As we drive into Gulf Shores a real estate sign boldly declares, “Florida is Full.” The implication is that Alabama is not. Miles of sandy white beaches line the Alabama coastline, inviting visitors to relax and play.
Gulf Shores is on the southernmost tip of Alabama between Mobile and Pensacola, Fla. Airports are located in each of these cities and both are less than an hour’s drive to Gulf Shores. The 32 miles of beach are bordered by the brilliant blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The island is a favorite with families and ours has spent numerous vacations building sand castles, exploring forts and watching the wildlife.
On a recent trip we booked a wheelchair-accessible condo at the Beach Club. The resort is on Fort Morgan Peninsula — a secluded spot miles away from the typical strip centers and souvenir shops. Amenities include the clubhouse, five outdoor pools and one indoor pool, tennis courts, a full-service European spa, two restaurants, and ice cream and coffee shops. Guests use the resort’s private beach. Beach wheelchairs can be rented from Ike’s Beach Service for $30 a day or $150 for a week.
Getting close to nature is easy in Gulf Shores. Just down the road is the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/bonsecour). Compared to most national refuges, this 7,000-acre habitat is considered small. It’s home to the endangered Alabama beach mouse and nesting sea turtles. The one-mile Jeff Friend Trail is wheelchair accessible and provides impressive views of Little Lagoon.
Bird watching is a popular attraction in the area and crowds flock to the nearby Fort Morgan State Historic Site for bird-banding sessions held every April and October. The Hummer/Bird Study Group (HBSG), which organizes the event, gathers valuable information about the health, behavior and habitat of migratory birds, in addition to giving visitors the chance to touch, hold and release the birds. Visitors pay a fee to enter the park and everyone is encouraged to bring lawn chairs and binoculars. The Alabama Coastal Birding Trails wind through two counties; a brochure and maps can be found online at www.alabamacoastalbirdingtrail.com/trails.
As the sun began to set, we drove over to LuLu’s — an open-air restaurant at the foot of the Intercoastal Canal Bridge owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister, Lucy. When the original Lucy’s lease was lost, she built a new place that’s about six times the size of the old hangout. On the Thursday night we visited, a trio of middle-aged musicians played “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and other familiar selections. The band’s name (we’re not making this up) is The Relics. They were good. Really good. They better be, because the music was so loud, we could only talk if we shouted. During the busy summer season, the restaurant serves as many as 3,000 people a day, but patrons don’t seem to mind the long lines. The blackened mahi mahi with a slice of key lime pie came in man-sized portions at a working man’s price. Here are several other Alabama destinations that are worth the drive.
Less than a half-hour drive from Gulf Shores is the town of Foley. You can spend the day shopping at the Tanger Outlet, which sells everything from socks to diamonds at name-brand stores such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Liz Claiborne, Coldwater Creek, Rockport and Gap. (Visit the company’s Web site for maps and coupons — www.tangeroutlet.com.) On a hot summer day, nothing tastes as wonderful as a treat from the old-time soda fountain at Stacey Rexall Drugs in downtown Foley. When it’s time to dine, don’t miss Lambert’s Café (The Only Home of the Throwed Rolls). Hot rolls are baked daily and tossed to the customers. Come with an appetite — the portions are huge. Every time we’ve gone to Lambert’s Café, there’s a wait, but it’s well worth it. Once you’re seated, the staff come by your table and serve “pass arounds” of macaroni and cheese, fried okra and potatoes.
|Historic Fort Morgan is just one of the many sights to see near Alabama’s southern shoreline|
Just an hour’s drive from Gulf Shores is 300-year-old Mobile. The secondlargest metropolitan area in the state has been revitalizing its downtown and offers visitors a laid-back vacation. Begin your tour right next to the city’s welcome center at Fort Condé, a partial replica of the original 18th-century French fort. Costumed guides lead tours, and fire muskets and cannons.
Less than a block away is the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center which has permanent and nationally traveling exhibits and an IMAX theatre.
The 95,000-square-foot Mobile Museum of Art has American, European, Asian and African art, as well as special exhibits. Collage, the museum gift shop, offers art-inspired treasures.
Military history fans won’t want to miss the Battleship Memorial Park on Mobile Bay. The impressive display of aircraft and the gift shop are wheelchair-accessible as is the top deck of the USS Alabama, winner of nine World War II battle stars.
Mobile Bay is the birthplace of this nation’s Mardi Gras and celebrates during the two-and-a-half weeks prior to Ash Wednesday with more than 35 parades. If you aren’t in town during Mardi Gras, get the royal treatment at the Mobile Carnival Museum.
Less than 30 minutes from Mobile is Bellingrath Gardens, an estate with 65 acres of camellias, azaleas, roses, chrysanthemums and much more. Visitors are invited to take self-guided tours of the gardens, experience the Ecological Bayou Boardwalk, marvel at Mirror Lake, view the Asian-American Gardens, stroll through the Butterfly Garden, and board the Southern Belle for a 45-minute cruise along Fowl River. Built in 1935, the Bellingrath was the first home in Alabama to appear on A&E network’s “America’s Castles” TV show. Grounds and gift shop are wheelchair-accessible.
If you enjoy golf, head for the lavishly landscaped and artfully designed Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. The New York Times calls it “… some of the best public golf on Earth.”
Spend the night in the Battle House, originally built in 1852. The property was fully restored and reopened as The Battle House, a Renaissance Hotel in May 2007. It’s a rare experience to stay in a historic hotel that’s so completely wheelchair-accessible, including our spacious room. The hotel’s lobby has a 100-year-old stained glass ceiling, massive trompe l’oeil paintings, and reproduction furniture in bright, modern colors. Dine below the Tiffany stained glass ceiling or beside the show kitchen in the hotel’s Trellis Restaurant. Relax on the second floor, but be careful what you say. The “whispering arch” auditory phenomenon allows a whisper to be heard 35 feet away.
If you prefer a more rustic retreat, the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort in Point Clear is nestled on 550 secluded acres overlooking Mobile Bay. After being damaged by hurricanes, the hotel has newly renovated guest rooms that are comfortable for guests using wheelchairs. Explore the biking and jogging trails that meander through the property or read a novel under the majestic oaks that surround the pool, followed by complimentary tea and cookies each day at 4 p.m. If the weather is cool, arrive early to enjoy the blazing fire.
The charming town of Fairhope is 20 minutes from downtown Mobile. Containers filled with flowers and baskets bursting with blooms line the sidewalks of the town, which is known for artists and authors. Stroll and shop Fairhope’s one-of-a-kind galleries and boutiques. Approximately three-quarters of the downtown shops can accommodate a motorized wheelchair.
Nearly half a million people visit the Gulf Shores area each year. Peak season is from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Spring and fall are wonderful times to visit — the rates are lower and so is the temperature.
Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau
Ike’s Beach Service
Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
The Beach Club Gulf Shores
Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau
Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa
The Battle House, A Renaissance Hotel
The Twardowskis are frequent contributors to Quest. Barbara has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and uses a power chair for mobility.