Alabama's Gulf Shores promises the pleasures of a sand beach, watersports and fine golf, with the gracious ways, slower pace and lower prices of the Old South. And, while America's Gulf Coast is steadily picking itself up and dusting off its oil-spattered knees, it's important that family beach vacation seekers keep tabs on the state of the shoreline at Gulf Shores and elsewhere.
This is not Florida, yet if brought here blindfolded, I defy anyone to convince me otherwise. White sand, blue water, heat, palm trees — all the ingredients necessary for a subtropical experience are present — but, this is Gulf Shores, Alabama and it looks more like Florida than much of Florida.
Classic Family Beach Vacation at Gulf Shores
This 30,000-acre Gulf of Mexico island community at the southern tip of Alabama mingles Southern hospitality with a warm weather getaway – without the crowds and pavement of better-known tourist destinations.
The setting of Forrest Gump's shrimping industry, and home of the largest fishing fleet in the northern Gulf, this retreat has retained its character. The calm gentle surf attracts young families with toddlers and sand pails. Those who appreciate a quiet beach experience, a splash of Southern culture, history, wildlife (dolphins are everywhere), spectacular seafood, fishing and 9 courses of championship golf – but without driving as far from "up North" also come. Just remember to not feed any alligators in the stormwater ponds.
At the beach, play pick-up volleyball, sail, windsurf or rent a jet boat. The obvious activity here is none at all — beach combing and nature observing are prime. If relaxing on the white beaches needs a disruption, a quick excursion to a nature preserve or secluded, magnolia-tree-lined historic Main Street community is just the ticket.
Great Gulf Shore Outdoor Habitats to Explore
Families frequently find their favorite leisure activity to be the outdoors and nature. Given that, make your first break from laying on the beach a nature walk at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (251/540-7720; 12295 State Highway 180, Gulf Shores, Alabama 36542) nearby. This spectacular natural gem and example of excellence in conservation demonstrates that nature can be enjoyed rather than avoided. Created in 1980 and consisting of 7000 acres of pristine coastal ecosystems, Bon Secour (French for safe harbor) harbors habitat from dunes and marshes to freshwater swamps and pine-oak woodlands as well as rare plants and animals. Local favorites include sea turtle nesting, migratory birds and wild flowers highlighted by a rare mixing of temperate and subtropical plant species. Stop at the visitor's center and pick up a trail guide, stroll to your hearts content and see how many of the plant and animal species described in the brochures you can identify.
I saw a robust octopus resting and flexing its gill jets and tentacles in only one foot of clear water near the calm bay shoreline of a marsh trail, of all places – a rare find indeed considering a predatory bird usually gobbles up these soft and succulent prey in such unprotected waters. Oh — and to report a sea turtle nesting or stranding, call 1-866-732-8878.
For the ultimate outdoor appreciation, sign up for a boating excursion. Numerous vendors are available for power boating and sailing tours. If you like fishing it is almost illegal to leave here without sampling the sportfishing prey of the Gulf. Try black and striped bass, bream and red drum or board a deep-sea charter at Orange Beach and go after marlin, red snapper or mackerel.
For just nature appreciation, a truly unique boating experience is Sailaway Charters (251/974-5055, 24231 Gulf Bay Road, Orange Beach, Alabama 36561) – an informative, interpretive naturalist-guided tour of the local marine biology and resources. It's just about the best two-hour experience around – but then again, I am biased as one who had the same career in his professional youth.
Passengers are introduced to the watery fauna and given hands-on demonstrations of actual shrimping, oystering and crabbing in between the exploration of bays, bayous and marshes. The first mate cleverly sneaks in some biology and nature education on the sly while demonstrating fishing techniques. All the while, dolphins are surreally surfing around in waters you might think are too shallow. The highlight of the trip is when a trawling net is released into the water and hauled back up full of flopping Bay bounty. The critters are transferred to a holding tank and examined at close range to the delight of landlubber kids of all ages.
Great Golf Getaways along Gulf Shores
For the golf-fan, a Gulf Shore getaway trip may just be the perfect destination. The Gulf Shores not only boasts beautiful coastline, but is also home to a collection of nine signature golf-courses, all within a 45-minute drive from one another. Visit the Gulf Shore's award-winning Kiva Dunes, Alabama's only beachfront golf course resort that consistently ranks among the top golf courses along the entire Gulf Coast. Other courses include Cotton Creek and Cypress Bend at Craft Farms, Glenlakes Golf Club, Gulf Shores Golf Club, Lost Key Golf Club, Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club, Rock Creek Golf Club, and Timber Creek Golf Club so you'll have plenty of available tee times. More information on these resorts as well as tips on where to go and where to stay can be accessed through the Gulf Shores Golf Association.
Introducing The Civil War as seen by Southerners
Experience history and culture on the sly by exploring the region's Civil War heritage. Many visitors who may be literate about Northern events discover an opportunity to round out their knowledge of what some residents refer to as the War of Northern Aggression.
Some popular sites to visit are Fort Morgan, Fairhope Historical Museum, Fort Mims, Baldwin County Heritage Museum and Blakely State Park. Gulf Shores having been a significant Confederate port, the Battle of Mobile Bay, as well as the Overland Campaign, are primary themes for Civil War aficionados. These prominent events included some of the very first intense sea battles utilizing "ironclads" and torpedoes. If visiting only one historic spot, choose Fort Morgan – it is close by (251/540-5257, 110 Highway 180 West, Gulf Shores, Alabama 36542) and covers history from the war of 1812 to WWII.
Cultured Getaway to Magnolia Springs, Alabama
It is easy to forget you are in the heart of Southern culture while soaking in the tropical-like beaches but — if a break from the beach seems inevitable — a 15-mile inland jaunt to picturesque and cozy Magnolia Springs provides the best diversion and country relaxation around.
