My family grew up going to Florida beaches every year, packing up our family of five, (and one memorable year our basset hound – not a positive experience for anybody), and leaving our inland home in Atlanta for a week of sand and surf. Going to a beach in Alabama? Wouldn’t have entered our minds. But now I’ve added Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, to our list of potential beach destinations.
About 5.5 hours from my home in Atlanta, coincidentally about the same amount of time to travel to St. Simons or the beaches of 30A, these beaches are a fairly easy drive for several of the Southeastern states, and draws a lot of Midwesterners and international visitors as well.
If a family-friendly vacation spot with snow-white beaches, a variety of fun restaurants with fabulous food and enough outdoor activities to keep you occupied away from the beach, then Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are perfect vacation spots for you.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend time on beaches from Bora Bora to Belize, and the shores on the Gulf Coast are the most beautiful in the world. A bonus to the beaches here is that the tide doesn’t change a whole lot, so there’s little danger of losing your beach bucket or sandals if you set off for a long walk. The waves tend to be on the smaller side, unless a storm is a’coming.
If you’re looking for a rowdy spring break destination, look elsewhere. Throngs of kids were making their way here, setting up giant canopies and hosting huge parties until the beach resembled the infield at a NASCAR race. But these beaches pride themselves on their family friendly atmosphere and didn’t take kindly to the often-intoxicated crowds. What does it take to end spring breakers? Post a “no alcohol” sign on the beach, enforce the policy and you’ll soon find the college kids have moved on.
So now you’ll see “no alcohol” signs on the beaches in Gulf Shores, but word has it that’s only enforced several weeks in the spring. What is enforced year-found is the “no tents, no canopies” policy, so be prepared to shield yourself from the sun with umbrellas instead.
It’s lovely to lounge on these sandy shores, but it’s not all about the beach here as there is so much else to do. You can navigate through past celebrities’ homes on your own cat boat, bike through miles of trees and waterways in a state park, golf on one of 16 courses, learn to blow glass, slurp down the world’s best milkshake, feed baby alligators, enjoy a beverage during a sunset cruise and even ride a mechanical bull.
Where to Eat and Drink: Restaurants in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
I’ve never seen a more family-friendly restaurant than The Hangout. Mom and dad can, well, hang out, at the outdoor picnic tables while kids play in the huge sand area or challenge each other with the courtyard games. There’s plenty of fun for adults every day as well, and The Hangout hosts tons of events, including an oyster cook-off and the hugely popular music festival Hangout Fest, held every May right on the beach. On the menu, you’ll find burgers and Gulf Coast favorites like fish tacos, jambalaya and shrimp.
Big Wave Dave’s opened in the summer of 2017 and has a relaxed, beach vibe. I loved the popcorn on the table instead of bread to munch on while we perused the menu full of items like lobster rolls (the only ones in Gulf Shores), beach buns, tacos, chicken and seafood dishes. Our table got the delicious calamari, cleverly served in a Chinese to-go container. I would never have considered the short rib grilled cheese, but at the server’s suggestion I went for it. Wow – pure rich, comfort food, although perhaps not the most swimsuit-friendly option I could have picked.
Cosmo’s Restaurant & Bar is in a cozy courtyard that also contains a beer and wine shop, a pet-focused gift shop and is adjacent to another restaurant and a coffee shop, all owned by Brian and Jodi Harsany, who name the establishments after their pets. There’s plenty of indoor seating in a series of small, brightly colored rooms, but our group dined al fresco, with just about every one of us ordering the best tuna poke salad I’ve ever had. An order of the firecracker shrimp as an appetizer satisfied my hankering for shrimp.
Try the grilled crab cake, fish tacos, pastas, steaks or shrimp and grits while enjoying the beach view at Bills by the Beach which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The open-air Turtle Bar is the place to enjoy an extended happy hour, which runs from 1-7. For a real eye-opener try the unbelievable Bloody Mary,
It’s a bit of drive, but you’ll enjoy the fine dining and elegant atmosphere at Coast at the Beach Club. It’s worth it for the seafood and steak dishes created by award-winning Executive Chef John Hamme. Check out the new sushi bar as well.
For a laid-back atmosphere, and live music, head to Big Beach Brewing Company. Order your beers then take a seat in the open-air taproom with a fireplace for the cooler months. A courtyard out front has plenty of seating, a large swing hung from a tree, and a small stage for music.
Get your acai on at Soul Bowlz. Somehow, I’d never tried an acai bowl. But I’m hooked now after trying one at SoulBowlz where they are made to order from all-natural ingredients with no dairy or processed sugars. I opted for the Mind, made with hemp granola, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, almond slices and honey. I was enjoying the heck of out, putting any thought of calorie count out of my mind, when the owner Laurie McElroy told us the bowls have less than 400 calories. Score!
