Wonderful beaches, beautiful Gulf Coast sunsets, tasty seafood, accessible natural attractions and more await along the surprising shores of Alabama
Unless you live in the southeastern part of the country, you’ve probably never considered a beach vacation in Alabama.
The 32 miles of white, sandy beaches in Gulf Shores, Ala., and Orange Beach, Ala., are on the list of our favorite destinations. Located 50 miles south of Mobile, Ala., on the Gulf of Mexico, we’ve explored the area during each season.
This family-friendly community’s peak tourist season is spring through summer. Visitors who wait until after Labor Day will find the blue-green waters plenty warm enough for a swim and more affordable accommodations.
Fall brings a variety of fun events such as the wheelchair-accessible National Shrimp Festival, which draws some 300,000 people to the area for a free four-day celebration beside the seashore.
Winter is the slowest time of year and the crowds are gone. However, weather is still nice with an average December temperature of 55 degrees — perfect for holiday shopping.
Whichever season you choose to visit, there’s an abundance of wheelchair-accessible things to do or you can just relax on the beach.
Motorized beach wheelchairs are available from Beach Power Rentals. These customized chairs with padded seats rent for $60 a day, plus a $40 delivery charge.
The second-longest fishing pier on the Gulf of Mexico — 1,540 feet long and 20 feet wide — is the Gulf State Park Fishing and Education Pier.
The pier provides wheelchair-accessible rail fishing, but even if you don’t fish, purchase a “sightseeing” pass and watch the pelicans fly overhead or the schools of fish swimming in the salt water. The Gulf State Park’s Nature Center displays educational exhibits and a few live animals in a wheelchair-accessible facility.
The wheelchair-accessible Jeff Friend Trail, inside a maritime forest and adjacent to Little Lagoon, runs for a one-mile loop at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy Barbara Twardowski.
The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trails are also part of the area and are suitable for bikes and wheelchairs. The trails wind through the natural habitats of bobcats, whitetail deer and alligators.
More nature trails can be found 12 miles to the west of the pier at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. The 7,000-acre facility features the endangered Alabama beach mouse, nesting sea turtles and migratory birds. In October, Monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico fill the refuge. The wheelchair-accessible Jeff Friend Trail, inside a maritime forest and adjacent to Little Lagoon, runs for a one-mile loop.
There’s also plenty of nature to be experienced from the water, so roll aboard a Coastal Eco Tour along the Alabama waterways. Guests board a Wild Native Tour pontoon boat for two hours and watch for dolphins, osprey, bald eagles, heron, pelicans and more while a guide educates passengers.
Tours leave from Tacky Jacks in Gulf Shores. The dock is fixed and there’s no ramp, so the best time of year to go is March through October when the tide level is usually even with the boat.
For a year-round accessible excursion, the same company offers 90-minute Delta tours in nearby Spanish Fort, Ala., where a floating dock and ramp make access easy even for power wheelchair users. Be on the lookout for alligators and nutria as the 42-passenger pontoon glides through the swamp. Reservations are required, and you can discuss access needs with the staff.
The area also has a rich past, and history buffs won’t want to miss Fort Morgan, overlooking Mobile Bay.
The fort was established as part of America’s early coastal defense. It’s here where Adm. David Farragut led his Union fleet against the Confederacy in 1834. It was during this battle that the admiral uttered his famous (paraphrased) quote, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
Open daily, Fort Morgan’s programs include living-history encampments and a fall bird migration watch. Much of the fort can be seen in a wheelchair and the museum is fully accessible. Admission to the fort is free for active military/veterans presenting a military ID.
The Mobile Bay Ferry takes vehicles between Fort Morgan at Mobile Point and Fort Gaines on Dauphine Island. The 40-minute ride gives passengers wonderful views of the two historic forts guarding the bay.
All those trails and nature excursions will make you hungry, and Gulf Shores has plenty of great places to chow down.
LuLu’s at Homeport Marina (lulubuffett.com/gulf-shores) is owned by singing icon Jimmy Buffett’s sister. This humongous restaurant does offer the famous “Cheeseburger in Paradise” as well as a variety of local seafood. It also has beach volleyball, an arcade and a three-story-high rope-climbing apparatus where the humans look like monkeys
at the zoo.
A smaller dining option with live music is the Sassy Bass Market Place just down the road from Fort Morgan.
This is the Gulf Coast, so great seafood is a must at some point on your trip. Check out the Original Oyster House (originaloysterhouse.com). All the traditional Gulf favorites are here, including seafood gumbo, cheesy grits, blackened shrimp and a local favorite “Blackened Mahi Down On Da Bayou.”
Another good option is Cobalt The Restaurant in Orange Beach. It features great views of the bay in a casual atmosphere. However, the real deal here are the scrumptious cookies at the bakery counter inside.
When it’s time to bed down for the night, you’ll find plenty of good choices throughout the area.
The Beach Club is managed by Spectrum Resorts and has a wheelchair-accessible unit with a roll-in shower. Our three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath condo featured a large balcony with a beach view, a fully stocked kitchen and a laundry room.
The full-service resort’s centerpiece is The Clubhouse, with a fitness center, steam room, indoor pool, hot tub and an outdoor pool with a small restaurant.
Dining options on the property vary according to the season. The Coast Restaurant offers upscale dining and is especially lovely at sunset.
The Village Hideaway is a casual restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. The food is delicious and the atmosphere relaxed. For dessert, stop by the Village Creamery.
Worth The Drive
Gulf Shores has plenty to offer, but there are also some other places in the region that are worth a short drive.
Less than a half-hour away is Foley, Ala. You can easily spend the day shopping for bargains at the Tanger Outlet. When it’s time to eat, stop by the famous home of “Throwd Rolls,” Lambert’s Café. Hot rolls are baked daily and tossed to the customers. Come with an appetite — the portions are enormous and the meal is free for anyone who uses a wheelchair.
Approximately 30 miles east of Gulf Shores is the home of the world famous Blue Angels. The National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., opens from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and admission is free. Most Tuesdays and Wednesdays from March through November, you can see the Blue Angels starting at 11:30 a.m. practicing overhead.
For more information on the area, visit The Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism website at gulfshores.com.
Jim and Barbara Twardowski cover the travel industry writing about boomer and accessible travel, accommodations, culinary/cultural offerings and destinations.