Bon Secour Water

Hello from the land of my thirties! I entered this new decade Saturday, in beautiful Gulf Shores, Alabama, where Tim took me away two days before, as a way to jump up and meet Thirty with a smile on my face, exploring and discovering instead of pining and reminiscing. I don’t know what it is about these big birthdays, the ones that end in zeros, but so many of my female friends have had terrible times with them. In fact, after talking to one friend in particular last month, I burst out crying to Tim about how everybody treats aging like such a bad thing, and so was I going to sink into a depression on August 25 this year? Would I miss my family more than I usually do? Should he brace himself now for the drama? Thankfully, in our case, that outburst seems to have been all the drama and sadness I needed—and also, my husband is a kind, generous soul who responds by telling me he’ll handle everything for my birthday and I can just relax, which, if I’m being honest, is probably exactly why I felt (and feel) like turning thirty is such a good gift.


Last year at this time, while Tim and I were planning our wedding, picturing our life together and discussing our budget, we would have told you travel wasn’t on the table. We took a killer honeymoon (gifted from my parents) and then came back, settled in down in Tennessee, thankful. Sometimes we talked about his days of touring with the bands he used to manage or my old days of that full-time salary in my early twenties, but mostly we put travel in the mental box that holds children and home ownership and writing a book someday, and then we sealed it up tight. Someday, we’d love to take some trips. We’ll see.

But then, my friend Kim gave us a night in an Atlanta B&B. Dole sent us to California. A crazy generous friend of friends unexpectedly lent us her beach house in Florida. My parents took us with them to their Wisconsin cabin. Now here we are, married less than a year, and we’ve traveled together to half a dozen different states—all because other people have made it possible. And last week, for the weekend in which I turned thirty, we took the first trip we planned and paid for, we meaning Tim, who surprised me from beginning to end: we headed south.

GULF shores, alabama

I don’t know about you, but, growing up in the Midwest, when I heard Alabama, I thought, I don’t know, Reese Witherspoon and college football and farmers living in the backwoods. But driving through the state, top to bottom, last weekend, I saw Alabama is both charming small town and beautiful coastal paradise, not to mention hot, hot sunshine that makes flowers and Spanish moss trees and pecan orchards grow.

We stayed in Bon Secour, a former French fishing village whose name means, literally, “safe harbor.” Our bright blue stilt house was right on the bay, filled with furniture out of a Pottery Barn catalog and featuring entire walls of windows facing the water. Friday night, we slept with the bedroom shutters open so I could wake up with the sun, watching it slowly light up the waters and turn the sky pink, drinking in the quiet and the beauty before me on the first day of my thirties. There were shrimping boats sailing by and alligators near the dock and hundreds of seagulls flying back and forth above the calm and tranquil inlet.

Also, southern Alabama is conveniently right between Mississippi to the west and Florida to the east, giving us the perfect opportunity to tour the South.

Beautiful Mobile Alabama

We started with Mobile. Mobile is Alabama’s third largest city, and I wanted to stop there because I’d read online that there was a bakery we’d like, but what we found instead was better: blocks and blocks of old, historic streets, the kind you think of when you think of Southern charm. There was a large town square with benches and bushes and a sculpture or something in the middle. With none of the traffic of a big city, just the tall buildings and crowded corner restaurant where business people and tourists ate outside, we pulled out our cameras and kept saying to each other how much we liked this place, wanting to keep it and anchor it somehow in our minds.

Mobile + Us

We strolled through an antique store where I bought a vintage letter “S” and the shop owner recommended a wine shop and we found a store of artisan goods that included locally baked spelt and wheat breads.

Mobile trees are good for reaching

We walked back to our car and I stopped, suddenly, grabbing Tim’s arm and exclaiming that I almost couldn’t handle the beauty of the enormous, hundred-year-old trees before us or the way that they filtered streams of light onto the ground, setting patterns and rhythms, like quilts or wallpaper beneath our feet. Tim jumped to touch tree branches, the lowest ones far above our heads, and I thought how I could live my whole life, however many years it will be, and never see trees like this, and they would still be there, tall and proud and majestic in the middle of Mobile.

