I had to make good time to Mobile, but also wanted to enjoy the “Emerald Coast” — the white sandy beaches of the Florida panhandle that are truly gorgeous and spectacular. Part of this stretch was filmed in the mid-90′s for the Truman Show, and I thought it would be cool to spend time there. So I popped in a Bob Dylan CD (“Bringing it All Back Home”), and took off on Route 98. The road doesn’t always follow the Gulf, as you often have to take a side beachfront road to experience how beautiful it is. Cognizant of what happened the other day, I didn’t want to get stuck in traffic. One of the guidebooks I have says the Truman Show was filmed in Destin … so I figured that would be a good spot to watch the beach.
Turned out Destin was not too exciting. It’s an inland port town, and the central area was a disgusting tourist trap which catered to wealthy travelers. The whole area around Destin had mega mansions. I spoke to a guy selling t-shirts, who told me the Truman Show was actually filmed in Seaside … a few miles to the east. If I had wanted to see that, I should have exited Route 98 earlier, and taken the scenic Route 30-A. With the time crunch I had put myself in, I decided that I couldn’t turn back to Seaside. I’d have to keep going …Pretty soon, Route 98 became less idyllic … and more a series of stripmalls and gun show billboards. The weather even began to change, with clouds coming in, and I wondered if I would not have the chance to stop at the Emerald Coast. Sensing my surroundings, I popped in my Creedence Clearwater Revival CD — as the Sixties band always had that hick quality to them that appeared to be appropriate for the Florida Panhandle.
But as the skies cleared, I noticed a sign off Route 98 — “Welcome to Navarre Beach: Florida’s Best Kept Secret.” I turned left onto County Road 399, crossing a bridge and approaching the white sandy beaches, coupled with the clear blue color of the Gulf. I stopped to take a few photos, knowing that I had finally paused to experience the sheer beauty of the Emerald Coast.
While in Navarre, I stopped to grab lunch at a beachfront restaurant … and spoke with a few visitors from Alabama. They told me something I was not aware of: while everyone knows about New Orleans for Mardi Gras, the first and original Mardi Gras was in Mobile … and street festivals were starting tonight at 6:30 p.m. It was profound luck to be planning to stay in the area, except I still didn’t have a hotel reservation. Which put more stress on me to leave quickly.
As I drove west on Route 98, the Redneck Riviera became progressively more redneck … as Creedence Clearwater continued to belt out their tunes in my car. As I got to Pensacola, I made a wrong turn and almost entered an air force base. The whole town had a conservative feel, coupled with more suburban hell I had experienced all over Florida. As the road crossed Pensacola Bay, I popped in the Forrest Gump Soundtrack for the occasion of entering a new state: Alabama.
Immediately, Alabama had a different feel from Florida. No more awful stripmalls … just idyllic countryside that (albeit poor and “rednecky”) had a whole different character. But I couldn’t stay on Route 98 to experience the state. I had to catch a hotel reservation in Mobile, so I quickly joined the Interstate. I had been told that there are a lot of cheap motels directly south of Mobile on Government Boulevard, and the guidebook had recommended a few. I also found on a website some great discounts … but the catch is you can’t make a reservation. The idea is that the hotel will rent you a room on a walk-in basis if they have rooms … but not if they are already booked.
The place I had in mind (at $35 with the online discount) was a complete dump when I got there. I got a really bad vibe about the place as I drove in, and the desk clerk reminded me of the Tenderloin hotel landlords. The room itself was awful, and I got asked by a fellow guest during my five-minute stay if I had 75 cents he could borrow. Granted, I know a lot of people in the Tenderloin who put up with such living conditions each and every day (and often in worse situations.) But none of them, I suppose, would agree this is the way to spend a vacation. I drove up Government Boulevard, and found a nice clean available motel room for $60 a night. It was worth it.Having secured a place, I planned on doing laundry … which was harder to find than I thought. I found one close to Downtown Mobile in a sketchy neighborhood, and as I drove towards Dauphin Street I saw the police barricades preparing for the Mardi Gras celebration. It occurred to me that maybe doing laundry at 6:00 p.m. — when the parade starts at 6:30 p.m. — probably wasn’t worth it. I figured I’ll do laundry some other night, and headed towards the Parade.
Downtown Mobile is a lot like what I’ve imagined New Orleans to be. An old city (it was the original capital of the Louisiana Territory!), you even have on Dauphin Street the same kinds of balconies that you have in the French Quarter. Mobile was the first Mardi Gras, and they don’t just have one parade each year … they have parades going on practically every night for a two-week period. Like in New Orleans, floats full of mysterious figures in costume throw beads at the passersby. And like New Orleans, the locals let the good times roll afterwards … with music, drinking and festivities all through the night.
I didn’t get back to my motel until around 1:00 a.m. …