Relaxed Riviera: Getaway to Alabama's Gulf Coast
Captain Bill Mitchell kills the motor on his white-hulled catamaran at the sight of a half-dozen gray dorsal fins breaking through the ocean waves. The owner of Cetacean Cruises points, excitedly calling attention to the stars of this trip. "Dolphins in our bay rarely travel more than a 10 mile radius from home their whole lives," he says, trying to identify the fast-moving dolphins by the distinctive shape and color of their dorsal fins. "We've gotten to know them, named maybe half the pod." He uses his finger to follow the path of a dolphin with a sharply hooked fin. "That's Nacho," he says, falling quiet. For several moments, the boat almost becomes part of the pod, riding the gentle crest and fall of the waves and letting the tide set the course.
There are certain vacation destinations that beg for a whirlwind of experience: the history-steeped cathedrals and jazz clubs in New Orleans, the pastel Art Deco architecture and authentic Cuban eateries of South Beach in Miami. But a visit to the powder-soft beaches of Alabama's Gulf Coast invites a vacation pace akin to sippin' on sweet tea.
The sister cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach (58 miles southeast of airport-hub Mobile) stretch along 32 miles of beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Southerners know Gulf Shores as the destination for unpretentious, outdoors-centric getaways (as long as you avoid the late-March flood of spring break revelers), where even the upscale Fisher's Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina restaurant welcomes diners in flip-flops. In February, temperatures hover in the 60s-too cool for swimming, but warm enough for flying kites, building sand castles, searching for conch shells and digging for clams. If you're so inclined, you might spend an entire vacation on the sand.
But to really see the nature of the Gulf, you'll need to wander. Beach Bike Rentals loans out basket-bedecked cruisers at the entrance to Gulf State Park, not far from a trailhead on the 15-mile Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail. Broken into sections with names like Rosemary Dunes and Cotton Bayou, the trails allows leisurely explorations of bogs full of pitcher plants and magnolias draped with Spanish moss. It's not far from the 1⁄2-mile-long Fishing and Education Pier. Here, anyone with a rod and reel (or with a few dollars to spare for a rental pole and a selection from the bait shop) can try landing Spanish mackerel or yellowfin tuna.
Buntings and plovers draw nature-lovers to Dauphin Island, home to sanctuaries preserving the dunes, wetlands and woods that more than 300 winged species. To get there requires a short migration of your own: an 86-mile drive along the coast (including a 3-mile bridge arching over the Pass aux Herons) or a 40-minute ferry ride from the Civil War outpost Fort Morgan (35 minutes west of Gulf Shores). Both deliver travelers to an island distinguished by palm trees, marsh grasses and fittingly, a long stretch of beach.
For more information, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism: gulfshores.com
DO | Cetacean Cruises Two-hour dolphin and nature cruises depart from Orange Beach and blend dolphin-spotting with an exploration of the inland swamps to spot eagles and alligators. cetaceancruises.com
Dauphin Island This barrier island frequently tops lists of best places for bird-watching thanks to its many sanctuaries and diverse ecosystems. History buffs enjoy Civil War-Era Fort Gaines. townofdauphinisland.org
Mobile Bay Ferry Six times a day, the ferry makes the 40-minute jaunt from Fort Morgan to Dauphin Island. mobilebayferry.com
Gulf State Park Two miles of beaches, the 15-mile Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, the Fishing and Education Pier, a zipline course and a golf course make this Gulf Shores park a destination. alapark.com
Beach Bike Rentals Get a cruiser for cycling solo (or a tandem) from this Orange Beach shack. They'll deliver cycles anywhere in Gulf Shores or Orange Beach; helmet, basket and lock included in rental fee. beachbikerentalsorangebeach.com
National Naval Aviation Museum Some 41 miles east, in Pensacola, Florida, the Blue Angels run drills outside this flight- focused museum (beginning in March). navalaviationmuseum.org
EAT | The Beach House Kitchen and Cocktails In Gulf Shores, a gracious patio shows off views of palm trees and the ocean; the menu features blackened fish tacos. beachhousegs.org
Fisher's Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina Dine on seared scallops over ginger-herb salad and cinnamon-roll ice cream. fishersobm.com
The Hangout This Gulf Shores entertainment complex holds two stages, a kids' playground, Foosball tables, life-size rubber duckies and a sprawling restaurant. Look for family-friendly board game nights, plus a spring break party in March and April, and a celebrity-chef oyster cook-off in the fall. thehangout.com
Sea-n-Suds Gumbo with fresh shrimp adds a healthyish option to a menu of seafood (much of it fried): oysters, shrimp, crab claws, catch-of-the-day and more. Directly on the beach in Gulf Shores. sea-n-suds.com
STAY | Liquid Life Vacation Rentals Enjoy condos with kitchens, laundry rooms and private beaches in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Rooms have a three-night minimum. liquidlifevacationrentals.com
Perdido Beach Resort Comfortable guest rooms, a concierge, indoor and outdoor pools, kayaks for guests to use and Jet-Ski rentals make this full-service resort a compelling option. perdidobeachresort.com