The 32 miles of sugar-white beaches along Alabama’s Gulf Coast shoreline is a family-oriented destination that offers great nature and outdoors adventures, some of the most fantastic seafood in the U.S., and plenty of child-friendly activities. The sister cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach lie a true island, 27,000 acres separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway, and offering nearly 400,000 acres of protected back bay waters. The beaches here are consistently rated among the best in the United States. Here’s our road map for how to best enjoy them with your family.
Hike or Bike Wildlife Refuges
This area is a bounty for nature lovers, and the best way to experience it is often on foot or by pedal. Rent a bike from Beach Bike Rentals and hop directly on one of six trails that make up the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, 11 miles of paved paths that are home to six distinct ecosystems. Rare and threatened plant communities, incredible bird sightings, a variety of small mammals and even alligators can all be sighted from cycling trails easy enough for most ages.
Or visit the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1980 to protect the coastal dune ecosystem and its endangered species. Coming from the French for “safe harbor,” these 7,000 acres of wildlife habitat are easily accessible via multiple trails, and a launch site for canoes and kayaks is planned for summer 2013. Designated as one of Alabama’s Ten Natural Wonders, Bon Secour charges no entry fees.
Get on the Water for an Informative Nature Cruise
The water is clearly the pull here. Bill and Cheryl Mitchell of Cetacean Cruises run dolphin and nature cruises on their custom pontoon boat, at a very affordable $15 and up. Spotting the area’s playful dolphins is always exciting, but Captain Bill is extremely knowledgeable and protective of them. “They have the intelligence of an eight-year-old human,” he explains. “If you love dolphins and want to see a sustainable practice, you’ve come to the right place.” Cetacean is the only area company that passed the test to become certified for the Dolphin SMART program from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.
For a completely different on-the-water experience, climb aboard with Captain Skip of Sailaway Charters. On a 2-3 hour sailing adventure, Skip shows his guest how to go crabbing and shrimping, as well as various oyster techniques and bird identification. You will very likely also spot dolphin trailing along behind the boat for the leftovers.
Captain your own boat in a Kayak
For a more independent experience, you can grab your own kayak and glide along the peaceful estuaries of Graham Creek Nature Preserve in nearby Foley. These 484 acres of southern gothic waterway wind in and out of marsh grasses and larger bodies of water, with ancient water oaks lining the banks while pelicans and great blue herons fly overhead. Once out in more open water, you’re likely to spot bottlenose dolphin. You can rent your own kayak to launch from the Graham Creek launching dock, or set up with an experienced guide such as Certified Master Naturalist Carol Furman, through Fairhope Boat Company.
Relax on Sugar White Beaches
When all of the outdoor adventures and physical activity has worn you out, it’s the perfect time to recharge on the sands that the island is famous for. Turquoise water meets soft white sand that curves gently up into grass-covered dunes. The city of Orange Beach has three Gulf State Park beach areas, and Gulf Shores has eight. Most offer public restrooms, showers, picnic tables or pavilions and miles of pristine beach. Some, like Lake Shelby, Cotton Bayou and Gulf Shores Public Beach, have more activity going on with people fishing, water skiing, boating or playing volleyball. Others are more secluded and quiet—if that’s your thing, try Florida Point, Gulf State Park or the beach at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.
Dining and Entertainment
For fun after the sun has gone down, there is no lacking for options here. Old-timer, family run establishments like King Neptune’s or Tin Top Restaurant & Oyster Bar offer fresh, high-quality seafood in a comfortable environment. Other restaurants are a little more rocking—hot spots that really get going after dark, and provide fun entertainment for both adults and children. Lucy Buffett’s Lulu’s at Homeport is a favorite, run by the sister of famous parrothead Jimmy Buffett. Live music nightly, a ropes course for the kids, beach volleyball and a constant calendar of events all make Lulu’s a happening place on any given night.
The Hangout is also popular, billed as a place to let loose with family and friends. It also offers activities to keep the kids busy—including an awesome bubbles machine that draws in just as many big kids as little ones—along with plenty of live music on an outdoor stage. In fact, the annual Hangout Music Festival every May draws thousands of visitors over a three-day period, and top musical acts such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Dave Matthews Band. The Wharf at Orange Beach is a great multi-function destination, with a ferris wheel, amphitheatre, top restaurants such as Bob Baumhower’s Compleat Angler, art galleries, shopping and several late-night bars.