The Wharf is a shopping and play paradise.

Looking for the perfect place to spend a fall beach trip? The Gulf Shores area of Alabama is more welcoming then ever. The area definitely took a hit from the summer Gulf oil spill, but tourism and business partners have kicked into high gear – cleaning up and getting the word out that now is the time to visit Gulf Shores. When I checked OrangeBeach.com a few weeks ago, a few areas were reporting small sightings of oil but most areas had none! Enticingly, the site also noted perfect white sandy beaches, daily high temperature in the low 90’s, a bevy of boats heading out for day fishing and some of my favorite places were offering daily specials and big weekend events.

There is so much to do in the area in addition to enjoying the beach, a good and affordable time can be found here. Family Activities A good way to de-stress and take in the natural scenery is on the Hugh S. Banyon Back Country Trail Tour. Walk or bike your way around the paths. Locals know the secret of this hidden gem owned by the city of Orange Beach but many tourists haven’t discovered it yet. Built with federal and city grant funds, the 8 miles of paved paths wend through creeks, stands of stately trees, marshes and small bayous where a variety of wildlife flourish. A butterfly garden, benches and small wooden bridges add to the charm. 

Fried crab claws are a speciality at many restaurants on the Gulf Coast.

Two local educational centers offer great overviews of the environment on the Gulf Coast: Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, and Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research and Education Center. Refuge consists of 7,000 acres that provide shelter to a large variety of birds. Bay offers an interpretive center, a live animal room and 5,000 feet of elevated boardwalk through natural fauna. Get a little history lesson in for the kids at Fort Morgan. Those famous inspirational words, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” were spoken here by Civil War Admiral David Farragut. The post was named in honor of Revolutionary War hero Daniel Morgan. Construction was completed in 1834,and it received its first garrison in March of the same year. Small admission fee charged. The Wharf has something to please everyone. Get a bird’s eye view by riding the impressive Ferris Wheel, take in a concert, sample one of the many restaurants such as Live Bait and shop for trendy and cute beach wear.

Lulu’s is a place you can stay all day and everyone gets their favorites!

 I found some great jewelry and beach bags at Go Fish Clothing & Jewelry; there are several “worth it” shops here. Highly recommended is the Orange Beach Art Center. A lovely building, formerly the Orange Beach Hotel, the Orange Beach Arts Center Gallery is home to more than 120 local artists is filled with desirable and affordable original art. There are special events and frequent demonstrations. Try to go when resident glass artist Joe Hobbs is working his magic and making incredible glass objects. The Little Zoo That Could, also known as the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, offers a truly unique experience. This is not the typical modern and hands-off zoo. Head keeper Cyndi Johnson takes every animal to heart – and even home! The Zoo evacuated three times within 13 months several years ago due to hurricanes, and each time Johnson and her staff moved the hundreds of animals to higher ground – her home! Sweet, charming, casual, friendly and not to be missed. Golf The Golf Club of The Wharf was designed by father-son team Jay and Carter Morrish.

Built in the 1960s, it was the first golf course in Gulf Shores. Beautifully laid out, it offers a challenge to both golf enthusiasts and novice players. The course underwent complete renovation in November 2005 and the course was lengthened by 300 yards. The Wharf is amazingly breathtaking with spectacular water features, bunkers and fairways. The greens are lightning fast but very true to the proper line. Check out the traditional plantation style clubhouse with incredible views of the surrounding fairways. Visit www.wharfgolfclub.com. Cotton Creek at Craft Farms? Golf Digest has awarded Cotton Creek a 4-1/2 star rating. An 18-hole masterpiece, it plays 7,000 yards from the tips. Long, rolling, tight fairways challenge the player’s ability for course management and the risk taker’s going-for-the-green may be rewarded by a large undulating green. Visit www.craftfarms.com

The Hangout offers families a fun time.

