The Gulf Coast of Alabama
by Sally Parker | 28 November 2019
White-sand dunes collapse satisfyingly under foot, the sun is beating down and the waves are lapping the shore. I’ve spotted bright blue crabs and a variety of sea birds. It’s so idyllic I could be in the Indian Ocean, or the Caribbean. But this is Alabama’s Gulf Coast!
An intriguing sectioned-off area of beach turns out to be a turtle nest, the contents of which are expected to hatch very soon. Volunteers will listen late into the night for the tell-tale waterfall sound which is the hatchlings starting their treacherous journey to the sea, the disturbed sand falling back into the nest as they push out.
With wonderful beaches like this, a state park, entertainment and shopping district, 200 restaurants and some legendry nightlife, the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area, combined with nearby historic city Mobile, are a great choice for couples or families.
Mobile was founded in 1702 by the French as the first capital of Louisiana and its history is reflected in eclectic architecture influenced by France, Britain and Spain. It only became part of the U.S. in 1813.
My first breakfast is at The Ruby Slipper Café, famous for its enormous biscuits. There are 65 restaurants in four blocks, all locally owned, but Gulf seafood (oysters, blue crabs and shrimp in particular), southern specialities and French Creole seem the way to go.
Wintzell’s Oyster House started selling ‘fried, stewed or nude’ oysters from a six stool bar in 1938 and now has several restaurants across Alabama. The walls are covered in the founder Oliver’s quirky sayings.
Other great choices are Spot of Tea, for home-style southern cooking. Or Dauphin’s on the 34th floor of the RSA Trustmark Building, where you can enjoy fine southern dining (think fancy fried green tomatoes and Alabama shrimp remoulade) while taking in the wonderful views across Mobile Bay. After our huge breakfast, a downtown walking tour with Bienville Bites seems like a good idea.
We meander through Cathedral Square, dominated by the Cathedral Basilica of Immaculate Conception, rebuilt in 1711, past the pretty fountain in Bienville Square and along oak-lined streets, taking in historic buildings, quaint shops and restaurants. There’s very little traffic and not a chain store to be seen.
Mobile famously has the oldest Mardi Gras in the U.S., thanks to French Catholic colonial settlers who celebrated this festival from the first decade of the 18th century, and Mobile Carnival Museum tells its history. We browse the opulent crowns and sumptuous robes of kings and queens and learn that there are over 60 parading organisations in Mobile, each with its own monarch.
A short hop across the bay takes us to USS ALABAMA Battleship Memorial Park, home to the 45,000-tonne WW2 legend known as the ‘Mighty A’, plus submarine USS Drum and 30 military aircraft. The USS ALABAMA was home to 2,500 servicemen and wandering the maze of passageways you get a sense of life onboard: there’s a baker’s, butcher’s, barber shop and soda fountain. The bunks are tiny and most crew had to take turns at sleeping. No lives were lost to enemy fire on the ship but an exhibit where you can look up any of the 6,000 men who served onboard is moving, with photos and detailed biographies giving more personal insight.
That evening a sunset boat tour with WildNative Tours gets us up close and personal with the massive cargo ships and cranes of today’s Mobile Bay and the marshland of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, a lush habitat close to the city, with alligators, birds and other wildlife. Five Rivers Delta Center is a great place to stop off to find out more about the area (or rent a kayak or canoe) and see some of wildlife that lives there.
Life’s a beach
Just over an hour from Mobile, we arrive at The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel. This beachfront property is a leader in sustainable tourism. It has buildings designed to reduce energy and water usage and uses recycled materials, water bottle filling stations, bamboo drinking straws and cups made from biodegradable corn-based plastics.
A tour with Coastal Segway Adventures is a great way to explore the park. We zip through hardwood forests, past freshwater lakes, bogs and swamps, covering 14 miles of trails in just a couple of hours.
They say that seeing a dolphin is guaranteed here, but it’s still a thrill when, 10 minutes into our sunset jaunt with Cetacean Cruises, we spot our first pod. From then on it’s one big dolphin party as our guides regale us with facts and figures and point out other animals, birds of prey and flora along the intracoastal waterway.
For a fun night out in Gulf Shores or Orange Beach, there are plenty of options.
The first person in line at Sunliner Diner gets to sit in a Ford car, while Lulu’s on the waterfront has its own arcade and even a ropes course.
Named for its position, straddling the state line, Flora-Bama is the stuff of legend. Its five stages host live music, there are several beachfront bars and - something you don’t see very often - hundreds of bras hanging from the ceiling.
We write our names on the wall (it’s what you do!) and try a Bushwacker, a hangover-inducing mix of rum, Kahlua, Baileys and chocolate liqueur, frozen with a small splash of something not alcoholic.
Sadly, it’s the wrong time of year to see the Mullet Toss, which draws big crowds to judge who can toss their fish the furthest. I’ll just have to come back!
America As You Like It (americaasyoulikeit.com) has a seven night fly-drive from £1,485pp, including flights, car hire and nights at Renaissance Riverview in Mobile and the Lodge at Gulf Shores State Park. We flew with Delta via Atlanta to Mobile and back from Pensacola, Florida
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