If you’ve always wanted to visit a small, sleepy fishing village where most residents make a living from working on the water, Bayou La Batre (pronounced “BY-you-la-BAT-tree”) is the place to go. Located in the southernmost part of Mobile County, it’s worth the drive – especially if you’re already in the area at Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Theodore or you’re staying on nearby Dauphin Island.
The bayou, as it’s familiarly called, might be small, with about 2,500 residents, but it has appeared on both the big and the small screens. The 1994 movie “Forrest Gump,” based on the novel written by Mobile native Winston Groom, celebrated Bayou La Batre as the home of Forrest’s “best good friend,” Bubba, whose dream of being a shrimp boat captain was taken up by Forrest.
Later, the sequel to “Pirates of the Caribbean” featured a pirate ship made by a shipbuilder in Bayou La Batre. And the 2011 reality series “Big Shrimpin’,” which aired for one season on the History Channel, revolved around real shrimpers who worked for Dominick’s Seafood in the bayou.
Driving through Bayou La Batre will give you an idea of the beauty and charm of the area, but you might not realize just how diverse the community is. About one-fourth of the population is of Southeast Asian descent, as immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos settled there following the Vietnam War.
You can learn about Bayou La Batre’s history – it was founded in 1786, according to a historical marker – at the official welcome center, but it’s only open on “some” Wednesdays and Saturdays. A colorful mural on the side of the fire station captures the bayou lifestyle, with a fiery sunset and seabirds flying over the waters of the “Seafood Capital of Alabama.” Everywhere you go, you’ll see anchors in yards and in front of businesses, symbolizing this coastal Alabama community’s livelihood.
Here are three things you don’t want to miss on a visit to the beautiful bayou.
Dion Hill has lived in the Bayou La Batre area his whole life. Recently, as he threw his cast net to catch bait fish along Portersville Bay just down the road in Coden (pronounced co-DEN), he looked forward to catching redfish, flounder, speckled trout and white trout. Hill worked with his father on a shrimp boat as a child, then followed in his dad’s footsteps to become a commercial fisherman, then a shipbuilder.
From where he stands, you can clearly see the Dauphin Island Bridge across the bay. “You’ll see the most beautiful sunrises here,” he said, gesturing to the east. “And the most beautiful sunsets at the opposite end of this road.”
Naturally, this lifelong fisherman recommends that visitors to the bayou go fishing if they can. If you’re not equipped to go fishing, you can certainly buy anything you need at the quaint, funky Marshall Marine Supply on Shell Belt Road. From crab traps to rope to a great selection of T-shirts and hats, this is a great place to stop and look around.
Watch the boats.
The only time you’re likely to get stuck in traffic is when the J.A. Wintzell Memorial Bridge, a drawbridge over the main thoroughfare, Wintzell Avenue, goes up to let the majestic shrimp boats pass. If you drive to the end of Shell Belt Road, you’ll reach the city docks, where right now two massive casino barges are moored. It’s here that you’ll see shrimpers returning with their harvest.
All along Shell Belt Road, there are seafood processors – mostly wholesale-only – and shipbuilders. Mountains of oyster shells drying in the sunshine make a fascinating spectacle.
The annual Blessing of the Fleet takes place in May at St. Margaret Catholic Church, right next to the drawbridge. The event was once a huge deal in the bayou, but Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill and other factors have taken a toll on the fishing industry. Still, some people, like Dion Hill, who used to help his dad decorate the shrimp boat and participate in the fleet blessing, see it starting to make a comeback. People here tend to be tough and resilient.
Come here for lunch or dinner.
One of the area’s most popular restaurants is the Lighthouse, a rustic eatery with quite a collection of its namesake lighthouses spread throughout. The fried seafood is beyond compare – shrimp, oysters, crab claws, fish – as well as po’boys, gumbo and even steaks and other daily non-seafood specials.
Another longtime seafood restaurant is the Catalina, where you might try fried mullet and grits or a softshell crab po’boy when it’s in season.
Other eateries include Phnom Penh Fusion, which specializes in Vietnamese cuisine and sushi, and Captain Frank’s Smoke Shack, a true hole in the wall whose sign boasts of award-winning gumbo as well as barbecue.
If you want to take a taste of the bayou home with you, you’ll find it at places that sell to the public, such as Murder Point Oysters (“oysters worth killing for”) or Jubilee Seafood. And you can’t leave the bayou without grabbing a huge, freshly made doughnut from Sugar Rush.