Alabama’s Gulf Shores a great getaway for every season

Photo by Cynthia V. CampbellAlbama's Gulf Coast beaches rival those of the Florida Panhandle.
Photo by Cynthia V. CampbellAlbama's Gulf Coast beaches rival those of the Florida Panhandle.

Alabama’s Gulf Shores a great getaway for every season

Swaying to a calypso tune aboard a leisurely nature cruise, a young woman from upstate New York gleefully shouted, “This is paradise!” It wasn’t the Bahamas or Cozumel. It was Gulf Shores, Ala.

The cruise on Wolf Bay delighted visitors who were enjoying a short getaway along Alabama’s Gulf Shores. Locals are accustomed to new visitors’ enthusiasm since the area has become a great getaway for every season of the year. Certainly, the dazzling, white sand dunes and shimmering Gulf waters draw summer visitors, and winter brings escapees from northern climes. Spring and fall offer sunny days and crisp nights. There’s always great fishing, swimming, dining and fun.

On a recent visit, we played tourist, seeing long-established popular hangouts as well as new places. Contemporary condos, shopping centers, lush golf courses and handsome marinas dot the landscape, many of which were rebuilt following Hurricane Ivan. Yet the area retains its fishing village atmosphere. Souvenir shops with seashell trinkets, a tattoo parlor and a few funky bars maintain the seaside look of the old Gulf South.

After a bit of sunset viewing at the beach, we joined friends at Lulu’s at Homeport Marina for dinner. There’s nothing dull about this restaurant owned by singer Jimmy Buffett’s sister. There’s a play area for kids, a gift shop, daily live music and great food. We tried “Lower Alabama Caviar,” a black-eyed pea dish, and fresh fish tacos while listening to a local country band play away.

The next day we walked an easy trail in Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on Ala. 180, along the Fort Morgan Peninsula. The 7,000-acre wildlife habitat is a nature lover’s haven. Loblolly pine, yaupon, holly and palmetto are interspersed with wild rosemary and wild muscadine. Assistant park manager Brittany Peterson said the refuge is a major habitat for more than 370 bird species. It’s also home to the endangered Alabama beach mouse. Beaches provide nesting areas for loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. In October, the refuge is filled with monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico. January through February, rangers conduct free bird walks and dune tours.

At the peninsula’s tip, Fort Morgan still defiantly overlooks Mobile Bay. Established as part of America’s early coast defense, the fort was completed in 1834. Here in 1864 Admiral David Farragut led his Union fleet against the Confederacy during the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay. In the museum filled with artifacts, senior historian Mike Bailey said the admiral’s famous quote usually paraphrased as “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” was actually attributed to Commander Tunis Craven. Craven and his crew died aboard the ironclad Tecumseh which struck an enemy mine during the engagement. “It’s actually still out there,” Bailey said. “The U.S. Navy looks at it as a war grave. Up until Pearl Harbor, it was the largest loss of U.S. military life.”

Fort Morgan is open daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Regular programs include living history encampments, a Christmas encampment, and spring and fall bird migration watches. The fort and museum are undergoing upgrades in preparation for events marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay in 2014.

Later, we boarded Sailaway Charters aluminum catamaran for a two-hour nature ride through Wolf Bay and the backwaters of Longs Bayou. Specifically designed for family-oriented cruises, the 40-foot boat features a shady canopy, benches and an open deck for taking photos. Capt. Skip Beebee pointed out pelicans, heron and osprey and gave tips on dolphin viewing. Committed to wildlife conservation, he encouraged guests to respect dolphin habits. Passengers stood against rails soaking up the sun and watching dolphins frolic unafraid as the catamaran sailed nearby. Later the boat gently maneuvered through a private bayou for close-up views of cypress trees, sea grass and native plants.

After a delicious dinner (fried green tomatoes with creamy crawfish sauce) at Tin Top Restaurant and Oyster Bar, we headed for our condo. Slipping into beach-bum togs, we headed to the beach for a dusk hike along the beach. Walking barefoot in the sand, letting waves wash our toes and watching the setting sun offered promises of sun-kissed days ahead.

