Gulf Shores Beach Vacation
by Jennifer Merrick
When Canadians think of a US beach destination, Alabama doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Yet here I am on the state’s southernmost point looking out at the whitest sands imaginable. Sugar white they call it, and it’s actually finely ground quartz formed from rocks from the Appalachian Mountains that have travelled over 1000 kilometers down the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee rivers. It now lies before my eyes, shimmering in the bright sun and caressed by the Gulf of Mexico waters. It’s stunning and when you combine that beauty with friendly southerners, succulent seafood, and a slew of nature activities you have a recipe for an unbeatable beach vacation.
Becoming a Water Warrior
Venturing into the gulf waters on a paddle board, a million instructions are going through my mind — use your core, keep your arm straight, focus on the trees on the other side of the bay, turn the sticker on the paddle towards you, fall away from the board (on your back, if possible). But before I do anything, I need to stand up. This popular sport is called stand up paddle boarding after all, not kneel down paddle boarding, though at this point I’m wishing it were. Miraculously, I don’t fall when I do manage to stand, but my legs are shaking like jello.
I point out my quivering muscles to Becky Harger, instructor and co-owner of Water Warrior outfitter.
“Are you focusing on the trees?” she asks.
The only thing I’m focusing on is not falling off. My muscles continue to jiggle and wobble, and I’m convinced I can last a maximum of two more minutes.
“Are you looking at the trees?” Harger asks again.
I lift my head up, tighten my stomach and thankfully my legs are now still. With each stroke, I feel more relaxed. The water is calm and being so close to it, there’s a connection to it and the nature around us. I begin to understand the palpable passion Harger has for the sport.
Ten years ago, at the age of 55, Harger took lessons and never looked back.
“I’ve seen unbelievable things on the boards,” she says, and tells us about two-hour encounters with pods of dolphins. “They’re all but on the board with you. It’s eye to eye contact.”
It’s also a total body workout. “This is our gym,” says Joe Klootwyk, co-owner of Water Warrior, who is just as passionate about the sport as Becky. Both are determined to pass this enthusiasm on, and have taught close to 1000 people including those who were afraid of water, others who have disabilities and even a man who was attached to an oxygen tank.
“Basically, if you want to paddle, we’re going to get you on board.”
They certainly got me on board, and I can’t think of better people or a better place to be introduced to this fun and accessible watersport. www.waterwarrior.net
“What time do the dolphins come out?”
This is one of the siller questions the tourist office has been asked (among others are When is jelly fish mating season? and Where can I find the underwater shopping centre?).
Of course, the dolphins don’t have a schedule. On a Cetacean Dolphin Cruise, we’re on their terms in their environment. But we don’t have to wait long, and ten minutes into the excursion the captain calls, “Dolphin at two o’clock!” Cameras begin to click furiously. It’s not just any dolphin, but Chopper, so named because of the bite-like nick on his fin. About 30 of the dolphins who make these waters their home have been identified and registered in the attempt to protect them.
“They know us and trust us,” says the captain as he explains how the outfitter is part of Dolphin SMART, an organization that encourages responsible viewing of wild dolphins, minimizing disruption of their natural behaviour.
Soon after we see three dolphins swimming together, two adults and a baby in the middle, and we learn how the females protect and teach their young.
Leaving the open waters, our captain navigates the boat expertly into the narrow marsh waterways of the bayou. Here we see the Great Blue Herons and other fish-eating diving birds that nest in this habitat, which turn out to be equally as fascinating as the dolphins we had come to see. www.cetaceancruises.com
Another worthwhile cruise, especially if you’re looking for a more intimate experience is Sail Away Charters, where you can learn about crabbing and shrimping as well as other wildlife, including the star of the water – the dolphin.
A Royal Feast
Southern food is generally good, but on the gulf shores with its emphasis on seafood, dining is a definite highlight. The piece de resistance is the Royal Red Shrimp. I first try them at Steamers Restaurant, a seafood institution where, as their name suggests, nothing is fried. Because of their enormous size and the fact that they’re served with the head on, I don’t even recognize it as a shrimp. But it’s love at first bite when I taste the salty, sweet and succulent delicacy. The taste is a cross between shrimp and lobster and it’s only found far offshore in the deep, cold water. For the rest of the trip, I order it almost wherever we go, and even contemplate smuggling it across the border home with me.
The restaurants on Alabama’s Gulf Shore, whether they be casual or more upscale (though in this laidback town, nowhere is overly formal) don’t disappoint. Unfortunately, there’s not enough time to try them all, but we do our best. Some recomendations, besides, of course, Gulf Shores Steamers – http://gulfshoressteamer.com/ include:
Quirky and casual, The Hangout is a great place not only to eat but to chill out for a few hours. A mountain of sand, a bubble fountain, gigantic chair, surfing paraphernalia statue, and memorabilia collections entertain kids and adults alike while you nosh on their specialties like three-layer burgers, seafood towers and yummy fish tacos. In mid-May they host the Hangout Music Fest that attracts 40,000+ visitors and big names bands.
Located at the Perido Beach Resort, Voyageurs is more upscale and features an extensive wine list to accompany their seafood (including the Royal Red Shrimp) and farm menu choices. Their attentive service and support for local sourced products and the community is impressive as are their hand-cut aged steaks.
Another superb meal and ocean view is at The Beach Club, where we enjoy coastal specialties with a southern twist like fried green tomato and crab stacks and pan seared red with buttery cheese grits. The tangy lion fish ceviche is another house specialty because local celebrity chef, Brody Olive, is on a mission to do his part in the eradication of this invasive species in order to protect the Gulf Shores native species.
Off the Water
It’s true that the beach and water are the biggest draws of the region, but definitely not the only ones. Alabama’s Gulf’s State Park, a 6150-acre nature reserve, offers leisure activities that range from hiking and camping to zip lining, golfing and even a Segway tour. We explore it by renting a bike, and riding the Hugh S Branyon Backcountry Trail. The terrain varies considerably and showcases the remarkable bio-diversity of the region. As we peddle, we see cacti, marshlands, lush magnolia trees, pines and Spanish moss hanging off hardwood trees, a baby alligator, blue herons and other native birds.
Other worthwhile land lubber activities are the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo and The Wharf, a pedestrian-friendly entertainment district with boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants. Every Thursday in the summer there’s the Wharf’s Sunset Festival where visitors and locals gather to enjoy live music, happy hour specials and street performers. Grab a Bushwhacker, a decadent Alabama concoction of rum, Kahlua, Crème de Cacao and cream, and celebrate a US beach destination that not every Canadian knows about–yet.