Back to the Beach
As July 4 approaches, there’s no better place than Alabama’s beaches for fireworks and fun.
by Erin Z. Bass
On June 18, Alabama announced the launch of a new advertising campaign featuring celebrity chef Lucy Buffett, who asks vacationers to “Come on, get back to the beaches we all love.” Buffett owns Lulu’s on the Intracoastal Waterway in Gulf Shores and is the sister of beach crooner Jimmy Buffett. Her restaurant has become a hot spot in the area, and no trip to Gulf Shores or Orange Beach is complete without some Lower Alabama Caviar, a Cheeseburger in Paradise and Lulu’s Rum Punch overlooking the water. With live music every day of the week in the summertime and an art market on Saturdays, you may want to visit Lulu’s more than once during your trip.
As Lulu herself will tell you, her restaurant is just one example of hometown places that give Gulf Shores/Orange Beach its charm. Everybody’s got their favorites, whether it be cheesecake at Hope’s just over the bridge from Lulu’s, pancakes at Tacky Jack’s, shopping at Tallulah’s or the outlet mall in Foley. We know many of you are skeptical about a beach vacation where the beach could possibly be compromised from the presence of oil, and we don’t blame you, but if you do decide to get back to the beach this summer, we know you won’t be disappointed. The July 4 weekend is the biggest for business along the coast, and oil won’t stop the fireworks from the beach or the memories you’ll take home with you. In the words of Lulu: “I’m inviting you all to come on down. Please don’t turn your backs on the Gulf Coast. We need your support and are open for business. Let us do what we do best: give you the time of your life.”
See our mileage chart at the bottom of the article, but Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are located about 30 miles from Interstate 10 on Highway 59 and about 7 miles apart from each other. The Foley Beach Express can now take travelers directly to Orange Beach with tolls starting at $3.50. Part of the excitement of going to the beach is getting there, and landmarks along the way help chart the route. The George Wallace Tunnel in Mobile means that you’re about an hour away, and after exiting at Loxley/Bay Minette, be on the lookout for Burris Farm Market on the right (a huge blown up peach or strawberry is a good indication you’re there.) Burris is the ultimate place to stock up on local vegetables, fruit and delicacies like Conecuh sausage and chicken salad sandwiches and Key Lime Pie from the cafe. Entering Gulf Shores, you’ll pass a new Publix supermarket and Blalock Seafood & Specialty Market (both have second locations in Orange Beach), which should help with additional groceries.
Condominiums, beachouses and hotels line the beach road all the way from Gulf Shores to Orange Beach. Major realty companies Brett Robinson, Meyer Real Estate and Kaiser Realty are always offering great deals on a variety of properties. (Brett Robinson is currently offering a 30% oil spill discount if you book online, Kaiser is offering 25% off stays during the July 4 weekend and all three companies are allowing cancellations and refunds for oil.) With 13 different properties, from beachfront to bay, Phoenix is a good place to start, especially for families. Beachfront Phoenix West has a lazy river with a waterslide and three pools, while Phoenix on the Bay also has a lazy river, plus boat slips and a putting green. Vacation Rental By Owner is another great site for finding condos and beachouses to rent. If you’re concerned about cost, don’t be. This area is still very affordable, and lots of condos are available for $99 a night.
Gulf Shores/Orange Beach is a seafood lovers’ paradise, and rest assured, restaurants are still serving your favorite local dishes. Frequent vacationers know to head to Gulf Shores Steamer on Perdido Beach Boulevard for Royal Red shrimp, Alaskan snow crab legs, fresh fish and pitchers of beer on the deck. King Neptune’s on Gulf Shores Parkway also serves Royal Reds, in addition to the West Indies Salad of marinated lump crabmeat, crab claws, oysters on the half shell and the catch of the day. (Read our review of this restaurant for more info and photos.)
For sushi in the area, locals will tell you to head to Cosmo’s on Canal Road. While waiting for a table on the outdoor deck, diners can listen to live music, get a drink from the outdoor bar or do a little shopping at Gulf Island Gallery or the restaurant’s sister pet and wine shop. But you won’t want to miss out on a table, because the sushi is fresh and inventive – we’re talking a fried green tomato roll – and the rest of the menu, including Black and Blue Shrimp, cheese dip made from local Sweet Home Farm cheese and brown butter corn salad, looks just as appealing. For lunch or cooling off after a morning at the beach, stop by North Shore Grill, home of the Big Kahuna Burger and what may be the best smoothie in town.
While a gulf breeze is always present, sometimes you just need a cool drink after coming in from the beach. As we mentioned above, Big Kahuna Burger’s smoothies are killer, especially the pina colada flavor. If you’d prefer a little rum in your beach drink, head to Flora-Bama at the Alabama/Florida border for some Bushwhackers. Made with dark rum, coconut cream, creme de cacao, half and half and coffee liqueur, we promise you’ll beat the heat with this drink and probably be dancing along to the live music downstairs in no time. (Bushwhackers are served up and down the coast, and President Obama had one at Tacky Jack’s during his last visit to the area.) Wine bars are also starting to show up in the area, and Sunset Cork Room on 16th Avenue in Gulf Shores offers cheese plates, wine tasting and a retail store. Or take the whole family to local dives like Pink Pony Pub or The Hangout, both located directly on the beach in Gulf Shores.
One of the lesser known and appreciated activities off the beach is the shopping. A cool respite from the mid-day sun, quirky shops like Tallulah’s Treasures (which used to be Tootie Green’s for those of you who are regulars) on Perdido Beach Boulevard is the perfect place for an artsy beach souvenir, girlfriend gift or just browsing and sipping the complimentary mimosas. It’s located in a small strip of shops that also includes Curvy Gals Clothing for cute tie-dye dresses and seashells plus The Fairhope Connection gallery of local art.
