Gulf Shores: Your Complete Guide To The Best Beach Vacation

Gulf Shores is the southern coastal community of Alabama’s lower quadrant, sitting just across the state line from Pensacola and known for sugar-white sandy beaches juxtaposing glorious emerald-tinted waters. Packed with water recreation, fresh seafood and family fun, this area reels in spring breakers, summer vacationers and off-season travelers.

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All photos courtesy of Gulf Shores unless otherwise notes.

From Atlanta it’s an easy trek from I-85 to I-65 and then to AL 59 – less than six hours and you’re on the beach! This guide to the best beach vacation will ensure that you don’t miss any Gulf Shores attractions, culinary delights or perfect lodging options.

Must-See | Adventures | Nature | Dining | Festivals | Accommodations

 

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Must-See Attractions in Gulf Shores

Fort MorganFort Morgan Peninsula holds more than amazing resorts and championship golf courses. It is also the site of Fort Morgan, a masonry fort built between 1819 and 1833. The fort’s main fame and recognition came in the August 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay because of its location where the bay and Gulf of Mexico meet. If your stay is on Fort Morgan, you have access to all kinds of water recreation, a boat launch and beautiful beaches.

Alligator AlleyFamilies love alligators! The fear, the excitement, the unknown…anything with alligators will attract a family. This guided tour exposes you to tons of gators ranging from hatchlings to adults. Stroll along the boardwalk for a look at gators (and other animal friends) in their natural habitat. Want to hold a baby gator? Alligator Alley is the place to do it!

Alabama Gulf Coast ZooEducational animal encounters are the driving force behind the little zoo that could! The zoo is a great idea for overcast days when the beach isn’t as appealing. Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo has lots of exotic and other animals so expect to see everything from kangaroos to sloths!

The TrackThe ultimate fun place for families, Gulf Shores offers this assortment of activities from go-karts and bungee jumps to mini golf and an arcade! Little ones will enjoy kiddie rides while older ones are enjoying bumper cars and sky flying! Save yourself some time and purchase your tickets online.

Waterville USAYou’ll no doubt spot Waterville USA as you approach Gulf Shores especially if it’s high season. A 20-acre waterpark that also houses an amusement park, Waterville offers the best of two parks all under one ticket price. Rides are modern and much money has been spent to stay abreast of current trends. You’ll get access to some 17 water slides, a lazy river (my personal favorite), a classic wave pool, Shrimp Boat Village, Wa-Wa World and Flowrider within the waterpark. No slouch, the amusement side includes attractions such as Go-Carts, Cannonball Run Rollercoaster, mini golf, Trampoline Thing, an arcade and kiddie rides.

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Adventurous Fun in Gulf Shores

Parasailing – For a bird’s eye view of the Gulf of Mexico, check out parasailing! There are several good companies in Gulf Shores like Ike’s Beach Service who has locations at: Alabama Gulf State Park Beach Pavilion, Island Winds Condominiums, and Oceania Condominiums. Ike’s will take thrill-seekers 800 feet in the air for 8-10 minutes AND they’ll take photos! Reservations or walk-ups are welcome. Paradise Island Parasail is another option with locations at The Pink Pony Pub or behind Bahama Bob’s. First-timers are welcome and you can pair up with buddies to experience the fun together.

Dolphin Tours – Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are separate cities, but so close in proximity that they share many activities and venues. The perfect example is dolphin tours. Most of the tours will board somewhere in Orange Beach. With that being said, there are two companies that are top of mind when it comes to dolphin cruises. Sail Wild Hearts treats guests to fabulous sail on a 53-foot open-ocean catamaran in search of dolphins and sunsets. Captain Zach is a ‘Bama boy and knows these waters well. Cetacean Cruises (set TAY shun) is another great option with Captain Bill. A delightful cruise, Cetacean Cruises will find dolphins…and they have them all named!

