Travel and outdoors product reviews and trips


ALABAMA

News
Birmingham
Dauphin Island
Decatur
Huntsville
Lake Guntersville
Mobile
Montgomery
Orange Beach
Point Clear
Tuscaloosa

NEWS

See 150 years of history along the Civil War Trail at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear

Bellingrath Gardens and Home Is Great to Visit Year-Round

Bob Baumhower Opening 11th Alabama Restaurant in Orange Beach

Callaghan's Irish Social Club Wins "Alabama's Best Burger" Contest

Mobile is the "IN" Place to Eat, Explore, Fish, Hunt, Museum-hop, Visit Gardens and Much, Much More Year-Round.

Alabama’s State Parks Inexpensive way to 'Staycation"

You don’t have to go far from home for rest and relaxation! Enjoy a comfortable and affordable getaway – without having to spend a fortune on flights or fuel. Many of Alabama’s State Parks offer overnight accommodations – from rustic to rather ritzy – in lodge hotel rooms, chalets, cabins, and cottages. The fabulous, fun-filled family vacation destinations – the Fab Five – include Lakepoint (Eufala), Cheaha (Delta), DeSoto (Fort Payne), Lake Guntersville (Guntersville), and Joe Wheeler (Rogersville).

Alabama’s State Parks offer all kinds of activities – you can enjoy fishing, swimming, boating, golf, hiking and biking trails, playgrounds and picnic areas. Some even have pools, hot tubs and restaurants, and most parks have special events planned for each season.

Want more info on Alabama’s State Parks? Check web site www.alapark.com/

Black Belt Tourism Guide Published

a 42-page visitors‚ guide focused on the many historic, cultural and scenic destinations in Alabama's Black Belt region is available at Alabama Welcome Centers as well as Chambers of Commerce and tourism organizations. For more information, check www.TourismBlackBelt.asp

Alabama's Grand Hotel Named Top 500 In the World By Travel-Leisure Magazine PLUS Hotel Announces New Historic Package for 150th Anniverary of Civil War

Guests at the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort Hotel & Spa in Point Clear have been enjoying the resort and its amenities since it first opened in 1847. More than 160 years later, the historic resort has been named “One of the Top 500 Hotels in the World” by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2011. The international recognition comes just as the resort is launching a new history package commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

BIRMINGHAM

Chez Fonfon Profiled by City Scene

Chez Fonfon is noted for its pastries which were featured in the Alabama Tourism Department's '100 dishes to eat in Alabama before you die' brochure. An excerpt follows:

This, the youngest of Frank Stitt's four restaurants on Birmingham's Southside, briefly transports diners to a French bistro. The decor is upscale French cafe, bright and cheery with gaslights, antique furniture and vintage French prints. The menu is largely in French, giving the knowledgeable staff ample opportunity to guide and explain. Chez Fonfon's pastries appear on the list of 100 dishes to eat in Alabama before you die, so we felt honor bound to try something from the dessert list. Gingerbread Cheesecake sounded different and seasonal, so we decided to give it try. The light brown concoction was amazingly light, even with the dollops of whipped cream gracing the top. The gingerbread flavor was subtle and quite tasty. We got a kick out of the maple leaf shaped gingerbread cookie that leaned against the cheesecake. Was it just a garnish, or was it a baked homage to our French-speaking Canadian neighbors? Made at Bottega, Chez Fonfon's sister restaurant around the bend on Highland Avenue, the cheesecake was a fitting end to a delightful meal. www.al.com/entertainment/birminghamnews/index.ssf?/base/entertainment

DAUPHIN ISLAND

What does Dauphin Island have to offer? Plenty. For starters, white sand beaches with public park; lodging beach houses, condominiums and motels; shopping, restaurants, lounges, public boat launch, charter fishing and tour boats, an 850-foot fishing pier with deep water fishing. At Fort Gaines, completed and utilized during the Civil War, check out the batteries added during the Spanish-American conflict. It's considered one of the best preserved examples of 19th century brick seacoast fortifications in the eastern United States, and was a key element in the Battle of Mobile Bay - famous for Admiral Farragut's command "Damn the torpedoes- full speed ahead!." At the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, an educational aquarium, you can visitl worlds underwater at the Estuarium and explore the treasured beauty and scientific wonders of our native habitats with beautiful visual displays, aquariums and engaging interactive exhibits. The 10,000 square-foot Exhibit Hall is complemented with the Living Marsh Boardwalk while the outdoor exhibit has interpretive signage providing details about the natural history of the Alabama marshes, geography of the area and the evolution of barrier islands. 251-861-6992; www.dauphinisland.org.

The Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary covers 164 acres of beautiful woodlands with miles of walking trails through pines, live oaks, magnolias, swamp and gulf beach. A 1,000 foot boardwalk (handicap accessible) leads from the parking lot to a wharf overlooking Galliard Lake with a breathtaking view. This is one of the best places in the country to observe "neotropical migrants" (252-861-3607, 109 Blenville Blvd.; www.dauphinisland.org). ; Isle Dauphin Golf Club, Indian Shell Mound Park and many other public parks. Best of all, there's a ferry boat between Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan.

For more information contact the Dauphin Island Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 5, Dauphin Island, AL 36528; 251-861-5524 or check web site www.dauphinislandcoc.com.

Where to Stay

Dauphin Island Campground

Walking trails into the beautiful Audubon Bird Sanctuary, a private path to secluded gulf beaches, only a short walk to major attractions such as historic Fort Gaines and the Sea Lab Estuarium, a 250-foot pier, ferry landing and boat launches with access to the Gulf of Mexico are within 5 minutes from the campground. In addition, there are bathhouses, a store, lwasher/dryers, group pavillion with large bar-b-que grill, bike rental, playground, badminton, volleyball, shuffleboard and horseshoes. 251-861-2742; 109 Bienville Blvd; www.dauphinisland.org.