Steeped in Spanish, Creole and Civil War history with live oak-canopied streets, this riverfront country community reeks of relaxation and tranquility. Stroll around the neighborhoods, take a refreshing dip in the mineral springs, have a home cooked meal, go fishing or even watch the motorboat mail carrier make deliveries in dockside boxes on the Magnolia River.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Moore Brothers Village Market and Jesse's Restaurant (251/965-3826, 14770 Oak Street, Magnolia Springs, Alabama 36535) is worthwhile checking out. It's the community's general store, eatery, filling station and social center. Browse the knickknacks and sample the authentically prepared Gulf Coast seafood and Louisiana specialties including Caesar salad with encrusted catfish; crab cakes; soft-shell crabs; gulf shrimp, étouffée and goat cheese grits. This may be a great opportunity to bring back some unique groceries to your Gulf Shores bungalow.
For longer visits, the place to stay is the Magnolia Springs Bed & Breakfast (800/965-7321, 14469 Oak Street, Magnolia Springs, Alabama 36555). Their motto is "Classic Southern Hospitality" and that's what you'll find at this 1890s Victorian home listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Featured in the Restore America TV series, the rooms are like a trip back in a time machine but without any loss of amenities – the guest rooms have private baths, telephone, cable TV, antiques, and wood floors, walls and ceilings.
Family Vacation Planning Details for Gulf Shores, Alabama
Accommodation choices vary in pricing and are the perfect balance of beachside cottage and apartment rentals with a sprinkling of high-rise condos — convenience and amenity without sprawl. Cottages can be quiet and secluded – try The Beach House B&B (800/659-6004 or 251/540-7039, 9218 Dacus Lane, Gulf Shores, Alabama 36542).
For condominium fare, try the Gulf Shores Plantation (800/211-5053 or 251/540-5000, 805 Plantation Road, Gulf Shores, Alabama 36542) or the Beach Club (888/260-SAND, 925 Beach Club Trail, Gulf Shores, Alabama 36542). These havens of comfort are fully furnished and have every possible recreational amenity. Pools you ask? The Plantation alone has six outdoor ones – and one indoor one as well as golf courses sprinkled everywhere. They are also corporate stewards of nearby beach and dune ecosystem conservation efforts including protection of three federally endangered species. By the way, the Plantation offers sweet deals on a consecutive three-night stay during the Annual National Shrimp Fest — grab some good grub and your third night free!
Another popular option is the Phoenix VI and VII Condominiums, on the shore (251/981-6901 or 888/432-9587, 26803 Perdido Beach Boulevard, Orange Beach, Alabama 36561).
Family-Friendly Resort Destination at The Wharf
If you're looking for luxury as well as shopping, dining, and entertainment, then The Wharf (251/224-1500 or 866/864-0937 4550 Main Street, Orange Beach AL 36561) condominium rentals may be the ideal stay for you. The Wharf offers luxury condominiums overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and The Marina at The Wharf. The Marina is an exciting boating destination featuring waterway excursion tours and other boating events. Also take advantage of The Wharf's shopping and dining center with several local boutiques, known-brands, and delicious dining options awaiting hungry travelers. This outdoor, water-front marina also features a movie cinema, laser-tag, and a variety of other outdoor and seasonal entertainment that makes The Wharf a unique resort destination that can satisfy just about any craving.
Family-Friendly Dining at Gulf Shores
Most restaurants in Gulf Shores have excellent fare. If you can, avoid dining on "land fare" while you are here, because the seafood soup of the Gulf of Mexico has generated the best fin and shellfish you will find anywhere. Try the Red Royal shrimp followed by bread pudding – a regional favorite. Eat outside at one of the fine restaurants to enjoy the soft southern breezes.
For starters, I recommend the following gems of dining experiences for those in the know:
King Neptune's Seafood Restaurant
1137 Gulf Shores Parkway, Gulf Shores, AL 36542
Calypso Joe's Caribbean Grille
27075 Marina Rd.Orange Beach, AL 36561
Cosmos' Restaurant and Bar
25753 Canal Rd. Orange Beach, AL 36561
Pensacola's Flora-Bama Lounge (251/980-5118 or 850/492-0611, 17401 Perdido Key Drive, Pensacola, Florida 32507) is a "world-famous" quirky gem of Americana that can best be described as a family-style (yes, I said family-style) boogie or honky-tonk rock/country music bar. With vast square footage for various bands, bars, outdoor decks, dance floors and pool tables, the disorganized looking carpentry of this lone relic between the high-rise condos straddles both sides of the Florida-Alabama state line (hence its name and this article's title) – and the only night spot I know that can be appreciated by singles, couples and groups of all ages who want to mingle, dance or people watch.
Go ahead and get a T-shirt from the package liquor store – everyone else does when no one is looking. A popular regional event in April is Flora-Bama's Annual Interstate Mullet Toss, when hundreds compete to see who can toss a dead fish farthest from Florida into Alabama (the record is about 190 feet).
Getting To Gulf Shores & Getting Around
If arriving by air, remote does not mean far away; Mobile, Alabama and Pensacola, Florida are within easy driving distance of Gulf Shores and efficiently serviced by US Airways. For all information regarding places to stay, all-inclusive packages, what to do and what to eat, your one-stop-shop is the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau.
If you decide to drive south and then get organized, there are two helpful local tourist office outlets. The Gulf Shores Welcome Center is located at 3150 Gulf Shores Parkway. You can call their Hospitality & Information Department at 251/968-7511 or 800/745-SAND. In the town of Orange Beach, stop by the Orange Beach Welcome Center (800/982-8562, 23685 Perdido Beach Boulevard at Highway 182, Orange Beach, Alabama 36561).
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