From there, we drove through the bottom of Mississippi, along a highway that passes just south of NASA’s Stennis Space Center, and on into New Orleans. The sunny skies turned dark along the way, surrounding Louisiana with ominous gray by the time we arrived, but we didn’t mind.

New Orleans

Like Alabama, New Orleans is not what I pictured. Instead of my visions of Mardi Gras, the French Quarter was quiet, while crowded, filled with little shops and balconies stuffed with flowers and another French restaurant with marble counters on every block. Dodging puddles and stepping on cobblestone paths, Tim and I walked from there to the water, where steamboats docked like a scene out of Huck Finn.

NOLA sights
NOLA buildings
NOLA greens and doors

We went to Anthropologie and Whole Foods and other normal big-city things, but it was the architecture that I’ll remember most about New Orleans—the towering buildings that could just as easily be an old European city as they could be one in the deep South. When we’d approached the French Quarter, I’d told Tim, doesn’t that skyline look like an Etsy painting? and I’d imagined it, hanging on our wall. We stayed in NOLA all afternoon, driving home through Mississippi and Alabama late into the night.


On my birthday, we went to Pensacola, Florida, off to discover the historic district, which claims to have been first settled in 1559, as in, before Columbus (whoops! who forgot her 1492 history!), before George Washington, before the Puritans or Pilgrims or Thanksgiving. This was, by far, our favorite stop. Pensacola is pristine—sugar-white sand, manicured trees, clean and walkable streets in a downtown filled with little stores selling kitchen supplies or bath products or Intelligentsia coffee. Walking into the historic district is like walking into the set of “The Truman Show,” where all the houses are different shades of pastel, with white framing around the windows and doors, sidewalks surrounding the town square. We saw some men pulling the top off a gorgeous vintage convertible in front of a tall white church with stained glass windows taller than I am, adding a “just married” sign to the back. We walked through a cluster of trees as wide as houses, and Tim climbed a branch, surrounded by so much shade, you’d almost forget you were in Florida in August.

pensacola ships
Hello, Pensacola

Saturday night, to further celebrate my thirty years, we went to The Wharf in Gulf Shores, kind of like an outdoor shopping mall meets tiny theme park meets restaurants and a boat dock. We had exactly $8 cash in our wallets, and the ferris wheel was $4 each, so we rode it, round and round, taking pictures of each other and the sinking sun like we were teenagers.

The Wharf in Gulf Shores
Tim and the water

I said I feel like it’s a gift to turn thirty, and a gift is exactly what I mean—to have been given thirty years of sunrises, thirty years of breath and life, thirty years of relationships and experiences and meals and work and history. This weekend, while we pointed the car south and trekked through four different states; when I woke up on my birthday morning to a handful of cards from friends Tim had asked to send them ahead of time; when I talked to my mom and my dad and Adam late Saturday; when friends called and asked, seriously, how I was feeling about this new age; when Tim made me breakfast; when I laid in bed in the quiet and watched the sun over the water, I am relieved to say that all I felt about turning 3-0 was this: pure gratitude.

*We also feel very fortunate to have missed Hurricane Isaac, which, according to reports, is headed for the coast sometime soon, especially because our trip was mostly blue skies and sunshine. Whereas national disasters on the news can often feel far away, having visited New Orleans and Mississippi and Alabama last week puts a very somber tone on the news for us, one that makes it impossible to dismiss the storm as too far away. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of the Gulf Coast.

Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, keep up with Food Loves Writing on Facebook and stay inspired with the monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 48 Comments

  1. Rebecca

    Happy birthday! What a beautiful post, and a beautiful way to enter your 30s. This is going to be an exciting decade for you — and you sound ready!

  2. Carrie | acookgrowsinbrooklyn

    I, too, dwell in the land of the thirties and agree, it’s not so bad! Happy Birthday! Your trip sounds dreamlike. A few of the places on your itinerary are stops on my ‘to-go’ list – like Mobile and New Orleans and your pics have only made me more intrigued. Must plan a road trip soon!

  3. MaryAnn

    I’m so glad you had an enjoyable birthday. It is a wonderful gift to have another day, another breath, another opportunity to live.

    1. Shannalee

      Thinking of you, MaryAnn, and of all this August 25 has reminded you of. A gift to live indeed.