DECATUR

Decatur Performing Arts Center opened

The former St. Ann Catholic Church in downtown Decatur has been transformed into a performing arts center. The non-profit group plans to turn it into 'a little Carnegie Hall' suitable for concerts, plays, weddings, meetings and places of worship. Decatur needs a venue to supplement the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts, Butler said, and this facility will be about half the size of the 677-seat Princess. For more information check web site www.decaturdaily.com

HUNTSVILLE

Largest Alabama State Flag

A 60-foot Alabama state flag, the largest ever made, has been unveiled at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville near the new Saturn V center. An American flag flies nearby. The Alabama flag was presented by the state tourism department as the Huntsville community observes the 50th anniversary of the launch of America's first satellite atop a Huntsville rocket. www.spacecamp.com/saturnv

LAKE GUNTERSVILLE

more soon

MOBILE

Why a MoonPie?

Mobile is the home of America’s first Mardi Gras celebration, and the MoonPie is the favored “throw” of the hundreds of Mardi Gras maskers riding the floats during the extensive Mardi Gras parade season.  MoonPies were first thrown from Mardi Gras floats in 1952. Today, Mobile consumes more than four million MoonPies annually, and has adopted the delicious treat as an informal emblem. For the MoonPie Over Mobile celebration, this southern city has teamed up with Chattanooga Bakery, the maker of the iconic MoonPie marshmallow sandwich, to create the largest electronic MoonPie as the featured attraction for its New Year’s Eve celebration. This is the third year an electronic version of the delicious treat will light up downtown Mobile. 

Mardi Gras was first discovered in the New World in 1703 at Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff, the first settlement in Mobile. The first masked parading society, the Cowbellion de Rakin society, was formed in 1830. Mobile currently has more than 50 parading and non-parading organizations. An estimated 850,000 people attend parades, parties and other organizations associated with the carnival festivities. This number will likely increase with the enhanced MoonPie Over Mobile celebration. 

What’s New This Year?

Reach For The Moon – Resolution Wall
Dine on the world’s largest edible MoonPie from Chattanooga Bakery in the beautiful courtyard of the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel on Royal and Government streets in downtown Mobile as you toss your cares away by leaving your 2012 resolutions on the “Reach For The Moon” Resolution Wall. Make new resolutions on this giant board or on the one near the RSA BankTrust Building and start the New Year off right.

Three Stages with Diverse Acts
The Mardi Gras Park Stage at the cover of Government and Royal Streets will have live music from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m. and feature Perfect Image Show & Band; Elmo & the Bluesmen; and Grayson Capps. The Bienville Square Stage will have entertainment from 5:00 to 9:00, ending with Hotwire. The Main Stage at St. Joseph and St. Francis Streets will have opening remarks at 8:45 p.m., The Wet Willie Band from 9:00 to 10:30 p.m. and The Commodores from 11:00 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

Why a MoonPie?

Mobile is the home of America’s first Mardi Gras celebration, and the MoonPie is the favored “throw” of the hundreds of Mardi Gras maskers riding the floats during the extensive Mardi Gras parade season. MoonPies were first thrown from Mardi Gras floats in 1952. Today, Mobile consumes more than four million MoonPies annually, and has adopted the delicious treat as an informal emblem. For the MoonPie Over Mobile celebration, this southern city has teamed up with Chattanooga Bakery, the maker of the iconic MoonPie marshmallow sandwich, to create the largest electronic MoonPie as the featured attraction for its New Year’s Eve celebration. This is the fourth year an electronic version of the delicious treat will light up downtown Mobile.

Mardi Gras was first discovered in the New World in 1703 at Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff, the first settlement in Mobile. The first masked parading society, the Cowbellion de Rakin society, was formed in 1830. Mobile currently has more than 50 parading and non-parading organizations. An estimated 850,000 people attend parades, parties and other organizations associated with the carnival festivities. This number will likely increase in 2013.

For details on MoonPie Over Mobile, visit www.mobilenewyear.com
Information on visiting Mobile and images can be found at www.mobile.org.

MoonPie Over Mobile Fun Facts

·        The giant MoonPie weighs 350 pounds and is 12 feet tall.

·        Knight Sign Industries from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, built the giant MoonPie which is made of plastic and features LED lights. The retractable MoonPie is completely weather resistant.

·        The MoonPie will drop 317 feet in 60 seconds from atop the 34th floor of the RSA BankTrust Building.

·        The original MoonPies are made by Chattanooga Bakery in Chattanooga, TN. Mobile consumes more than 4 million MoonPies annually.

·        Mardi Gras first appeared in Mobile in 1703, the first location in the United States. MoonPies were first thrown from Mardi Gras floats in 1952 and have become Mobile’s favorite “throw” ever since.

·        Mardi Gras is big business in Mobile. More than 12,811 jobs are directly related to Mardi Gras in Mobile and Baldwin counties. The annual economic impact is more than $227 million in direct carnival spending.

·        The first MoonPie Over Mobile celebration was held on Dec. 31, 2008 and was the idea of Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson. Councilman Richardson continues to serve on the Mobile City Council.

·        Formed out of Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, in 1968, The Commodores reign as one of the top bands of Motown with seven No. 1 songs and a host of other top-10 hits on the Billboard charts. Acclaimed for ballads like “Easy” and “Three Times a Lady,” as well as funky, dance hits such as “Brick House” and “Too Hot to Trot,” The Commodores are bringing their soulful sound to Mobile this New Year’s Eve.

·        The Commodores started out as the opening band for the Jackson 5 tour in 1971, and their excellent performances on stage led to a deal with Motown.

·        An elaborate laser show will be incorporated into the MoonPie Over Mobile festivities. The laser show will be produced by Lasertainment, a national laser company. Lasertainment has produced high-tech laser productions for events like the Olympics, Super Bowl, Final Four and All Star Games. The laser projection on the RSA BankTrust Building can be 50 feet wide by 150 feet tall.

·        RSA is the Retirement Systems of Alabama – the state teachers’ and workers’ pension fund. RSA has invested more than $600 million in Mobile. BankTrust is headquartered in the RSA BankTrust Building. The building has a Mardi Gras theme year-round.

