Story and photos by Andrew Der
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.
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 or degree of pavement at some better known tourist destinations.
The setting of Forest Gump’s shrimping industry and home of the largest fishing fleet in the northern Gulf, this retreat has retained its character unscathed from hurricanes while continuing to attract those who appreciate a quiet beach experience, a splash of southern culture, history, wildlife (dolphins are everywhere), spectacular seafood, fishing and 12 courses of championship golf – all without driving as far from “up north”. Just remember not to feed any alligators in the stormwater ponds.
If arriving by air, remote does not mean far away – both Mobile and Pensacola are within easy driving distance and efficiently serviced by US Airways.
The obvious activity here is none at all – beach combing and nature observing are prime and 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.
At the beach, play pick-up volleyball, sail, windsurf or rent a jet boat.
Avoid dining on “land fare” while you are here as nature’s seafood soup, 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.
Accommodation choices offer the perfect balance of beach side cottage and apartment rentals with a sprinkling of high rise condos – convenience and amenity without sprawl. There are many choices available in various pricing spectrums. Cottages can be quiet and secluded – try The Beach House B&B. For condominium fare, try the Gulf Shores Plantation or the Beach Club. 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.
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 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 6,700 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.
For the ultimate outdoor appreciation, sign up for a boating excursion. Numerous vendors are available for power boating and sailing tours – and if you like fishing it is almost illegal to leave here without sampling the Gulf’s sport fishing. Try black and striped bass, bream and red drum or board a deep see charter at Orange Beach and go after marlin, red snapper or mackerel.
g lucky and skilled, the World Championship Red Snapper Tournament is in April. Looking for just nature appreciation? Then a truly unique boating experience is Sailaway Charters – an informative interpretive naturalist-guided tour of the local marine biology and resources – just about the best 2-hour experience around – but then again, I am biased as one who had the same career in their 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 while demonstrating fishing techniques. All the while, dolphins are surreally surfing around in waters you might think are too shallow.
The highlight of this expedition 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.
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 river front 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, check out the Moore Brothers Village Market and Jesse’s Restaurant, 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 those who may want to visit longer, the place to stay is the Magnolia Springs Bed & Breakfast – an 1890s Victorian home also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Featured in the This Old House 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, wood floors, walls and ceilings.
For history and cultural experiences on the sly, explore the region’s Civil War heritage. Many visitors may be literate about northern events, while this region offers the opportunity to round out your 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. Being a significant Confederate port, the Battle of Mobile Bay as well as the Overland Mobile Campaign are a primary theme for Civil War aficionados.
These prominent events included some of the very first intense sea battles utilizing “ironclads” and torpedoes. If visiting only one site, choose Fort Morgan – it is close by and covers history from the war of 1812 to WWII.
Since Hurricane Ivan’s unwelcome visit in the fall of 2004, some of the establishments discussed have temporarily closed for reconstruction so call first – but not to worry – this resilient and valiant community has emerged victorious over nature’s reminders of who is in charge and are likely back in operation. It will take more than a hurricane to overcome the welcoming hospitality and natural resources of Gulf Shores – but that doesn’t mean you should wait any longer to immerse in this subtropic nirvana of the south.
This “world-famous” quirkey gem of Americana 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 – 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 of April is Flora-Bama’s annual mullet tossing championship, when hundreds compete to see who can toss a dead fish farthest from Florida into Alabama (the record is about 190 feet).
Flora-Bama Lounge www.florabama.com 17401 Perdido Key, Dr., Pensacola 251 980 5118
Most restaurants in Gulf Shores have excellent fare – 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 251 968 5464
- Gulf Bay Seafood Grill www.gulfbayseafood.com 24705 Canal Road, Gulf Shores 251 974 5090
- Calypso Joe’s www.calypsomango.com/calypso/index.htm 27075 Marina Rd., Orange Beach 251 981 1415
- Bayside Grill 27842 Canal Road, Gulf Shores 251 981 4899
For all information regarding places to stay, all-inclusive packages, what to do and what to eat, your one-stop-shop is:
- www.gulfshores.com Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau PO Drawer 457, Gulf Shores, AL 36547
- Gulf Shores Welcome Center – Hospitality & Information Department 3150 Gulf Shores Parkway (Hwy. 59 south) Gulf Shores, AL 36542 251-968-7511 or 800-745-SAND
- Orange Beach Welcome Center & Administrative Offices 23685 Perdido Beach Blvd. (Hwy. 182) Orange Beach, AL 36561 251-974-1510 or 800-982-8562
Places to stay:
Numerous choices abound – try:
- Gulf Shores Plantation www.gulfshoresvacations.com P. O. Box 1056, Gulf Shores, AL 36547 800 554 0344
- The Beach Club www.beachclubal.com 925 Beach Club Trail Gulf Shores, AL 36542 888 260 SAND
- Phoenix VI Condominiums 26802 Perdido Beach Blvd. P. O. Box 4009 Gulf Shores, AL 36547 251 981 6901
- The Beach House B & B www.bigbeachhouse.com 9218 Dacus Lane Gulf Shores, AL 36542 800 659 6004
Things to do:
- Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge www.fws.gov/bonsecour U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service 12295 State Hwy180, Gulf Shores 251 540-7720Oh … and to report a sea turtle nesting or stranding, call 1-866-SEA TURTLE (1-866-732-8878)
- Sailaway Charters www.geocities.com/sailorskip 24231 Gulf Bay Road, Orange Beach 251-974-5055
- For kayaking, try: Kayak Safari www.dolphinandkayaksafaris.com 4100 Harbor Road, 1000 Captain Trent Lane, Orange Beach 251 981 1386
- Moore Brothers Village Market and Jesse’s restaurant www.moorebrosmarket.com 14770 Oak Street, Magnolia Springs 251 965 3826Their motto is “The way grocery shopping was meant to be.”
- Magnolia Springs Bed & Breakfast www.magnoliasprings.com PO Box 329, 14469 Oak Street, Magnolia Springs 800 965 7321Their motto is: “Classic Southern Hospitality”
- Fort Morgan State Historic Site www.800alabama.com/alabama-attractions/details.cfm?id=1158 110 Hwy. 180W, Gulf Shores 251-540-5257