As the crowd swells, I guard my front-row spot along the Dauphin Street barricades. The parade is coming our way, and I can feel, as well as hear, the distant booming of bass drums. Children toot toy flutes and twirl noisemakers. Adults in silly hats and fancy dress sip rum punch from plastic go-cups.

Motorcycle cops, wearing strands of colourful beads over their uniforms, gun their engines, making 'figure-eights' to clear the street of any stragglers. At last, I spot three costumed, masked riders on horseback.

“Let’s rock ‘n’ roll!” shouts a policewoman as the first float rolls into view.

In preparation for Mobile's Mardi Gras, Dauphin Street is brightly decorated with banners and flags to get everyone excited about the event.

The streets are decorated in preparation for the big event, with banners and signs hung up for the three weeks' worth of Mardi Gras celebrations.

This is Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, about 50 miles from the beach resorts of the Gulf coast. While the festivities in New Orleans may be more famous, few people know that Mobile has the oldest Mardi Gras in the Western Hemisphere.

It began in 1703, a year after French explorers founded Mobile (pronounce Mo-BEEL) as the first capital of French Louisiana. Settlers brought their traditions with them, and today the revelries of 'Fat Tuesday', the day before the beginning of Lent, have evolved into three weeks of Mardi Gras festivities encompassing masked balls, elaborate costumes and fabulous parades with dazzling themed floats.

The Joe Cain parade is the perfect opportunity for locals and visitors to get dressed up and join in with the parade.

Donna and her husband, Mike, fully embrace the event by dressing up for the Joe Cain parade. Taking part in Mardi Gras and celebrating with the locals is the best way to enjoy it.

Parading before me now are the Mystic Stripers, one of Mobile’s many mystic societies who put on the parades and balls. Wearing striped costumes - a nod to one of their founders who owned a laundry that cleaned prison suits - they toss 'throws' to an animated crowd. The energy is infectious, and I jump and shout along with them, snatching Moon Pies, trinkets and strands of shiny plastic beads out of the air. In between the floats come teenage marching bands, performing impressive dance routines.

Mobile presents 37 parades during carnival season. I ask Craig Roberts, an architect turned historian and Mardi Gras specialist, which is his favourite.

Mobile presents 37 parades during Mardi Gras season, so it is a fun and colourful time in Mobile.

Throughout Mardi Gras, Mobile presents an impressive 37 parades with dazzling floats all elaborately decorated, so there's always plenty to see.

The Mystic Stripers are a legendary society in Mobile's Mardi Gras, organising many parades and balls, so their float is always popular.

The Mystic Stripers traditionally wear black and white striped costumes on their float, and Donna and Mike enjoyed scooping up all the trinkets and sweets being thrown into the crowd.

“That’s like asking me, ‘who’s your favourite child?’” he replies.

Over the next few days I attend several parades, including the Mystics of Time parade with thrilling, fire-breathing dragon floats. I’m even invited to go to their formal ball honouring Father Time and his Queen, where masked members present a stunning tableau. Though many Mardi Gras balls are exclusive, in Mobile it’s often possible to go as a guest and attend Le Krewe de Bienville’s Out-Of-Towners Ball.

If you're lucky enough to get invited to one of the many exclusive Mardi Gras ball, grab a mask and your fanciest clothes and enjoy the party.

Mobile hosts several balls during Mardi Gras, including one honouring Father Time and his Queen. Invitations are limited, but if you manage to secure one, put on your glad rags and a spectacular mask and enjoy the festivities.

My favourite event takes place the next day, when I join in celebrating a Mobile legend. After the Civil War, Joe Cain revived the city’s Mardi Gras tradition by riding through the streets in a decorated charcoal wagon with a band of fellow veterans. Each year, on the Sunday before Mardi Gras, the Joe Cain People’s Parade commemorates the story. Anyone can march (advance registration is required), and I discover that throwing beads to an eager crowd is even more fun than catching them.

On the Sunday before Mardi Gras, the locals take to the streets to celebrate Joe Cain and it is always a very cheerful parade.

On the Sunday before the festivities, locals take to the streets to honour Joe Cain - a man recognised as the one who revived Mardi Gras following the Civil War.

Joe Cain helped revive Mobile's Mardi Gras and is a legend in the town, so every year, locals and visitors join in with the 'People's Parade' to honour him.

The Joe Cain Parade is known as the 'People's Parade' as anyone can put together a float and take part. Donna and Mike make the most of their time in Mobile by joining in with the locals.

And that’s the spirit of Mobile Mardi Gras. It’s inclusive and family-friendly. “Everybody gets in the street and parties together,” Roberts says as we set off on a tour of his home town.

Historic Highlights

If you can’t visit Mobile during Mardi Gras, you can still get a taste of its joviality and glamour at the Carnival Museum. Set in an ornate mansion, its galleries hold everything, from miniature floats and memorabilia to early photographs.

Mobile's Carnival Museum will take you through the history and origins of Mobile's Mardi Gras and is a must-see while your here.

Mobile Carnival Museum is a great place to stop if you don't get to visit Mobile during the Mardi Gras celebrations. It will take you through all the history and traditions of the event, so it is the next best thing to being there.

