It’s been more than three years since the April 2010 oil spill hit this region, and the Alabama coast is back in business. Almost a thousand workers have spent months deep-cleaning the state’s beaches, and Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, says that Gulf seafood is now “the safest, most rigorously tested seafood you can buy.” A few reminders of the spill still linger—a sign at a beachside hotel asks guests to “please wash tar balls off your feet before entering”; a lone worker idly sifts the sand with a net in search of any last traces. But today the water is clear and the beaches pristine, with no evidence that there was ever a problem here.
Gulf Shores and neighboring Orange Beach are set on a 30,000-acre barrier island, with beaches that are some of the whitest anywhere on the Gulf of Mexico. (Their soft sand is made up of quartz crystals washed downstream from the weathering of the Appalachian Mountains.) Residents, relieved to see tourists returning, are friendlier than ever—embodying Southern hospitality at its best. Many visitors come here simply to relax, swimming in the warm Gulf waters and kicking back in the padded chaise lounges that line the resorts of Beach Boulevard. But those with energy to spare find rewards in exploring the region’s bayous and back bays.
THROW OFF THE BOWLINES
The best way to see this part of Southern Alabama is by water. Sign up for the two-hour Dolphin and Nature tour with Cetacean Cruises and venture into Wolf Bay and Ingraham’s Bayou aboard a 40-foot pontoon boat. Captain Bill was commissioned to monitor the health of local bottlenose dolphins after the oil spill, so he can easily identify the dorsal fins and markings of Nacho or Nikk when they come up nearby for air. Keep an eye out for alligators in the saw grass as the boat weaves up the creek into a swampy estuary of scrub oak, pines and blooming magnolias.
To really see dolphins up close and personal, take a shrimping, crabbing and oystering lesson with Sailway Charters. It’s illegal to feed dolphins, but dragging a net of shrimp behind the boat through Longs Bayou tends to attract their attention. You’ll soon be trailed by a flock of gulls and dolphins looking for handouts.
For some early-morning exercise, paddle with Alabama Kayak Adventures through the coastal estuaries of the 484-acre Graham Creek Nature Preserve. As the creek opens up into Wolf Bay you’ll pass ancient oaks and great blue herons. Ask the guide to point out bogs full of carnivorous pitcher plants: These red-flowered plants that eat bugs for nutrients thrive in areas where pine forest transitions into wetland.
BACK ON DRY LAND
On the shores of Wolf Bay, stop by Orange Beach Arts Center, the city’s nonprofit art institute, displaying works in every medium by more than 100 local artists. Visitors can sign up to learn glass-blowing at the Hot Shop, the state’s only public-access glass studio, run by artist and director Sam Cornman.
Save time for a history lesson at Fort Morgan, a brick star-fort built at the mouth of Mobile Bay to strengthen the nation’s coastal defenses after the War of 1812. It served its purpose during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and both world wars. Visitors can tour a museum inside the restored building.
DONE FOR THE DAY?
Pull up a chair to feast on seafood and regional dishes like fried green tomatoes and key lime pie. A few favorite spots:
The Hangout: A sprawling place with five bars and live music—don’t be surprised when the wait staff starts dancing on the tables. The menu lists spicy “Shaka-Shaka shrimp,” big bowls of “Be Good Gumbo” and blackened mahi tacos.
Lulu’s at Homeport Marina: Go for live music and grass-fed “cheeseburgers in paradise” at Jimmy Buffett’s sister’s open-air restaurant on the Intracoastal Waterway.
King Neptune’s: Try the coconut shrimp with Creole marmalade sauce and the fried cheesecake in this mom-and-pop hole in the wall.
Cobalt: Orange Beach’s newest fine-dining restaurant has a large deck overlooking the yachts in Perdido Bay. Highlights are the lobster rigatoni with bacon and asparagus, and sashimi-style tuna and avocado in a wasabi reduction.
Cetacean Cruises: 251-550-8000; cetaceancruises.com
Sailway Charters: 251-974-5055; sailorskip.com
Graham Creek Nature Preserve: 251-379-5143; alabamakayakadventures.com
Hot Shop: 26389 Canal Rd., Orange Beach; 251-981-2787; orangebeachartcenter.com
Fort Morgan: 110 Hwy. 180 W.; 251-540-5257
The Hangout: 101 E. Beach Blvd., Gulf Shores; 251-948-3030
Lulu’s at Homeport Marina: 200 E. 25th Ave., Gulf Shores; 251-967-5858
King Neptune’s: 1137 Gulf Shores Pkwy., Gulf Shores; 251-968-5464
Cobalt: 28099 Perdido Beach Blvd., Orange Beach; 251-923-5300
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.