Sweet Home Alabama – A Taste of the South at the Beach
By: Carly Felton
To the untraveled eye, a beach is a beach, right? But a trip to Orange Beach , Ala. and Gulf Shores, Ala., will prove otherwise day in and day out. See, this area is unique in that it flaunts its “down home” culture but mixes it with the laid-back attitude and limitless fruit concoctions found in the Caribbean. So, only about an hour from Pensacola, Fla., and Mobile, Ala., Gulf Shores and Orange Beach can satisfy all kinds of travelers, from those Northerners looking for a culture shock to vacationers who just want to kick back and take a chill pill. Oh yeah, it’s pretty good to those active, adventure junkie-types, too.
Approximately a five-hour drive from Atlanta, Gulf Shores/ Orange Beach is a quick getaway; it’s also accessible by plane, with one-hour flights leaving from Hartsfield International Airport to both Pensacola and Mobile on Air Tran and Delta. With the time change (Gulf Shores is Central Time), Atlantans can arrive at about the same time they depart! Renting a car is suggested, as the hour-long drive to Gulf Shores can be costly by taxi, and other forms of public transportation are limited at the destination.
Where to stay
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have a number of hotels, condos and beach houses for rent. Caribe Resort , in particular, stands out for its massive, luxury units. The four-building, 13-floor condominium is across the street from the beach and features a fitness center, sauna, lazy river and multiple swimming pools. The dated lobby completely undermines the beauty of the units, which each unit have a fully equipped kitchen and spacious living room/dining room area. The two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit I stayed in featured an extensive wraparound balcony looking out above the pool, beach and marina. Both modern and welcoming, it was beautifully decorated in neutral colors and natural materials (think bamboo and wood) with pops of deep reds and blues for added interest. The king-size bed in the master was matched only by the double vanity, Jacuzzi tub and multi-spray shower; and there was a child’s room with two twin beds and adjoining bathroom, too. With a washing machine and dryer and a ton of closet space, Caribe is a place one could stay a while in complete comfort.
What to do
The pristine, white, sandy beaches are the main attraction to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, as they can entertain sunbathers, walkers, joggers, swimmers, surfers, shell-collectors and people-watchers for hours on end. Beware of jelly fish early in the morning!
There a number of places to “hike” in this area, but the term hiking overstates the amount of energy exerted here. Like any good, sleepy beachfront town, Gulf Shores offers a variety of paths and places to explore on foot—but many can be traveled in flip-flops. This includes a 4.5-mile roundtrip hike on the Bon Secour National Wildlife Preserve . The path ranges from boardwalk to sand dune and provides a leisurely way to bird watch, perhaps spot an alligator or two and reach an untouched, protected, quiet section of beach.
Biking is another fun way to explore this area. Beach Bike Rentals offer male and female bikes of all sizes, and will deliver and pickup the bikes to customers just about wherever they want. Gulf State Park has paved bike trails weaving past ponds and through the natural habitat, allowing bikers to spot everything from snakes to birds to alligators. Those looking for a longer ride can take their bikes on the ferry to Dolphin Island.
Captain Skip‘s Sailaway Charters offers an intimate boating experience for all ages. His pontoon, Miss Janet—named after his wife—is a simple boat with four plastic benches. It departs from their backyard: the Wolf Bay bayou. For 11 years, Skip has been leading a nature tour, in which he takes guests on a two- or three-hour ride, pointing out dolphins and other mammals along the way. In addition, he demonstrates –and even involves guests in—shrimping, crabbing and oyster-gathering. The trip is fun, educational and as down-to-earth as it gets.
For something different, the Orange Beach Arts Center offers a special place to spend an hour or two. A white old house originally opened as a hotel in 1923, the Arts Center has served its currently purpose since 2005. With annual exhibits and an “Emerging Artists” exhibit featuring the work of top students from regional universities, it adds a dose of artistic culture to the area. As part of the Arts Center, The Hot Shop operates in the vicinity, featuring glass-blowing demonstrations, lessons and workshops with resident glass artists Joe Hobbs.
