Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Feature Great Camping, Condos, And Fun On, In the Water and Off
Still need to take a break this spring? Or want to really surprise and please for Mother’s Day? Instead of Lauderdale, Tampa or other places normally hosting the hoards, head for the strip of white Gulf sand along Alabama’s coast instead. And to the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area in particular.
It’s only about an 11-hour or so drive south from Michigan to these beaches, and when you arrive, you’ve got plenty of choices in front of you. Here are some highlights.
Camping? Head to Gulf State Park in the heart of it all. Many of its facilities have been completely rebuilt since Hurricane Ivan visited a few years ago. That includes the new outdoor pool next to the hundreds of campsites, most with full services and many with water views.
Indoor more your style? The state park also features homes on the “wawtah” (that’s the southern pronounciation of water), actually a lake. The homes look over that lake and towards the miles of beach that state park-goers have access to.
The park also features more than 10 miles of pave hike/bike routes that make up the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail.
There’s even an 18-hole golf course inside the park, along with nature center programs for the kids.
Besides the park, there are loads of beautiful high-rise condos available here for rent, most offering fresh-water pools besides the beachfront. More than 5,000 rooms stretch along the miles and 32 miles of white sand beach here that the state has available before it reaches the Mississippi border on the west and Florida on the east. Pick from various rental agencies, or go online at sites like vrbo.com, which stands for Vacation Rental By Owner and take your pick.
Prices interestingly enough, are higher in summer here than during the “snowbird” season in winter. According to residents, you can rent a condo here for a month in winter for the same price you can for a week during the high season.
See the information below under “When you go” on finding a condo, including those VRBO sites. We stayed at Lighthouse Condominiums, one of many high-rise developments along the beachfront. Each condo has a water view, and there is great beach access plus a pool and hot tub.
The beauty of a stay here is that you’re close to everything. To the east about 15 or so miles is NAS (that’s Navy talk for Naval Air Station) Pensacola, home of the world-famous Blue Angels. You can see the team practice their high-speed maneuvers for free each week (check their schedule) before heading around the country to perform at festivals and air shows, one of them being the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, where they make a habit of showing up every other year or so, and will be there in 2013.
After they perform, walk to the hangars housing the Naval Aviation Museum to view examples of some of the top aircraft ever to wear the red, white and blue and fly off a pitching carrier deck. Also included are some planes you wouldn’t expect: a Messerschmitt ME-262, the first jet to fly in combat, which debuted by the German Luftwaffe near the close of World War II. Examples of Japanese aircraft also are included in the collection.
To the west is the Mobile area, including genteel Fairhope, and its nearby Grand Hotel, made nearly all out of cypress. And to the west of that a few hours is New Orleans.
At the same location as Flipper’s restaurant (see Dining, below), take a 90-minute ride in a large open-air cruiser to watch dolphin leap in its wake barely a foot or two from you.
For just $10 (coupons available at Flipper’s), we booked Surf’s Up cruises in Orange Beach, and were delighted as were the kids aboard, to watch these wild mammals who some scientists say are as at least as smart as young humans, cavort in the boat’s wake. (see the video accompanying this story). The boat is located at Bear Point Marina, a few steps from Flipper’s restaurant. Look’em up on Facebook as well.
You can also book other charters at the marina, from sailing to birding.
If you like seafood, this is the place. Try great waterfront restaurants like Flipper’s. There, the owner, Ed Woerner, who goes by “Eddie Boy,” (y’all can’t get more southern than “thayat”) will often greet guests and pass out samples of his homemade ice cream. One of his draws is handing out cards to potential guests for a free cup, to draw you in.
The trademark Alabama Gulf adult beverage, the “bushwhacker,” made with various quantities of rum and ice cream, is well-represented here, as are the restaurant’s seafood, from raw oysters, to the meal I enjoyed, pecan-encrusted grouper.
The next night, head to another spot, like Joey’s, which counts award-winning baked oysters amongst the menu offerings.
Usually the locals stay away then, but when the kids leave by mid-April, the locals can safely return to enjoy some great seafood, along with those bushwackers, which are served nearly everywhere here.
The next night, try tiny King Neptune’s in Gulf shores. A great local establishment. Don’t miss the flash-fried cheesecake. It may sound like a heart-attack on a plate, but share it with your party. It’s great.
Top off your visit with a trip to Shipp’s Harbor Grill, where among other menu offerings, if you’ve been out sport fishing on one of the many charters like the one we took, The Rookie, Chef Matt Shipp will cook it for you several diffrent ways.
Sitting directly on the Alabama-Florida border is the aptly-named restaurant and decidedly rowdy bar and grill, FloraBama. I mean, what bar near you has a police car stationed, I’m told, each night at the door to spot those who shouldn’t be behind the wheel? This one does.
It’s been knocked down a few times by hurricane visits as its beachcomber motif suggests. Owners put it right back up. Built to look like a beachfront dive held together with spit and bailing wire, this place is a monument to beachfront rock ‘n roll, and it rocks nightly, especially when the spring-breakers are in town, with three floors of band space.
You can get bushwhacked here, too. It’s one of the many places to hear music and otherwise act up and out along Perdido Beach Boulevard, which stretches along the beachfront here.
Stop by Lulu’s, too. Run by parrothead-head Jimmy Buffett’s sister, Lucy, Lulu’s is in Gulf Shores next door to Orange Beach, and it’s another place you won’t want to miss. It’s got a restaurant, it’s got a bar, and the bar’s got live entertainment in the best tradition of the Buffett family.
If you don’t want to drive after all those bushwhackers, or just between restaurants you want to visit, or even between the condo and the beach, call on a Gulf Beach Express van, also known as the Ride For Five folks. For $5, they’ll take you anywhere in Orange Beach. Or, buy a $35 three-day pass and you’ll be all set to parrtay!
In Part Two of my trip to the Alabama Gulf coast, we’ll talk fishing, both in-shore and deep sea.
When You Go
For more information on the entire Alabama Gulf Coast encompassing Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, including lodging, links to fishing, dining, and other activities, go to http://www.gulfshores.com/. It’s all there.