Imagine soft sand underfoot, the sun warming your back and breathing in salty air. A beach vacation is enough to put anyone in a “Zen” state of mind. But add in world-class seafood and unspoiled nature, and you have the under-the-radar vacation spot that won’t be a secret much longer: Gulf Shores, Alabama.
As founder of Readymade Travel Plans, which provides offbeat itinerary guides and custom travel planning services, I’m often asked about my favorite destinations, and Gulf Shores is one of them. It sits along the Gulf of Mexico on a stretch of shore known as the Emerald Coast, a nickname that refers to the clear blue-green surf.
Get a taste of southern hospitality and 32 miles of sugar-sand beaches with this Gulf Shores weekend itinerary:
WHAT TO DO: Sip fresh-squeezed juices and fill up at an on-the-beach brunch buffet at Foodcraft, a restaurant in The Lodge at Gulf State Park. You can also order things like avocado toast and eggs benedict from the breakfast menu.
There are lots of options for getting out on the sparkling turquoise water for the day. Want to reel some big ones in? In the summer, snapper is biting all day long, but there’s plenty to catch year-round, too. Distraction Deep Sea Fishing Charters in neighboring Orange Beach provides everything you need for a day out on the ocean.
You can also go on a nature cruise with Cetacean Cruises. They know exactly where to find the local dolphin pod and are happy to point out eagles, turtles and other wildlife in the back bays as do the guides at Coastal Kayak Excursions, who help you paddle through the quiet waterways.
For lunch, head to The Hangout. It’s an on-the-sand eatery with a hang-loose vibe. Play a few rounds of ping-pong, foosball or cornhole while sipping fun cocktails like Shark Attack, a combo of rum, blue curacao and pineapple juice with Jaws breaching the surface. Spend the rest of the afternoon lounging on the wide stretch of beach here.
WHAT TO DO: Don’t be fooled by the strip-mall setting: Big Fish Restaurant is far more sophisticated once you step inside. Simple white tablecloths and drum lights glowing overhead let the impeccably-plated food take center stage.
You can order sushi, pasta and steaks, but what Big Fish does best is create Asian-influenced seafood dishes that are a nod to owner Leck Lilayuva’s Thai heritage and years spent overseas. Start with the Hurricane platter of lobster, crab, scallops and mussels poached in a tomato broth before moving on to the main course. The firecracker shrimp fried rice (topped with a fried egg) and the crab cakes with lemongrass aioli and tempura green beans are sure winners. But to make it an even harder decision, the scallops served in a sherry soy broth over coconut fried rice are melt-in-your-mouth good, too.
After dinner, pop into the Flora-Bama Lounge, an iconic beachside honky-tonk that straddles the state line between Alabama and Florida. It’s three levels of live jams with five different stages to choose from. Every day of the year, you can find local acts as well as big names crooning their hearts out under the ceiling of hanging bras (don’t ask, you just have to see it).
Not feeling the dive bar scene? Across the street on the sandy banks of the Old River is the Flora-Bama Yacht Club. Like it’s sister establishment, it also has live music but a mellower crowd. Or, find a seat on the patio at Perch, a swankier second-floor restaurant in The Lodge at Gulf State Park. There’s usually a musician strumming a guitar. and if you get there early enough, you can sip a craft cocktail or savor crème brulee while watching the sunset over the pier.
WHAT TO DO: Fuel a creative morning with a breakfast that’ll tickle your taste buds at Brick and Spoon. Their deviled eggs, topped with fried oysters and sriracha, and build-your-own Bloody Mary’s are off-the-charts. Tamer options include omelets, French toast and pancakes.
Then, make your way to the Coastal Arts Center. Housed in a stately-white building, overlooking Wolf Bay, the center’s gallery features works by local artists and hands-on pottery and glass blowing lessons. Sign up ahead of time to have a go at turning molten glass into a paperweight, flower or cup. A professional glassblower leads you through the process from picking a few of your favorite colors to shaping the lump of glowing-hot, melted glass. Afterwards, sit on the porch rocking chairs to enjoy the peaceful grounds or walk out to the water where you might just spot a dolphin swimming by the shore.
When your tummy starts growling, grab a quick lunch at Picnic Beach. It’s the cutest BBQ joint you ever did see. A modern riff on a southern staple, this picnic-themed eatery serves brisket, pulled pork and smoked sausages over bowls of roast veggies or salad.
In the afternoon, rent bicycles from Beach Bike Rentals or grab loaner bikes waiting at Gulf State Park trailheads. (They’re free, but you’ll have to download an app and put in a credit card for safekeeping until the bikes are returned.) Then, pedal under moss-covered trees past lakes to explore diverse ecosystems– from freshwater marshes to coastal hardwood swamps– on the park’s 26 miles of paved paths. You might even catch sight of an alligator.
WHAT TO DO: Treat yourself to dinner at Fisher’s at the Orange Beach Marina to sample what’s coming out of the kitchen of Chef Bill Briand, a James Beard semi-finalist and protégé of Emeril Lagasse. The two-in-one restaurant has fine dining upstairs and a casual dockside ambiance below.
Downstairs options include po’ boy sandwiches with Gulf shrimp and fried green tomatoes and the Bama Burger with fried tabasco onions, pepper jack and garlic aioli. Wash it all down with lemon-lime margaritas, topped with salty foam.
If you choose the second-floor scene, ordering the oysters (plucked from nearby Bon Secour Bay) with garlic-leek butter is a must. They’re plump and perfect. You can’t go wrong with the grilled swordfish, seared scallops or filet mignon either. For dessert, the pumpkin cheesecake with candied pepitas is a slice of heaven. Too full? They have an excellent selection of dessert wines, too.
Burn off dinner with a stroll around The Wharf at Orange Beach. It’s an outdoor shopping center and entertainment complex that puts on a light-and-sound show multiples times throughout the evening. You can shop for souvenirs, see what’s playing at the movie theater or ride the tallest Ferris wheel in the southeast. Definitely duck into Southern Grind while you’re there. It’s a coffee house and boutique filled with coastal trinkets worth making room in your suitcase for.