky assortment of merchandise — a vast array of high-end candles, boutique clothing, T-shirts, local art, light fixtures, Dash & Albert rugs, antiques and furniture.
In addition to running the store, Grotefend also teaches art classes, passing on her extensive knowledge about using Annie Sloan paint, refinishing furniture and other techniques that produce creative home decor.
Just down the street, E.T. Antiques’ selection is a mixture of heirloom furnishings and vintage treasures. Although it looks small on the outside, the 12, 500-square-foot store seems to keep going for miles. Booth after booth is brimming with interesting, quality items.
Owner and Belgium native Guy Moordgad has operated E.T. Antiques in three different Baldwin County cities over the past 15 years, but he says Robertsdale has been his favorite. Back in Belgium, Moordgad was a master entrepreneur, simultaneously running three dollar stores, a french fry restaurant and two bars while also working as a locksmith and auctioneer.
ABOVE As Cajun as Cajun can be, the Ochellos make a mean gumbo that’ll make you think you’ve been transported to New Orleans.
Sample the World
There are many “Cajun” restaurants in south Alabama, but as anyone who has eaten in New Orleans knows, it’s usually just not the same. Fortunately for Robertsdale residents and visitors, that’s not the case with Frenchie’s Cajun Cafe, which opened in November 2015.
Owners Amy and John Ochello are NOLA natives who relocated to Robertsdale 10 years ago. Frenchie’s, named after Amy’s father, specializes in traditional, home-style Cajun food, and it’s obvious John and Amy know a thing or two about the culinary holy trinity and a roux. Packed with flavor, their seafood gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya, and shrimp and grits are as good as any found in the French Quarter, and po’boys at Frenchie’s are served on Leidenheimer’s legendary bread. As if that weren’t enough, the restaurant also serves delicious ice cream at their old-fashioned soda fountain.
Robertsdale is also home to Vitolli’s, an Italian eatery that offers New York-style pizza with a surprising array of topping choices as well as traditional Italian staples, such as manicotti, spaghetti and more. Customers can also take home a bottle of Vitolli’s famous creamy Italian salad dressing.
Some of the best food in the area doesn’t even need a brick and mortar location. Chris Redd offers tasty options with a German twist from a tiny cart on Highway 59 (on South Milwaukee Street). Hot dogs and polish sausage are topped with his family’s 134-year-old secret German chow-chow recipe. Chris is the second-generation owner of Redd’s, which has been operating in the same spot for 28 years.
text and photos by Jill Clair Gentry