White sandy beaches and tropical vacations may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to Alabama, unless you're from these parts. Like many coastal towns - including those along the southern US Gulf Coast - beach towns often have a whole different vibe than the rest of their state. In south Alabama, the beaches aren't just nice, they're drop-dead gorgeous. The water isn't just good to swim in, it's sublime. But besides what are no doubt the best beaches in Alabama, there's no shortage of fun things to do in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, the twin coastal Alabama beach towns. And some of them might surprise you. So stop thinking the beach is the only reason to hang out here, and plan for a nice long week of activities with the kids, or without.
How to Get to Coastal Alabama
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama lie on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, just west of the Florida state line. Whether you're coming from the west or the east, to get here is pretty straight forward. The route from Mobile to Gulf Shores is a bit farther than it is from Pensacola to Gulf Shores, but the driving time is just about the same. We made Gulf Shores and Orange Beach a recent stop on our Gulf Coast Road Trip, and it was easy to get to. Hop off Interstate 10, head south, and you're there.
Fun Things To Do In Gulf Shores And Orange Beach
1. Craft Brews and Beer Pairings
We knew right away that our first trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama was going to be good when our first stop in town was the Big Beach Brewing Company, the "southernmost brewery in Alabama". It has a relaxed atmosphere and an outside patio with swings so you drink your beer and swang! The large garage doors give it a fun cool indoor/outdoor open-air taproom feel, like hanging out in your friends garage on a summer night. And their beer is really good y'all! There've got a wide range of craft beers and ales with 12 taps - pretty much something for everyone. We tried a couple of flights to start out -- and our trip was off and running.
The timing of our trip was perfect to let us enjoy a Craft Beer Pairing Dinner sponsored by Luna's Eat & Drink in Orange Beach. The folks at Luna's joined forces with Big Beach Brewing for Luna's Taps That, a beer dinner featuring four of Big Beach's craft beers paired with Luna's unique twists on some Southern favorites. Get ready to drool!
- First Course: A Nashville Hot Fried Chicken Biscuit (biscuit courtesy of BuzzCatz Coffee & Sweets) with butter, Golden Eagle syrup - a real down home Alabama specialty - and house made sweet pickles. This was so yummy, and its pairing with Rod’s Reel Cream Ale really hit the mark. We could have eaten this one again!
- Second Course: Chicken Confit in Duck Fat served over white beans and ham with house made cornbread. O.M.G. The confit was rich but light - everything like this tastes better with a little duck fat. The ham and beans with cornbread were a bonus especially when paired Dixie’s Heart Irish Red Ale.
- Third Course: This one was new to us... Southern tempura fried Conecuh (koNEKcuh) sausage served over a smoked pork belly potato hash. We thought this combo was amazing. This was the first time we'd Conecuh sausage, and the hash gave it a really great porky flavor. The equally rich Small Town Brown Ale was a perfect pairing.
- Fourth Course: Collard Green Boudin (BOO-dan) - a sausage whose ingredients vary regionally along the Gulf Coast - served over a sweet potato pancake topped with duck fat hollandaise and micro greens. We love all things sweet potato and the hollandaise made the dish all the more delicious. This dish was paired with Hundred Daze IPA.
Check out Luna's Eat & Drink website before you visit, and try to work in one of the Craft Beer dinners when you're in town!
2. Tour Shellbank Selects Oyster Farm
Nothing goes better with craft beer than some amazing craft oysters, amirite? When we first learned of the kind of oyster farming that was being done in Gulf Shores, and that we could actually go out on a boat with a local farmer for an oyster farm tour, well that was about the coolest thing a couple of seafoodies like us could hear! Local oysterman Jarrett Firth, co-owner of Shellbank Selects Oysters, takes visitors out on his boat with Whiteboots Charters to see how some of the best oysters on the Gulf Coast are commercially farmed in Bon Secour Bay near Gulf Shores. And no, you don't have to muck about in the mud to see what they're doing. The baskets of oysters are suspended by floats in the water, producing a cleaner oyster.
Jarrett will take you out on a fun and slightly bumpy boat ride across the Bay, and explain how he and his business partner developed their own methods for tending and shaping the oysters - even down to the equipment they use. Their goal is to stimulate the oyster as it grows to modify its shell into a cup shape preferred by restaurants. This shape allows the oyster to be served with the liquid nectar still surrounding the flesh rather than running off when it's served on ice.
After two hours on the water talking about oysters and seeing how they're farmed, Jarrett recommended we try some of his fresh Shellbank Selects at The Royal Oyster in Gulf Shores. There are several original oyster houses in Gulf Shores and The Royal Oyster isn't the easiest one to find, but as soon as we saw the place, we knew it was going to be good. We love well-established local joints and this one hit the mark. Make sure you have a cold draft beer or try their beautiful Bloody Mary.
Whiteboots Charters - Jarrett runs both oyster tours and shrimping tours, for a truly unique sea-to-table experience. About a 2-3 hour tour. Check out tour details and cost.
