Your Island Getaway: Dauphin Island
by Edith Parten
Dauphin Island is the perfect destination for a relaxing getaway. A natural environment surrounded by the beautiful turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, this small barrier island is set apart by white sand beaches, walking trails, bountiful wildlife and lots of history. In fact, the entire island is a designated bird sanctuary and has been named one of the nation’s “birdiest coastal communities.”
As you drive across the 3-mile-long high-rise bridge from the mainland to the island, you’ll discover panoramic landscapes, boats of all sizes and a unique small-town charm. The island is so low-key there are no traffic lights anywhere, making it easy to navigate. The road connecting the island to the mainland (Highway 193) ends in a “T” at the water tower with the island’s main road, Bienville Boulevard, stretching from historic Fort Gaines on the east end to the scenic and pristine beaches on the west end.
Stop at the Dauphin Island Welcome Center (1504 Bienville Blvd.; 251-861-5524) for a brief introduction to the area and for brochures, information, restrooms and free Wi-Fi.
An excellent way to see the island is on a bike. Rentals are available from the Dauphin Island Bicycle and Kayak Rentals (251-422-5285). Call for bike pickup and delivery anywhere on the island.
View Bird Migrations Across the Island
Dauphin Island has been named one of the top four places in North America to view bird migrations in the spring. Self-guided tours through the Audubon Bird Sanctuary (109 Bienville Blvd.; 251-861-3607) and Shell Mound Park should be included in your visit. Located on the island’s eastern end, both sites are easily accessible and have plenty to offer for bird-watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
The 126-acre bird sanctuary covers a diverse landscape of maritime forests, marshes, sand dunes, a lake, swamp and beach and is the first landfall for many neotropical migratory birds after their long northerly flight across the Gulf from Central and South America. The sanctuary has three miles of trails, which together have been designated a National Recreation Trail. From here, an amazing 347 species have been reported on the island.
The 11-acre Shell Mound Park dates back to A.D. 900-1,500. Early Native Americans are believed to have visited the island during the winter in search of oysters and fish. So many oysters were consumed at the site over the centuries that massive mounds of shells eventually formed. Giant, moss-draped live oak trees adorn both parks in their pure, natural setting. Botanists have estimated some at approximately 800 years old, meaning many of these massive oaks were already mature by the time the Spaniards first visited the shores of Dauphin Island in 1519.
The Bird Sanctuary and Shell Mound Park are two renowned “hot-spots” for observing neotropical migratory birds. The two sites attract birders from around the world each spring and fall and have become a “must see” stop on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. Tip: As with most outdoor excursions along the Gulf Coast, bring bug spray during the summer months to keep mosquitoes at bay.
Shell Mound Park is located on North Iberville Street. To reach the park, arrive on the island via Highway 193, turn left on Bienville Boulevard, proceed two blocks, and then turn left on North Iberville. The park is free to visit. An estimated 25,000 people, comprising student tours, snowbirds and birding groups, visit the mounds each year. Call Alabama Marine Resources Division (251-861-2882) for more info.
The Audubon Bird Sanctuary is located on the eastern end of the island near the ferry terminal. When traveling from Highway 193, take a left at the stop sign and continue straight until you see signs on the right hand side of the street approximately one mile east. If you reach the ferry terminal, you’ve gone too far.
Other Island Parks
East End Park, located next to Fort Gaines on the extreme eastern shore of the island, includes a small pier, free boat launches at Billy Goat Hole, picnic tables and great views of Mobile Bay. Fishing is popular from the pier.
The Dauphin Island Beach and Pier – an 850-foot structure with benches, picnic tables and a concession stand – serves as easy access to the main Dauphin Island public beach. Shifts in the shoal system and previous storm activity have altered this natural landscape, rendering an expansion of the beach and a temporary fusion of Little Sand Island with the Dauphin Island Public Beach.
Aloe Bay Landing Park, a small waterfront park in the industrial section of the island, offers calm waters from which to launch a canoe or kayak. It’s also a great place to watch the fishing and shrimp boats arrive with the day’s catch, or to enjoy a simple picnic and the sunset.
Bayou Heron Park is a small waterfront park popular with bird-watchers. It has a small pier, picnic tables and benches.
Magnolia Park, located between the ferry landing and Fort Gaines on the eastern side of the island, is a very small park that is only accessible by foot traffic. A porch swing hanging from a beautiful magnolia tree provides an opportunity to relax in the shade.
Experience Other Area Attractions
For a small community, Dauphin Island offers visitors access to a variety of area attractions that will keep the family busy. West End Beach has acres of beautiful sand beaches with lifeguards, showers and air-conditioned facilities as well as a water-slide for kids of all ages. Vendors provide chairs, umbrellas, boogie boards and food. Many island businesses offer specials that include passes and discounts.
