It all started with a boat ride. I remember the vessel was a good-looking Caribiana with a wicked, rakish bow. A long, narrow craft, it seemed too skinny for a big man...or a clumsy one. It heeled when I moved to starboard and when I shifted to port. I was a little uneasy even before we untied from the dock at Big Daddy’s Grill . Leave it to my old friend, the writer Sonny Brewer, to buy a boat so easy to fall out of. “No bull sharks in this river that I know of,” he told me. “But alligators? Oh, yeah.” I found a good, steady place right in the middle, and we idled into the flat calm of the Fish River, headed for Weeks Bay. It has been 20 years, but I can still see the Caribiana’s high bow split the water like a knife.
I don’t know if it was a good boat to fish from, since we never even tried. We just rode and told stories and lies. I remember how the thick trees clung to the dark water and that, if you moved fast enough, you could outrun the humidity and the biting yellow flies. After a while, we turned in a slow arc to go back. On impulse, I plunged one hand into the river, like a child feeling for the breeze through a car window.
The water was as warm as blood on the surface but icecold deeper down, as if the river had a tunnel in it that led someplace new. It probably had to do with currents, tides, or underground springs—or maybe just some kind of weird South Alabama swamp magic. You’ll believe things on a river you wouldn’t on a sidewalk. I guess it doesn’t really matter now. It was just one more little story, one more scrap of mystery in what I would come to see as a charmed city here on the Eastern Shore along Mobile Bay. Even the name of it sounded made-up, like something from an old children’s story: Fairhope.
Later, driving through the small downtown, I wondered if I had slipped even farther down some rabbit hole. I drove to a good barbecue restaurant with the baffling name “ Ben’s Jr. Bar-B-Que ,” where a scowling waiter wearing one knee-high compression sock would routinely growl at customers who ignored the seating protocol that was plainly stenciled on a homemade sign. “You order your food at the counter, and then you can sit down,” the locals explained, almost in a whisper. I asked if there was a Ben’s Sr. somewhere or a Ben’s Original. “Yeah,” said Brewer, “over on the causeway. Hurricane Frederic blew it away in 1979.”
I eased on over to the hardware store, where the owner refused to join the 20th century and install air-conditioning. Who required a cool climate just to buy a ball-peen hammer? I went in to get an Allen wrench but got a little confused in the heat and came out with a cast-iron barbecue grill shaped like a small pig. As I exited, I swear I saw an old hippie. I wondered if he was the last one.
At dusk, I drove toward the bay and its 2 miles of pristine waterfront. Everyone in town, it seemed, was already there. They walked old, fat dogs from the boat ramp to the American Legion or sat on park benches engraved with the names of the generations who had strolled here before. Children ran shrieking from ornery geese; someone played a violin. I meandered to the pier, where big ole boys in Bermuda shorts and dime-store flip-flops flung cast nets off a seawall. There, the raggediest pelican I have ever seen looked me up and down, like he knew a secret about me but was not quite ready to spill.
Elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, in the condo canyons, people were doing Jell-O shots and waiting in interminable lines for fake tattoos or $45 seafood platters. Here, they leaned against pier railings flecked with fish scales and watched the mullets jump as the sun disappeared somewhere off toward New Orleans .
Slowly, the folks around me drifted home to peaceful blocks of bungalows and cottages and batten-board houses built under gnarled live oaks and straight, skinny pines or to yards hemmed in by riots of azaleas , hydrangeas , crepe myrtles , and creeping vines. In a time of runaway development and conspicuous consumption, $250,000 would still buy a modest place to live well and get old in the warm, coastal wind. These houses were hammered together from cypress and heart pine that was hard enough to bend a nail—or a hurricane. I lingered awhile longer, till the lights of Mobile came on across the bay.
I bought a house here not long after that. The foothills of the Appalachians will always be my home, but in this calm town where I had no ghosts or history, I believed that I could catch my breath. It is hard to keep something this special a secret. But now, 20 years later, I wish that I had tried.
