There’s something for everyone in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama. You can do much more than sit on the beach, though that’s just fine if that makes you happy. You can go kayaking, eat seafood galore and other special treats, hit the spa, go on a sunset cruise…the sky is the limit.
When you think of taking a trip to the beach, odds are Alabama’s coastline isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But a trip to Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Alabama, just might change that. That’s because this region offers more than a chance to sit in the sand. There’s fun for folks at any age, along with fabulous food and interesting festivals.
The most famous spot in the area is the Flora-Bama bar, home of the annual Mullet Toss Festival and more than a few bachelor or bachelorette parties. This is probably not the first place I’d suggest for you to take the kids. But if you’re on a girlfriend’s getaway, you really do have to take in the scenery, so to speak. If nothing else, it should have you feeling young again. The Flora-Bama is pretty much a party place on the Gulf of Mexico, where you go to have a great time. Located right on the Florida and Alabama border, there’s a boardwalk that leads down to the sand, pretty much separating the states. The bar has an interesting past… and if you’re lucky enough to bump into a fellow wearing a kilt and a pair of crocs, ask him to tell you a story. That’s Compton, and I like to think of him as the historian for the bar…he knows all the skinny on the past. If you don’t find him, odds are you will find some other fun at one of the 16 bars on the property (sometimes more), serving up more alcohol than you can imagine.
Across the street is the Flora-Bama Yacht Club where you can dine on interesting delicacies, including an appetizer of lionfish. Yes, the same lionfish you used to find in household fish tanks for decades. Turns out those fish are now serious pests in our oceans and the chef at Flora-Bama is passionate about fixing this. The lionfish has no natural predators and are quickly taking over the Gulf, eating little fish the bigger fish rely on, pretty much disrupting the circle of life. That’s why this chef is serving them as an appetizer, hoping to get more people eating them to hopefully control the population. You’ll find other great food there, but this is something you really should sample. Do it for Mother Nature.
If lionfish doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you might want to make your way down to The Gulf in Orange Beach. It is clearly the cool place to hangout when you’re down in that area. They have inflatable outdoor furniture. They only play vinyl records. They’re hip, they’re happening. And the food is delicious. I personally recommend the burger made with their house-made garlic. They’re famous for their flounder sandwiches with a flaky crust—it’s good—but I still think the burger is better. The Gulf offers beautiful views of the pass from the Bay out into the Gulf of Mexico. There are chairs made of recycled straw that you can purchase. There’s an amazing gift shop packed with things you’ll want to bring home, including a chandelier made of oyster shells.
This outdoor restaurant and surrounding property is funky with a unique feel that makes you want to stay a while. It marries fun and comfort while keeping it classy. The Gulf is where I’d find my friends…the ones who don’t take life too seriously, who appreciate the past and like to have a good time while honoring the best of everything.
When my friends want to get a little fancier, I think I’d find them down at Fishers Restaurant. It offers three different spaces for people in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores to enjoy. You have the patio area downstairs. Located right off the docks, it offers a view of the yachts and waterway and everything there is to love about the bay area of this region. It’s casual, but the food is delicious. You can taste their buttery oysters from nearby Murder Point and Dauphine Island…you can get them raw or order them Cajun baked, which is not too spicy (I have to watch that, so I promise, they’re safe…and if you like them hotter, you can add a bit of hot sauce). Or, you can try the fried crab claws, which come in a heaping platter.
I suggest you don’t miss the shrimp and grits. Again, you’ll get more than enough for one person, so plan to share with a friend or take some back for leftovers. The grits are as good as they get. The shrimp are huge and plentiful. And to quench your thirst, you can order several tropical drinks. I was personally partial to the ‘double nipple’—which sounds like a party drink, I know, but it’s essentially a merger of a strawberry daiquiri and a pina colada. It’s good enough that I had two.
The patio is fun, but there’s a bar upstairs that may be even more fun (we were there at lunch, and I got the impression this was a night time hot spot). The second floor offers a better view of the waterway. The first thing that hit me was the design. It’s clear a lot of thought went into incorporating fun into this area…including the ladder from a fishing boat (where you keep fishing poles) that is worked into the area behind bar. It’s funky and fun, and leads into the restaurant where you’ll be floored by the interior decorating.
It feels like the kind of home I wish I lived in year-round. I’m told so many people love the color of the exterior of the building that the local Sherwin Williams should be calling the shade of blue ‘Fisher’s Blue’ because so many people come in wanting it for their own home. It’s upscale and classy, but casual and comfortable. This is the kind of place where you’ll be kicking back with friends and forget you’re sitting in a restaurant. You’ll feel happy inside, from the pillows that say ‘hello beautiful,’ plumped to perfection, to the casual feel of some of the tables with padded cushions set up like a corner nook in your kitchen. It gives off a sea vibe, without the overstated beach design we are all so tired of. There are even three portholes to greet you on the other side of the kitchen so you can peek in on what they’re cooking. I’m telling you, you’re going to love this place.
After all that eating, you’re probably doing to want to work off some of those calories. When you’re at the beach, everything is centered on the Gulf of Mexico, but there’s another side of life on the Bay and you can get up close and personal with the wildlife if you go kayaking.
Johanna of Wild Native Tours took me and a few friends out for a row and showed us how to carefully cross the Intracoastal Waterway, avoiding powerboats, almost like a mother duck with four ducklings crossing a busy street. We made our way back into the marsh, getting up close with the vegetation, seeing the Spanish moss and learning about how it’s responsible for the ‘sleep tight’ phrase so many of us use at night (they used to use the moss in beds as a mattress, with ropes they’d tighten to hold you up off the floor…but the moss would often have little creatures in it, which also explains the ‘don’t let the bed bugs bite’ portion of the phrase). Odds are good you’ll also see dolphins playing and pelicans feeding. You can take a two or three hour tour and get a bit of a workout while at the same time relaxing on the water, being one with nature.
You can also enjoy beach yoga (offered in drop in sessions at The Gulf restaurant for out-of-towners) or take a sunset cruise on the Sail Wild Hearts boat. That’s ideal for kids of all ages. And if you really want to give yourself the royal treatment, try a massage down at The Beach Club in nearby Fort Morgan.
If you need a place to stay, we loved the condo at Edgewater, rented through Gulf Shores Rentals. It truly is a home away from home.
My last visit was spent with girlfriends, squeezing in all of the above, during a four-day stay. We found the region to be very family friendly, ideal for reminding us it’s ‘a whole different state’ than other beaches we were used to visiting, leaving us eager to plan another visit soon to ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.