The Peninsula – This great coastal golf course was selected as one of the most memorable and enjoyable by Golf Digest, which gave it four stars. Designer Earl Stone created a 27-hole layout set on beautiful Mobile Bay. The avid golfer will be challenged and in awe of the design and beautiful surroundings.There are plenty of bunkers and water to guard the greens and fairways. Stop in and say hello to the friendly and helpful marshals, Jack Powell and Raul Hupperte, who both send regards to their friends at Kingwood Golf Club. Visit www.peninsulagolfclub.com 

Tee time at Kiva Dunes? Alabama’s only beach front golf resort, and designed by former U.S. Open Champion Jerry Pate, Kiva Dunes is rated as Gulf Shores number one course. It offers an exceptional golf outing with greens protected by bunkers and water. It is definitely challenging to the shot maker. Visit www.kivadunes.com.

The beach beckons.

Dining There are dozens of great places to eat on the Coast. Here are three of my all-time favorites. The Hangout? Once THE place to meet on the beach, in the late 50s and early 60s, the Hangout closed some years ago. But a year ago, it re-opened and everybody’s favorite beach scene is back! Huge windows open across the front where diners can watch the action on the beach. There are gift shops, fire pits, several bar areas and a fantastic kids’ spot. Be sure to ask that they crank up the giant bubble machine so kids and adults alike can play in the edible foamy bubbles. Loved it! LuLu’s?Jimmy Buffett’s younger sister, Lucy, owns a sprawling open air restaurant on the Intracoastal Canal.

The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is home to this gorgeous tiger.

Enjoy all sorts of delectable treats – great burgers, seafood and cold ones – with live music, a huge sand play yard for the kiddies and a truly fun gift shop. With live music every day, you will want to come for lunch and stay for dinner. “I love it here – it’s my life,” Lulu told us as she stopped by our table. King Neptune’s?Unassuming on the outside and unforgettable on the inside, owners Al and Diane Sawyer greet you like family and make sure every bite is perfect. Funky in a seafood kind of way, the Sawyers use old family recipes at this icon of Gulf Shores. Don’t miss the chance to taste their Royal Red Shrimp. Lodging There are so many options for accommodations – hotels, motels, condos, houses – you name it. Kaiser Realty has the ultimate list of all lists and very friendly staff ready to answer every question. Do you want to look directly at the Gulf or the Bay? Do you walk a high rise view or do you prefer to be in a house on ground level? Do you want all the amenities of a hotel or does the gang prefer a sprawling house complete with a kitchen? Check it all our at www.kaiserrealty.com

A recent look at their hot specials found numerous homes offered at half their usual prices. There’s so much more to do. Don’t forget to visit Waterville, an inviting water and amusement park, Pirate’s Island Mini Golf, the Track for a fun racing adventure, the Tanger Outlet Mall, Alligator Alley where you can meet 800-pound Captain Crunch, Souvenir City where shoppers walk under a giant purple octopus to enter and the giant whale in the parking lot is an icon to visitors and Seahorse Stables, where you can go horseback riding.

The Banyon Back Country Trail offers a different perspective of the coastal environment.

For all the latest information, go to www.gulfshores.com. Cynthia Calvert is an experienced travel writer based in Houston, Texas. She owns four newspapers, The Tribunes, in suburban Houston with a delivered circulation of 50,000 and an online presence receiving more than 155,000 unique visitors each month. The Tribunes are an accredited (application basis only) part of Google News and enjoy a serious presence on the Internet (www.ourtribune.com). Calvert is a contributing editor to Stone Magazine, a bi-monthly, glossy magazine completely devoted to travel: www.stone-mag.com and StoneTravelGuide.com Stone is distributed in 25 countries and has a paid subscriber base of 85,000.

Cynthia Calvert
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A trained journalist with a masters degree from Lamar University, a masters from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, as well as extensive coursework toward a masters of science in psychology from the University of New Orleans, Calvert founded the Tribune Newspapers in 2007. Her experiences as an investigative, award winning reporter (She won Journalist of the Year from the Houston Press Club among many other awards for reporting and writing), professor and chair of the journalism department for Lone Star College-Kingwood and vice president of editorial for a large group of community weeklies provides her with a triple dose of bankable skills that cover every aspect of the journalism field. Solid reporting. Careful interviews. Respect and curiosity for people and places.