Alabama’s Gulf coast popular year-round
My first thought was that I must have taken a wrong turn. The scene outside the car windows — Dollar Stores, Waffle Houses and tattoo parlors — hardly matched the almost poetic name of my destination: Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala. Small, aging wooden houses, some of which had seen better days, lined the narrow lanes off the main road.
Before long, though, I came upon glitzy high-rise condominium buildings standing shoulder to shoulder along a broad stretch of sugar-white sand. Then it dawned on me: I was in a something-for-everyone kind of place.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, perched on the southernmost tip of Alabama, combine the usual list of to-dos and to-sees of many sun-and-sand destinations, but they have some unique surprises.
Folks who want a respite from the sun can explore a historic fort or museums devoted to Native Americans or naval aviation. For foodies, the area’s restaurants range from elegant to beach-dive casual. And those who like to commune with nature have plenty of ways to do so.
For beach bums and active hikers
Of course, the beach, lapped by the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, is the reason most people visit Gulf Shores, a town of about 12,000 residents, and nearby Orange Beach, about half that size.
Between the two towns lies what many locals consider to be the best of Alabama’s 22 state parks: Gulf State Park. While the park is home to the shortest stretch of beach in the region, its other claims to fame account for its reputation and popularity. Nine distinct ecosystems in its 6,000-plus acres include pine forests, coastal hardwood swamps and freshwater marshes.
A 27-mile backcountry trail complex, accessible to people with varying abilities, leads walkers past boggy streams and three spring-fed freshwater lakes. Hikers may spot white-tailed deer, an alligator basking in the sun or even a bobcat.
The park’s nature center and butterfly garden offer a glimpse of colorful wildlife. Boats and fishing gear are available for rent, as well as lakeside cabins, cottages and campsites.
Museums, cruises, fishing
Nearby Fort Morgan, a state historic site, has a 14-mile seashore. Visitors can sit on the beach, bike, fish, kayak, picnic or visit a pentagon-shaped fort, completed in 1834. The structure occupies a strategic location, where Mobile Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, and was built to strengthen the coastal defense of the United States following the War of 1812.
The site contains historic military buildings; artillery batteries constructed between 1895 and 1904; and a museum displaying uniforms, weapons, photographs and letters of solders who served there. To top it off, the fort fronts the same kind of broad, gentle, snow-hued beach that is characteristic of the area.
If you prefer to take to the sea without any effort, you can book a sunset, dolphin-watching or dinner cruise instead of kayaking or paddleboarding,
For fishing, some try their luck off a pier that stretches 1,540 feet over the Gulf of Mexico.
Snorkelers and divers who prefer to be in, rather than above, the water can explore a system of artificial reefs with experiences geared to everyone from children and beginners to advanced divers.
Golfers will find 14 courses in the area, including Craft Farms and Kiva Dunes, which rank high on Golf Digest’s “best courses” lists.
Plenty for history buffs
For those who want to learn, not burn, a good place to start is the Gulf Shores Museum, located in a historic beach house. Permanent exhibits tell the story of 19th-century settlers in the area and of hurricanes, including how they originate and how a community rebuilds after a storm.
Housed in a former school built in 1910, the Orange Beach Indian & Sea Museum provides introductions to the area’s Native American and fishing heritages.
Battleship Memorial Park, about an hour away in Mobile, is home to the massive USS Alabama, which saw action for 37 months during World War II, as well as a wartime submarine and a collection of historic aircraft.
An hour drive in the other direction leads to the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla., the largest such museum in the world. Despite its name, the collection of more than 250 aircraft represents every military branch.
The complex also is home to the famous Blue Angels, the aerobatic team of aviators from the Navy and Marines that thrills onlookers.
Not surprisingly, the area has been recognized and highly ranked in “best of” lists compiled by the likes of USA Today, Reader’s Digest and Travel + Leisure.
Battleships, historic airplanes, golf and a historic fort would seem to have little in common with an inviting beach destination. That’s the point.
Inclusion on “Top 10,” “Best Places” and “Most Beautiful” lists is based upon the magnificent stretches of beach as well as the long list of other attractions that Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offer those who visit.
As one repeat visitor told me, “I came here the first time for the beaches. Now I return for everything else.”
If you go
Given the nature-friendly environment of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, the most inviting place to stay fits very comfortably into that theme.
The Lodge at Gulf State Park is a trendsetter when it comes to sustainability and environmental protection. In small ways and large, its owners have incorporated numerous innovative efforts into its design, construction and operation.
The building contains 20 percent recycled materials, and three-quarters of construction waste was recycled rather than going to a landfill.
The lodge was designed in a way to protect the sand dunes. Invasive plants were replaced with native species that thrive without irrigation, chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Condensate water from the guestroom air conditioning system is filtered and used in the swimming pool.
Straws in the restaurant are made of reusable wood, and words on pens in guest rooms bear the message, “I used to be a newspaper.” Rates at the Lodge begin at $129. For more information, call (251) 540-4000 or visit lodgeatgulfstatepark.com.
Of an estimated 200 restaurants in the area, only a couple of handfuls are chain eateries. The upscale Perch dining room in the Lodge at Gulf State Park has great views of the Gulf. Try the Gulf gumbo ($9) or jumbo prawns ($20). Stuffed quail ($28) is one of several land options.
First-time diners at Doc’s Seafood Shack & Oyster Bar soon understand why the modest eatery is a local legend. Many regulars go for the signature fried shrimp ($17). Others opt for the “create your own” seafood platter (from $21) or fried chicken basket ($9-$13). For more information, call (251) 981-6999.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is a year-round vacation destination. During summer, the sea breeze provides relief from high temperatures and humidity.
Winters generally are sunny and mild, with daily highs close to 60 degrees. The ocean is warm from May through November, with temperatures often in the low 80s.
For more information about Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, visit gulfshores.com or call (800) 745-7263.