Giant Moonpie & Laser Show Made Its Debut on New Year’s Eve

Mobile is the home of America’s first Mardi Gras celebration, and the MoonPie is the favored ‘throw’ of the hundreds of Mardi Gras maskers riding the floats during the extensive Mardi Gras parade season. Mobile consumes more than four million MoonPies annually, and has adopted the delicious treat as an informal emblem. For the MoonPie Over Mobile celebration, this southern city teamed up with Chattanooga Bakery, the maker of the iconic MoonPie marshmallow sandwich, to create the largest electronic MoonPie as the featured attraction for its New Year’s Eve celebration.

Mardi Gras was first discovered in the New World in 1703 at Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff, the first settlement in Mobile. The first masked parading society, the Cowbellion de Rakin society, was formed in 1830. Mobile currently has more than 50 parading and non-parading organizations. An estimated 850,000 people attend parades, parties, and other organizations associated with the carnival festivities. This number will likely increase with the enhanced MoonPie Over Mobile celebration.

For more information on MoonPie Over Mobile and accommodations, visit www.mobile.org. Further details on MoonPie Over Mobile can be found at www.mobilenewyear.com.l

Where to Stay

Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa

Going to the Sunday Buffet at the Grand Hotel's Bucky's Birdcage Lounge is a must. It's the best buffet I've ever had - and I've had many in various places - and the atmosphere is magnificent, as is the entertainment. The food is fantastic and so eye appealing that I couldn't stop photographing the various dishes. There were upscale comfort foods, unique salads, roast beef, Italian specialties, cheeses from all over the world, jumbo shrimp and much, much more.

More Kudos for the Grand Hotel

The Grand Life: 
The Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa is prepared to welcome guests with exceptional Southern Hospitality and service. Generations of Grand traditions continue along with new offerings to keep the resort fresh. Below are some recent honors, changes and packages available from the Queen of Southern Resorts.
CULINARY UPDATES
The Grand Dining Room now has more sizzle than ever at night. This AAA Four Diamond restaurant has kept several seafood classics while shifting its focus to exceptional steaks. The décor, views and attentive staff have not changed. The quality and options for steak lovers is now grander than ever.
Call 251.990.6374 to make reservations.
PACKAGES
Civil War History Package
Damn the torpedoes and head to The Grand. Come learn about the Battle of Mobile Bay while enjoying exceptional hospitality at the Grand Hotel. Package includes a resort view luxury room. Breakfast for two in The Dining Room. Receive a copy of Grand Traditions, the official Grand Hotel book featuring recipes, images and stories detailing the Grand's rich history. Package also includes the official brochure of the Alabama Civil War Trail and a brochure explaining the Grand’s military legacy. Participate in the daily military processional at 4:00 pm and watch the authentic cannon firing. Visit the Confederate cemetery on the hotel grounds. Weekday rates start from $279. www.marriottgrand.com.

Grand Golf Package
Enjoy a deluxe resort view room which includes one round of golf for two on the Azalea or Dogwood courses at the Lakewood Golf Club. Come see why American presidents, international celebrities and golfers of all levels praise golf at The Grand. www.marriottgrand.com.

Grand Spa Package
Enjoy a deluxe room with a resort view in the Spa Building which includes a $125 credit towards an award-winning spa treatment and breakfast buffet for two in The Dining Room. Don’t miss the crabmeat signature omelet. Rates range from $362 - $472 per room, per night. www.marriottgrand.com. Spa Trail cards also are available in the Spa at the Grand. 

The Battle House - A Renaissance Hotel & Spa

Located only 20 minutes from the Mobile Airport and 50 minutes from the Pensacola Airport in the heart of downtown, one block from the Mobile River and across the street from the Convention, The Battle House is where I spent my recent vacation - and loved it. There are 238 guest rooms including 31 suites on eight floors, two-line telephones with data port and voice mail, large, well-lit work desk and high-speed internet access, plus an AM/FM alarm clock radio, complimentary in-room coffee and tea, a hair dryer, iron and ironing board, nonsmoking and ADA-accessible rooms available with in-room safes and refrigerators.

For dining, the Trellis Room is most impressive in decor and serves Northern Italian and continental dishes with flair in an atmosphere of gracious charm and congenial Southern hospitality. The Royal Street Tavern features a lighter menu of favorites and appetizers, while the Joe Cain Cafe serves a variety of beverages, pizzas and sandwiches.

For a treat and or exercise, try the Full Europpean spa and sauna, the outdoor pool and whirlpool, the fitness center, tennis court, driving range, 54-hole championship Robert Trent Golf Trail at Magnolia Grove nearby.

Valet parking is offered, as well as a business center, activities/tour desk, laundry and valet service.

The Battle House is near to the Museum of Mobile, USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, Mobile Carnival Museum, Bellingrath Gardens and Home, Gulf Coast Exploreum Museum and the IMAX Theater plus Fort Conde.

If you're planning a business meeting, The Battle House offers 17 lalvishly elegant meeting and banquet rooms comprising 27,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.

For more information or reservations, contact The Battle House at 26 North Royal Street, Mobile, Alabama 36602 or call 251-338-2000 or go to web site rsabattlehouse.com.

Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel

Located along the scenic Mobile Bay waterfront, with picturesque views of the river, this 373-room downtown with all rooms facing Mobile Bay or historic Mobile. Guestrooms feature refrigerator, ADA-accessible rooms available, AM/FM alarm clock radio, telephone with voice mail, message light and data port, cable TV with in-room pay movies, in-room coffee and tea and hair dryer.

Mobile hotel provides a landmark location in the heart of the business and entertainment district. There's immediate access to the Mobile Convention Center, located just across the street by skywalk. It's a great place whether you're in Mobile for work or pleasure and this full-service hotel boasts an ideal setting overlooking the beautiful waterfront of Mobile Bay, and is surrounded by historic museums, restaurants and businesses. Also, it's is just 25 minutes from the Mobile Regional Airport.

