Some of the best family memories are made on a beach vacation. Ditching your regular routine and setting out for Alabama’s 32 miles of sandy seashore welcomes a bit of magic into your lives. The special times aren’t simply limited to the beaches though. The entire coastal region – the wetlands, rivers, and bays – is a rich playground full of a variety of adventures.
Youngsters will not only like to play in the surf, but they also will soak up the culture of the coast. So plan your trip with a healthy mix of downtime combined with several outings to explore the watery ecosystem and the region’s role in American history. And don’t leave out a few squeal-producing activities.
Until your teens or tots sink their toes in the sand, you haven’t really arrived at the beach. So make haste down AL Highway 59 (Gulf Shores Parkway) to land’s edge where you can slather on the sunscreen and catch a wave. All of the major resorts in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach maintain beach services with lounge chairs and umbrellasand even kayaks or catamarans that visitors can rent.
Look beyond the high-rises to discover less-crowded strands, where you’ll feel as if the entire beach belongs to your family. At these tranquil spots, you’ll need to bring your own blankets, chairs and umbrellas for comfort (don’t forget a cooler with cold drinks, snacks and wet cloths to wash hands and faces). One of the best sites along AL Highway 182 is Gulf State Park (20115 AL Highway 135; 251–948–7275). The 3.5 miles of sugary sands separate Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. The park features the second-longest fishing pier (1,540 feet) anywhere along the Gulf of Mexico. (Kids younger than 16 don’t need fishing licenses, but adults do. They can be purchased right on the pier.)
Families with toddlers especially love the seaside lakes that form along Alabama’s beaches for days at a time. It’s Mother Nature’s way of creating little kiddie pools.
After substantial rains or high tides push extra water onto the shore, small ponds develop along Alabama’s beaches. Families with toddlers especially love these seaside lakes, which can remain for days at a time. It’s Mother Nature’s way of creating little kiddie pools. While there’s no guarantee you’ll encounter one, when you do, it’s a special bonus. Parents can watch older kids ride boogie boards in the Gulf’s gentle waves and splash around with their youngest kiddos in the warm shallow waters – all just a few feet apart.
Cross Over the Bay
When you’re ready for a break from the beach, make tracks for Mobile Bay. As the fourth-largest estuary in the U.S., the bay is home to dolphins and seabirds as well as two 19th-century forts. The entire bay encompasses 413 square miles, with six different rivers feeding into it. Plus, a really cool auto ferry crosses its southern tip. Pack up the kids for a full day of ecological and historical adventure.
Drive out Fort Morgan Road (AL Highway 180). As the peninsula narrows, the bay laps against the north shore of the road, and the Gulf on the south. At road’s end (just over 20 miles), spend a morning climbing over the 1834 star-shaped fortifications at Fort Morgan (110 Highway 180 W.; 251–540–5257). Exhibits describe the events of the War of 1812 as well as the Civil War. Barrel-vaulted ceilings carry echoes between masonry walls that whisper of centuries past.
Be ready for your imaginative youngsters to shout out the phrase “Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead!” made famous by Adm. David Farragut in the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War. The bay was heavily fortified with sunken mines (called torpedoes then). Farragut led the Union boats past Fort Morgan, Fort Gaines and the bay’s mine-riddled waters to end the Confederate hold on the coast.
Afterward, drive your vehicle (or walk) onto the Mobile Bay Ferry (1606-B Bienville Blvd.; 251–861–3000) to putter across the mouth of the bay. The ferry is an adventure in itself. Dolphins frolic in the ferry’s wake as it crisscrosses the three miles to Dauphin Island. Huge tankers use the ship channel to make their way in and out of the bay. On clear days, take along some binoculars to spy the historic Sand Island Lighthouse a couple of miles south. Built in 1873, the 125-foot lighthouse and its island have been ravaged by time and hurricanes.
Upon arrival, visit The Estuarium (101 Bienville Blvd.; 251–861–2141). Run by Sea Lab, a university-level research facility, the aquarium is a hands-on touch-the-horseshoe-crab kind of place geared toward families. Exhibits explain the local ecosystems, from barrier islands (Dauphin Island is a classic example) and river deltas to living marshes and the universe of the Gulf. You’ll learn about salt marshes, sponges, oil production and even Gulf weather.
Afterward, wander into Fort Gaines, (251–861–6992) which was built to protect the western entrance to the Mobile Bay. Completed during the Civil War, Fort Gaines also played host to soldiers on U-boat watch during World War II. Today, Farragut’s anchor is on display where living-history actors enact the fort’s legends.
Circle the Bay
Add an extra day to your bayside travels and scoot the 30 miles north into Mobile to the Gulf Coast Exploreum (65 Government St.; 251–208–6893). This huge science museum features an IMAX theater, hands-on science exhibits (laser harps, optics galleries, digital DJ), the BioLab that tests human health and physical limits, and a dramatic play area for young scientists.
Afterward, drive under the bay through a tunnel (via I–10) to the Battleship USS Alabama. The 680-foot behemoth served in both the Atlantic and Pacific arenas during World War II. Families may explore the brigs, walk the decks and man the gun turrets. Students can even arrange to spend the night on the iron beauty. The park also includes the 311-foot USS Drum submarine plus a massive hangar with more than 25 war planes, ranging from the World War II-era through the Cold War.