Outfitters – For watersports outfitters, there are lots of small shops scattered along the beachside highways, and truthfully, they are my favorites. Of course, if you are looking for higher end apparel and such, you’ll want to head over to The Wharf Marina where they also have an outfitting store. There you will find official Orvis fly-fishing gear as well, and it’s worth the short drive. Need a beach canopy, towel or beach combing gear? Try Salt Coastal Outfitters in Orange Beach. They have lots of souvenir-type merchandise and stuff you won’t see at other places.

Beach Flight Aviation – Have you ever dreamed of flying or hang gliding? The beach seems as good a place as any to take on this adventure or perhaps you are already seasoned and just looking for facilities. Either way, Salt Air Aviation Center offers everything from flight training to pilot amenities, maintenance and fuel.  Another one of the coolest places around is BeachFlight Aviation in Gulf Shores. They fly professionally designed P&M Aircraft, who most will argue are the safest in the world! These “trikes” are also referred to as “power hang gliders” in case you’re wondering what in the world that could be. Come on ladies, you can be pilots, too!

Safaris – Often folks relate the term “safari” to Indiana Jones-like hats worn by extreme adventurers and then they deduct that they could never go on a safari. Well, for the record, safaris come in all kinds…just like people! And, eco- or wildlife safaris are some of the most fun, family-friendly adventures out there! Bottoms Up Safari, servicing both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach areas, offers an interactive underwater wildlife excursion onboard a 32-foot pontoon boat with Captain Ellis. This close up look at many species in the gulf waters will be exciting for kids and adults of all ages. Wild Native Tours offers Delta Safaris, and the options are as lengthy as my arm. A few tempting ideas are: the Delta Wildlife Kayak Eco Tour, the Gators After Dark Tour and the Secretly Awesome Harbour Tour. Wild Native Tours is located in Gulf Shores/Orange Beach and has an additional location in Mobile/Spanish Fort. When you visit the web site, look for the SPECIALS tab and see what’s on sale!

Orange Beach Pirate ShipWho doesn’t want to wear an eye patch and search for booty? Come on, even the oldest vacationer couldn’t possibly turn down the opportunity to board a pirate ship for a fun-for-the-whole-family adventure! And Orange Beach has one that was actually featured on the Travel Channel! Grab your youthful pirates and head over to board the Orange Beach Pirate Ship (the American Star) for an adventure on Terry Cove. Oh, but remember, you must help defend the ship which will require a gun battle! Don’t worry…it’s all in good fun! They offer two hours of face painting, pirate adventure stories, games, songs of the sea, treasure (of course!), free soft drinks and maybe a surprise or two along the way! (NOTE: you can find a coupon on the web site – you’re welcome!)

Sailing – There is nothing as calming as heading out into the ocean, the bay or the gulf, putting up sails and simply floating to the flap of cloth in the wind. I’m always amazed at the skill of a sailor, and their connection to the water and the wind. Precise sails direct our paths to desired destinations, and I’m always spellbound by this outing. Sailing they call it. I say it’s paradise. I’ve already mentioned Sail Wild Hearts and Cetacean Cruises, both of which offer stunning sunset or midday sails. You can also charter a sailboat outing from Orange Beach Sailing Charters who specializes in family day trips, sunset sails or dolphin cruises.

Kayaking – Folks who are vacationing at the beach usually already have a fondness of the water, so recreation on the water is pretty much a given. One of the more popular ways to explore and get connected to the water is by kayaking. Many places on the beach can hook you up with necessary equipment, but make sure they always fit you with a good life jacket. Better yet, take your own. Go Go Kayak Rentals is the perfect go to place for renting a kayak (or a paddle board) for a day or a week and they offer lots of inventory and options. Need it delivered or need a guide? They’ll take care of you! Also, Wild Native Tours, offers amazing kayak tours at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Groups are welcome and families alike!