This unique 28-story Mobile hotel provides something for everyone and has recently completed a $60-million upgrade. I had breakfast in this gorgeous hotel and from the moment I entered, knew it was unique. Decorated mostly in a nautical theme, I couldn't stop admiring the paintings, the lovely tiles, sculptures and flowers - and breakfast was outstanding, including the dishes. For dining, the Harbor Room offers classic Gulf Coast cuisine, and overlooking Mobile Bay, the inviting decor offers a casual relaxing atmosphere perfect for all occasions. Harbor Room is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the new Lobby Bar, Fathomsis a natural gathering place for both the business and leisure guests. The fourth floor terrace features a beautiful outdoor pool and whirlpool, and the fully equipped fitness center features treadmills, cycles, stair climbers and a variety of weight lifting options.

There's also covered parking (fee) Valet parking, complimentary daily newspaper delivery, gift shop, business center, laundry and valet service, shoeshine stand, soda, ice and vending machines.

It's definitely a good place for meetings with 18 meeting rooms with a 44,000 square-feet of meeting and function space, a 10,086 square-goot Bon Secour Bay Ballroom, divisible into 3 sections, accommodations up to 1,200 for receptions and 840 for banquets, in-house audiovisual support, teleconferencing and videoconferencing capabilities, and all meeting rooms offer high-speed internet access with a multilingural staff and theme party capability.

For more information or reservations, contact the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel, 64 South Water Street, Mobile, Alabama 36602; 251-438-4000 or go to web site www.riverviewmobile.com.

Spas

Mobile's Five Fantastic Spas Along the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail A Must-Do

World-class spas have sprung up along the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and, best of all, leisure and business travelers can heap huge benefits by purchasing a RTJ Spa Trail card for only $40.

What does this entitle you to?

-- A $20 gift card can be used in any of the five spas

-- A 25% discount on spa services

-- A 25% discount on regular room rates, based on availability

-- 25% off all spa retail products

-- 10% discount on food and beverages in the hotel

-- Complimentary glass of wine in the spa after the spa service

-- Complimentary day spa use the day before or the day after your spa service for hotel guests (a $25 value)

Note: Cards can be purchased at the five spa locations or by calling the spa directly. The card is good for one year from the date of purchase. Discounts are for the cardholder only and don't apply to other discounts or promotions. Those who have a spa service at eacgh of the five spas on the Spa trail and have their RTJ Spa Trail Card stamped will receive a free spa treatment of their choice up to a $100 value.

Spa Locations

Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa

(Several of my friends used the Spa at this hotel and loved every minute of it). Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa in Point Clear, AL - outside of Fairhope along Mobile Bay. Consists of 20,000 square feet including an indoor pool and fitness center, nine treatment rooms plus 6 stations in the salon.s Hours 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. Spa treatments include Signature Aromatic Warm Stone Massage, Spa Mosaic Body Experience, Signature Grand Spa facial, the Ultimate Nail Experience.

The spa is bathed in the charm and beauty of the South and serenaded by the timeless rhythm of the sea, and invites you to step into a world of gracious hospitality and luxurious service cocooned in 550 of the most beautiful acres in Alabama.

Phone: 251-990-6385

The Spa at the Battle House

(I had an intensive massage at this Spa and would do it all over again). The Spa at the Battle House, a Renaissance Hotel & Spa in downtown Mobile, Alabama that is 10,000 square feet with 8 treatment rooms plus 4 stations in the salon. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week offering Signature Aromatic Warm Stone Massage, Signature Organic Facial, Signature Urban Foot Rejuvenation. Considered your truly urban escape, this lavlishly decorated retreat is located at the top of Mobile's historic Battle House hotel and offers spectacular views of downtown and Mobile Bay. The exquisite Venetian plastic ceilings swirl with the fiery colors of a sunset and while in the hugel hot pool, the peaceful sounds of the warter walls washed over me. Before and after the massage, I lingered in front of the Zen fire pit while sipping a glass of bubbly.

Phone: 251-338-5700

The Spa at Montgomery

within the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center is 9,000 square feet with 7 treatment rooms plus 6 stations in the salon. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday-saturday and by appointment only on Sundays and Mondatys, it offers Renaissance Signature Massage, Resurfacing Pedicure, Glycoderm Facial and gives patrons a mosaic spa experience whether you opt for the Mysterious Turkish wrap or the Egyptian Gold Experience.

Phone: 334-481-5210

The Spa at Ross Bridge

at the Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa in Hoover, Alabama outside of Birmingham is 12,000 square feet with 10 treatment rooms plus 6 stations in the salon. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, it offers Signature Massage, Facial and Pedicure, Lavender Heaven Body Treatment, Hot Oil Scalp Massage and Back Exfolialtion, plus Signature Body Treatment. With the backdrop of familiar tunes being played by a lone Highland piper, you wold believe you have been transported to the misty moors of Scotland.

Phone: 205-949-3041

The Spa at the Shoals

located at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa in Florence, Alabama is 6,000 square feet with 4 rooms plus 7 stations in the salon. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday and Monday, it offers niourishing Body Service and Aromatherapy Massage. It is nestled on the banks of the Tennessee River.

Phone: 256-246-3696

For more information on the RTJ Spa Trail, the Resort Collection and the RTJ Golf Trail, visit www.pchresorts.com or www.rtjgolf.com

Where to Eat

Restaurants I've Eaten at in Mobile

Spot of Tea

What fun it is to eat in this fine restaurant and what a terrific breakfast I had here starting with the House Specialty -- the Banana's Foster French Toast topped with hot Banana's Foster sauce, sliced bananas and delicious bacon - for under $10. The portion was HUGE and the taste quite memorable. My partner tried the Seafood Eggs Benedict filled with ham, eggs, Hollandaise and blackened shrimp, $10.95, which was also yummy. Open for breakfast. lunch and dinner, this restaurant is a favorite place with locals. The varied menu ranges from waffles, omelettes, sandwiches, and create your breakfast. Sandwiches run from English cucumber, veggie pattie melts, Hawaiian melts, healthy grilled chicken, grilled turkey Reuben, and much more - while the house specialty soup is C.J.'s Cayenne Crab Bisque topped with a delicious crab cake and sauteed crawfish tails leading and followed by Signature Loaded Potato soup - topped with real bacon bits, sharp cheddar cheese and chives. Kids are very welcome and there's a special kid's menu available.

