I used to live in a 1918 Craftsman bungalow. Sure, the fireplace in the living room was too narrow to light a fire and a few renovations resulted in quirky rooms, one of which we never had a name for. But we loved the history of the house and liked thinking about people sitting there listening to serial radio programs or spending evenings on the front porch in the pre-AC days. I like to experience that same sense of nostalgia when it comes to picking out southern hotels to visit.
New and glitzy hotels may incorporate all the latest trends – make your own key, hang your clothes on hooks and select your elevator floor from the outside. But I’ll take one of the gracious southern hotels with a past and a sense of history any day. With updated bathrooms of course. I’m not crazy.
They may not have apps you can use to check in but all of these historic hotels have been updated with the latest amenities while not losing their connection to the past. One honors its past by shooting off a cannon every day, I met Harper Lee’s literary agent at another and the third shares property with a home from the 1700s where a 1964 hit thriller was filmed and the staircase played a crucial role.
We took the leisurely route from Atlanta to New Orleans to go to JazzFest, staying in two historic hotels in Alabama on the way, and recovering from the weekend at one in Louisiana afterwards.
If you’re not familiar with what William Faulkner had to say about the past, it’s this: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa
Point Clear, Alabama
The drive to The Grand Hotel takes you through the small town of Fairhope with a pedestrian-friendly shopping district with stores that sell pecans, pottery, antiques and gifts. The sunny two-lane road eventually becomes completely shaded from the oak trees that tower over the road.
We turned into the entrance of The Grand Hotel where live oaks expand their massive roots over large swaths of the expertly manicured grounds. The gorgeous flowers, small pond, fountain and resident ducks are part of the charm of this place where you’ll see “Duck Crossing 6 mph” signs.
This is one of the southern hotels where people return every year, often with large family groups to celebrate holidays, sometimes requesting the same rooms every year. A staff member told us at Easter they had 12,000 Easter eggs set out for the annual hunt.
We’d visited the Grand before, but since our visit the property underwent a $32 million renovation and became part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. The lobby was rearranged, with a coffee shop now in the spot where the gift shop used to be. That change was did not go unnoticed, or unremarked upon by the long-time visitors. Change can be hard for people in the South.
As the joke goes, “How many Southerners does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“Change? Whatever do you mean, change?”
Go up a few steps from the main lobby and you’re in the upper lobby, a two-story space dominated by three fireplaces in the center giving it a cozy, homey feel year-round.
On our previous visit we’d stayed in the Spa Building, where 126 of the 405 rooms are located. This time we were in the Main Historic building, a three-winged space constructed in the 1940s. We had a small sitting space with a sofa and chair, which led to the bedroom.
The first thing I do when I get in a hotel room is look outside at the view. I was rewarded with views of gorgeous grounds, a walkway and Mobile Bay just a few dozen feet away. I couldn’t wait to get outside and walk around the property.
Grand Hotel is on close to 600 acres on a peninsula jutting out into the bay. We set out on a walk behind the main building where nine firepits are set up for chilly evenings and to the beach area, which is wide enough to accommodate plenty of chairs and safe for families as the water is shallow and calm. There’s a hut to get kayaks and bikes, which are included with the resort fee.
The beach. is also right by the pool, a huge tree-shaded area with plenty of spaces to explore, a slide, cabanas at the back and a covered deck area where you can enjoy a drink or meal at Jubilee Poolside Bar & Grill or Sweetwater Grill.
We continued our walk to the marina where a few boats were tied up, then reversed our course to head back the other way to the fishing dock for sunset. The sunsets here are spectacular, one of the reasons we love coming here. While we love Atlanta, the city in a forest, all those trees mean sunset views are limited for us.
Dining at the Grand Hotel
The Grand has two bars. The first is Bucky’s Lounge, named after Bucky Miller, the bartender whose life-sized statue graces the grounds, holding a serving tray in his hand. The statue was erected by former patrons to honor him after he passed away in 2002. Dedicated in May 2005, the statue was one of the few things undamaged just a few months later when the area was hit by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Despite extensive damage, the hotel was up and running again in November 2005.