Without doubt, white sand beaches are the area’s major attractions. While high-rise condos hug much of the shoreline, a two-mile stretch of Alabama Gulf State Park is remarkably pristine. Only sugary sand dunes, sea grasses and a scattering of pine trees can be viewed between the highway and the frothy surf. There’s ample parking at the beach pavilion with bathrooms and showers and seasonal concessions. The park’s 1,540-foot pier — rebuilt after Hurricane Ivan — attracts serious anglers and strollers. Fishing rules are posted and a non-resident license costs $8 (daily) or $11 (annual). A child under age 12 with an adult is admitted to the pier free. Cost of sightseeing on the pier is $3 all-day or $2 for a one-time visit.

Don’t forget, the Alabama Gulf Coast is an untamed force of nature. Lifeguards are stationed at the Gulf Shores Public Beach, Romar Beach, and Cotton Bayou in Orange Beach. Even with lifeguards on duty, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico carries some risk. Pay attention to flag warnings and always exercise caution.

Fun doesn’t stop at the ocean’s edge. You can peddle all day along Gulf State Park’s pedestrian and bike-friendly trails. A four-hour ride covers a variety of terrain from sand dunes to shady forested areas with towering pines, live oaks and tall marsh grasses. Well-paved trails are easy to navigate for all skill levels. Stops along the way include kiosks with swinging benches and informational signs. Keep your eyes open for green herons, mockingbirds and woodpeckers. Wildlife includes turtles, alligators, frogs and snakes. The park’s two-hour guided electric golf-cart tour is handy for non-bikers. Bring your camera.

Drop by the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo for a truly “up-close” animal experience. Featured on Animal Planet as “The Little Zoo That Could,” the zoo became famous for reopening after being battered by hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina in 2004 and 2005. You can arrange for an encounter with selected animals on a limited basis. Entering the lemur enclosure, we were surrounded by the energetic wide-eyed pre-primates. Natives of Madagascar, they live in treetops and love to swing on overhead ropes, and jump swiftly above visitors shoulders and heads. Wear a hat! The zookeeper wisely comes prepared with a plastic pan to catch animal droppings from above. The zoo contains some 300 animals including lions, tigers and monkeys.

Stopping by The Wharf, a snazzy multi-use complex, we browsed in upscale boutiques and stayed for dinner at the Compleat Angler. The food is outstanding at this restaurant owned by Bob Baumhower, former defensive lineman with Alabama’s Crimson Tide and NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Chef Steve Zuker grew up in New Orleans and kicked off his culinary career as a protégé of chef John Folse at Lafitte’s Landing and Bittersweet in Donaldsonville. His superb cuisine is a creative blend of French, Cajun, Creole, Asian and Caribbean. Across the plaza is Baumhower’s Compleat Studio, a 5,000 square-foot art gallery focusing on local artists. The complex also houses Baumhower’s Social Club. The sports bar features cruise liner décor, a hearty menu and huge television screens showing everything from football and basketball to boxing and golf events.

For an authentic Alabama coast experience, stop by the Flora-Bama on Perdido Beach Boulevard. Beloved by those who remember it as their “come-of-age” hangout, the bar is still going strong. Blown down to a heap of wood, plastic sheeting and tin after Hurricane Ivan, the famous roadhouse on the Alabama-Florida border is back to its previous glory. Bars can be found on upper and lower decks. People still dance to live music beneath an old fishing line strung with bras. You can order a hot dog, burger or basket of fried oysters and watch your favorite team on large TV screens. Of course, it’s a favorite hangout for Alabama and Louisiana sports fans.

A friendly local quipped a popular joke: “So many Louisianians come to the Alabama Gulf Shores that we have to watch out that they don’t take the purple and gold warning flags that lifeguards put out on the beaches.” Of course, residents don’t tell you how many Alabama Crimson Tide fans hit the beaches each year.

INFORMATION: Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., are about a four-hour drive east of Baton Rouge via I-10. About 4.9 million people visit the family friendly area annually. The majority of lodging units are condos, but the area also features chain hotels, cottages, beach houses, B&B stays, RV parks and campgrounds. Details on rentals, fishing, golf, shopping, restaurants, festivals and special events are listed at http://www.gulfshores.com and http://www.orangebeach.com. Call 800-745-SAND (7263). Also visit http://www.alalpark.com/gulfstate and http://www.bonsecour.fws.gov.