Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama:
Beyond the Obvious
View from the Beach Club in Gulf Shores, Alabama
Diane Tritt Eaton
The Alabama Gulf Coast has pretty beaches and is rapidly rising in popularity due to its abundance of natural beauty and the recent growth in activities both on and off shore. And, from a bird’s eye view, it’s obvious why families flock here, but, as the saying goes, there’s more than meets the eye.
Encompassing a 32-mile stretch of wide, white beaches, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, “sister” towns, are chock-full of obvious fun—-all presented in a casually comfortable and laid-back environment. A 2016 Architectural Digest article referred to Gulf Shores as a “best kept secret” and “one of America’s greatest under-the-radar beach towns.” And, Southern Living recently stated, “Today, Alabama beaches are among the state’s most popular tourist destinations, even attracting visitors from other Gulf Coast beaches with surf of their own.”
The region rebounded from the tragic 2010 BP oil spill, which wreaked havoc on the marine life and the shoreline. Thankfully, the dunes and beaches are thriving again and sea oats wave while an abundance of fish swim below as seagulls and pelicans glide overhead.
Unique Spots to Explore and Enjoy
On all beach vacations, there are the givens such as sunbathing, swimming, building sand castles or walking barefoot along the glistening gulf waters. But, remember that each destination offers its own list of attractions beyond the obvious. Here are some of my local favorites.
Gulf State Park
With almost 6,500 acres of sprawling space (including a 2-mile stretch of beach), Gulf State Park is largely a marsh area with expansive biking, walking and hiking trails. There are majestic views, lush pine forests and fresh-water Lake Shelby, which draws swimmers, water skiers, kayakers and paddle boarders. Beach Bike Rentals offers guided tours, so you can roam around for hours, checking out the hands-on nature center, the cabins and campgrounds and, if your timing’s right, the wildlife, including Lucky, the “friendly” alligator. The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail is adjacent to the park, expanding your opportunity to venture further, along a smoothly paved, coastal trail. On the beach side of the park, the Gulf State Park Fishing Pier, now the largest in the Gulf of Mexico, is an enjoyable spot to watch people cast their lines while an abundance of anxious pelicans line up along the railings in anticipation of sharing “the catch of the day.”
Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo
Lemur Love at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo
Skip time at the beach and allocate a morning or afternoon to explore the utterly delightful Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. I’ve never enjoyed a zoo more than this one, thanks to the dedicated staff who works with Director Patti Hall, whose heart for the animals is immeasurable. Thanks to her valiant efforts, this zoo has earned major accolades from Animal Planet, dubbing it, “The Little Zoo That Could” because of its outstanding ability to save every one of the animals during not one, but three, separate hurricanes. It’s located a few blocks from the beach (with plans to relocate to a more expansive space), and houses over 500 animals including Bengal tigers, lions, monkeys, alligators, sloths and more. Kids and kids-at-heart can play and laugh literally cheek-to-cheek with lemurs and baby kangaroos, thanks to their remarkable animal encounter program. The extra cost for encounters is worth its weight in gold. The zookeepers are warm, friendly and very knowledgeable.
A Sampling of Great Grub
Downhome, Southern cuisine and seafood are plentiful. Take an evening to enjoy fine farm-to-table and boat-to-table dining at The Beach Club’s Coast restaurant and enjoy sweeping views. Another great spot is Jimmy Buffet’s sister’s famous Lulu’s at Homeport Marina, offering fresh catch in an upbeat atmosphere. Enjoy casual chic creations at GT’s On The Bay while admiring its vaulted ceilings and indoor fish pools or the attractive outdoor dining patio. No matter the time of day, satisfy your sweet tooth at Matt’s, Gulf Shore’s only homemade ice cream shop, which offers over 40 flavorful creations to suit your personal preferences.
Special Lodging Accommodations
Yes, you can find many of the known family-friendly hotels along the coast. But, if you’re looking for a twist in lodging, consider a condominium at Spectrum Resorts’ lovely Beach Club. With pools, tennis courts and expansive private grounds, it’s a quiet place tucked away from the main beach boulevard. Give thought to the lavish twin-towered Turquoise Place, which offers high-end, hotel-quality, multi-bedroom condos for rent year-round. The azure glass architecture and modern furnishings (including Sub-Zero and Wolf appliances, and marble everywhere) make for a luxurious experience at surprisingly attractive pricing.
All This and More
As the locals have been known to say, “The Gulf of Mexico is good for what ails you.” So, seek rest and relaxation along Alabama’s shores. And, when you do, no matter where you rest your beach hat, please think clean and green like the locals do to protect the health and beauty of the area. Simply honor “Leave Only Footprints,” a sustainability program designed to maintain a safe, clean and family-friendly beach environment for all, including Mother Nature. Attractive reminder signs are everywhere making it easy to follow along.