Pure bliss awaits in Alabama, with everything from beautiful beaches to charming towns and delightful eateries. Here are some of the best places to find your own sense of solitude for the most relaxing holiday yet, in America's Deep South.
I’m ambling along the shore, soft powder-white sand oozing through my toes. The gentle sea breeze cools the rays of the early evening sun, and a brilliant gold and purple sunset is building over the horizon as I look south across the Gulf of Mexico. As I bend to pick up a pretty scalloped shell, it’s hard to believe I’m in Alabama.
Alabama? Proud bastion of America’s Deep South? Think of the country’s southern coast, and the resorts of western Florida and southeast Texas are more likely to spring to mind. But lying in between are the largely unsung beaches of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, and those who have discovered them like it that way. Their relative anonymity means fewer crowds, a slower pace, and a more laid-back atmosphere.
A bounty of beaches
And what beautiful beaches they are, too. Broad swathes of sand as white as snow fringe the twin resorts of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. There is plenty of room for sunbathers, swimmers and families of all ages to spread out and relax, paddle and play. Peaceful dunes, topped with sea grasses waving in the breeze, provide idyllic pockets of solitude. You can walk for miles in beachcomber’s bliss.
And we do. Each evening we leave our high-rise condo with its fabulous sea view and walk across the rustic wooden boardwalk that leads out across the dunes to the turquoise waters of the Gulf. Most of the building here is set well back from the beach, which lets the wide sandy spaces and big skies take us far from the madding crowds. Dotted among the dunes we see charming beach houses, raised on stilts and painted in soft, pastel colours that almost blend into the sky.
This sandy paradise is only half of the story. Alabama’s Gulf Coast stretches for 60 miles, but a series of bays, rivers and bayous spreading inland from the coast add up to another 600 miles of tidal shoreline. The main inlet, Mobile Bay, is the fourth largest estuary in the country. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are perched on a narrow peninsula that juts into the mouth of the bay. To the west lies the idyllic barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
All of this makes the area a haven for wildlife. Gulf Shores is home to 4,500 different species, from birds of prey and dolphins to nesting sea turtles and, of course, alligators. Four separate ecosystems, including swamps, pine savanna, freshwater marsh and an ancient maritime live oak forest, cover the landscape, while miles and miles of trails wind through parks, nature reserves and back country areas, giving access to the incredible diversity of this region.
Time to go wild
The Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, 11 miles west of Gulf Shores on the Fort Morgan Peninsula, is one of our favourite nature spots. Its name means ‘safe harbour’, and it shelters many threatened and endangered plant, fish and wildlife species, including the Alabama beach mouse as well as loggerhead, green and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles which nest on the beach.
At more than 7,000 acres, this is one of the largest undeveloped sections of the Alabama coast. Boardwalks provide safe passage for us as we walk through the wetlands toward Gator Lake, hoping for a glimpse of its namesake. We feel the gentle thrill of adventure as we explore this serene, luxuriant landscape, keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife. When we reach the beach, spreading before us is a timeless, dune-covered vista of the Gulf Coast as it used to be.
While the alligators, bobcats and larger mammals elude us, we do see snowy egrets, hummingbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. Bon Secour is a key stop on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, which sets out six birding loops featuring prime viewing spots along the Gulf Coast. This area sees one of the largest bird migrations in the world, and around 400 bird species have been spotted here.
The coast is also a resting place for a mass migration of monarch butterflies. Just like the birds, they fly south in September and October, returning in March and April. Gulf State Park, like the wildlife refuge, is a good place to see the spectacle.
On another day, we drive to the head of Mobile Bay for an ecotour at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center. Our pontoon boat pulls away from the dock, and before we’ve gone 450 metres we see a pair of nesting osprey, brown pelicans and a great blue heron. Chris Wiber, the naturalist on board, is full of fascinating facts about them.
“This is the most biologically diverse region on the continent,” he tells us. “We can boast twice as many species per square mile as any other place in the nation.”
