IF you've ever sat through a dull warm-up act while waiting for the headliner to come on stage, you'll appreciate a little more the short drive from the highway to one of the world's most beautiful gardens: Bellingrath. The road that runs south from I-10 (and US 90) near Mobile, Ala., to Bellingrath Gardens cuts through miles of semitropical jungle of no particular visual merit. But the primeval setting of these scrappy woodlands provides a sharp contrast to what is found once one enters the grounds of the magnificent gardens.
It was the pristine nature of this area, in fact, that inspired Walter and Bessie Morse Bellingrath to buy property here in 1918 as a private fishing lodge and later to develop 65 acres of land into one of the major landscaped gardens of the world. The couple toured the United States and Europe to study renowned gardens of their time and conduct horticultural research.
In the late 1920s they began transforming their woodlands into gardens. In 1932, the gardens were open to the public for the first time and have since attracted visitors from around the world.
The garden is a showcase for all seasons. It is open every day of the year from 7 a.m. to sunset. I visited in early April when azaleas - from dwarfs to giants - painted the landscaped in vivid shades of pink, violet, and red.
Adding to the picturesque setting were young women dressed as Southern belles in frilly, pastel hoop-skirt dresses who strolled the grounds, shading themselves with delicate, lacey parasols.
In late spring and summer, the mood of the garden changes to a more tropical setting as sun-speckled fountains accent allamanda, roses, salvia, coleus, hibiscus, crotons, chenille, and copper plants. Colorful camellias line sculptured garden paths from September to February.
In late autumn, millions of chrysanthemums form the world's largest outdoor display of these multihued blooms. Then, during the holiday season, a massive display of red, white, and pink poinsettias is on view in protected areas of the gardens.
More than 200 species of birds, either residents or migratory visitors, can be viewed at various times of year. Swans, flamingos, geese, and ducks are commonly seen.
Visitors should spend at least two hours here in a leisurely stroll that begins at Rose Garden Bridge and winds through the Oriental-American Garden, Rustic Bridge, Bubbling Pool, Mirror Lake and Rockery Vista, Mermaid Pool, and Exotica Conservatory.
Visitors shouldn't miss the Bellingrath collection of Boehm porcelain, which is housed in a building that once served as a guest house and garage at the halfway point of the garden walk. This is said to be the largest public collection of the nature-scene sculptures of the late Edward Marshall Boehm (1913-1969).
Mr. Boehm left numerous examples of porcelain artistry, a medium that originated in ancient China. The gallery was dedicated in 1967 with 86 pieces of Boehm's work. Since then, many more pieces have been added, until more than 225 are on display today. The exhibit is included in the price of admission to Bellingrath Gardens.
The Bellingrath Home, which along with the gardens is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, may be toured for a separate admission fee. My gracious and witty Southern hostess and guide led a small group of us through the home where Mrs. Bellingrath's collection of antique furniture, fine china, crystal, and porcelain, which were collected from around the world, are displayed. We listened to folksy stories of the couple's life together. Mr. Bellingrath was affiliated with the Coca-Cola Company, for whom he operated a very successful franchise. Sterling silver trophies, awarded to him for his sales achievements, are featured among the silver collection.
Nothing has been added to the collection since 1943, when Mrs. Bellingrath passed on. The home was opened to the public after Mr. Bellingrath's death in 1956. The estate is maintained by the nonprofit Bellingrath-Morse Foundation, which also supports several other philanthropic projects.
If you're planning a driving trip to the Gulf Coast region, Alabama in particular, consider the following itinerary: Book two nights at the exquisite Grand Hotel at Point Clear, Ala., on the west- facing shore of Mobile Bay. It is a Marriott resort, priced at $200 or more a night (including two excellent buffet meals - breakfast and dinner), that offers nearly every recreational activity: tennis, golf, horseback riding, boating, fishing (charter and pier), croquet, shuffleboard, and a large swimming pool.
After breakfast, head south and then east along scenic Route 98 to US 59. Turn south again until you reach US 180. Follow US 180 west to Fort Morgan, where you drive your car aboard a ferry for a 30-minute ride to Dauphin Island. Take in the beach scenes and relax on the island for a while before taking the bridge to the eastern bank of Mobile Bay and Bellingrath Gardens.
After viewing the gardens, circle back east to Point Clear via I-10. You'll be back in plenty of time for dinner and to enjoy a lovely Southern sunset and the breezes off Mobile Bay. A garden for all seasons
There are actually six seasons at Bellingrath Gardens in which different varieties of flowers bloom.
Weather plays a big role in determining peak times, but, in general, the plants bloom on this schedule:
January: camellias. Hundreds of camellias, includes varieties like Camellia japonica, are displayed here. Some are ancient varieties. Colors range from white to shell pink and rose pink to deep crimson. Some camellias bloom as early as September.
February-March: azaleas. About 200 varieties thrive in the gardens. There are more than 250,000 azalea plants, many of which are more than 150 years old. Some blooming occurs from January to April. Tulips and other bulbs also bloom about this time. More than 125,000 multicolored tulips, daffodils, and other bulbs are included in this showing.
April-December: roses. After a rest in the winter months, roses are replanted in the rotary wheel garden, blooming nine months out of the year.
April-September: mountain laurel, dogwood, hydrangea, and gardenias.
October-November: chrysanthemums. More than 60,000 plants with millions of blooms turn the gardens into the largest outdoor display of mums. They cascade from the wrought-iron railings of the home and from Moon Bride in the Oriental-American garden and hang from ledges at the Grotto.
December: poinsettias, flowering kale, and pansies. Poinsettias in red, pink, and white complement protected areas of the gardens during the Yuletide season. Colorful kale and pert pansies add to the year-round display of changing colors.