A smaller, fancier bar was added and named the 1847 Bar after the year the hotel was built. Just beyond the 1847 Bar is Southern Roots restaurant, where we enjoyed dinner one night along with a view of the bay. We had excellent service and our scallops and crab cake were delicious. For a more casual kid-friendly atmosphere, try Bayside Grill for sandwiches and wood-fired pizzas.
Breakfast and high tea are served in the Grand Hall or you can pick up something quick at the Local Market in the lobby. Casual fare is also available at Lakewood Golf Club Restaurant.
Activities at the Grand Hotel
I enjoy walking the grounds, riding bikes and hanging out at the pool while my husband plays a round of golf at the Lakewood Club, part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which has two golf courses. Golf is big here and in 2016, a new golfing practice facility was opened for private lessons, club fitting, junior clinics and skills challenges.
My favorite thing to do is visit the amazing spa, where I fell in love with the huge relaxation area on my first visit here years ago. The lighting is low, the lounges are comfortable and the world melts away. There’s a whirlpool surrounded by mosaic tiles for a relaxing dip, and snacks and tea are available. There’s also a large heated pool in the spa.
The History of the Grand Hotel
In 1847 a two-story building with 40 rooms was constructed on the property. In those days guests took a steamboat to get there. During the Civil War, Mobile’s port was popular with blockade runners, drawing the attention of Admiral Farragut who shut it down and even fired on the Grand Hotel. The hotel then became a hospital for Confederate soldiers, 300 of whom died and are buried in a cemetery here.
The Grand’s military history continued in WWII when it became the Maritime Training School with the code name Operation Ivory Soap and 5,000 military trained here.
The property has undergone many changes since then, some due to fires and hurricanes and others for expansion. Historic photos can be found throughout the property, and the resident historian, Susan Stein, gives daily tours.
This military history is celebrated each day with a ceremony. Re-enactors dressed in period costume gather at the main lobby fireplace at 3:45 and proceed outside to the Civil War-era cannon on the grounds, which is shot off at 4:00 p.m. During the ceremony tribute is paid to all members of all branches of the military and the “Pledge of Allegiance is recited.”
The day I attended crowds gathered to watch a white-bearded gentleman in full uniform shoot the cannon while people covered their ears then loudly applauded. The salute is followed by complimentary cookies, scones and tea in the Grand Hall.
Getting there: The Grand Hotel is about a 30-minute drive from Mobile, Alabama, or a little less than an hour from Pensacola, Florida.
The Battle House
From the Grand Hotel we drove the short distance to Mobile, Alabama, for a stay at The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa, which has a military history of its own although it’s named after the founding family, and not a military operation.
Opened in 1852, The Battle House was the scene for major society events in Mobile for 100 years. I imagine many a white debutante dress and wedding gown was photographed here. Like the Grand Hotel and other southern hotels, it also served as a hospital for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
After fire destroyed the hotel in 1905, it was rebuilt and reopened in 1908. It shut down in 1974, as downtown Mobile descended on hard times. It was purchased, rebuilt and reopened in 2007 and was named one of the top 500 hotels in the world in 2009.
My history with The Battle House is a bit more recent. I first visited Mobile in early 2007, just prior to the reopening and we were given a hard hat tour that included a shell of the magnificent lobby. My next visit was in 2010 when we got to stay in the hotel and see the completed version.
I was in the lounge of the Club Level one afternoon when I struck up a conversation with a gentleman nearby. When I asked why he was in Mobile, he told me he was Harper Lee’s literary agent and comes down to see her on occasion and take her to a baseball game. That led to a fascinating conversation about Harper and her reclusive ways, literary rights and other clients whose descendants are pains in the ass.
He told me at that time more than a million copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird” were sold each year. I remember being impressed and excited I was now one degree of separation from Harper Lee. It was a bit shocking a few years later when I read a Vanity Fair article about her lawsuit against that agent, claiming he had her sign the copyright over to a company he owned. The lawsuit was settled, but my guess he will be forever known as the man who tried to steal the rights to “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Our visits to the Club Lounge this time yielded no such intriguing encounters. We did have breakfast there and enjoyed a few snacks in the evening.
