An Easy Island Getaway to Alabama's Gulf Coast
The first thing you need to know about Alabama's Gulf Coast is that it's nicknamed Pleasure Island. "Island" because, counting the Intracoastal Waterway that serves as its northern border, all four sides of the coast are surrounded by water. "Pleasure" because that's what the place delivers. For generations, it's been vacation central for Alabamians -- and, increasingly, people from neighboring states. Known for its sugar sand beaches, fish-laden waters, all-American charm and good value, the Gulf Coast is one of the most popular family vacation spots in the South.
Beaches and Rivers and Lakes, Oh My!
The epicenter of Gulf Coast tourism actually is exactly at the spot where Highway 59 dead-ends on the sand. This demarks the "public beach." Turn left, and you'll be in Orange Beach, Florida. Turn right, and you're on the west end of Gulf shores. The towns are smack-bang against each other and look so similar, you can leave one state and enter another without realizing it. Each town has a bridge connecting back to the mainland.
The main draw here is so obvious, it's blinding -- particularly in direct sunlight. Two and a half miles of powdery sugar sand beach stretch like a pale ribbon along the sea, luring visitors to strip to their swimsuits and start building sandcastles. Funky beach restaurants, concessionaires and condos front the beach, while visitors swim, picnic, play volleyball, and people-watch under the cheerful southern sun. There are four access points, three of which have public parking.
If you like quiet, uncrowded beaches, drive over to Gulf State Park. With gently rolling dunes and pristine sands and ideal fishing waters, this place is an all-day, pack-a-picnic kind of place. Its new pavilion is the best place to set your base camp. Fishermen should note that the condo buildings destroyed by the last hurricane have been sunk and turned into fish reefs. Definitely plan on spending time trolling the waters.
Gulf State Park also has a freshwater attraction: 6,000-acre Lake Shelby. The cabins fronting it are available to rent, and the sizeable recreation area boasts a snack bar, shower facilities, and picnic tables.
The 250,000-acre Mobile-Tensaw Delta is on the north end of Mobile Bay. The newly opened resource center for 5 Rivers serves as the gateway to the Delta. Rent canoes and kayaks or take a boat ride into the vast expanse of wetlands and waterways.
For a day trip, catch the ferry at Fort Morgan and take it to Dauphin Island, site of another Civil War relic, historic Fort Gaines. Both are open to the public; Fort Morgan offers guided tours and live re-enactments. While you're on-island, visit the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Exploratorium, a fun, interactive aquarium catering to kids.
Activities, Accomodations, and Eats
Don't miss a trip to the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, dubbed the "Little Zoo That Could" due to its many hurricane evacuations and re-populations. With a picnic area and petting zoo of its very own, this is a must-hit if you've got under-10s in your group.
For another animal attraction, head over to Summerdale, home to Alligator Alley. The main attraction here is the gator feeding -- and yes, guests can participate, albeit at a safe distance.