Spot of Tea has been in business for over 15 years, is open seven days a week. Sunday, Monday & Tuesday hours are 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Wednesday thru Saturday hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

After Five

is Spot of Tea's newest adventure if you're looking for a great place to have dinner with your friends or an intimate dinner with your favorite person. Steaks, fresh seafood, appetizers and wines are served Thursday thru Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. For details call 251-433-9009.

And, at Spot of Tea, Club Insanity, also on the premises, features the south's only computerized LED dance floor, two Blue Ray big screens, 12 HD TV's, VIP seating and a sports bar upstairs. A DJ pumps the music Thursday thru Saturday from 4 p.m. until everyone who stays is completely insane! For details check web site clubinsanity.net or call 251-441-9966.

Spot of Tea is located at 310 Dauphin Street, Mobile, Alabama; 251-433-9009 or for more information on hours, events, etc., check web site www.spotoftea.net

Wintzell's Oyster House

Before visiting Wintzell's Oyster House - a historic landmark on Dauphin Street in Mobile -- I had only tasted one oyster - and vowed never to eat another. However, since I was told this restaurant, established in 1938, had other food to choose from, I accompanied a few of my friends. Immediately, Miss Pinky, a server who has been at this restaurant for many years, came over with the most beautiful smile I had ever seen - and she talked me into trying some sample oysters. I hesitated, but with her encouragement and the wonderful aroma of a variety of oysters -- cheese & sauce covered, fried, stewed or nude oysters and numerous other concoctions, I gave in. All were delicious and on my next visit to Mobile, I intend to have more! From soup to dessert, this favorite among locals definitely deserves 5-stars.

Founded by J. Oliver Wintzell in 1938 as a 6-stool oyster bar, it has thrived through economic boom and bust and remained at its original location on Lower Dauphin Street. Its walls are covered with Wintzell's homespun sayings along with thousands of signs in the interior of all the Wintzell's locations now numbering 12 and still growing.

Featured in many local, regional and national publications and known as a 'must experience,' I agree 100%. The gumbo is fantastic and has won numerous awards, while the current owners, Bob & Buffy Donlon, have created a chain with consistent delivery to customers with great food, friendly service, and true value. If you're not into seafood, the meat served here is USDA-Choice certified, and you can find beef, chicken, pasta and a variety of fish. However, don't leave without trying the oysters that can be ordered fried, stewed, and nude. I sat at the bar for a few minutes and was fascinated watching an oyster shucker expertly remove the fresh oysters from their shells.

Located at 605 Dauphin Street, Mobile. For details check web site www.witzellsoysterhouse.com or call 251-4532-4605.

Callaghan's

You'll know you've arrived when you hear the noise coming from inside this popular restaurant -- for this is a fun place with good food and GREAT hamburgers.Dress really casual, sit back, relax, and while digesting, listen to the music -- for Callaghan's has become a destination for well known muscians and music lovers. The bar was voted as America's Best Bar List by Esquire, is among the top 100 bars (Inside Magazine), and Gallaghan's Burger has been voted as the "Best in Mobile." I can say that's accurate - and that's why casual dress is a good idea because the burger is so huge and so fresh that you're likely to go home with some of it on your clothing!

Callaghan's Irish Social Club wins "Alabama's Best Burger" Contest

The judge’s results are in and Callaghan’s Irish Social Club was declared “Alabama’s Best Burger” in a very tight race. Callaghan’s Irish Social Club in Mobile earned the most points collectively from three different judges and is being crowned king of the burger. The contest that began with online voting hosted by the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association consisted of more than 800 voters from July through September, voting for their favorite burger restaurant in the state. Following the announcement of the five top vote-getters in October, judges began scaling the state to determine the king of the burger contest.

Callaghan’s owner, John Thompson, was very excited when he received the phone call that he had topped all other restaurants. “We consider the Alabama Cattlemen's Association to be the experts in good beef, so it means that much more to be recognized by them. Everyone asks why our burgers are always so good and we tell them we use only the highest quality beef and freshest produce. But the real secret to our great burgers is that we have the best cooks around. They deserve all of the credit!” says Thompson.

Callaghan’s Irish Social Club has been in business since 1946, and remained in the Callaghan family until 2002. It has been owned by John Thompson and Richie Sherer since and is no stranger to winning contests. The restaurant was named the USA Today Best Burger in Alabama in 2010 and is on the list of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.”

For more information on the beef industry in Alabama, contact the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association at 334-265-1867 or visit the association online at www.bamabeef.org.

For more information about Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, contact 251-433-9374 or visit online at www.callaghansirishsocialclub.com.

Located at 916 Charleston Street, Mobile; 251-433-9374.

Bahama Bob's Beachside Cafe

Great for fresh seaford and giant burgers. The drinks are great, too.

What to See & Do

Market on the Square

Each October, the market reopens for the fall season with locally grown goodness on the menu. Each Saturday, from 8 a.m. until noon, locals are there buying fresh fall fare including produce, honey, cut flowers, baked goods, specialty handcrafted items, and a whole lot more. Stay for live music each week on the green right next to Catherdral Church.

5 Rivers Delta Resource Center

I could have stayed here all day because there are so many interesting exhibits, plus the opportunity to go on a guided pontoon ride through the marsh to spot alligators, birds and learn the history of the area, plus the newly-opened Cypress Gift Shop with hundreds of nature-inspired gifts and decor and a reading area in a cozy setting in front of a huge fish tank loaded with native species and turtles. Kids will find a selection of fun and educational toys all based around the delta as well as the Gulf Coast.

Watch for the variety of wildlife including alligators, bald eagles, osprey, heron, cormorant, pelican, turtles, beavers and more as you experience a safari in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta on one of the Delta Eco-Tours. The narration about the surrounding area and nature is excellent presented by a qualified Delta nature guide, and you'll also learn about the history, geology, ecology and characters of the Delta.

Also offered are sailing classes, monthly events including hiking, canoeing, kayaking, lectures on bats, animal tracking, films, and visits to historic sites including The Bottle Creek Indian Mounds.