  4. Joanna

    What an amazing trip and a great attitude about getting older. One year older is one more year of blessing behind you with another ahead of you.

    And GORGEOUS photos!

  5. Sarah

    That sounds like an amazing birthday trip! Those wonderfully old trees remind me of the trees in Savannah, GA. So beautiful!

  6. Shannon

    What an adventure! I was one of this people that ha a really hard time with turning 30, but I’m approaching 32 quickly and can say now that the last two years have been two of the most significant and worthwhile years of my life. I wish you many happy belated birthday wishes!

    1. Shannalee

      I never, never get tired of hearing people say good things about their thirties. Thank you, Shannon!

  7. Jacqui

    What a birthday! Oh, how I love your travel posts. Murdo and are terrible at birthdays — on his 30th birthday weekend, I had nothing planned, except to move into our new house, ha! Here’s to another great decade of adventures.

    1. Shannalee

      I don’t know, moving into your first (!) new (!) house (!) sounds pretty epic and Birthday to me. : )

  8. HopefulLeigh

    Happy birthday, Shanna! What a wonderful trip. The year before my 30th birthday, I decided I would embrace it, no matter what the naysayers threw my way. And so, in spite of others freaking out over 30, I had a wonderful time celebrating and generally feeling good to be alive. My 30s have been incredible so far and I’m sure yours will be as well!

    1. Shannalee

      Thank you, Leigh! I love the idea of embracing what comes, of reaching out your hands to take it. So good.

  9. Rachael

    Awww! I love The Wharf! Makes me impatient to visit AL again! :) Happy Birthday!

  10. alexandra @ sweet betweens [blog]

    Oh what a beautiful trip! Thanks for sharing your stunning photos.

  11. Kathryn

    Happy birthday! I’ll be 30 next year and I’m really looking forward to it actually. I feel like I’ve done enough with my 20s and I’m ready to move on and move forward. I adore these pictures too. I’ve never thought about going to Alabama but I’ve fallen in love with it from your pictures!

  12. Madison Mayberry

    Happy birthday, pretty lady. You just radiate happiness in your photos. I love what you said about 30 being a gift. It truly is a gift, each day, month and year we are here and aging should be celebrated because of that.

  13. Shannalee

    So well said. Thanks, Madison!

  14. Kim

    Happy happy happy, Shannalee. This post is full of such joy, and such lovely pictures.

  15. Vicki

    What a great adventure to celebrate turning 30s. Such beautiful photos (esp. the Ferris wheel and the Saenger Theatre pics!!!). Being in your 30s isn’t all that bad. Enjoy this new decade. :)

  16. Nicole

    What a happy and beautiful trip! Now that I am a couple of years into my 30’s, I can honestly say they have been the best years so far. I am sure they will be for you, too!

    1. Shannalee

      Yes! Love hearing that, Nicole!

  17. Stephanie, The Recipe Renovator

    Happy birthday Shanna! It looks like an amazing trip and you do such a beautiful job describing everything, I feel like I went on the trip too. And, having had a fantastic time turning 40 and 50, I can attest that aging gracefully is a wonderful thing, and a choice!

    1. Shannalee

      Such wisdom in your words, Stephanie. Thank you!

  18. Kasey

    This post made me smile. I’ve also heard groans and moans from friends – especially female ones – who are turning 30. I’ve thought that maybe I should start dreading next year myself, but I think it’s actually the most wonderful time! Your Southern vacation looks wonderful — all of these towns and cities look so charming! Happiest of birthdays, Shanna! A sweet one indeed.

    1. Shannalee

      Thank you, friend!

  19. Nancy @ gottagetbaked

    This is another beautiful, stunning post, Shanna! I love all the gorgeous photos – you have such a great eye with photography. And the heart-felt, detailed way you write – it leaves me feeling as if I’m experiencing every moment and emotion right along with you. I didn’t feel any sadness when I turned 30. I loved my 20s but you can’t give me enough money in the world to re-live those hard, tumultuous years of self-doubt. I feel so much more wiser, experienced and comfortable with myself and I look forward to everything the future holds. Happy birthday, dear Shanna. I’m so glad you celebrated in such a lovely way!