The Battle House has 238 rooms and a magnificent Presidential Suite that includes a fire pit, hot tub and fountain. It also has a rooftop pool, 10,000-square-foot spa and a fitness center. We didn’t dine here, but The Battle House is home to Mobile’s only 4-diamond restaurant, The Trellis, where the scallops are a specialty.
We did make sure to head up to the 8th floor to check out the rooftop garden, a small oasis and nice spot for enjoying the outdoors.
One of my favorite things about The Battle House is the gorgeous, soaring circular lobby with a glass medallion ceiling. Stunning. The location of The Battle House is perfect for exploring downtown Mobile.
Getting there: Delta, American, United and Frontier fly to Mobile Regional Airport. The closest major airports to Mobile are Gulfport Biloxi Regional (52 miles) and Pensacola International (64 miles.)
The Inn at Houmas House
New Orleans Plantation Country
After Mobile, we headed to New Orleans for JazzFest. After a rollicking hot, crowded and packed weekend, we took a few days to mellow out in New Orleans Plantation Country, about an hour away. We left the noise and activity of the city for the green fields of Louisiana along the Mississippi River.
Our accommodations were at The Inn at Houmas House, cute cottages adjacent to one of the popular plantations you can tour. After parking, we made our way to the large and well-supplied gift shop for Houmas House and Gardens where we checked in.
The collection of cottages are nestled among trees on this former sugar plantation, which once spanned over 300,000 acres in the 1860s. Each cottage has a small front porch area with rocking chairs and white columns. The interior was cozy, with two rooms – a small living area and bedroom. We had a flat screen TV and coffee and tea makers. The property is located on a bend of the Mississippi River, but you can’t see it as a huge levee has been built to protect the area from flooding.
A stay at the inn includes a one-hour guided tour of the mansion so we strolled through the beautiful gardens to meet the guide, dressed in a period costume, who led us through the 21-room house. Filled with antiques, there’s a clock said to have been owned by Napolean.
The original home was built in the 1700s as the rich soil attracted planters who grew sugar cane, cotton, corn and indigo. The house was expanded in 1803 and in the 1820s, General Wade Hampton transformed it into a Greek Revival home. At one point the property included 12,000 acres cultivated by 550 slaves.
Many owners and renovations later, the present owner, Kevin Kelly, purchased the land and the home in May 2003. After another renovation, Kelly opened the home for tours in November 2003, but lives in the home. I can’t imagine cleaning up my office and bedroom every day for tours through my home.
Several movies have been filmed here, including scenes from “The Green Book” and the 1964 thrilled “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.” The guide pointed out the spiral staircase where a head rolled down the stairs and the bedroom where Bette Davis stayed during filming.
Breakfast is included with the accommodations and this is no make-your-own-waffle type scenario. It’s an elegant meal served in the Carriage House Restaurant, which has a huge dining table that seats around 24 people as its centerpiece with smaller tables surrounding it.
We were seated at a table on the side and because we had a full day of eating, opted for the light choice of the Houmas House yogurt parfait, which was served with fruit in a beautiful acorn-shaped dish, with their signature dragonfly biscuits.
If it hadn’t been for just having consumed all that rich New Orleans food (heavy sauce on everything!) I would have gone for a more substantial item like bananas foster pain perdu or crawfish eggs Benedict.
One evening wee stopped in the small adjacent bar, The Turtle Bar, where we enjoyed a hand-crafted cocktail before heading back to The Carriage House for dinner. I had a hard time choosing between items like grilled scallops and duck praline but I opted for Zapp’s potato chip crusted mahi mahi served with Creole ratatouille.
Another option for fine dining is to reserve a table at Latil’s Landing Restaurant, housed in the mansion, open Wednesday through Saturday. The menu here is prix fixe, with options for three or five courses with wine pairings available. For a more casual meal, kid-friendly meal try Café Burnside, tucked inside the gardens, which serves lunch daily.
Getting there: Houmas House is located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, an hour either from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport or Baton Rouge Airport.
Related story: The DeSoto Savannah: Location, Dining, and Oh, That View
– Jan Schroder, Editor in chief
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