Located across from Meaher State Park on the Mobile Bay Causeway (US Highway 90/98 in Spanish Fort) . For more information check web site www.alabama5rivers.com or call 251-625-0814. For a safari tour, offered year-round, call 1-800-411-safari or check www.5RDS.com. Reservations are recommended for the tour.

Environmental Studies Center

Here, numerous staff-led programs are available to the public as well as schools. This is a naltural sciences education facility designed to provide unique learning experiences for all ages. In addition, wildlife rehabilitation plays a vital role each day at the Center which receives over 600 wild patients a year. Featuring over 500 acres of rich woodlands, the Center affords everyone the opportunity to experience firsthand the natural environment. Naturala resources include pine and bay forests, swamps, freshwater streams, carnivorous plant bog and a twenty-acre lake. Man-made resources include numerous nature trails, covered pavillions, live animal exhibits, butterfly garden, and native plant garden. Indoor facilities include an auditorium, library, classroom containing live reptile exhibits, a saltwater aquarium, and many preserved specimens native to Alabama.

Open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. The general public is free; a $2 donation is requested. Located at 6101 Girby Road, Mobile; 251-221-5000. For more information check web site www.mcpss.com/esc.

Exploreum Science Center

Parents Magazine voted this "A Top U.S. Science Center" -- and for a good reason. As the Gulf Coast's premier science center and area attraction, The Exploreum entertains and educates adventurers from toddlrrs to seniors. I spent four hours here and realized I could spend not one entire day, but many days.

My BodyWorks was an absolute adventure in health and I have to admit, after using the 'knee surgery' kiosk game, I was more afraid of having new knee surgery than ever before. However, it was enlightening to see exactly how the surgery is done. And, hold the beating holographic heart in the palm of my hand was amazing. In this section of the Exploreum, visitors can roam the new 6,000 square foot gallery that's packed with leading-edge exhibits and go through the BeHealthy Card stations to learn more about the body and walk away with a personal scorecard.

At the BioLab, visitors can perform experiments and learn more about the science of life in a fully functioning health and biology lab. HandsOn Hall is great for everyone -- for it provides hands-on interactive exhibits. Trty strumming a tune on a laser harp or predict the weather in a television studio. . and much more. Wharf of Wonder is exclusively for kids to age 5 and their parents. It's a place to play and learn where youngsters can steer a shrimp boat, climb into a lighthouse or watch balls magically float. Or they can dive in to a ball pond full of marine creatures to discover and identify. Minds On Hall is a reality destination where you can design your own roller coaster and then ride it. Or, travel the world on the Magic Planet; design a fish; orchesrate a dance or direct your own movie clip. It's all up to your imagination.

While there's still the Ciba Lab where you can don a lab coat and goggles and try a few table-top experiments, and the Virtual Journeys Digital Theater with computers, digital projection systems and a screen the size of an 18-wheeler where the audience embarks on a narrated virtual journeys to anywhere, do check what's on tap at the IMAX Dome Theater with its three-story High Screen 12,000 Watts of Sound. Pick a seat as high up as possible, sit back and expect much excitement no matter what's playing when you're there.

The Exploreum is located at 65 Government Street in Mobile. For more information check web site www.exploreum.com or call 877-6254FUN.

Historic Fort Conde

In the heart of Mobile, Fort Conde is now about 1/3 of the original fort recreated in 4/5-scale, which opened on July 4, 1976 as part of Mobile's United States bicentennial celebration. Patterned after forts designed by French military scholar Sebastian Le Pestre de Vauban, Fort Conde protected Mobile and its citizens for nearly 100 years from 1723-1820. It was built by the French as a defense against British and Spanish attack on the strategic location of Mobile and its Bay, the eastern most part of the Louisiana colony. Founded in 1702l at 27-Mile Bluff up river, Mobile was relocated in 1711 to the current site where a temporary wooden stockade fort was constructed to protect the town. It was named Fort Louis after the old fort up river.

In 1723, construction of a new brick fort with a stone foundation began. Renamed Fort Conde in honor of King Louis XIV's brother, local architect Valentin Davin was given the rank of engineer and hired to oversee construction. Lack of funds and labor delayed the project's completion until the mid 1730s. Fort Conde and its surrounding features covered about 11 acres of land. It was built of local brick, stone, earthen dirt walls and cedar wood. The interior structures were made of timber frames filled with a mixture of clay and Spanish moss, horsehair, or other fiber. Twenty black slaves and five white workman did initial work on the fort. From 1763 to 1780, England was in possession of Mobile and the fort was renamed Fort Charlotte in honor of King George III's wife. From 1780 to 1813, Spain ruled Mobile and the fort was again renamed - this time Fort Carlota. In 1813, Mobile was occupied by United States troops and the fort again named Fort Charlotte.

In 1820, Congress authorized the sale and removal of the fort since it was no longer needed for defense. City funds paid for the demolition to make way for new streets and construction built towards the river and southward. By late 1823, most above ground traces of Mobile's fort were gone. KIds will love going into the various rooms - soldiers' sleeping quarters, jail, etc.

Located at 150 South Royal Street, Mobile; 251-208-7569.

A&M Peanut Shop

I was amazed when I walked into this peanut shup that has been in Mobile since 1947. I have to admit that the aroma of freshly roasted peanuts enticed me to go inside. Once there, I had a choice of sampling salted nuts, roasted while I watched fresh from the 90 year-old roasting machine, the wide assortment of candies (some sugar-free), big, delicious boiled peanuts, and dried fruit and health snacks. The owner gave me all the samples I requested and was very friendly. Don't miss this treat in the heart of historic downtown Mobile.

Located at 209 Dauphin Street, Mobile 251-438-9374.

Note: If you can't get there in person, they ship anywhere.

Dauphin Island

Fishing Pier at Dauphin Island Park

Do plan a trip to this lovely island. If you're an angler, head over to the Fishing Pier at Dauphin Island Park. The 850-foot fishing pier has lots of room and access to deep water fishing. You don't even need a boat! For more information call 251-861-67972 or check web site www.dauphinisland.org

Historic Fort Gaines

The Fort was completed during the Civil War with additional batteries added in the Spanish American conflict and has been called one of the best preserved examples of 19th century brick seacoast fortifications in the eastern United States. It was a key element during the Battle of Mobile Bay, famous for Admiral Farragut's command "Damn the torpedoes - full speed ahead!" It's renowned living history events included the colonial period. For more information call 251-861-6992 or check web site www.dauphinisland.org.

Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary

Filled with 164 acres of woodlands and miles of walking trails through pines, live oaks, magnolias, swamp and gulf beach, you can walk the 1,000 foot boardwalk that is handicap accessible and leads from the parking lot to a wharf overlooking Galliard Lake with a gorgeous view. Dauphin Island is classified as a "Globally Important Bird Area" by the American Bird Conservancy. It is among the best places in the country to observe neotropical migrants. For details call 251-861-3607 or go to web site www.dauphinisland.org. It is located at 109 Bioenville Boulevard.

The Dauphin Island Sea Lab

See worlds underwater at the Estuarium, an aquarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Explore the treasured beauty and scientific wonders of native habitats along with visual displays, aquariums and engaging interactive exhibits. The 10,000 square-foot Exhibit Hall is complemented with the Liv ing Marsh Boardwalk. The outdoor exhibit has interpretive signage providing details about the natural history of the Alabama marshes, geography of the area and the evolution of barrier islands. For more information call 251-861-7500 or check web site www.estuarium.dist.org. Located at 101 Bienville Boulevard.

Dauphin Island Campground

Here you can take walking trails into the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, a private path to secluded gulf beaches, and only a short walk to major attractions such as historic Fort Gaines and the Sea Lab Estuarium. There's also a 250-foot pier, ferry landing and boat launches with access to the Gulf of Mexico in five minutes. The campground consists of a bathhouse, store, washer/dryers, group pavillion with large bar-b-que grill, bike rental, playground, badminton, volleyball, shuffleboard and horseshoes. Located at 109 Bienville Boulevard, web site www.dauphinisland.org. Call 251-861-2742 for more information.

MONTGOMERY

Renaissance Hotel & Spa celebrates Alabama artists

The new Renaissance Hotel & Spa opened in downtown Montgomery featuring the works of Nall and other Alabama artists.

ORANGE BEACH

Bob Baumhower Opened 11th Alabama Restaurant in Orange Beach

Aloha Hospitality and Bob Baumhower are thrilled to announce that Baumhower’s Restaurant, located at The Wharf entertainment, retail and residential complex in Orange Beach, AL, is officially open to the public! Opening at 11am and serve both lunch and dinner! Baumhower’s is the second restaurant Aloha Hospitality has opened at The Wharf in less than two months, the first being the Compleat Angler which opened in April.

This is the 12th operating restaurant and the ninth Baumhower’s Restaurant to open under Bob Baumhower’s Aloha Hospitality Corporation. This Baumhower’s Restaurant offers a one-of-a-kind dining experience being the first of these sports themed venues to be located on the waterfront.  Baumhower’s offers up your favorite Southern classics with a twist! From beefy burgers to mouth-tingling wings to giant steaks to their signature crispy WANGS, Baumhower’s takes the time to serve everything as fresh and as homemade as possible with true Southern hospitality. Their famously delicious “Hot Bama Brown” dish is even featured on The Year of Alabama Food’s 100 Dishes to Eat Before You Die and that is just one of the ways that Baumhower’s is celebrating the Year of Alabama Food!

With local items such as McEwen & Sons Organic stone ground grits, Conecuh bacon, local oysters, Alabama wild Gulf shrimp, Wickles pickles, Harvest Select Alabama Catfish and more, you can truly get a “taste” of Alabama at Baumhower’s!

The restaurant seats over 250 people both indoors and out. A retail area in the front allows visitors to take home bottles of many of the delectable house-made sauces used in Baumhower’s unique recipes. An outdoor bar and seating area encourages guests to enjoy a cold drink while watching the boats cruise in and out of the marina. Live music will be featured almost every night! In keeping with the Baumhower’s Restaurants’ “Legendary Food! Legendary Fun!” sports themed tradition, there are over 60 flat-screen high definition tv’s including 80 inch LED flat screens placed throughout the venue and a custom built sound system. And the food is delicious as ever - free popcorn is available to all customers, the wings are spicy, the grits are cheesy, the steaks are hand cut, the seafood is Gulf Coast fresh, Kids Day is every Wednesday, local and fresh ingredients are used whenever possible, and the service is top-notch. The entire team at Baumhower’s Restaurant and Aloha Hospitality are ready to welcome you to the game, so stop by soon! Bring your friends and family, catch your favorite sports event on state-of-the-art big screens and get ready to “put some South in your mouth” at Baumhower’s Restaurant at The Wharf in Orange Beach, AL.

Follow Baumhower’s on Facebook for special deals and contests.

After bringing over 200 jobs to the area, they are still looking to fill 50 more positions at this location and at the Compleat Angler at The Wharf! Become a member of the Aloha Hospitality team! Apply at www.Baumhowers.com or stop by and fill out an application at any one of their restaurants!

Location: Baumhower’s at The Wharf
4851 Wharf Parkway
Suite 130
Orange Beach, AL 36561
Phone: 251-424-1360
Fax: 251-424-1361

POINT CLEAR

See 150 years of history along the Civil War Trail at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear

The Grand Hotel serves as a cornerstone of American history having been at the forefront of one the country’s defining events. During the Civil War, the Grand saw the infamous Battle of Mobile Bay that, after seeing the Union ship and “Iron Clad” Tecumseh sink due to Confederate torpedoes, Admiral Farragut proclaimed “Damn the Torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Evidence showed that Farragut actually fired on The Grand, causing a hole in the wall that was discovered during some of the hotel’s restoration. Next to the hole was written “compliments of Admiral Farragut.” More than 300 Confederate soldiers died while in the Civil War hospital at the Grand. They are buried at Confederate Rest, a cemetery adjacent to the grounds of the hotel. The Mobile Civil War Trail that winds around the Grand Hotel provides a comprehensive look at the Civil War, including stops at Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines.