Best of all are the displays of sumptuous gowns, jewel-encrusted trains and glittering crowns worn by the kings and queens and their courts. They are made by dedicated designers at great expense.

“Over 70 of these are made new every year,” Roberts tells us. “Each one takes six to eight months because they have to be done, by tradition, with needle and thread. Everything is real. All the fur is real - it has to be antique now - all the crystals are real, and the pearls are real."

One of the highlights of the Mobile Carnival Museum is the elaborate - and very expensive - costumes worn by the kings and queens.

Jewel and feather encrusted costumes and accessories are one of the highlights of the Mobile Carnival Museum. The intricate detail used to create them results in beautiful finished designs.

Mardi Gras Carnival queens wear stunning long trains that take months to hand stitch - the detail is incredible.

Carnival Queens of Mardi Gras past wore stunning trains which take months to hand stitch. They really are a sight to admire if you ever find yourself in Mobile.

“Imagine asking your seamstress to hand-sew on 100,000 Russian turkey feathers, which is what happened here,” Roberts adds, pointing to an elaborate robe.

Opposite the museum is the Spanish Plaza, a tribute to Mobile’s sister city, Málaga, and the Spanish influence in the region. With its beautiful tiled benches, sculptures and the Friendship Fountain, this tree-lined square offers a cooling respite from the heat.

There's no better place to rest and people watch than at a plaza. The Spanish Plaza Park is a beautiful area to sit and relax after a busy day exploring Mobile.

Spanish Plaza Park was created to honour Mobile’s sister city, Malaga in Spain, and is the perfect place to escape the heat and have a rest. Admire the impressive sculptures and statues that show the influence Spain had on Mobile.

The Friendship Fountain is a highlight of the Spanish Plaza Park - a spectacular structure to gaze at.

The tree-lined Spanish Plaza Park is in the historic district of Mobile and well located for taking a breather from all the exploring. The Friendship Fountain is a highlight of the park, so make sure you stop and appreciate the view.

Two blocks away is the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. It represents the oldest religious congregation in the Mississippi Valley. We enter to the mellow notes of a jazz saxophone, drifting from a park bench in the adjoining Cathedral Square. Inside are marble pillars and a barrel ceiling decorated with a gold-leaf pattern of French fleur-de-lis, Irish shamrocks and English roses.

Nearby on Dauphin Street, Bienville Square is named for Mobile’s founder. Beads and fairy lights shaped like Mardi Gras crowns dangle from the branches of its live oaks. These evergreen oaks, which are native to the Gulf Coast, never lose their leaves and stay green year-round. Their branches grow out as well as up, exuding cool air like a natural air-conditioning.

“Mobile is very proud of its old trees,” Roberts says. “Many are over 350 years old, older than the city itself. There is even a Mobile Tree Trail.”

Other historic sites in downtown Mobile include the reconstructed Fort Condé, the History Museum in the Old City Hall, the 1822 Condé-Charlotte Museum, and the African American Heritage Trail.

Mobile is one of the most interesting towns and what better way to learn all about its history than The History Museum of Mobile?

The History Museum of Mobile is a fascinating place filled with interesting artifacts and exhibitions. Permanent exhibits take visitors right back to Mobile's first inhabitants, the Native Americans, as well as looking at the town's naval history.

Dauphin Street is filled with bars, restaurants and shops and is the 'hub' of the town and the place to be.

The charming Dauphin Street gives off a 'mini New Orleans' vibe. It is lined with shops, bars and restaurants, so is a great place to wander, day or night. Make this one of your Mobile holiday stops.

But the best thing to do is simply to wander. The downtown area is compact, easy to navigate, and has a gentle, time-worn character. With many buildings sporting ornate, wrought-iron balconies, Mobile is like a mini New Orleans.

In fact, there are 600 square blocks and nine historic districts in Mobile. They all feature a fascinating range of architecture, from quaint Victorian shotgun houses to Creole cottages and Greek Revival mansions - even cemeteries with above-ground tombs.

​Paris Of The South

Oakley Mansion is a beautiful house to visit with fantastic tours offered by staff. Learn about the history of the house and wander around the beautiful gardens.

This is a beautiful old house that is a must-visit while you are in the area. You can wander around the pretty gardens at your leisure, and get a guided tour of the house, hosted by very knowledgeable and friendly staff.

In its heyday, Mobile was a busy cotton port. By 1860, it was the third wealthiest city in America, known as the Paris of the South. Some 350 antebellum structures survive today, along with several thousand Italianate structures dating from 1895.

The Bragg-Mitchell Mansion is a gracious Southern gem. Borders of pink azaleas wind up the long driveway to the Greek Revival house, which is surrounded by towering live oaks. The ceiling of its columned front porch is painted Haint Blue to keep away evil spirits.

Built in 1855 by Judge John Bragg as a holiday home for the Mardi Gras season, it was acquired and restored by the Mitchells in the 1920s. Unusually for the time, Mrs Mitchell, a suffragette, bought it in her own name with money saved from her household expenses.