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Nature Lovers in Gulf Shores

Gulf State ParkIf you prefer Mother Nature to a hotel room, then Gulf State Park is perfect for you! Over 6000 acres with campsites, cottages/cabins, a pavilion, tennis courts, a championship golf course, two miles of gorgeous beaches and, well, what else could you ask for? Gulf State Park is home to the largest pier on the Gulf of Mexico where fishing is an everyday activity and relaxing is mandatory. Oh, and hiking trails are as plentiful as beach chairs. Off the beach, you can rent a more primitive campsite at the outpost with a pre-pitched tent and four cots. Know that there is no plumbing or electricity here, but there is a port a potty! Also, as a registered overnight visitor, you’ll have access to the swimming pool and splash pad as well as the dog pond!

Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry TrailIf you have never traveled to coastal Alabama, then chances are you haven’t heard of some of these great trails and venues that make up the Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Gulf State Park areas. Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, named for retired Gulf State Park Superintendent of some 40 years, is roughly 15 miles with seven trails and six different ecosystems. Pretty cool, right? The wildlife viewing is incredible, and Mother Nature is quite the show off here as well. Bring your hiking boots and your camera. Some of the other venues and activities that I’ll mention will be a part of this backcountry trail as well, so you’ll get a bigger picture of it as I move along.

Rosemary Dunes TrailOne of the seven trails that are part of the Branyon Backcountry Trail, Rosemary Dunes Trail is the place to tickle the senses while hiking or biking. Meandering paths through the marshes of lower Alabama are home to the American Alligator along with a myriad of other wildlife living in their natural habitat. And, the plants and flora are as plentiful as they are beautiful! The dampness creates a lush environment for southern wild flowers. Enjoy the view and be prepared to gasp regularly.

Twin Bridges TrailOne of my favorite trails because of the wooden bridges, Twin Bridges Trail is only a mile long and it serves as a connector between the east trails (Cotton Bayou, Rattlesnake Ridge and Catman Road) and Gulf Oak Ridge Trail. I call this the “resting” trail because of the many benches scattered throughout. Lots of wildlife will bring a subtle smile to your face and you’ll think of this trail as fondly as I do.

Butterfly GardenWhile strolling through the backcountry trail, you can’t miss the Butterfly Garden near the park’s pavilion. Nature’s backdrop of splendid, vivid colors provides the perfect environment for butterflies. Lots of butterflies! It’s so easy to allow your mind to drift as you watch the fluttering of these incredible insects. Kids will be amazed. Adults will be in awe.

Boulder ParkA collaborative effort, Boulder Park is nicely interwoven into Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail. Providing an incredible place of exercise for kids, this rock climbing adventure park is perfect for family time together. And, as parents, we all know kids need a place to release energy…this is it! Plan to head here after the Butterfly Garden and let the children realize how different the environment is. What an excellent learning tool!

Eco ToursIt seems the people who stay at Gulf State Park are more knowledgeable regarding where to find these educational yet fun eco tours! I’m spilling the beans on this one because it’s available to everyone, not just park guests. You can take a two-hour guided tour of the Backcountry Trail with a City of Orange Beach representative. It’s inexpensive, but you must have a reservation. This is a great way to see plants and animals on the trail with an expert guide pointing out exactly what you are seeing.

The Audubon Bird SanctuaryLocated on Dauphin Island (about an hour away), The Audubon Bird Sanctuary is truly a hidden gem even though it is a top four North American place for migratory bird watching in the springtime. The Sanctuary is made up of more than 130 acres involving marshes, dunes, maritime forest and, of course, a beach. I only recently understood the extreme importance of this protected area. It seems that neo-tropical migrant birds who fly from Central and South America annually crossing the Gulf, find their first landfall here on Dauphin Island. They often experience severe weather and exhausting flights. Finding food and a place of refuge is highly important. Important enough, by the way, for the Sanctuary to be dubbed of global importance by the National Audubon Society. No small feat, mind you, Dauphin Island’s secret is getting out as bird watchers enjoy spotting over 400 species in this slice of Alabama real estate.

