TRAVEL: Exploring the sites on Alabama’s Gulf Coast

If the frigid winter temps are making you blue and your family’s bout with cabin fever has morphed into a virtual epidemic, fret not: there’s sanctuary residing just over the state line.

Words and Photography by Jennifer Carter

Shockingly close to the Atlanta ‘burbs (only six hours by car and 1.5 hours by air!), the sugary white sand beaches of the Alabama Gulf Coast are waiting to soothe your soul and brighten your blahs. The weather might still be a mite chilly outside, but there’s no better time to cozy up to the fireside and plan your next holiday for you and your favorite flip flops or strappy sandals.

gs13

RELAX >> Just for a moment, imagine this: 32 miles of soft sand and lapping waves…and your seaside accommodations mere steps from them…and fresh seafood paired with paradise-inspired libations just steps from those. This is the magic that awaits in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama.

I found myself there by some lucky twist of traveler’s fate this past May, and I realized that in all my childhood years of living in Alabama in the early 80s (please don’t do the math), I had somehow never heard about this place. My mother had always packed our boogey boards, water wings, bologna sandwiches and cold Dr. Peppers into the car and carted us to those overcrowded beaches in Florida. But how could we have not known about the Alabama Gulf Coast? Perhaps because those Alabamians were just great at keeping secrets, but it’s safe to say that the secret’s out now in Cobb County.

gs09And I’ll let you in on another little secret. There is nothing — NOTHING — in this world as transporting for an inland city dweller than that first shock of salty air hitting your nostrils as you near the ocean with the windows rolled down, or more exuberant than that first wash of frothy waves over your feet when you are drawn into that surf like a magnet. The water somehow brings you back to your natural state, and that state is peace.

My suitcase was not even unpacked but tossed into a corner of my Phoenix VII beach side condo as I threw open the sliding glass door to my balcony. Lines of brilliant, cobalt blue umbrellas dotted the shoreline beneath me, their inhabitant sunbathers reading and (gasp!) relaxing. A lone parasailer went floating by like a colorful mirage, suspended above the water by the sheer will of bright fabric and sea air. And me. I lost no time in ditching my shoes and running (okay, rapidly speed-walking) to that very sand that, less than three minutes before, had been that captivating view from a few floors up. 


EXPLORE BY LAND AND SEA >> I know it’s quite unlikely, but if you ever tire of all that relaxing and “me-time,” Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offer numerous ways to divert your attentions. I often say in jest that “I want to travel so far away that the birds look different,” and in this case, I was not disappointed. In fact, there were many options to experience the various forms of wildlife in the area.

Avid animal lovers and those traveling with children cannot miss the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. Nicknamed the “little zoo that could,” it houses over 500 exotic animals including lions, tigers, bears, primates, leopards, and wolves. And take heed of this cuteness alert: they also offer staff-supervised encounters with baby kangaroos, lemurs and sloths. When they placed a dozing baby kangaroo in my arms, I felt downright maternal. My heart melted even further when I got to feed that slow moving sloth. (Insider tip: Hilarity ensues if you decide to wear a long dress into the lemur enclosure. They are endearingly curious animals and they sometimes like to hide playfully in the folds, giving one quite a shock but a funny story to tell later.)

If boating through the bayou is more your speed, be sure to check out a narrated nature tour aboard Sailaway Charter’s covered pontoon. Captain Skip Beebee, a former clock repairman, guides guests through Longs Bayou and Wolf Bay while acquainting you with oysters, blue crabs, shrimp, and a variety of fish and birds that are indigenous to the area. And if you’re very lucky, as I was, you’ll catch a glimpse of Mr. Friendly, a locally famous 50-year old dolphin who likes to surface to bid you “hello.” This boat ride is suitable for nature lovers of all ages.

For those with penchant for the romantic, nothing beats watching the sun disappear behind the waves from the upper deck of the Sail Wild Hearts catamaran. The welcoming staff keeps their guests laughably entertained, hoola-hooping with dexterity despite thegs08 rocking boat. (They’ll even let you join in if it’s your birthday.) They provide bottled water and light hors d’oeurvres for the chartered two-hour sunset trip, though you can bring your own cooler with beverages.

And for those desiring another kind of “wildlife viewing” all together, the annual Hangout Music Fest, scheduled for May 19-21, is an ever-growing force to be reckoned with. The ultimate beach concert, the festival held adjacent to the Hangout restaurant in Gulf Shores offers revelers the opportunity to hear music from their favorite bands while still planting their toes in the sand. At press time, acts such as Mumford & Sons and Weezer were already set to headline for this spring.

(For a full lineup and ticket prices, check www.hangoutmusicfest.com.)

Insider Tip: If you can afford the Super VIP Tickets, you’ll enjoy such amenities as gourmet food in an air-conditioned dining room and hot tub seating next to the Main Stage. Seriously.


WHERE TO INDULDGE >> The wealth of fresh seafood in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is unparalleled, and the eateries in the area are extremely adept at delighting travelers’ culinary senses. Here are a few of my favorite places for their food and ambience.

Cobalt, the Restaurant
28099 Perdido Beach Blvd.
Orange Beach, Alabama 
www.cobaltrestaurant.net

Cobalt’s fabulous outdoor patio with fountains and palm trees beckons you outside to enjoy a glass of wine and fine dining while watching the yachts pass you by.

The Hangout
101 East Beach Blvd.
Gulf Shores, Alabama 
www.thehangout.com

Not just famous for its annual concert, The Hangout restaurant is also known for its beachy cuisine. I was quite smitten with their superb burger selection and fun atmosphere (they actually have an adult-sized bubble machine to run through).

Lulu’s
202 East 25th Ave.
Gulf Shores, Alabama 
www.lulubuffett.com

Touted as an establishment based on the ideals of “escapism and family fun,” Lulu’s is renowned for both their burgers and totally legit margaritas, both blended and on the rocks. The Cadillac Margarita will become a Gulf Shores tradition on subsequent trips.
Interesting sidenote: Lulu (Lucy Anne Buffett) is actually singer Jimmy Buffett’s little sister, so you know that this place keeps fun close at hand.

Voyagers at Perdido Key Resort
27200 Perdido Beach Blvd.
Orange Beach, Alabama 
www.perdidobeachresort.com

Executive chef Brody Olive has made Voyagers a must-visit while in Orange Beach. Their menu consists of sustainable seafood, vegetables from local farms and natural organic meats and a stellar wine list. And the panoramic view of the Alabama Gulf Coast can’t be beat. Tip: For beefeaters, try the PBR filet mignon with a glass of red and for seafood lovers, try the grilled swordfish.


WHERE TO STAY: 

Brett Robinson Vacations has a healthy array of beachfront and bayfront properties. (The Phoenix VII condos are my favorite for beach access.) Can’t possibly wait until spring break? Be sure to check for winter rates. www.Brett-Robinson.com

WHAT TO DO: 

Sail Wild Hearts
27200 Perdido Beach Blvd. (Hwy. 182)
Orange Beach, Alabama 
251-981-6700
www.sailwildhearts.com

Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo
1204 Gulf Shores Parkway
Gulf Shores, Alabama 
251-968-5732
www.alabamagulfcoastzoo.org

Sailaway Charters
24231 Gulf Bay Road
Orange Beach, Alabama 
251-974-5055
www.sailorskip.com

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