Every day at 4:00 p.m., a military processional starts in the lobby of The Grand and concludes at the waterfront where a cannon, similar to those used when the Grand opened in 1947, is fired in honor of those who have served and are serving in the military. As part of the Civil War package at The Grand, guests will participate in the processional and cannon firing. Afterward, traditional tea and an assortment of cookies are served in the lobby. In addition to deluxe accommodations, the package also includes breakfast for two in The Grand Dining Room and Grand Traditions, the official Grand Hotel book with pictures and stories detailing the Grand’s rich history.

THEODORE

Bellingrath Gardens and Home

This is a must-do/must-see place. Open 364 days a year and closed only on Christmas Day, you'll surely spend an entire day and come back again and again - for there's so much to see and do here. The Bellingrath Gardens and Home encompasses approximately 900 acres along the Fowl River, with 65 acres cultivated with annual blooms and continuous color.

Tour the Home, the Rosse Gardens, Asian-American Garden, formal garden terraces, Ecological Bayou Boardwalk and take the 45-minute cruise aboard the Southern Belle River Cruiser daily. No doubt, while here, you'll also spot a wedding going on or a special event.

Owned by Walter D. Bellingrath, Mobile's first Coca-Cola bottler, Bellingrath Gardens was originally known as Belle Camp and was intended to be his fishing camp so he could invite his friends to enjoy this sport. In April 1932, both he and Bessie Morse Bellingrath opened their gardens to the public for the first time, and a major traffic jam ensured. Thereafter an admission was charged for maintenance of the Gardens. The Home, 10,500 square feet, was completed in July 1936 and features all of its original furnishings from Mrs. Bellingrath and was designed by architect George B. Rogers. She died in 1943 at the age of 64. Walter died in 1955 at the age of 86.

He founded the Bellingrath-Morse Foundation at the age of 80, which benefits Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala.

No matter what time of year you come to explore the gardens, something will be in bloom. During the winter months, January brings flowering kale and cabbage, pansies, camellias, Taiwan cherries, snapdragons, Japanese magnolias, dianthus, dusty miller, violas and primrose, while February is aglow with tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, pansies, delphinium, violas and poppies. There are over 50,000 bulbs planted throughout the gardens. March ushers in the Spring flowers, including Easter lilies, azaleas, pansies, snapdragons, hydrangeas, impatiens, marigolds and lots more. By April, you can see Bellingrath's award-winning rose garden and the Ecological Boardwalk, along with Spring annuals, including hydrangeas, salvia, marigolds, alyssum, Mexican heather, and geraniums. In May, the roses, tropical flowers and foliage, hibiscus, begonias, and oleander, among others, stand out. During June, July and August, tropical beauties appear, with a lovely butterfly garden in full bloom. Autumn gives way to roses, hibiscus, allamandas, copper plants and lots of other beauties. Don't forget to come back during October and November when you'll find early-garden style chrysanthemums, golden rain, and native plants along the Ecological Boardwalk. The Holiday Season is great, too, with displays of poinsettias in shades of red, pink, white, yellow, green and marbled effects seen both indoor and outdoor.

Numerous events take place here year-round, including the Winter Camellia during January and February when the winter garden is filled with blooms of ornamental kale, mustard and cabbages, pansies, primroses, and more. During this time of year special programs are planned on Wednesdays with topics covering gardening, history and the collections in the Bellingrath Museum Home. During March, enjoy seeing more than 250,000 vibrant azaleas throughout the 65 acres, as well as Hydrangeas, Easter lilies, fuchsia, cape daisies, and others. March also brings the Festival of Flowers, while the An nual Camellia Classic Car Show is featured in early April with hundreds of classic and vintage automobiles from the Model T to the Firebird displayed on Bellingrath's Great Lawn.

Grab the kids and attend the annual Easter Egg Hunt, complete with prizes, candy, activities and photos with the Easter Bunny for toddlers and older kids. Moms should plan on coming to the Mother's Day Concert in May for great music set in the gorgeous garden, while Summertime Wonderful Wednesday's during June and July is on tap for special programs.

Don't miss one of the best fun activities - Magic Christmas in Lights -- where the holiday light display features over 3 million lights, 928 set in pieces in 13 scenes throughout Bellingrath Gardens and Home's 65 acre estate garden. This special event opens the Friday after Thanksgiving and closes New Year's Eve (except the one day it's closed on December 25th). Normal operating hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. but are extended until 9 p.m. throughout the Magic Christmas in Lights pressentation.

I was amazed at the major scenes, including Butterflies in Flight, Peace on Earth, Toyland, Crtter Cove, Nativity, Winter Wonderland, Over the Rainbow and many, many more. Nearly every light in the show is replaced each year, along with approximately 1/3 of the show repainted, restored and re-lamped. The Bellingrath Museum Home is also completely decoraed for the season, including entertainment on the South Terrace by musical groups from the area. In addition, Magnolia Cafe is open from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch and from 4 p.m-8 p.m. for dinner - featuring local seafood favorites such as fried shrimp and seafood gumbo. Snack foods and beverages are available in the Coca Cola Trailer on Live Oak Plaza from 5-9 p.m.

Bellingrath Gardens and Home is located at 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore, AL 36582. For more information call 800-247-8420 or go to web site www.bellingrath.org.

TUSCALOOSA

What to See & Do

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail

The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (www.rtjgolf.com, 800/949-4444) put the state on the golf world map in 1992 with the noble idea of creating accessible, first-rate public courses. The Trail now boasts 464 holes spanning the length of the state, from the verdant rolling hills of the north to the pine-lined wetlands in the south. Golf seems to thrive on Alabama's fertile soil. Now that a bunch of new Alabama courses have been built to expand the Trail, the golfing bounty of the state is flourishing even more.

Ol' Colony

Ol'Colony in Tuscaloosa is among the best municipal courses in the U.S. Owned by Tuscaloosa County, Ol' Colony is a strategic layout requiring a bit of pondering and chin-scratching before giving your ball a whack willy-nilly. Though not overly long at 6,464 yards, tall pines and beefy oaks gobble up wayward drives as doglegs tempt you to cut the corner at your peril.



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