All this exploring will work up an appetite, so take the kids over to Felix’s Fish Camp Grill (1530 Battleship Parkway; 251–626–6710). Set on the edge of the bay, Felix’s feels like a big old screened-in porch with ceiling fans, wooden tables and a kitchen cooking up tasty seafood dishes. It’s a great place to watch the sunset.
Walk on the Wild Side
Let your offspring discover their animal nature at a duo of wild parks. Alligator Alley (19950 Highway 71; 866–994–2867), just north of Summerdale, is home to some really big gators. These gators like people, too. Without owner Wes Moore to save them, game officials would probably have destroyed the big lizards. Instead, Wes created an alligator sanctuary for the goliaths who’ve lost their fear of humans. You don’t need to fear either – you will walk on a nice raised boardwalk through the piney wood forest and marsh where the gators roam. Wes tells about gator nature and, of course, he welcomes you to watch during feeding times. To get to Alligator Alley, take AL Highway 59 north through Summerdale about 19 miles. Turn right on Couch Plant Road, and take the first left onto County Road 71. Alligator Alley is on the right.
The region is home to a zoo that wants you to touch the animals. The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo (1204 Gulf Shores Parkway; 251–968–5732) has many young creatures among their 300-plus wild residents. They have an interaction program that lets you hold a kangaroo, pet a lemur or even romp with white Bengal tiger cubs. (Make reservations in advance for the tiger interaction.) Don’t leave your camera behind this time. Note: The zoo will be moving to a new home 10 miles north of Gulf Shores in early 2013. Watch the website for updates.
Enjoy Family-Friendly Evenings
Get a bird’s-eye perspective of Orange Beach’s Intracoastal Waterway at The Wharf (4673 Wharf Parkway, Orange Beach; 251–224–1000), home to the Southeast’s tallest Ferris wheel. It soars 120 feet above the amphitheater and boutiques that line the development. Afterward, check out the waterfront eateries. To get to The Wharf from Gulf Shores, take AL Highway 59 S., turn left on AL Highway 182 E. (Perdido Beach Blvd.) and continue to Orange Beach. Turn left on AL Highway 161 (Orange Beach Blvd.) and follow it until it ends at AL Highway 180 (Canal Road). Take a left on Canal Road. The Wharf will be on your right just before the turn for the Beach Expressway toll bridge. For more information about The Wharf, visit www.alwharf.com.
Gulf Shores also revs up the nighttime with adventures at Waterville U.S.A. (906 Gulf Shores Pkwy.; 251–948–2106). In the warm summer months, the water park stays open till 10 at night, making the slides and themed rides even more fun – without the worry about sunburn. Or, if you have some young golfers, take them around the 36 holes at Pirate’s Island Adventure Golf (3201 Gulf Shores Parkway; 251–968–4653) with Jean Lafitte and Blackbeard.
Where To Eat
Everyone feels uber cool at The Hangout (101 E. Beach Blvd.; 251–948–3030), the centerpiece of Gulf Shores beachfront gatherings. Huge juicy burgers and fresh shrimp lead the menu in the open-air dining room that sidles up to the beach. And when the kids aren’t eating, they can build sand castles or play in the bubbles from the bubble machine.
At SanRoc Cay Marina, dig into a pile of Royal Red shrimp or crab claws at the Gulf Shores Steamer (27267 Perdido Beach Blvd.; 251–948–6344), where none of the food is fried. It fits health-conscious family appetites, especially those in love with fresh seafood.
When you’re up near the outlet mall in Foley, 15 minutes north of Gulf Shores on AL Hwy. 59, kids can’t resist Lambert’s Cafe (2981 S. McKenzie; 251–943–7655), home of the “throwed rolls.” Burgers, sandwiches, salads, steaks and good country cooking fill the bill here. Cash and checks, please; no credit cards.
Where To Stay
Kids are happy anywhere along the Gulf, but two properties cater to them best. If you want to stay away from the crowds, go to The Beach Club (925 Beach Club Trail; 866–348–9112) on Fort Morgan Road. Condos, cottages, multiple restaurants, plus a spa, and more than 40,000 square feet of pools and a lazy river make this a top resort.
On the edge of Orange Beach, the Caribe Resort (28103 Perdido Beach Blvd.; 888–607–7020) features more condo accommodations where your family can spread out. You’ll appreciate the multiple pools, spa, boat rentals and even parasailing.
Scooping up the Bay, One Net at a Time
Drop by Dauphin Island’s Ship and Shore store (401 Lemoyne Drive; 251–861–2262), the only store on the island, to pick up an inexpensive net, cooler, bait and some hand wipes. Then make your way to one of the bay access points on either Dauphin Island or Fort Morgan Road. Wade into the knee-deep water to throw the net out to catch small fish, or scoop up crabs with a pole net. Another way to catch crabs is to tie a piece of bacon or a chicken neck on the end of a string and toss it into the water. Use your scoop net to pick the snappy creature up.