By Laura Lucy
We’ve done it again. Spring has sprung and we didn’t plan ahead for spring break…but we still need a break! If you can’t imagine another day at a crowded theme park and the thought of staying in town with thousands of tourists gives you anxiety, check out these last-minute mini-getaways. They are all family-friendly, require four hours or less in the car, and are ideal for a few days away if you can’t miss a whole week of work.
Head west on I-10 for a couple of hours and explore Mobile. It’s close enough that you could make it a long day trip, but there’s so much to see I would recommend staying a few nights. Start with the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education is all the rage these days, and your kids will get plenty of hands-on learning at the Exploreum. With more than 50 fun, interactive exhibits, the kids won’t even realize they are learning about electricity, mechanics, magnetism, and more.
If you have a budding botanist in the family, you cannot miss a stop at Bellingrath Gardens to experience spring in a 65-acre garden. I have been to the spectacular Magic Christmas in Lights here, but seeing the garden in daylight in its full blooming glory is high on my spring to-do list. You can check out the What’s in Bloom? page on their website before you go.
Baseball fans will want to take in one last Mobile Baybears game at Hank Aaron Stadium. The team moves to north Alabama in 2020, but you can catch them close by this spring and summer. The city that gave us Hammerin’ Hank really knows how to put on a game. There is no chance the kids will be bored here with non-stop entertainment throughout the game. When we went last year, my daughter, Vivi, was delighted to snuggle up with the mascots, chase the Geico gecko around the field, and win some Subway gift cards in a dance contest.
No trip to Mobile is complete without a visit to the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. The 45,000-ton ship was home to 2,500 crew members during World War II as it saw plenty of action in the Pacific. Upon the ship’s retirement, forward-thinking Mobilians saved it from being scrapped and turned it into one of the country’s most unique military attractions in 1965. At the park you will also find the submarine USS Drum, aircraft, tanks, war artifacts, memorials, and a picnic area, all with views of beautiful Mobile Bay.
There is no shortage of good food in Mobile, with ample seafood and southern options. You can opt for fine dining, but with the kids along, my choice is the Original Oyster House. The original Original Oyster House opened in 1983 in Gulf Shores, with this location on the Mobile causeway opening in 1985. It’s a straightforward seafood joint that simply does everything right. The service is great, food is yummy, and the views are breathtaking. If you are a fan of baked potatoes, theirs will change your life. Try it.
Rural Northwest Florida
Don’t be fooled into thinking the big cities are where it’s at for a quick getaway. Just up the road a ways you will find an exciting, albeit slower-paced, destination in Washington and Jackson counties. Ecotourism enthusiasts will feel at home in the natural environs of this region. Falling Waters State Park boasts Florida’s tallest waterfall. Who even knew Florida had waterfalls! Enjoy hiking trails through verdant forest and learn about the history of the area, with a grist mill dating back to the 1860s and Native American artifacts from 5,000 years ago. Hurricane Michael damaged the park’s lower observation deck at the falls, but most of the park is fully functional. Sadly, Florida Caverns State Park in nearby Marianna had more severe damage from the storm and has yet to reopen at the time of this writing. But it will be back!
Seacrest Wolf Preserve in Chipley allows you to get up close and personal with Gray, Arctic, and British Columbian wolves. This is not your average petting zoo. Reservations are required, the dress code is strictly enforced, and children under 10 are not permitted. You enter the wolves’ natural habitat and interact with wolf ambassadors. Adventurous types can even camp out at the preserve and howl all night.
Ghost hunters and nature lovers alike will enjoy a walk down the Bellamy Bridge Heritage Trail in Marianna. Be on the lookout for birds plus rare and endangered plants as you wander down the path that has been referred to by some as Florida’s most haunted spot. Visitors have reported seeing the ghost of a moonshiner who died near the bridge in the 1800s, a headless wagon driver, and hauntings by Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, who died either by fire on her wedding day or by fever as a young mother, depending on which legend you believe.
Don’t head back to the coast without loading up on fresh produce to bring home. If you don’t see any roadside stands where you can buy direct from the farmer, stop off at the Brickyard Market or Piggly Wiggly in Chipley. Both of these grocery stores have prices on produce that Destin probably hasn’t seen since the 70s. Plus, it’s all fresh off the farm and tastes like real food. So good!
When you think of road tripping, Georgia, Atlanta or Savannah probably come to mind. But you’re missing out on a gem that’s a little closer to home. Columbus is only a four-hour drive from the Emerald Coast through some pretty scenic countryside. You might be surprised by what the city has to offer. The Coca-Cola Space Science Center houses more than $17 million of Space Shuttle era artifacts from NASA. There are also flight simulators and many interactive displays that will keep the kids in a STEM state of mind even when they’re out of school. You can look at the stars during the day at a planetarium show in the Omnisphere Theater. There are even special shows tailored to kids. If only the real thing will do for you, check the schedule online to see if they are having a free public night at the Westrock Observatory while you’re in town.
About 40 miles north of Columbus is where you’ll find yourself taking a walk – or rather a drive – on the wild side at Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain. This drive-thru animal park gives you the option to drive your own vehicle through 3.5 miles of animal adventure. You can also choose to go on a bus tour or rent a Zebra van. On the tour, you will get to see more than 550 animals, 75 different species, throughout the 500-acre spread. Expect to have a close encounter with camels, zebras, and bison, to name a few.
The National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center located at Fort Benning was the highlight of our trip to Columbus a few years ago. I know some of you might groan at the thought of a military museum, but this one is truly impressive. My dad is a Vietnam veteran, and he met my mom while he was stationed at Fort Benning in the 1960s. Upon hearing that the museum had been voted USA Today’s Best Free Museum, he wanted to take the whole family. That included my daughter who was only three at the time. I worried that she would be bored or even frightened by some of the depictions of war. Instead she was intrigued by everything, especially since she knew her Papa had been a soldier in the infantry. She went through the simulated Vietnam jungle at least three times. Once was enough for Papa. The museum takes you through galleries with artifacts and interactive exhibits from every era of the infantry, from its formation in 1775 right up to the ongoing global war on terrorism. If you visit on a Thursday or Friday, you might even catch a basic training graduation ceremony in the field outside the museum.
Columbus is home to a shockingly hip and eclectic district known as Uptown. The area along the Chattahoochee River, once known for industry with spewing smokestacks, is now home to beautiful parks, trendy boutiques, and happening restaurants with food to please any palate. I highly recommend The Black Cow. How can you go wrong at a restaurant where the appetizers include lobster tots, fried bacon, and fried green tomatoes stacked with goat cheese? And their burgers were voted Best in the South by Garden & Gun readers.
No matter where you find yourself this spring remember to have fun, be safe, and don’t act like a tourist. See you on the road!