Bragg–Mitchell Mansion is one of the most photographed attractions in Mobile. Its beautiful gardens are fantastic to take a walk around, admiring the pretty plants.

As one of the most photographed buildings in Mobile, the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion is definitely worth a day out. Guided tours will take visitors through the history of the home, and as a member of the National Register of Historic Places, it is one of the best attractions in the area.

The beautifully restored house has grand double parlours and a circular staircase. On a guided tour, we explore the elegant rooms with their original and period furnishings.

Dating from 1833, Oakleigh House is the oldest in the Oakleigh Historic District. Tours of the galleries of this T-shaped mansion, built with jib doors for ventilation in the humid climate, show many prized objects. Even more fascinating are the stories of the four families who lived here through the generations.

Food Glorious Food

Set between the Gulf and a clutch of river deltas, Mobile is blessed with fresh local seafood. This, coupled with its Southern style cooking, makes it a fantastic food city.

Over cocktails at TP Crockmier’s on Dauphin Street, we try spicy, fried crab claws. Shrimp and grits (similar to polenta) are a Southern favourite, and the Blind Mule Restaurant and Bar serves up some of the best. Aim for a table in the atmospheric courtyard.

My favourite seafood spot has to be Wintzell’s Oyster House. At this Mobile institution they serve them “fried, stewed and nude”, and we watch them shucking oysters at lightning speed before ordering several tasty variations. Gumbo, redfish and other Gulf specialities are on the menu too.

Cocktails and crab claws at T.P. Crockmier’s on Dauphin Street is a great way to spend an evening.

Head to TP Crockmier’s on Dauphin Street where spicy, fried crab claws come highly recommended - especially when paired with a cocktail or two!

Wintzell’s Oyster House serves some of the tastiest oysters you'll ever eat, so make sure you pay them a visit or two.

For those who love a seafood dinner, Wintzell’s Oyster House serves some of the best. You can watch chefs actually shucking the oysters, which is great, but makes it even harder to pick which oyster speciality to order.

Further along Dauphin Street, Mama’s is a beacon for Southern home cooking, serving huge plates of comfort foods such as smothered pork chops and country fried steak. Eager to sample soul-food dishes, I opt for a platter of sides, including red beans, collard greens, hushpuppies and candied yams.

In the Oakleigh Garden district, Kitchen on George is a farm-to-table restaurant offering lovely courtyard seating and a seasonal menu. Next door, the Cream & Sugar Café serves Mobile’s best muffins.

Cream & Sugar Café is well-known as it serves Mobile’s best muffins, so don't waste the opportunity to have a sweet treat while in Mobile.

For a sweet treat and brunch pick-me-up, the Cream & Sugar Café is the best place in town. Renowned for its fantastic muffins, make sure you take a box away with you for some more holiday treats.

Downtown at Panini Pete’s I discover the world’s best beignets (a type of French fritter). He makes them using a wet process, unlike the dry process used in New Orleans. Sprinkled with lemon and powdered sugar, they are absolutely delicious.

Panini Pete is well-known all over Alabama for his delicious food, so it's worth making the trip just to try his famous delicacies.

Panini Pete's is one of Alabama's best sarni cafés, so you can't possibly visit Mobile without popping in to sample Pete's delicious dishes.

You can't come to Mobile without trying Pete's beignets drizzled with lemon - it will be a waste of a trip if you don't!

It isn't just paninis Pete is famous for, you absolutely have to try the hot beignets drizzled with lemon. Delicious.

Consider splitting a plate at the local breakfast favourite, Spot of Tea. The mountainous Eggs Cathedral and Bananas Foster French Toast are both on the list of '100 things to eat in Alabama before you die'.

If you're looking for a good brekkie and a good cuppa, then a visit to Spot of Tea should be on your list. Delicious.

Spot of Tea is the best place in town for breakfast, and is famous state-wide. Make sure you get out of bed early at least one day of your holiday here and experience the famed breakfasts.

On our last night in Mobile, we enjoy elegant French Creole cuisine with a modern twist at Dauphin’s, on the 34th floor of the Trustmark Building. The superb dishes are matched only by the splendid panoramic view from the floor-to-ceiling windows.

As we watch the sunset over the bay, there’s one thing I’m sure of, whether it’s for Mardi Gras, the food, or its simple Southern charms, I’ll be coming back to Mobile.

The whole of Mobile really gets involved in the fun and colourful Mardi Gras, so make sure you embrace it, have a great time and join in on all the fun!

If you get a chance to visit Mobile, Alabama, Mardi Gras is the best time to enjoy all it has to offer. Join in and be a part of the biggest party of the year.

If you’re a member of RCI, and would like to visit Alabama to sample some of that Southern charm you can, as there are 17 resorts affiliated to RCI here. Take some time out to browse the RCI Resort Directory and plan your next holiday escape.

Click here to visit the Resort Directory

If you own timeshare and want to use it to see more of the world while being assured of the quality and comfort of your accommodation as you travel, you need to be an RCI member. It's really very easy for timeshare owners to become an RCI member, simply click on the Join RCI button below and in a few simple steps you could be looking forward to joining the Mardi Gras party in Alabama…

Click here to join RCI