Are you in desperate need of a beach vacation? If so, and if you’ve never visited the Alabama Gulf Coast, it’s time to make your way down to Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. The sister communities sit side by side, cozied up to the Gulf of Mexico. Both boast beautiful beaches, but beyond the shimmering blue-green surf and sugar-white sand shores, there’s far more to explore too.
- SEE & DOThe sunsets at Alabama’s beaches are nothing short of spectacular (photo by Jennifer Kornegay)
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge
Located in Gulf Shores and part of the country’s network of national wildlife refuges that is 545 strong, Bon Secour means “safe harbor” in French and is just that for many species of both plants and animals. This oasis of calm and a sanctuary for native flora and fauna was established in 1980. Among Bon Secour’s 7,000 acres are maritime forests, wetlands, and coastal dunes that create a home for migratory birds, nesting sea turtles, and endangered species. These protected lands in and around Gulf Shores also boast a unique feature —the last intact dune ecosystem in the state.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Just over the state line, in Florida, the Gulf Islands National Seashore (part of our National Park system) on Perdido Key offers miles of unspoiled, uninhabited beach. You can even spend the night right on the sand. Pitch a tent (or not), cozy up to a crackling fire, and fall asleep under a blanket of stars with the rhythm of the surf providing a lullaby. You’ll need to get a camping permit, but it’s simple to fill out and free.
Hugh S. Branyon Back Country Trail
In Orange Beach, this trail system feels a world away but is actually tucked right behind the main beach road. The protected, undeveloped site is home to six distinct ecosystems that have been relatively untouched. In 2003, eleven miles of paved trails were carefully laid over old Native American hunting trails and newer logging roads to traverse the entire area. There are now more than sixteen miles of trails. It’s also part of the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail and the Coastal Connection National Scenic Byway. One great way to discover it all is via bike. Rent one bike at Infinity Bike Shop, located just a few hundred yards from one of the Trail’s main entrances, and pedal through marshes, hardwood swamps, dunes, and more to spot cattails, wildflowers, butterflies, foxes, bobcats, osprey, and alligators. Trail maps are available on the website, as is a free trail map app.
Gulf State Park
Occupying 6,150 acres (including over three miles of beachfront) between Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Gulf State Park features a wide range of outdoor activities: golf, tennis, fishing, or paddling in the 900-acre Lake Shelby and hiking among the extensive trails. It also boasts the The Gulf State Pier. This 1,540-foot-long landing is the largest in the Gulf of Mexico, and on any given day or night, you’ll find folks from all walks of life trying their luck with a rod and reel. And then there’s the Park’s newest offering. Soar through the air on the Hummingbird Zipline at the Gulf Adventure Center at the Park. Lines strung between seven towers take you on a heart-pounding, sky-high trip for more than a mile over beaches, the Gulf and Lake Shelby.
- EAT & DRINK Find innovative coastal cuisine that takes full advantage of the Gulf’s bounty at Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina (photo by Jennifer Kornegay)
Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina
At this bastion of upscale coastal cuisine adjacent to Orange Beach Marina, a thoughtful approach to fresh seafood and local ingredients, cotton-candy sunset views, and a sophisticated but never stuffy atmosphere draw crowds of locals and visitors. Chef Bill Briand just earned a spot on the James Beard Awards semi-finalist list for 2016 Best Chef South. Reservations are highly recommended for the swank Upstairs, but Fisher’s has the best of both worlds, also offering casual dining in its downstairs dockside area mere feet from the marina’s wet slips.
This multi-level spot fashioned from old shipping containers painted a brilliant sea blue is an alfresco dining option perched on the edge of the Perdido Pass in Orange Beach. Boats floating by and a constant flurry of activity create an environment that appeals to all kinds: from kids skipping across a sodded lawn to hip young couples lounging on white sofas sinking into a swath of sand. Its menu changes often, but the burger is always there and always a winner, as is some type of fresh fish salad or ceviche. Anything your order will pair well with this eatery’s minty-fresh mojitos and palm tree shade. And there are even more options at The Gulf’s Taco Kitchen and Raw Bar, also onsite.
The Flora-Bama Lounge & Oyster Bar
Set on a stretch of beach fronting the Gulf of Mexico, the famous Flora-Bama is a ramshackle collection of structures sitting right next to Florida-Alabama state line. It first opened more than fifty years ago, and today is comprised of a few original areas plus multiple additions: decks, a massive tent, the main band room with a loft; a dark, womb-like lounge; a rowdy pool room; countless bars; a gift shop full of the requisite tacky t-shirts; and more. These disparate parts are connected by a maze of walkways and staircases, and the folks you’ll find at “the Bam” are just as diverse: leather-clad, bearded bikers, frat boys and sorority belles, vacationers, band groupies, and locals. Old and young, representing every spectrum of society, they all come for one thing: a good time. And at this uniquely Southern dive, they usually get it (and probably leave with a good story too). It’s an experience everyone should have at least once, and don’t leave without drinking a bushwacker: a cold, creamy, chocolaty, adult confection in a cup that packs a punch thanks to a secret blend of five different liquors. The Flora-Bama also serves food, including (as its name implies) oysters, but if nothing on its menu sounds appealing, stroll across the street to its family-friendly sister establishment, the Flora-Bama Yacht Club (a place you know is classy since it has yacht in the name). Here, a real-deal chef is making some of the best eats at the beach, including the fried green tomato and crab stack, the Greek Shrimp Nachos (best shared), and sesame-wasabi crusted tuna.
After one spoonful of the creamy, flavorful crab and corn bisque at this longstanding Gulf Shores eatery, you won’t care about the lack of designer décor or the tight squeezes in the cramped dining space. A favorite spot for locals, King Neptune’s is one of the best spots down at the beach to fill up on fresh Gulf seafood. Try the bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp with spicy remoulade or the tart and tangy West Indies Salad for a walk on the lighter side.
- STAY Take a long beach walk and don’t forget to look down for shells and sand dollars (photo by Jennifer Kornegay)
The Beach Club
There are multiple accommodation options along Alabama’s Gulf Coast, and most share the same “best feature”—being situated directly on the beach. The Beach Club in Gulf Shores certainly has that going for it. But there are a few other reasons to choose this full-service resort as home base, including a great location. Sitting off of Fort Morgan Road, The Beach Club’s four condo towers stand alone in this particular stretch of coastal sky, making the ratio of people to shoreline a much more attractive one. It is adjacent to the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Thanks to the influence of this special neighbor, The Beach Club feels set apart from the hustle and bustle of other nearby areas. Yet it’s still quite close to all the popular attractions and restaurants. The Beach Club also offers a wide selection of places to lay your head. All are upscale, luxurious, and outfitted with stylish furniture and décor but range in size from one- to five-bedroom condominiums with a stunning Gulf view to comfy, spacious cottages.
Gulf State Park
If you’re after some peace and quiet, Gulf State Park’s accommodations are your place. Eleven charming cottages dot Lake Shelby’s shoreline far into the Park and far away from the noise nearer the beaches. Most of these cottages are fairly new and all have three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a den, a fully equipped kitchen, two screened porches and a deck overlooking the water. The cottages also have fishing piers. The Park’s twenty cabins include sixteen on the lake, with the other four, called the “woods” cabins, set in the longleaf pine and palmetto forest that covers much of the Park. The cabins are smaller and older than the cottages but offer the same amenities. The “woods” cabins welcome guests with pets.
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