By Kathie Farnell
The 32 miles of white sandy beaches along Alabama’s southern border took a beating from 2004’s Hurricane Ivan. However, the area has reopened for business in time for the summer 2005 vacation season.
For those plotting a late-spring visit to the area, the best bet for accommodations lies west of the town of Gulf Shores along Highway 180, known to locals as Fort Morgan Road for the pre-Civil War fortification at the end of the line. The area escaped major storm damage, and one of its most popular upscale resorts, The Beach Club, resumed operations almost immediately after the wind died down.
The Beach Club’s 656 luxury vacation units include four high rise buildings right on the beach. The resort features two restaurants, including the elegant The Restaurant at the Beach Club and a more casual grill, a European health spa and salon, seasonal children’s club, six swimming pools and a racquet club with eight tennis courts and pro shop.
With undeveloped land becoming increasingly scarce along the 22 mile Fort Morgan Peninsula, The Beach Club enjoys the unique advantage of a location on a secluded stretch of Gulf beach right next to the 6800-acre Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge, a setting of striking natural beauty and privacy.
A more intimate beachfront headquarters can be found at The Beach House Bed and Breakfast, also on Highway 180. The elegant house, perched in the dunes, features wraparound decks, a huge screen porch with hammocks, a strict no-tie policy, and an opulent breakfast including the specialty, peaches-and-cream French toast.
The Gulf Coast is a mecca for seafood lovers, and most of the area’s restaurants either escaped the storm or have reopened. King Neptune Seafood, an unassuming spot on Highway 59 in Gulf Shores, features wonderful fried crab claws and gumbo, as well as oysters in a variety of guises. Owners Al and Diane Sawyer emphasize fresh seafood at King Neptune and Gulf Bay Seafood, a few miles to the east in Orange Beach. The menu at Gulf Bay also includes what may be the area’s most decadent dessert, fried cheesecake.
The beach’s most notorious attraction, the Flora-Bama, took a nearly-fatal blow from Hurricane Ivan; however, the venerable roadhouse has now straggled back to life on its perch astride the Alabama-Florida state line. Though reconstruction is ongoing, many of its regulars appear to enjoy the bar’s current roofless state, which certainly makes it airier.
Visitors to the beach who want to see wildlife outside the bar scene may elect to take a cruise out into the Intracoastal Waterway or the sheltered backwaters north of the beach.
Blue Dolphin Cruises leaves from Outcast Marina on Perdido Pass in search of dolphins, a trip which takes it past the luxury homes on Ono Island. Farrah Fawcett, when she isn’t running from the camera, has a home here, as does John Goodman and several members of the band Alabama.
Sailaway Charters in Orange Beach offers back-to-nature cruises under the direction of husband and wife Skip and Janet Beebe. The couple, whose waterfront home was filled with water by the hurricane, offer entertaining and informative nature cruises out in the Intracoastal Waterway and the intricate maze of adjoining bayous. During the cruise, Janet, a pint-sized dynamo, wrests oysters from the bottom with a pair of tongs bigger than she is, and hauls in crab traps to show off the area’s prize blue crabs. Skip lets out a net to trawl for shrimp and other marine life. Shrimping is hazardous in the area now, as wrecks and hurricane debris litter the bottom, but the backwaters remain an important nursery area for the Gulf’s fishing industry, and Skip’s net pulls in shrimp, blue crabs, jellyfish and fish including croaker, anchovy and speckled trout. On the way back, we are trailed by dolphins attracted by the fish we are throwing back.
Though the beach continues to recover, Mike Foster, vice president of marketing for the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau says that the area’s fundamental appeal-the sugar-white beaches and warm, sunny weather-is as strong as ever: “The things you love most about Alabama’s Gulf Coast, the blue water, white sand, outstanding seafood and southern hospitality are all still here.”
For more information on the Alabama Gulf Coast, visit www.gulfshores.com or call 1-800-745-SAND.