Small Town Charm
People still ask: What is it about Fairhope, this small place that endears and attracts people to visit and then stay forever? It is, after all, a good 45-minute drive from the white sand and shimmering blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico, and that can seem even farther if you are mired in grinding summer traffic, sunburned and sticky in a wet bathing suit. Here on the Eastern Shore, the water is a murky brown and the sand is colored by rivers that snake through the delta to the north and push sediment, rotting vegetation, and a general flotsam into Mobile Bay. It has its own gritty beauty, certainly, but I would not swim in it on a bet.
Jimbo Meador, a writer and outdoorsman who has been waist-deep in this water for around eight decades, remembers a bay so clear he could spearfish in it and count the flounder in the seagrass, which is mostly gone now—an ecological tragedy. But this has not stopped the influx of newcomers. Nothing—not named storms, the roller-coaster economy, or even the haunting Deepwater Horizon oil spill—has deterred that migration for long.
“I guess you can’t miss what you’ve never seen,” Meador says. He feels blessed by those memories, not haunted.
The bay he knew is only a faded postcard now, but he still lives here happily. He has watched Fairhope morph from being a utopian dream to an artists colony and a haven for writers and then to an upscale retirement destination and a kind of boutique enclave for the rich, but it has always been his home and has always been different.
There is no strip here to cruise, no Putt-Putt dinosaurs, zip lines, or T-shirts that say “Redneck Riviera” or “Party Naked.” There are bars, yes, but not as many as there are churches. You’ll find piña coladas, guitar pickers, and even the odd trucked-in palm tree, but that is not the pervading vibe. The town has more sailboats than Jet Skis, but it also has hanging baskets of lush flowers, rose gardens, a world-class library, and an array of nearby museums. You cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a poetry reading or an art show. A springtime festival draws people from around the nation and is as close as Fairhope gets to a bacchanalia. They have hung historical markers on everything, even ancient trees, and erected a statue to a teacher.
One of the most popular bars in town is in the back of the bookstore Page and Palette ; people catch a good buzz at the Book Cellar and talk about theology, shipwrecks, or what they saw in the Sunday New York Times. Book readings and other literary events featuring famous bestsellers and beloved local authors abound; that tradition goes back decades. You can walk in the door and see small children gathered around a writer, hanging on every word. The first time I saw it, in this age of video game-induced illiteracy, it almost made me cry.
Brewer told me, “If you’re southbound heading toward Fairhope on U.S. 43, you come to the town of Leroy and a billboard that says, ‘The Churches of Leroy Welcome You.’ I told Bill Butterworth (who wrote as W.E.B. Griffin) that we needed one that said, ‘The Writers of Fairhope Welcome You.’ He replied that it should actually say, ‘Welcome to Fairhope, the Home of More Writers than Readers.’ At the time, we had more published authors per capita than anywhere else in the country—Butterworth, C. Terry Cline Jr., Winston Groom, Fannie Flagg.” The names have changed, but that literary legacy endures.
People live well here and did so even before money poured in. They say this place has better gumbo than Acadiana, better beignets than Café Du Monde, and better fried chicken than a Congregational Holiness Church campground. It also has decent biscuits and gravy, incredible coffee, and fiery seafood dishes. You can even buy a bag of European chocolates or a cold bottle of pineapple Jarritos from the Piggly Wiggly .
Just inside the city limits are beautiful pastures dotted with healthy cows and lush fields of Silver Queen corn. I used to take my dog there so he could bark at the indifferent Angus cattle and feel brave. Tilled fields are covered in white egrets, striding in slow motion across the fresh earth, scanning the ground for insects. At the Fly Creek Marina , a forest of sailboat masts sways in an outgoing tide; you can smell a thousand years of mud on the breeze.
“People say it’s so cute, pretty, quaint—and, yes, it’s all that,” says Mary Ann Johnson, who moved here from Montgomery about 45 years ago and ran the Church Mouse, an antiques and specialty shop, for decades. “But Fairhope is a real town. If you walk down the street to the pharmacy, people know you. At Publix, you run into half of St. James Episcopal Church’s congregation.”