Taste the yummiest, most decadent and possibly the most photographed milkshakes on the planet at The Yard Milkshake Bar. Your sugar high can last for months after indulging in the most decadent milkshakes I’ve ever seen. How about these for just a few of the toppings you can choose? A cupcake, donut or a piece of cheesecake – on top of the milkshake. You’ve never seen anything like it. Be prepared for the long lines as customers flock here to try these concoctions, some even traveling to Gulf Shores for a weekend just to taste one. The owner, the adorably young Chelsea Green, told us she uses high-quality chocolate and high butterfat ice cream that costs more, but results in a better product. Choose from one of the specialty shakes, like the Caramel Cheesecake Cookie Monster, or build you own with an almost-infinite variety of toppings.
Our first stop on the way in was The Gulf where we enjoyed tacos and tuna at a picnic table right on the beach after placing an order at one of the blue shipping containers. Nothing puts you in a beach frame of mine faster than a sip of a cool beverage with your feet in the sand.
Other Gulf Shores favorites include Anchor Bar & Grill, Fishers at Orange Beach Marina and The Original Oyster House Boardwalk, which has a view of the water from its location on Mobile Bay. You’ve got to try Lucy Buffett’s Lulu’s, a family favorite, but go before you’re too hungry as wait times can be up to two hours. Yes, she’s related to that Buffet, she’s Jimmy’s sister.
Where to Enjoy Outdoor Activities in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
A funny thing happened to my husband and me recently: we both came to the realization that we didn’t enjoy hanging on the beach for days on end as much as we used to. All we needed for a week-long vacation in the past was a beach chair and a good book, but now both enjoy more time away from the beach enjoying more active pursuits.
But we’d need more than a week. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have more outdoor activities than anyone could enjoy in just one week. We do love getting out on the water any chance we get, and I was thrilled at the variety of water activities at these Alabama beaches.
Here’s a few we enjoyed, along with several others added to the list to pursue on the next trip.
Rent a kayak with Gogo Kayaks. One of the owners, Tami Woerner, took our group out paddling on Bon Secours Bay. The water was calm, but we saw plenty of activity. Nearby fisherman attracted dozens of pelicans begging for a treat and a pod of dolphins was close to the shore gathering its early-evening meal.
Gogo Kayaks’ main business is delivering kayaks and paddle boards to your home or condo. Select what you want before your vacation and when you arrive, your equipment is waiting for you for a day or an entire week. Rentals include life jacket and paddles.
Drive your own small craft on a tour with Orange Beach Cat Boat Tour. Wondering what a cat boat is? We were as well until our group hopped on board these small craft, two by two, and after donning ponchos and receiving a safety and operations lesson from company owner Kent Daily, set off to explore the inland waters. We were equipped with walkie-talkies (do they still call them that?) so as I drove the boat, my friend Nicky was our communications officer so we could hear Ken point out homes of interest and direct us through the waterways. As we cruised past Ono Island, a 5.5-mile-long barrier island, he told us it was private and gated, where many celebrities have or once had homes. These reportedly include Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Jimmy Buffett, Britney Spears and Madonna.
Kent had mentioned the top speed of our cat boat was 25 mph, but when I had that throttle pushed all the way down, we felt like we were zooming much faster, as warm waves splashed over our feet and drops of water hit us, making us thankful for the ponchos. The two-hour tour flew by and was a blast.
Sadly, we missed our sunset cruise with Wild Hearts’ Sunset Cruise due to high winds and a small craft advisory. Other cruises on these 53-foot catamaran include a Dolphins & Angels Sailing Adventure, Snorkel & Sail Tour, Kayak Adventure Snorkel Sail and Family Adventure Sail. We’ll make it next time.
We spent a delightful morning peddling through some of the seven trails of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail in Gulf State Park on bicycles rented from nearby Beach Bike Rentals. We biked along an extended boardwalk over wetlands, swamps and through wooded areas, and spotted one alligator in a small pond patiently waiting to capture its breakfast and another, a resident gator named Lefty, sunning itself alongside a marshy bank (kept off the path by chicken wire.) Other attractions and activities in the park include a butterfly garden, Boulder Park, geocaching, eco tours, pier walks, snake encounters, owl encounters, star gazing, alligator adventures and kayak tours.
If you prefer to motor though the trail, sign up for a Segway tour with Coastal Segway Adventures. After your short lesson, hop on your own Segway for a two-hour tour through the trails.
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect migratory songbirds by preserving their habitat. Turtles are also protected on the 7,000 acres of coastal land. Begin your trip at the Visitors Center where you can get maps of the many trails and find out about guided tours and education programs. You can fish on Gator Lake, launch your canoe or kayak, or hike to viewing areas optimal for viewing wildlife. In addition to a variety of birds, you can spot alligators, armadillos, red fox and bobcats.
You’re guaranteed to spot animals at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, where more than 500 animals make their home. Enjoy keeper talks, seasonal animal encounters and animal shows. The llama’s behavior is announced on a whiteboard with the message “I have not spit on my keeper in ___ days.”
You know what you’re in for when you visit Alligator Alley, where you can view more than 450 of these thick-skinned creatures who have been brought to this natural habitat here after being rescued from other places. Walk along an elevated platform to view many of them as they sun themselves or just hang out being gators, then head indoors to the gator station where you can have a close encounter with one and shoot an envy-inducing selfie. If you’re there during feeding times – at 11, 1 and 4 – you can even feed one yourself.
