Road Trip: Magnolia Springs, Ala.

The smaller-than-Mayberry village of Magnolia Springs lies nine miles inland from the beaches of the Alabama Gulf Coast. Driving on U.S. 98 between Pensacola and Mobile you hardly notice it's there, as the tiny town is tucked away down a county highway, nestled among the magnolia and oak trees on the banks of the short Magnolia River. Where the county road intersects with Oak Street, there's a small restaurant, pub and market in one building, across from a community center and a historic church. This is the heart of town. There are no sidewalks, but a stroll down Oak Street in the middle of the afternoon doesn't prove a need for any. I walk down the middle of the road, occasionally veering off to the side to let a car pass. The person driving each car smiles and waves, even though I am a stranger in town. Oak Street is a classic oak-canopied Southern thoroughfare, lined with old houses on deep-set lots where azaleas provide small bursts of color. The street is almost as pretty as the lazy and wending spring-fed river a block away that flows into Weeks Bay, which opens up to the much larger Mobile Bay.

I'm walking from Moore Brother's Village Market -- not a full-service market, but a place to pick up high-end wine, beer and gourmet deli items -- to the town's only lodging accommodations, Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast. Taking the long way, down side streets, past bubbling springs and along the river bank, I learn a little bit of history from the town's historical markers. After the Civil War, Magnolia Springs was settled by soldiers from both sides. The community was well-known in the region at the time and highly touted for its pure spring water. It was also once home to a bustling turpentine industry, the remnants of which are long gone. Today, Magnolia Springs is a sleepy hamlet, with its namesake waterway being the last place in the U.S. with a mail route delivered by boat year-round.

The town makes for a relaxing getaway in a bucolic, unhurried setting. It's the kind of place where, if you happen to be visiting at the right time of month, you may get invited to a potluck supper at the community center. Porch swings and rocking chairs keep time at the Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast. Built in 1897 and restored in the 1990s, the inn is a labor of love for owner/innkeeper David Worthington. Worthington, a transplant from north Alabama, knows Magnolia Springs as well as anyone and helps his guests plan activities in the area. There's plenty to do nearby to complement the leisurely strolls and sunset-watching from porch swings.

If you want a romantic hot-air balloon ride, or a scenic flight over the coastal plains in an open cockpit biplane, talk to David and he'll help arrange it. For nature buffs, hikers and bird watchers, Magnolia Springs makes a good base of operations for exploring the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, as well as the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. Animal lovers will not want to miss the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo and its "Animal Encounters" program that allows visitors to have direct inside-the-cage experiences with young kangaroos, lemurs and other animals. The zoo was featured in the Animal Planet series, "The Little Zoo That Could." It's a short drive north to the artsy town of Fairhope, east to the surprising shopping mecca that is Foley (lots of outlet stores), and south to the lively beach hangouts in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Or, you could simply stay off-the-radar in Magnolia Springs and be perfectly content to hide away in the trees by the river, with a walk to the corner store, or a fishing lure cast in the river, being the only concerns of the day.

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Magnolia Springs is a six-hour drive from Atlanta. Delta offers daily non-stop flights to Pensacola International Airport, an hour east of Magnolia Springs.

Stay

Magnolia Springs Bed & Breakfast. Four rooms and a two-room suite in a restored circa-1897 house, complete with a rocking-chair-filled wraparound porch. Rates $149-$229. An array of adventure, romance and culinary packages are also available. 14469 Oak St., Magnolia Springs. 800-965-7321, www.magnoliasprings.com.

Eat

Jesse's Restaurant. Fine dining in the restaurant, a more casual atmosphere in The Cold Hole pub and a deli/bakery/coffeeshop at Jesse's On The Side in the Moore Brothers Village Market next door. 14470 Oak St., Magnolia Springs. 251-965-3826, www.jessesrestaurant.com.

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