Her late husband, Spencer, sold fishing flies, rods, and reels in the Fairhope Fly Shop at Church Mouse. He would occasionally threaten to teach me how to cast for speckled trout with a fly rod, and I always told him I would do that, someday, when I could find the time. But I had a feeling he was disappointed in me; how could a man not have time to fish?
People may move away, but many come back sooner or later. Older residents say that they are here for good; they have seen where U.S. 98 leads.
“Where would you go to retire from Fairhope?” I asked Johnson once.
“You go to heaven,” she replied.
Harper Lee once called it “a magical place to live.” But it was not really magic that made it. The current-day landscape of the city was shaped, long ago, by an ideal. To find its beginning in the 1890s, you would have had to go by locomotive, steamship, or horse and buggy over rutted roads, pig trails, and tidal muck.
Fairhope author and historian Alison Holt Knight is the great-great-granddaughter of one of the men who came to Mobile Bay on an unusual quest: to scour the South for a place to build a model community for followers of economist Henry George. “They traveled through Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama,” says Knight of the difficult, bonejarring journey across an uneasy South about three decades after the Civil War. “When they got here, it must have seemed like heaven.”
A small group of pilgrims headed south from Des Moines and other colder regions and settled on a 122-foot bluff of pasture and razed pines. As a cooperative, they purchased land and divided it not into deeds but long-term leases. The corporation paid taxes on the leases, creating a single tax colony that would not disintegrate into profiteering or a monopoly but serve the community. It was decided that a portion of the land would be set aside for parks and public works; the waterfront would not be carved up, fenced off, or obscured but protected and shared across generations. It may not have looked like it at the time, amid fields of pine stumps, but it was a utopia—or something like it.
The founders remarked, in those early days, that they had a “fair hope of success.”
“I guess they came in the spring or fall,” says architect Mac Walcott, whose designs can be seen throughout the town. “If they had arrived in the summer, they’d have gone back home. But the single taxers and their communal attitude are the real history of this place.”
It would never be the success its founders envisioned. More conventional investors, insisting on more traditional land ownership, would join them as the city took form. But the colony’s ideals and the corporation that exists to this day would be a kind of firewall. Progressive ideas and creativity seemed to flourish, including a historic school focused on play-based learning. Intellectuals were drawn here. Upton Sinclair discussed the duality of man in a warm Southern wind. Clarence Darrow spoke on the dangers of petrified opinion. The corporation still holds over 3,700 leases on around 4,500 acres and supports projects for the public good, including a recent gift to help fund a new library.
“I guess it left that lingering vibe,” says Knight, one that—as the city grows—can feel strained. But some people are curious about what Fairhope would look like now if its beginnings had been different.
“Where else do you have 2 miles of uninterrupted beachfront?” asks Walcott.
Knight’s people have been entwined with the city for generations. Though she has lived elsewhere, she always felt that Fairhope was a homecoming. Even the smell of a chemical plant or paper mill could make her homesick, reminding her of the plants across the bay. “We used to go down to the pier every night to watch the sunset,” she says.
It is a hard thing to build a fence around.
Fairhope's Growth & Change
The city has changed, of course, since my introduction; it was inevitable. The Gulf and its tributaries are magnets for money, crowds, and traffic. People bring their own mindsets and priorities and immediately go about trying to change the paradise they found, even if that is only by their numbers. Things like the smaller cottages here fray, get torn down, or are blown away and then get replaced by bigger structures. Someone once told me that you don’t buy a house in new Fairhope; you buy the dirt under it—you invest in a feeling.
“How many towns in the South would trade their empty storefronts for the problems Fairhope has?” wonders Martin Lanaux, a longtime resident. Here below Tornado Alley, in an area where violent crime is still fairly rare unless someone dings a Maserati, is a city with most of its burrs and stickers buffed away. Fairhope offers a chance at a life that is rapidly changing, yes, but still about as smooth and easy as this sorry ole world will allow.