3. Eat & Play at LuLu's
Okay, we admit it. We're big Parrotheads and how could we come to Gulf Shores without having lunch at Lucy Buffett's LuLu's, the family oriented Cheeseburger in Paradise kinda place owned by Jimmy Buffett's "Crazy Sista" Lucy. Crazy Sista is also the name of her branded beer, Crazy Sista Honey Ale, which is pretty darn good! The huge complex at LuLu's sits right at Homeport Marina on the Intercoastal Waterway, with sweeping views over the water.
Not just a restaurant, LuLu's is a family beach park complete with sand toys, a volley ball court, a Mountain of Youth ropes course, and even Munchkin Mountain with a Little Ropes course for the little ones. There are water buggies (called water walkers), an arcade, a gift shop, and several outside bars with colorful Adirondack chairs to enjoy an adult beverage while you wait for a table.
We liked the laid-back atmosphere, even though it was busy. You can grab a drink like we did after lunch (hey, It's Five O'Clock Somewhere!) at the Bama Breeze Bar or the Sunset Grill. So how was the food? Very good and the laid-back fun atmosphere made it even better. Like a relaxed summer picnic, LuLu's is a fun place to chill out and let the kids run around.
4. Kayak Orange Beach
Everyone comes to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for the water, and kayaking Orange Beach and the surrounding islands is the perfect way to enjoy the adventure. There are several small islands you can explore and we had the pleasure of going out on an afternoon kayak tour with Captain Glenn of Coastal Kayak Excursions. We only had a couple of hours so we headed out to paddle around nearby Robinson Island - just us, another couple and Captain Glenn. With Bob Marley singing through the speakers, we sat back and enjoyed the island vibe and the smooth ride out to Robinson Island. Here he beached the boat and we paddled around the bay to Bird Island and Gilchrist Islands. Captain Glenn's usual tour is 3-hour guided eco-paddle tour into Wolf Bay to see dolphins and the wildlife that makes Wolf Bay its home. His tours are always small groups of 6 people or less - perfect for families.
5. The Flora Bama
Whether you're a country music fan or not, everyone who visits the Flora Bama Lounge quickly becomes a member of No Shoes Nation! The Flora Bama is as much a state of mind as it is a “best beach bar” in the USA that sits near the Florida-Alabama state line. The State of Florida gave the State of Alabama two miles of beach front land in 1962 in return for the construction of the Perdido Pass Bridge. So as it turns out, while the marina is located in Alabama, the Flora Bama Lounge is technically in Florida. Since 1964, there's been music on stage everyday of the week from local favorites to the man who made it famous with his song by the same name, country star Kenny Chesney.
The Flora Bama is part oyster bar, part all-day-hangout and night club, with a big dash of concert venue thrown in. There are events ranging from chili cook-offs and fishing rodeos to the Annual Mullet Toss and big, really big, beach front concerts. There's bikini contests, the annual polar bear swim, and Bulls on the Beach with, yup, real bulls.
The must-do at the Flora Bama Lounge is to try their world-famous Bushwacker, a strong frozen concoction with a coffee-like taste, so they go down easy any time of day. It's a popular drink in local bars but it's been perfected here. Thankfully the menu has lots to choose from like good burgers, po' boys, nachos, and of course fresh oysters prepared a few different ways.
It's the place to be in Orange Beach, and with good reason - you never know who might be sitting next to you.
6. Chill at The Hangout, Gulf Shores
Have kids and want something different than a regular beach town restaurant or chain type place? Check this place out. The Hangout, Gulf Shores is a really fun place to have lunch or dinner. It’s huge. There are games and activities for kids - on the hour every hour until 6pm is a Foam Party where kids get to run and jump through a sea of foam and bubbles. For older kids there are pick-up games of ping pong and foosball and whatever else happens to be going on at the moment in the courtyard. The place is always in motion. There’s live music and even an emcee.
The Hangout has a full service bar with house specialty drinks, like the Shark Attack or a Watermelon Mojito. It’s right on the beach with incredible Alabama beach views while you eat. And the food is great. For us, the Gulf Coast is all about the seafood - here the peel-and-eat-shrimp were big and the raw oysters were fresh. Of course there’s The Hangout’s version of burgers (I was really tempted to try the Shaka burger) and sliders, fish tacos, and po' boys. Lines can get long here but don’t pass it up. It’s worth the wait and we thought the prices were reasonable. It's the biggest beach party Hangout in town!
Where to Stay in Gulf Shores, Alabama
Like many southern coastal beach towns, the abundance of vacation rentals in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach provide plenty of great lodging options, especially for families. Our stay in a 3-bedroom condo (that slept 8!) right on the beach couldn't have been better. Lighthouse Condominiums has a great location on the beach boulevard so it's close to everything. Managed by Kaiser by Wyndham Vacation Rentals, our condo was tastefully decorated in a fresh beachy theme, and tricked out with anything you might need for a long stay - from a fully-stocked kitchen to plenty of extra linens. And the best part, of course, was the beach just steps away. Sunrise, sunset, and all the sunny hours in-between can be spent on your beachside balcony, at the beachside pool, or lounging on the sand. Kaiser has plenty of great options for 2-21 people, for whatever kind of vacation you have in mind.
Have you been to Coastal Alabama?
Many thanks to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism for hosting us on our recent trip to coastal Alabama. As always, all opinions are our own based on our first-hand experience.