In Gulf Shores, don’t miss Souvenir City. A walk through the shark head at the entrance is great fun, as is the homemade fudge and rows and rows of beach gear inside. Speaking of fudge, SanRoc Cay‘s open-air shopping center includes Chocolate Turtle Candies & Novelty Gifts. Homemade fudge is available, along with chocolate in the shape of flip flops and starfish on a stick. While in SanRoc Cay, don’t miss Melanies for upscale beachy home decor, Sweet Dreams Bath & Body or The Treasure Chest, where you can meet owner and local author Ryan Anderson and get a signed copy of one of her books.
For the ultimate shopping experience (set aside several hours and wear comfortable shoes), head to Tanger Outlet Center in Foley. Over 120 brand name outlets are stocked with summer attire and accessories, as well as housewares and specialty items, at great discount prices. The area’s newest shopping attraction, The Wharf, has national retailers, boutiques and beach stores, along with restaurants and cafes, a movie theater and a 112-foot Ferris Wheel.
While the beach is great for building sandcastles and playing volleyball, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach also have waterparks, putt putt golf, kayak and bike rentals, wildlife refuges, charter fishing, snorkeling and lots more. Located on Highway 59 South, Waterville U.S.A. is an 18-acre water and amusement park with thrill rides, speed slides, a FlowRider, roller coaster, mini golf and more. On the other side of the highway, Pirate’s Island Adventure Golf offers visitors the opportunity to putt around old shipwrecks, mysterious caves and historical markers of Jean Lafitte and Blackbeard. Kayak the coast and even catch a few fish with Alabama Kayak Adventures, or bring your own kayak and set off straight from the beach or bay.
One of the 10 Natural Wonders of Alabama, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge contains 7,000 acres of wildlife habitat and more than 370 species of birds just west of Gulf Shores. See migratory birds, nesting sea turtles and the endangered Alabama beach mouse in habitats like sand dunes, saltwater marshes and freshwater swamps. The Alabama Gulf Coast has also more recently become know for serious golf, with 10 signature courses designed by greats such as Arnold Palmer and Jerry Pate. For art lovers, the Orange Beach Arts Center is a work of art in itself, housed in the old Orange Beach Hotel among moss-draped oaks on Wolf Bay. Outside, The Hot Shop is the only public access glass studio in the state offering live demonstrations and classes on glass blowing and indoors, you’ll see beach landscapes, pottery, sculpture and more.
Some of the Gulf Coast’s best-kept secrets are the scenic drives, charming small towns and roadside finds surrounding Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail winds through more than 50 sites in Baldwin and Mobile counties, so keep an eye out for signage while driving. Heading down Highway 59, downtown Foley is a quaint piece of preserved Americana from the 1950s. Antique shops line the main street, and the Stacey Rexall Drugs and Old Tyme Soda Fountain‘s Key Lime Shake is listed on “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.” (Stacey’s was out of key lime ice cream when we visited, but the cherry shake was divine, and the atmosphere straight out of an Annette Funicello movie.)
Heading northwest from Foley, the drive down Highway 98 is worth taking the scenic route to Fairhope. You’ll pass through Magnolia Springs, the only town in the country that still delivers mail by water, and home to Jesse’s Restaurant, known near and far for its Southern fare and charm. Continuing on to Fairhope, you’ll hardly be able to keep your eyes on the road trying to catch slivers of of Mobile Bay in between distinctly Southern homes and gardens, and you’ll recognize the stately Grand Hotel in Point Clear, located near the Wash House Restaurant, which dates back to 1897.
Fairhope was established just three years before by a group of adventurous people with a “fair hope of success.” If the town’s downtown streets hanging with baskets of flowers and lined with shops and restaurants are any indication, they’ve succeeded. Today, you won’t want to miss the pork and beans at Julwin’s, also on the state’s “100 Dishes to Eat Before You Die” list (barbecue chicken at Oak Hollow Farm and gumbo at Guy’s Gumbo Shack made the list too), sno-balls at A Taste of New Orleans, Paige & Palette‘s third-generation bookstore, Windmill Market for art, produce and crafts, or A Fairhope Find for antiques. If you’d rather head east from Foley, Sweet Home Farm in Elberta sells handcrafted cheeses made on site. The farm store also stocks jams, jellies, local honey and bread.
Pensacola, Florida, is also a quick day trip away. History buffs will want to visit Old Seville Square and Old Christ Church, the oldest church in Florida still on its original site, as well as the Pensacola Lighthouse and the Pensacola Historical Museum. Downtown Pensacola is a shopping and dining mecca, and you won’t want to miss the world-famous Grits a Ya Ya at Fish House or The Deck Bar floating over Pensacola Bay. Before heading back, make a stop at Joe Patti’s seafood market to pick up some fresh catch.
Top 10 Must Dos:
1. Taste Hope’s Cheesecake
2. Pick up produce & fruit from Burris Farm Market
3. Go shopping & sip mimosas at Tallulah’s
4. Pass through the shark’s mouth at Souvenir City
5. Drink a Bushwhacker at Flora-Bama
6. Share a Key Lime Shake from Stacey’s
7. Take a scenic drive to Fairhope
8. Visit the Orange Beach Arts Center & Hot Shop
9. Peel & eat Royal Red Shrimp at King Neptune’s
10. Order fried green tomato sushi at Cosmo’s