“This place is soft and comfortable,” says Donnie Barrett, former director of the city’s Museum of History and owner of the Fairhope Tea Plantation. He remembers roaming the waterfront in a time when no one cared if you crossed their yard or hung out on their dock. He tells of an East Coast reporter who came to Fairhope to discover its essence, but she found there was no single answer and determined it was all the little good things. “I know a guy who made up his mind to move here in 20 minutes. It still has that feel, but it has eroded a bit,” Barrett says.
Like so many others, he talks about the changes and accelerated growth of modern-day Fairhope with genuine regret, as if he is betraying some trust. What is certainly lost, say many people, is its modesty.
Ben’s Jr. shut down years ago; I don’t know what became of the grumbling waiter. The downtown hardware store and other shops that were part of the old landscape closed too. New restaurants and high-end boutiques dot the streets, which are too packed to meander with ease in the daytime. It hasn’t gotten big-city crowded; it’s just different, not as easy as it used to be. But once you park, you can reward yourself with a $12 plate of french fries dusted with roasted garlic and crispy mushrooms and served with truffle aïoli and curry ketchup.
A new bungalow five blocks off the bay can cost a million or much more. And still the population grows—to more than 23,000 in the 2021 census. Residents say that it has increased by thousands since then, and not one of them rolled into town in an old Ford.
Recently, I drove past a threadbare house for sale in the city’s picturesque bayside Fruit & Nut district. It had all the square footage and curb appeal of a fireworks stand. The asking price was $720,000. In what used to be considered “out in the country,” where I live in a batten-board cypress house under a hurricane-blasted magnolia, the beautiful fields are being carved into tasteful subdivisions, storage units, megachurches, and one absolute whopper of a Walmart.
The other day, I had to dodge what I believed to be another Maserati in front of Greer’s Fairhope Market as I was on my way to get an onion. Once, you would have seen a battered, rattling pickup groan by, but now the streets hum with golf carts. An alarming number are piloted by children who have apparently learned to navigate by playing Grand Theft Auto. Youth—and good insurance—will make you fearless.
“Watch out for the golf carts,” warns Johnson. “They’ll get you.” Fairhope even has a dealership dedicated to them.
“It actually has a few,” says builder Skip Jones, who has been invested in the area’s future for much of his life.
The town is in flux, yes, but he notes that it would be wrong to say that the good things have slipped away. Many of the idyllic cottages remain, standing in the shade of the new Fairhope. The city can preserve that architecture, that past, but it has to want to do so. Still, to him and many others here, the growth and changes seem more than bearable, actually quite livable, compared to other options on the Gulf, where spring break can turn into anarchy. Think Lord of the Flies but with beer and trust funds.
“I come home,” Jones says, “and I feel like it’s the greatest place on earth.”
On my last trip there, it was gently suggested that the problem was not with the new Fairhope but the old me. I decided to try to blend in with this new city, to bite my tongue when threatened by golf carts and Italian sports cars and (if I could) still draw a breath. Then I almost wrecked on a stretch of State 181 that had just been four-laned, apparently during my afternoon nap, and I decided to just stay mad. I will sit on a bayfront bench with that woeful pelican and growl at toddlers. The mean, child-chasing geese are gone now; their droppings created dangerous bacteria levels in the water, so they had to be removed. I miss those birds.
Whatever happens next, Fairhope’s bohemian past and that clear water seem more like souvenirs. But old people like me prefer to remember, to relive it at the sidewalk tables outside the bookstore or in the aisles of the thrift store. The rich people do throw away some nice things.
Someone told me recently that new owners might be trying to bring Ben’s Jr. back, recipes and all, but I’m afraid to get my hopes up.
Still, I wonder if they’ll need a new waiter to growl at people. ’Cause I know a guy...
Rick Bragg's Favorite Fairhope Restaurants
Eating in Fairhope has always been a thing of comfort for me, another kind of relaxation. I don’t drive hundreds of miles just to bind myself in grown-up clothes in 100% humidity. This prevents me from embracing most of the finer establishments, of which there are some excellent ones, I am told. But lately I’ve been trying to broaden my experience beyond the dozen or so spots I’ve frequented since I first started coming here. Some of these places have been around for a while, and others are new—or at least new to me.