Wade Ward Nature ParkGulf Shores is home to a lovely nature park right in the downtown area where an elevated boardwalk allows for viewing of the wetlands joining Little Lagoon and Lake Shelby together. Guests and locals alike enjoy spotting particular wildlife that dwell in Wade Ward Nature Park’s low waters like otters and pelicans as well as bird watching. The park is easily accessible right off Highway 59 in Gulf Shores.

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Dining Options in Gulf Shores

Best Places for Dining on the Water – The Hangout Gulf Shores is a waterfront dining venue with a menu as vibrant as the music! Known for drinks, oysters, crab legs and beachside burgers, you really can’t pick something bad to eat. The Grilled Mahi sandwich is my go to meal here…so good…and so beachy! Also, Tacky Jacks Gulf Shores location is right on the water and there’s always something going on there from music to special events. They have daily specials you’ll want to check out! Last, but far from least, don’t miss a chance to dine at Sea-n-Suds, known for gumbo and fresh seafood. With a beachfront atmosphere, a great gift shop and affordable food, Sea-n-Suds is a family favorite!

Best Places to Eat with Kids – LuLu’s Gulf Shores is the most perfect dining venue for kids! Owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister Lucy, she has made a name for herself in L.A. (lower Alabama) by serving a huge menu of seafood favorites, along with a Cheeseburger in Paradise…and pretty much everything in between…there’s even an allergy menu. Expect a wait during the high season, but don’t expect to be bored! There’s a plethora of activities to keep you busy while you await your table: The extra-large gift shop, bars and music, an arcade, a three-story ropes climbing course (The Mountain of Youth), The Fountain of Youth and a beach for the kids! Grab a drink and have some fun. (NOTE: my personal faves here: A Mountain of Fried Okra appetizer served with LuLu’s ranch dressing, anything on the fresh catch menu and the key lime pie!) I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that LuLu’s is also a great place for dining on the water…and in fact, could have been listed in each dining category. Another place kids seem to love is Bahama Bob’s, a beachside cafe with a BIG menu! Kids can get their favorites (burgers, fish, chicken, shrimp, grilled cheese, etc. and at only $5.99, it won’t break the bank) while parents can get seafood any way you like it – fried, steamed, grilled or blackened. They also serve a fabulous bacon, pineapple cheeseburger if you aren’t up for seafood. The atmosphere is laid back and family-friendly.

Where the Locals Eat – Mikee’s Seafood is at the top of this list! Mikee’s is less fussy in terms of ambiance, but trust me, they lack nothing as a culinary treasure in Gulf Shores. The portions are large, the choices are plentiful, and they will cook your fresh catch for you! Don’t forget to ask about daily specials. And, King Neptune’s Seafood Restaurant is also a local favorite where steamed royal red shrimp is the main grub, but other gulf cuisine is also available. Al and Diane Sawyer are the owners and are often in the restaurant making sure their unique, award-winning recipes are being prepared to perfection. The casual atmosphere makes this spot perfect for the family.

Best Places for Cocktails – Wow! This is hard because there are so many! LuLu’s has a Jet Ski Killer frozen drink made with a blend of rums and pina colada that will really sneak up on you! Grab some friends, order at an outside bar, see the sunset and listen to live music. Also, the Flora-Bama is (you guessed it) right on the Alabama/Florida line (VERY closeby) and hugely popular. This is a lovely place to order your favorite cocktail or something fun like a Cherry Limeade (ask for Tebow at the bar) with a basket of coconut shrimp and take in a sunset. Outdoor furniture and music make this the perfect venue for cocktails. And, then there’s Nolan’s Restaurant and Lounge. Fine dining at its best, but some folks don’t realize you can go to the lounge, enjoy live music and order cocktails or really nice wines. It’s one of my favorite cocktail places in the Gulf Shores area.

Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth – Scoops is a popular ice cream parlor, but they don’t have a web site. You can find them at 601 Gulf Shores Parkway and they are really busy during high season. They have cake and lemonade as well, and outdoor seating is available. Rita’s of Gulf Shores also caters to the sweet side of life with unique blends of cool concoctions like: Italian Ice, custards, milkshakes and frozen drinks.

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Festivals Worth the Drive

The Annual National Shrimp FestivalPresented by Zatarain’s and totally sponsored so that guests can enjoy this festival for FREE, the Shrimp Festival is a long-standing staple in the Gulf Shores community. Each year the event is held the second full weekend in October at the public beach access where Highway 59 meets with Highway 182. Two stages offer lots of live music and over 300 vendors will offer their wares for sale. The little ones have a Children’s Activity Village to enjoy filled with activities. Which restaurant has the best shrimp dish? You’ll have to go to see!

Hangout Music FestivalAlways in May, the Hangout Music Festival happens rain or shine on the beautiful beaches of Gulf Shores. Listen to awesome bands with your toes in the sand at one of the south’s largest music festivals! Plan ahead and view some of the travel packages online, as well as bands and ticket prices.

The Interstate Mullet TossKnown as the Gulf Coast’s Greatest Beach Party, I can’t leave this event out! This annual party is held at the Flora-Bama the last full weekend of April and brings folks in from everywhere! Hotel bookings are done well in advance. Have you even heard of a mullet (HINT: not the haircut)? Basically, during this big beach party, you can register to enter the mullet toss – you’ll throw a dead mullet over the state line and see whose goes the farthest. There are numerous You Tube videos that show the mullet toss fun if your curiosity is piqued.

The Beach Club

Photo courtesy of The Beach Club

Where to Stay

The Beach ClubSituated on the Fort Morgan peninsula, The Beach Club is an amazing choice for lodging in Gulf Shores. Directly on the water, this community includes your choice of high rises or cottages around a lake. Perfect for families and actually a good idea for multi-families to share, the condos are spacious and full of modern amenities. Each high rise has a pool, plus there is a club house pool, and each cottage has its own private pool. Onsite dining, a fitness center, clay tennis courts and, my favorite, the spa, make this a top pick for Gulf Shores accommodations.

San Carlos CondominiumsThis fun, family-friendly condo high rise offers many amenities among which my favorite is the zero entry pool. Units are up-to-date with modern kitchens and beautiful furnishings as well as amazing views off the balcony. San Carlos units are managed by different companies but you can count on the quality to be virtually the same.

Courtyard by Marriott Gulf Shores Craft FarmsA little over three miles from the beach, this Courtyard by Marriott has everything you need if hotels are your jam. Their new lobby features The Bistro – Eat.Drink.Connect., a new concept offering a morning meal, plus dinner and cocktails in the evening. Free wifi, a fitness center and a seasonal pool round out the amenities plus you always get that comfy Marriott Bedding.

Phoenix All Suites HotelsThis beachfront property offering two hotels with condo-style conveniences is perfect for those who prefer hotels. Close to everything and direct beach access are both big pluses!

Gulf State ParkHave an RV or love camping? This park has it all including swimming pool and beaches. There are also a few cottages and cabins onsite.

Luxury RV ResortPark your ride and walk to the beach from this Gulf Shores luxury RV resort. Full of amenities, RVers will enjoy this facility.

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Gulf Shores is the southern coastal community of Alabama’s lower quadrant, sitting just across the state line from Pensacola and known for sugar-white sandy beaches juxtaposing glorious emerald-tinted waters. Packed with water recreation, fresh seafood and family fun, this area reels in spring breakers, summer vacationers and off-season travelers.

Becky Beall is a freelance travel journalist who writes, blogs and speaks on travel. She has a weekly travel radio show syndicated through iHeart Radio and is a local television personality. You can find her blog at www.thetravelvoicebybecky.com.

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