Paddle boarders can hit the waves with Gulf Coast Paddle Company Sign up for rentals, lessons or tours. If you’re a novice, get a lesson and you’ll be on the water in no time.
More tours are available in Bon Secours with WildNative Tours. Sign up for a coastal eco tour, a dolphins kayak tour or the “Stars Fell on Alabama” kayak tour, which starts out just at twilight and includes information on constellations and the myths that surround them.
For a bird’s eye view, several companies offer parasailing and paragliding activities and fisherman can find plenty of fishing charters or can fish right off of Gulf State Fishing Pier, also an excellent place to catch a sunset or just stroll along the 1,000-foot pier for other spectacular views. Divers and snorkelers can find several companies that will take them out to explore the surrounding waters.
Who doesn’t love a water park. Head to Waterville USA to float on the lazy river, take a shot at surfing on the Flowrider. and plunge down water slides with names like Screamin’ Demon, Jet Stream and Triple Dog Dare. There is also an amusement park with plenty of indoor activities if you’ve had too much sun or encounter a rainy day. There’s an escape house, mini golf, go kart racing, trampoline and the Gulf Coast’s largest game room.
With 16 golf courses in the area, there’s plenty of places to tee up in all year long in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, including those designed by Arnold Palmer, Jerry Pate and Earl Stone.
Shopping and Rainy-Day Activities in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
It’s on the coast so sometimes it’s going to rain, usually for a bit in the afternoon. No need to sit around your place, or let your kids immerse themselves in their electronics. Here are several ideas to maximize those inclement days.
Learn to blow glass in the hot shop, throw pottery in the clay studio and view art of local artists at the Coastal Art Center. Ride a Ferris wheel, play mini golf, check out local shops and restaurants or fly through the sky on the Hummingbird Ziplines at The Wharf. I scored some nice necklaces at a few small shops for less than $15 each.
It’s a beach town, so there are plenty of places to grab those tacky, I mean, fun souvenirs, including Alvin’s Island and Souvenir City right next to each other. The Tanger Outlets are in nearby Foley with stores like J. Crew, T.J. Maxx, Coach and Kate Spade. Close by is Pelican Place with large retail shops like Target and Bed, Bed & Beyond. This is the place to catch a movie, at Cobb Pinnacle 14 with a wall-to-wall screen and cushy rocking chairs to sit back and relax.
SanRoc Entertainment District has a few local shops and boutiques as well as a marina, restaurants and as spa.
The One Adult Attraction You Have to Visit
You don’t have to go far to find a bar in Gulf Shores, with several of the more notable ones in the restaurants listed above. But for the true Alabama beach experience, you gotta visit the iconic Flora-Bama Lounge and Oyster Bar, which has been called America’s last great roadhouse and the best beach bar in the world.
Opened in 1964 as a lounge and package store, the name comes from its location on the border of Florida and Alabama. After the bar took a major hit from Hurricane Ivan, the owners decided to rebuild entirely, with the result being a huge complex with a series of large rooms on several levels.
We visited on a Saturday night with our first inkling of its popularity the blinking lights of the patrol cop and the line of cars stopped way down the road. We hit it on a special night as a rodeo had been set up in the parking lot next door. After paying the cover charge we made our way through the labyrinth of crowded rooms, noting the hundreds of bras strewn along the rafters while enjoying the sounds of live music. When crowds are at their peak you’ll find up to 24 bars.
Girls in cut-off shorts and cowboy boots mingled with blue-jean clad young men, but what’s notable is there are guests of all ages – no need to feel out of place if you’re over 30. You can ride a mechanical bull, head out to the beach, stick you face in a cut-out, and try the signature drink, the Bushwacker, a Kahlua-based frozen drink.
Flora-Bama functions as a kind of community center, with potluck dinners, appearances by the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus who skydive in, and church services every Sunday morning.
Its most famous event is the annual Mullet Toss, held every Mullet Toss, held every April and called the world’s largest beach party. It’s exactly what it sounds like – you take a dead fish and throw it as far as you can throw it. You aren’t allowed to wear gloves and techniques vary, from folding the fish to sticking your thumb in its eyeball for a better grip. There was even a short movie made about it called Deadliest Throw. If you have the time, take the seven minutes to watch it.
For a more family-friendly and mellow vibe, check out the Flora-Bama Yacht Club across the street. And for late-night munchies, there’s a Waffle House conveniently located in the parking lot.
For gorgeous beaches, a family-friendly atmosphere and a huge variety of activities to choose from, Gulf Shores is an ideal getaway.
For more on Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, visit Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism.
Bill’s Loaded Bloody Mary. It is made fresh daily with Bill’s homemade mix and loaded with a slider, gulf shrimp, Conecuh sausage, cheese skewers, bacon, cherry tomatoes, olives, pickled okra, cocktail onions, spicy green beans, celery and carrots. Served mild, spicy, extra spicy or atomic.