    1. Shannalee

      Ha! I told a friend of mine that my twenties were so wide-open with possibility and unknowns, where my thirties feel a little more settled, that it’s actually a little comforting. I love hearing the same thing from you. Thanks, Nancy!

  20. Jennifer T

    Happy birthday! I’m enjoying 30, too. 😉 So glad you liked our little town. I’ve always thought Pensacola had the cutest downtown area, so charming. And I’ve been to two weddings in that beautiful white church! Just as lovely on the inside as it is on the outside. What a wonderful trip Tim planned for you!

    1. Shannalee

      Totally thought of you while we were there!

  21. Toni Stanton

    So glad you enjoyed South Alabama! I hope you were able to see our beautiful white sandy beaches…if you didn’t, you need to come back. There is nothing quite like it! Happy birthday!

  22. Abby

    Happy birthday! And what a beautiful post to celebrate it. I’m a few years away from thirty yet, and this helps me look forward to that milestone rather than dread it!

  23. Hailee

    Happy Birthday! This is a terrific way to introduce a new year, while others might be sulking, you are proudly wearing it!

  24. Rhu and Sam (Montse)

    Happy 30s!!! The best is yet to come 😉

  25. Erin

    Happy birthday! As an Alabamian, it makes me so happy to hear that you discovered its beauty. :)

  26. Gemma

    Happy belated birthday! This looks like such a wonderful trip. I have to admit to having a few tears the day after my birthday – the day itself was great and I think the tears were as much about a big, fun day being over as much as anything. Since then I have been very pro-30s and am very happy to be 33, I find it so much easier to just be myself now than at any point in my 20s.

    1. Shannalee

      I love the term pro-30s. Taking it on! Thanks, Gemma! : )

  27. Elisabeth

    Shanna, I love your heart of gratitude. I was shopping this weekend and tried on a mustard yellow top. It so reminded me of you and your wedding day sweater. :) I am so glad you are enjoying life at 30 with your Tim. May God continue to bless you both!

    1. Shannalee

      It makes me so happy that the mustard color makes you think of me! Thanks, Elisabeth! : )

  28. sarah kate branine

    Oh, what an incredibly perfect way to start out your thirtieth year. ( And GREAT job, husband! ) I felt blessed just reading through this post. I’ll always remember my sister telling me, as I turned thirty, that her thirties were by far the best decade yet for her. Although I am only 31, I definitely would agree :) Cheers to the thirties! And welcome to it! :)

    ps. So funny– as soon as I saw the first picture of Pensacola, I thought, “this will be my favorite part of their trip” and then you said the same. Great minds. . . .

    1. Shannalee

      Sarah, with every comment, you are becoming more and more one of my favorite people. I’m so thankful for your inspiring, graceful, generous blog friendship!

  29. sarah

    Lovely. What a wonderful birthday gift!
    I personally love being in my 30’s – I am finding I like myself more the older I get, which I think is a good thing.

    1. Shannalee

      That makes complete sense to me, Sarah, and it’s something people don’t talk about enough: the longer we live, the more comfortable we get in our own skin and the more ourselves we become. Love that thought.

  30. Kristen

    Alabama has never been on my list of places I’d like to vacation, but you’ve just changed that. What a wonderful birthday vacation for you both! Thanks for sharing!

  31. Pingback: Slow-Cooked Vegetable Dinner + “An Everlasting Meal” | Food Loves Writing

  32. Ashley

    Happy Birthday! What is the name of the artisan goods shop (that sells bread) you found in Mobile?

    1. Shannalee

      Ashley, The bakery that makes the bread is Manna, but it’s sold at a shop called Urban Emporium.

  33. talley

    I’m so glad I waited to comment on this post until now because it means I was able to read all the wise and wonderful women in their 30s profess how great it is! I’m 17 days away from hitting the big 3-0 myself and I must admit I’m slightly panicked. I think I’ll be excited to be on the other side of it though since it seems I’ve been dreading it for a full year. After reading this post I’m determined to approach the next 17 days with excitement and grace and thankfulness – the best is yet to come!

    1. Shannalee

      love reading that, talley. (and happy birthday in advance!) i am right there with you, fighting the emotions of a new age with gratitude. here’s to the gift of turning 30!

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