Fairhope has a bounty of breakfast options. For ham, eggs, biscuits, and buttered grits that aren’t the soupy mess you usually get when eating out, try Julwin’s Restaurant, the oldest cafe in town. Ask for the sausage gravy and biscuits with sliced tomatoes; people will think you’re a local—or what a local used to be. In the past, they served a fine pecan waffle, but I heard the waffle iron tore up and it has taken a while to get it fixed…going on 19 years.
Often, my first taste of Fairhope is the breakfast at Panini Pete’s : scrambled eggs, bacon, and Swiss cheese on sourdough paired with a better-than-good café au lait. And I order two beignets, the best I have ever had, for dessert, especially in hurricane season. I mean, you never know.
After a morning meal like that, lunch has to be light…ish. MaryAnn’s Deli is great every time. Choose from the chicken, pasta, or fruit salads; blackened fish po’boy; chef’s salad; and white chicken chili. Since it can be almost impossible to find something open after 9 p.m., I sometimes take food home.
Just a few blocks away is another veritable standard, Sandra’s Place. The shrimp salad and broccoli-and-cheese soup are my standbys. If it’s not too sweltering, grab a table outside and count all the golf carts.
When you are truly hungry, go to Saraceno’s Restaurant and get their fried chicken, lima beans, mashed potatoes and gravy (in moderation), slaw, and cornbread. They have pineapple upside-down sheet cake. I am not allowed to eat it, but it makes me feel good just thinking about it. If you go to Saraceno’s and do not like it, you can just keep that to yourself. Every pool cleaner, backhoe operator, insurance agent, police officer, city employee, carpenter, ditchdigger, plumber, and farmer within 50-some-odd miles eats here.
At dinner, if you can stand some sprucing up, put on a clean shirt, check your bank account, and head to
The Wash House Restaurant
. With perfectly cooked steaks, a wedge salad with house-made green goddess dressing, and the grilled fresh catch, it’s one of the most bearable whitetablecloth eateries. Since you’re already being a big shot, order a fancy cocktail, just so you can say, “I’ll have a French 75.”
The chain restaurant Another Broken Egg Cafe has been here for a few years, but I resisted it for a long time. It has one of the most indulgent breakfasts I know of, and I’ve had Irish breakfast in London, the French version in Port-auPrince, and redeye gravy in South Georgia. Be sure to try the traditional eggs Benedict (the decadent hollandaise is done right) and something called City Grits, which is topped with crumbled bacon, tomato, and green onion. I always feel like I am cheating on my usual favorites, but the new Fairhopeans rush the place, probably because they can all afford a decent cardiologist.
Another well-worn spot I recently found tucked away off Fairhope Avenue is the Bay Breeze Cafe, Bar, and Grill . It has a variety of sandwiches, including a really delicious grilled shrimp-and-sausage one covered in what they call Boom Boom Sauce, but I refuse to eat anything named that—just call it rémoulade. Get it with potato salad or a cup of tomato, corn, and blue cheese bisque; you’ll be happy.
I discovered yet another older place on State 181 in Daphne: Kravers Seafood Restaurant , which does the little things quite well. Their gumbo is Louisiana good with big Gulf shrimp. Simple seafood baskets come with blackened catfish, stuffed crab, fried shellfish, and more and are served with hot hush puppies, fresh slaw, and fries. It’ll make you wonder why you ever waited in line at one of those massive seafood show palaces.
People kept telling me about a Mexican-Asian fusion restaurant called Dragonfly Foodbar , which I actually liked despite my distaste for the word “fusion.” It has inventive tacos with fresh ingredients and offers a side dish featuring cabbage braised in red curry and coconut milk that I could eat with a soup ladle.
I was also determined to disapprove of Mr. Spud ’s on State 181, mainly due to its name but also because the owners needed to spread a little gravel on the muddy parking lot. But the fried chicken was delicious, and that’s hard to find at night here. A simple, fresh salad came with chopped egg, ham, and purple onions, and the waitress brought me potato soup for free—probably because I was so handsome.