Not for everyone, the Flora-Bama Lounge is a conglomeration of trashy bars and musical acts under tents and small two-level, open-air, wooden buildings by the beach. Right on the Florida and Alabama border, the Flora-Bama has great people-watching, as it attracts young and old, rich and poor. Alcohol is almost a necessity to appreciate the beauty of this longtime watering hole for tourists and locals alike. Bar food is available, though not recommended. Commemorative T-shirts are sold out front.
Where to eat
Dining is a major attraction in the South, and Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are no exception. The majority of the restaurants here are seafood-focused. Featuring fresh catch and fried EVERYTHING, these eateries provide a window in the Deep South.
A hole-in-the-wall-type establishment, King Neptune’s is the perfect example of beach shack meets down home cookin’. With wood walls and hard blue sports bar-like booths, King Neptune’s has been family owned and operated since it opened in 1993. Run by “King Neptune” Al Sawyer, his wife “Queen” Diane and son “Prince” Tony, the restaurant offers seafood caught by local fishermen battered and fried to perfection. Regulars start with the fried green tomatoes and royal red shrimp, a local specialty. Larger than regular shrimp, the royal reds taste similar to lobster. Also be sure to sample the West Indies Salad—jumbo white crab meat marinated in fresh dill, vinegar, sweet Vidalia onion served over baby field greens. It’s lighter than most of the fare here, which most will appreciate after stuffing themselves with fried raw oysters, fried shrimp and fried crab legs. For dessert, the bread pudding is big enough to split among the table.
Classier and more city-like than King Neptune’s, Cosmo’s is another family-owned restaurant; this one better suited for date night. Although shorts and flip-flops are acceptable here, the black tablecloths, burnt orange walls, polished hardwood floors and dim lighting make the restaurant more appropriate for an evening out. Named after owners Brian and Jodi Harsanay’s black Labrador, Cosmo’s has a killer patio, interior beach scenes painted by local artists and a top-notch kitchen spearheaded by Executive Chef Rob Benson, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute. My favorite meal of my trip was at Cosmo’s. Though I was tempted by the black cherry mojito, I started with a traditional Cosmopolitan, which, as desired, was light and sweet. From there, I skipped the sushi (think fried green tomato BLT rolls and duck rolls, in addition to the usual California and spicy tuna) in favor of Cosmo’s signature dish: banana leaf-wrapped Chilean sea bass, served with house rice and sautéed veggies. The fish practically melted in my mouth, and I had to force myself to save room for the rich and creamy peanut butter pie and crispy banana fritters that came later. Without question, Cosmo’s is a must for any Gulf Shores vacation.
A lively spot, LuLu’s at Homeport Marina was created by Lucy Buffett (Jimmy’s sister). Island-y and touristy in bright yellow, pink and teal, LuLu’s offers a good time rain or shine. Here, the fun starts in the parking lot, where tropical music blares and continues into the restaurant and bar. There’s a sand pit, children’s play area, colorful beach chairs and even hair braiding. Beverages range from Crazy Sista Honey Ale, a local brew made with honey from Baldwin County, Ala., to the seasonal Strawberry Mint Jubilee, a sweet concoction made with fresh local strawberries, Cruzan Estate light run, strawberry puree, club soda, lime and mint. Bloody Marys, frozen alcoholic drinks, smoothies and fresh-squeezed lemonade are also on the menu. The drinks are better than the food, but highlights include big ol’ salads, fish tacos and the famous Cheeseburger in Paradise—all natural grass-fed beef from a local farm, hand-pattied with bacon and topped with cheese, of course. Lucky customers will get to meet Miss Lucy herself, and there’s always at least a few Parrotheads in the crowd.
A wildly popular hangout for years, The Hangout restaurant and bar was demolished by a hurricane in the 1970s and rebuilt bigger and better two years ago. Now a large building on the beach, The Hangout has garage doors for windows, light wood high-top tables and colorful flags adorning an elevated bar in the center. The focus here is fruity drinks, gourmet seafood and American fare. From Hangout Spuds, which are actually crunchy house-made chips, to spicy battered Shaka-Shrimp and burgers, the Hangout has a variety of tasty treats. Outside, a mini amphitheatre in the sand, foosball table, mountain of sand and soy bubble machine provide endless entertainment.