Staying the course in Fairhope. And that’s a good thing.
Fairhope, the jewel in the string of cities that line the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, has been a tourist destination for decades, in part because some things never change. It’s known for its charming, flower-filled downtown, great boutique shopping, good restaurants, and thriving arts community.
My husband, Tom, and I discovered Fairhope some twenty-five years ago while on a trip to the Gulf and knew almost immediately that we would one day live here. It just felt like home. And in the nearly twenty years now that it has been home we have seen some businesses come and go, but others have enjoyed great longevity: Page & Palette, one of the top independent bookstores in the South, celebrates its forty-fifth anniversary this year, and family-run Fantasy Island Toys has been making kids happy for nearly forty years. A few years ago, Greer’s, which had been a run-of-the-mill downtown grocery for more than thirty years, upped its ante, adding gourmet deli selections, fine wines, a coffee bar, and other treats.
Fairhope frequently makes the “top-ten” list of best places to retire, and it has always attracted interesting new people and ideas, but a vibrant downtown and the natural beauty of Mobile Bay continues to be at the core of what makes it a great destination for a weekend or longer. Here’s s a bit of what is new or just fun to see and do in town and nearby.
Downtown and Around Town
Fairhope has quite an interesting history. In 1894, a group from Iowa, with other supporters from around the country, purchased land here to establish a colony based on the “single-tax” theories of economist and social reformer Henry George, as presented in his popular book Progress and Poverty. They weren’t able to create George’s ideal, but they were the most successful of numerous attempts around the world. Today, the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation owns more than 4,500 acres (including most of downtown); those who live or have a business on the property own the structures but have a 99-year lease on the land for which they pay a “single tax” annual fee. Part of that fee is used to enhance the community by supporting such things as public parks, the library, and the Fairhope Museum of History, which is a good place to start your visit to Fairhope. Well-done permanent and changing exhibits make it an excellent way to learn about the town and its people.
After the museum, visit the Welcome Center next door to pick up brochures, restaurant menus, and a map of downtown shops and sites. As you stroll around, be sure to stop at the Happy Olive, one of the most unique new shops downtown, where Tom and I can easily spend a happy hour sampling dozens of different infused olive oils and vinegars. The knowledgeable staff can recommend delightful combinations for purchase (Tuscan Herbal olive oil and Sicilian Lemon-infused vinegar is our favorite). Various gourmet treats, fresh bread, and gift items round out the shop’s selection.
Just across the street, you might want to pop in to Red or White, which has the best selection of wines in Fairhope, plus a small-plate menu with cheese trays, tapas, and hand-crafted pizzas.
Six nights of the week, McSharry’s Irish Pub is much like other bars in other towns, but on Sunday nights, it morphs into a real Irish pub—and in owner Ronan McSharry’s home town of Sligo, Ireland, that means a place for all ages to gather and listen to traditional Irish music along with their food and drink. Musicians (usually five or six but sometimes as many as twenty) tuck themselves into a corner and play tune after tune after tune. Just don’t mistake this for a jam session: It’s an Irish seisiún, meaning players need to know the tunes and play them on traditional instruments—so no sax solos allowed. If you want to know more, just ask the bodhrán (Irish frame drum) player—that would be me!
Across the street from McSharry’s, Windmill Market continues to evolve, getting better all the time. What started as a once-weekly farmers market, now has permanent booths for arts and crafts, a small market focused on local cheese, dairy, and produce, and three restaurants, allowing a group with different tastes to mix or match their orders, yet all enjoy the same table. On a recent visit, we ordered a rice and veggie bowl and roasted eggplant wrap from Sweet Olive while our friends chowed down on barbecue from The B Side; we all were happy to top off lunch with a dessert from Mary Ann’s Deli.
Fairhope Brewing is the newest grown-up attraction in Fairhope. The first craft beer brewery in Alabama south of Montgomery, Fairhope Brewing opened in January 2013, attracting thirsty beer fans from all across the region. Currently, there are four original brews to enjoy in the tap room, ranging from Everyday Ale™ to Painted Black IPA™. Alabama’s antiquated alcohol laws mean that the brewery cannot serve food, but the brewmasters partner with local restaurants to have food available on occasion and always welcome you to BYOF (bring your own food).
Fairhope is graced with miles of unspoiled bluff-top and waterfront parks, one of the gifts of its utopian founders, who set the land aside for public use in perpetuity. Walk just a few blocks from downtown to enjoy scenic bay views and art from Fairhope’s public art collection (including the new veterans memorial, to be dedicated on Memorial Day, 2013). Fall and spring offer particularly stunning sunset views across Mobile Bay from the town’s quarter-mile long pier, also known as “Fairhope’s Town Square.”
This fall, a new event arrives in town: the Fairhope Film Festival is scheduled for November 7–10, and organizers say there will be more than forty films screened on four venues downtown, all within walking distance of each other. According to planners, the festival will present award-winning national and international films, documentaries, and shorts.
Until 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center opened a few years ago, most of the Mobile/Tensaw River Delta was inaccessible. Sure, you could see it as you zoomed by on the Causeway (the seven-mile length of US highway 90/98 that connects Mobile to the Eastern Shore), and if you had a friend with a boat you might get to cruise around, but most of us never saw more of the Delta than what we could view through the car window.
Owned and operated by the State Lands Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 5 Rivers is a “gateway” into the tangled waterways, woods, and wetlands that make up the second largest river delta in the United States. The grounds are great for walking and are a photographer’s dream. I enjoy the changing displays in the exhibit hall and the chance to meet some of the live critters that are part of the educational staff at 5 Rivers. Families will appreciate the scheduled story times and hands-on fun for kids; there are evening adventures for all ages, and nature films in the Tensaw Theater. 5 Rivers is a good neighbor too, hosting events such as Delta Woods & Waters Expo (April 27, 2013) and Alabama Coastal BirdFest (Oct. 3-5, 2013).
You can launch your own kayak or canoe at 5 Rivers or take a guided trip with Delta Safaris, a wildlife adventure company that has both scheduled and chartered eco-tours. Choose from narrated pontoon boat cruises, guided fishing or birdwatching trips, and dinner cruises. If you want to go it alone, there are canoes and kayaks to rent. Be sure to ask about a guided trip to the prehistoric Mound Creek Indian site. The adventurous can go by kayak, but it’s a long trip. We shot upriver with a guide on a fast boat and were very glad we did.
Overnight visitors have a new option in Fairhope: the Hampton Inn Fairhope opened a few years ago directly across from the history museum; Church Street Inn (also downtown) and Bay Breeze Bed & Breakfast (overlooking Mobile Bay) are two well-loved destinations. Golfers enjoy the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club and Spa, in nearby Point Clear.
Be forewarned: Any visit to Fairhope is likely to result in an eventual move here. It’s happened to people ever since the city was founded, and it happened to us in 1993. There’s just something about Fairhope that says “home”—and once you visit, you’ll understand.
Details. Details. Details.
Fairhope and Eastern Shore tourism: visiteasternshorealabama.com
Fairhope Single Tax Corporation: FairhopeSingleTax.com
Fairhope Brewing: FairhopeBrewing.com
McSharry’s Irish Pub: Facebook.com/msharrys
Fairhope Film Festival: FairhopeFilmFestival.org
Delta Safaris: 5RDS.com