For the next hour we potter lazily through the narrow channels of the delta. The tall reeds gleam golden in the sunshine, and scattered clouds are reflected in the clear blue waters. As Wiber points out Delta lilies and the occasional alligator slipping silently under cover, we’re lulled by the peaceful beauty of this fascinating environment.
Then it’s time to indulge in nature’s biggest bounty. The Gulf, the bay and the rivers add up to a seafood lover’s paradise, with a mouthwatering array of shrimp, crab, oysters and fish. And it doesn’t come any fresher.
On our way home, we stop at LeJeune’s Market by the Bay in Daphne. Part market, part deli, part café, this cheery little place serves fresh seafood right off the boat. My husband goes straight for the shrimp po’boy, a long roll stuffed with fried shrimp and remoulade sauce, a local favourite. I opt for a fresh grilled shrimp salad, and we both try a bowl of their gumbo. It’s amazingly good.
“It’s my grandfather’s recipe,” owner Chad LeJeune tells us. “It’s classic Creole cooking. The only difference is, Grandpa used a six-pack of beer - half went into the gumbo and the other half went into him.”
If you prefer to catch your own, there are plenty of opportunities. There are charter boats to take you on deep-sea fishing expeditions, and fishing guides to show you the best spots to reel some in on the back bays and freshwater lakes.
Gulf State Park Pier is an easy place to try your luck, with tackle, bait and fishing licences readily available. At 470 metres long, the pier is a great place to watch the anglers on a breezy stroll.
We balance our days by the sea with time spent exploring inland. The city of Mobile, only an hour’s drive away, is like a mini New Orleans, with hundreds of historic homes and buildings, many of which have beautiful wrought-iron balconies. There, we tour Oakleigh and the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion, the city’s grandest antebellum homes.
In between Gulf Shores and Mobile are delightful small towns like Magnolia Springs and Fairhope which are full of Southern charm. Fairhope has old-fashioned shopping streets with some great boutiques. And for serious shopping, there’s the Tanger Outlets in Foley with 120 brand name and designer stores.
Closer to home, we browse the art galleries and pottery studios in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Fort Morgan, a historic military site at the tip of the peninsula, makes another easy excursion.
But with all there is to see and do in the area, it all comes back to one unforgettable thing: that beautiful beach. And the footprints I leave in the glorious white sand.
Where to eat
For food lovers - and who isn’t? - the Alabama coast offers a double treat: the freshest seafood and fish from the Gulf and Mobile Bay, coupled with down-home Southern cooking and Creole recipes. These are some of our favourite restaurants, where you can soak up the local atmosphere along with delicious specialities.
Flora-Bama. This rustic roadhouse on the Alabama-Florida state line has a famous beach bar, oyster bar and live entertainment. The Flora-Bama Yacht Club, opposite, serves seafood platters and delicious house specialities such as Blackened Gulf Tripletail.
King Neptune’s Seafood Restaurant. A Gulf Shores favourite for over two decades, this little seafood restaurant is the place to go for royal reds: sweet, salty deep-water shrimp having a bright ruby red colour.
LeJeune’s Market by the Bay Restaurant. In addition to its Daphne location, Market by the Bay has a Fairhope location on Greeno Road, serving the same great gumbo, fried shrimp and fresh seafood.
LuLu’s Gulf Shotes. Jimmy Buffet may have Margaritaville, but his little sister Lucy has a big hit with Lulu’s in Gulf Shores. Enjoy sunsets and the “best burgers in paradise” on the outdoor deck. There’s a special allergy menu, plus live music and an arcade.
Sunrise Pointe. For a fabulous sunset view and a superb seafood meal to match, head to this restaurant at Fly Creek Marina in Fairhope. Enjoy casual dining indoors or around the fire pits on the large outdoor patio.
Wintzell’s Oyster House. Founded in 1938, this famous oyster house in Mobile is the best place to get ‘em fried, stewed and nude. The Fairhope location is closest to Gulf Shores.
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