Alabama Gulf Coast just as pretty, but cheaper vacation
Orange Beach, Ala.
Forget spring break. One of the best times to head south to the Gulf Coast beaches is a bit later in the spring — you’ll find fewer people, warmer temperatures and no shortage of things do to.
Especially along the Alabama shoreline, not the first choice for snowbirds or spring breakers (at least from parts of the Midwest). And that’s a good thing.
Even though Alabama has a meager 60 miles of Gulf shoreline, the beaches are spectacular, wide and replete with sugar-fine white sand. You’ll find plenty of elbow room to spread your towel or wade in the surf, whether you’re in Orange Beach or Gulf Shores, the two main resort towns.
Down here, this stretch of sand is sometimes called the “Redneck Riviera,” and while you’re more likely to see coolers of Budweiser than cases of Dom Perignon chilling on the beach, these resorts towns offer a gentler, friendlier and cheaper alternative to the more popular destinations elsewhere on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. In short, it’s very welcoming — perhaps that has something to do with the more hospitable southerly culture.
And when you’ve had enough of the beach, you’ll find plenty outside your condo to keep you busy — and outdoors. On the water, there’s everything from kayaking and stand up paddle boarding to sailing and nature excursions. Prefer land? Gulf State Park has extensive hiking and biking trails and offers guided Segway tours.
Orange Beach shares its shoreline with Gulf State Park, which boasts small inland lakes, marshes, swamps and sand dunes. Some 25 miles of paved trails are open to bikers and hikers. The 6,500-acre park also boasts a 1,540-foot fishing pier, the largest on the Gulf of Mexico, and an 18-hole golf course.
It’s a great locale to join a guided Segway tour, operated within the park by Coastal Segway Adventures. Before you jump on one of these futuristic-looking machines, you’ll get a short training session in a parking lot. After a few spins around the lot, you’ll be ready to go.
You’ll be surprised how fast you pick up speed as you glide along the Hugh S. Branyon Back Country Trail past pine forests, freshwater marshes and coastal hardwood swamps. Our guide stopped us near a fenced-off creek to see an alligator floating just above the surface.
Gulf State was home to the Gulf Adventure Center, an exhilarating zip line course that traversed some of the park’s lakes. Zipping at speeds of up to 40 mph will get your heart racing, and so will cruising over alligators lurking below, leaving you feeling a bit like Tarzan swinging above a reptile-infested lagoon. The climbing towers — one 90 feet high — offered panoramic views of the Gulf, Orange Beach and the inland.
Unfortunately, the Gulf Adventure Center is being relocated to The Wharf, an entertainment district in Orange Beach. The state is in the midst of park improvements, including rebuilding a lodge that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The 350-room hotel is set to open in May 2018.
If you’re looking to relax on the water, join Capt. Skip Beebee on his Skips Trips for a two-hour tour of the estuaries and backwaters of Longs Bayou and Wolf Bay.
“I haven’t fallen in in 18 years, but today is a new day,” Beebee joked as he prepared to push us away from his homeside dock and out in the canal to Wolf Bay. “I could very well be your catch of the day.”
His silliness belies his wealth of knowledge about the coastal waters around his home; he’s been in southern Alabama for nearly two decades. His excursions are a great way to get the lay of the water and an up-close glimpse of wildlife, including birds of all kinds, fish and reptiles. We spotted osprey, red wing blackbirds and a pair of dolphins, mother and pup, swimming so close to the boat that you could almost touch them. Capt. Skip demonstrated shrimping, oystering and crabbing.
Beebee has great stories to tell and is happy to share everything is seen in nearly 20 years of exploring Long’s Bayou, including water moccasins and rattlesnakes, sometimes spotted skimming across the waters.
“I saw a shark in these waters one day,” he recalled. “It’s the only shark I’ve seen in 20 years come back here.”
Not surprisingly, fresh seafood dominates the menus of many restaurants along Route 182, which runs parallel to the shoreline. You’ll find the lively, beach-friendly bars and eateries like the Hangout or the famous Flora-Bama, but you’ll be impressed by some of the other choices.
One of them is the boat-accessible Cobalt, on the waterfront in the shadow of Perdido Bay Bridge. The dining room and patio offer lovely views of Orange Beach and the surf, and boats coming and going from the docks.
The seafood selection is expansive, with everything from crab claws, oysters and shrimp to Gulf grouper, catfish and catch of the day. Everyone raves about the Firecracker shrimp — bay shrimp fried and tossed in the restaurant’s remoulade sauce — and they’re right — they’re delicious. Also worth pointing is the crab bisque, a creamy blend of blue crab, sweet corn and roasted tomato.
Or ditch the beach attire and spiffy up for dinner at the oceanfront Voyagers at Perdido Beach Resort. With tables draped in white cloth it’s formal dining, for sure, but you’ll find the atmosphere relaxed.
Chef Brody Olive, well-versed in the Orange Beach community, focuses on sustainable seafood and locally sourced ingredients. The seafood selection includes pan roasted gulf grouper, catch of the day, spiny lobster tails, swordfish and Gulf Coast bouillabiasse, with spiny lobster tail, shrimp, and gulf fish. The menu includes a selection of steak cuts, porch chops and bone-in veal chop.
There are plenty of food, music and sporting events in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, beginning in May, including the popular Hangout Music Festival, held beachside and this year featuring Mumford & Sons and Twenty-One Pilots. The festival is May 19-21. On a recent trip, I stumbled upon a more low-key affair, the annual Waves of Wine festival on the waterfront of the Caribe.
The festival features wines from the around the globe, including Spain, Italy, France, New Zealand, California and Washington, and locally prepared food (including from Cobalt) under broad white canopies. Live music and boat rides complement the pours. It’s a fun event and a great diversion, if you need one, from the beach. This year’s festival will be held May 13. My only gripe was I couldn’t seem to find any Alabama wines.
In any case, if you’re lucky enough to visit while a festival is on the calendar, that’s an extra. You’ll be happy enough soaking rays on the splendid beaches or pursuing outdoor adventures.
Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.
If you go
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism
gulfshores.com or orangebeach.com
Brett-Robinson Gulf Corp.
(251) 981-6901, x7095
Voyagers at Perdido Beach Resort
Coastal Segway Adventures
Gulf Adventure Center