At Fort Gaines (51 Bienville Blvd.; 251-861-6992), you will see cannons, a working blacksmith, stables, bunkers and more. The historic Civil War fort was instrumental in the Battle for Mobile Bay – the battle from which Adm. David Farragut coined the phrase “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” The view from atop the fort is striking as you can see the Sand Island Lighthouse in the distance. The lighthouse is listed as one of the most endangered in the country due to erosion and damage by hurricanes.
Fun on the Water
Dauphin Island offers plenty of outdoor activities including kayaking and fishing. Kayak rentals are available by calling Dauphin Island Kayak Rentals and Tours (251-422-5285). Operators will deliver and pick up kayaks, and you can schedule a tour.
Dauphin Island is also home to the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, the world’s largest saltwater fishing tournament (listed in Guinness World Records). The first rodeo took place in 1929, attracting 260 fishermen.
Today, the rodeo attracts more than 75,000 visitors and more than 3,200 anglers. Participants compete with catches of king mackerel, speckled trout, red snapper, tuna, shark, swordfish and other big game fish. If you can’t make it for the annual three-day summer event, you can still plan your own in-shore or deep-sea fishing excursion with more than half a dozen outfitters and charter captains operating out of the Dauphin Island Marina (251-861-2201).
Where To Eat
There are plenty of local eateries. During the off-season, be sure to call before you go as hours can change and restaurants tend to close early. Lighthouse Bakery (919 Chaumont Ave.; 251-861-2253) serves breakfast and lunch items including muffins, sandwiches and subs. Locals love the Sunday special, a crab omelet. The bakery is open Wednesday through Sunday.
If you’re in the mood for pizza, visit Island Rainbow (1614 Bienville Blvd.; 251-861-0060). While you’re there, be sure to select from the wide variety of snow cone flavors and enjoy a cool dessert during a hot summer afternoon.
Where To Stay
Lodging on Dauphin Island includes rental houses, condos, a motel and a campground. Good resources for finding beach lodging include the South Mobile County Tourism Authority (251-861-8747) and the Dauphin Island Chamber of Commerce (251-861-3800).
Gulf Breeze Motel (1512 Cadillac Ave.; 251-861-7344) is the only motel on the island. It sports a retro vibe from its back-in-the-day exterior down to the metal room keys. The modest-looking hotel was featured in the movie _October Baby_.
The Fish Camps at Dauphin Island are at the end of the large bridge leading onto the island. These pastel-colored structures are built on piers and are occasionally available for rent.
The Dauphin Island Campground is located on the island’s east end. To get there, take a left at the water tower. The campground offers 150 sites with power and water, a store, bathhouses, showers, barbecue grills and free boat launches. It also has fun activities for the kids, including walking trails, a playground, bike rentals, horseshoes, volleyball and shuffleboard.
Nearby Towns Worth the Trip
Bayou La Batre, the “Seafood Capital of Alabama” is renowned for its fresh Gulf seafood and is featured in the Academy Award-winning movie Forrest Gump. Visitors can watch the shrimp boats return to the dock with the day’s catch. Annual events such as the Blessing of the Fleet in May and Taste of the Bayou in September pay tribute to the town’s fishing industry. Bayou La Batre was known as a resort town in the late 1800s through the early 1900s and was home to numerous historic waterfront homes and hotels frequented by wealthy vacationers from throughout the region.
Nearby Grand Bay is well known for its watermelons. The Grand Bay Watermelon Festival, which has been a July Fourth tradition here since 1973, allows visitors the juicy opportunity to sample locally grown watermelons. Farmers in the area also grow pecans, peaches and satsumas. While here, be sure and visit the Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It encompasses 10,188 acres to help protect one of the largest remaining expanses of wet pine savanna habitats on the Gulf Coast.
The town of Theodore’s claim to fame is the ever-popular Bellingrath Gardens and Home, near Mobile. The garden estate of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath features 65 acres of landscaped beauty and includes a conservatory, nature walk, water elements, several themed gardens and the home. Theodore is also the site of the Alabama Pecan Festival each November. The event features music, arts and crafts and the signature sweet Southern pecan prepared and served in a variety of ways.
Dauphin Island Estuarium and Sea Lab (101 Bienville Blvd.; 251-861-2141), a marine science research lab and education center, showcases marine life native to local waters. The hands-on area of the Estuarium contains preserved fish, eels, sharks and stingrays and provides a great opportunity for kids to learn about sea life. You’ll also see live baby alligators, octopus, turtles, seahorses, glowing jellyfish and so much more. An outdoor exhibit displays stingrays and baby sharks from around Mobile Bay.