Our Continental flight, jut under two hours, delivered us to Pensacola on a sunny, breezy, April day with almost no humidity. The air was crisp yet warm – this perfect weather lasted all weekend. We hopped into a rental car and drove 35 miles to Gulf Shores, Alabama. We easily could have driven the 518 miles from Houston too.
As neither of us had visited here before, we didn’t know what to expect. Here’s what we found: powdery, sugar white beaches, crystalline, aqua blue water, a fabulous condo, dolphins, Jimmy Buffet’s sister, shopping, sunshine and lots of inexpensive, out-of-this-world seafood. The Gulf Shores-Orange Beach area has an Austin-like ambiance with an upscale feel. It is casual and laidback – a perfect retreat for couples, singles or families.
Beachside bedrooms: Like Miami Beach, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are full of tall buildings of condos built along the ocean or bay. You can also rent beach houses or cottages on either. There are more than 13,000 rooms with a view in the area, which is geared toward vacationers who bring their ice chests, beach umbrellas and stay a week or more. We stayed at the Beach Club (www.beachclubal.com) and loved it. There are hundreds of similar properties, most with Web sites that offer video of each condo’s interior (no surprises). Find the perfect one by going to www.gulfshores.com Beach Club rates begin as low as $140 a night for a one-bedroom, depending on season. Our two-bedroom, three-bath condo (spring rate: $242 a night!) was decorated with granite countertops, modern appliances and beach-themed accessories in a sunny yellow and green décor. We stopped at the local grocery, picked up provisions and proceeded to spend as much time as possible enjoying the gorgeous view from our patio. The Beach Club has four large buildings, a great restaurant with outdoor dining on the veranda, a nifty shopping center, several swimming pools, hot tubs, a fitness center and a spa. Everything is fresh, clean and well manicured. A long, curving wooden boardwalk gets you right to the beach where umbrella-shaded chairs are available for a small rental fee. We settled into a lounger after a walk on the beach and took soulful nourishment from the unending horizon of azure water and the warm, fluffy sand under our feet.
Activities: There are golf courses to play, boats to charter, museums to visit, wine festivals to enjoy (we sampled the Southern Breeze Culinary and Wine Festival. Again, the perfect weather, coupled with a live musical trio, more than 35 wine booths and the invigorating crisp breeze from the bay was heaven. The wine could have tasted like fish oil and I wouldn’t have cared!), parasailing, fishing, dolphin watching and shopping. In no particular order, and with much more to say than space to do so:
Favorites: Lulu’s (www.lulubuffett.com) – Arrive by land or water and peruse 10,000 sq. ft of multiple decks, live bands, picnic tables and brightly painted rocking chairs, all owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister, Lucy. A sprawling, open air, Austin-like restaurant complex is also home to the Homeport Marina; there is an amazing and affordable menu, boats lazily motoring along the Intracoastal Waterway, a great gift shop and more longnecks than you drink. Kids adore the huge sand beach just for them. Tangers Outlet Shopping Mall (www.tangeroutlet.com) – a Chico’s outlet? Heaven! There are more than 250 stores here – including Coach, Jones New York and White House/Black Market. Dolphin Express Cruises (www.dolphinexpresscruises.com) – We took an hour-long ride into Perdido Bay and clapped like children at the playful dolphins who swam along side. Buoyed by that ride, we signed on for a two-hour sunset dinner cruise on the Corsair (www.corsaircharters.com). We feasted on platters of shrimp caught by Captain Mike Broussard while were on board, steamed and then quickly served. I grew up on the Gulf Coast and I’ve never had shrimp that fresh! The Flora-Bama Lounge, Package and Oyster Bar (www.florabama.com) - This ramshackle roadhouse began life as a tent behind a liquor store built along the beach. Over the years, expansions added various levels, two stages, several bars and a kitchen. Straddling the Florida-Alabama border, rumor has it that for several decades, it was long distance to call from one end of the bar to the other. We sat on top of a picnic table, drinking a longneck, feeling the ocean breeze on our backs and listening to a soft rock bank sing “Sweet Home Alabama” – (really). Everyone comes to the FloraBama. You need to also. King Neptune’s Seafood Restaurant (www.kingneptuneseafoodrestaurant.com) Owners Al and Diane Sawyer are congenial and promise no one leaves hungry! Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., this beachy, noisy, informal diner serves fried blue crab claws ($11.99), gumbo ($3.59) po boys ($9.99-11.99), seafood platters ($13.99 up) and Royal Red shrimp – their specialty. They generously offer lunch specials ($4.95) Mon.-Fri. and seafood specials ($6.99) every day before 6 p.m.
Pools, palm trees, sunsets, margaritas and fried crab legs. Silky sand. Lush flowers, colorful waterside cafes, the USS Alabama. Waterville and The Track fun parks. The Wharf Ferris wheel. Bellingrath Gardens. You can rent condos for as little as one night but I advise you to plan for a week. We spent four nights. I left longing for more and still feel that way. Photos by Larry Shiflet 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. Calvert is also a contributing writer for Bonita Living Magazine www.bonitalivingmagazine.com a paid monthly delivered to upscale businesses and affluent communities in Southern Florida.
(This article was originally published on 7/25/08)