After a few months cooped up at home, working remotely and, for some, simultaneously homeschooling their children, people all over the South are ready to get out of the house and experience the joys that come with a beach vacation. Most beaches in the region were closed for parts of March and April, but as of May 1, the 32 miles of beautiful shoreline that make up the Alabama Gulf Coast have been open and ready to welcome visitors in search of ocean breezes.
While people may still have different levels of comfort about when they’ll be ready to travel, the helpful hosts at gulfshores.com, which represents the destinations of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, are very sensitive to travelers’ needs. In fact, their official attitude toward travel in this climate is “We’re Ready When You Are,” and they have thoughtfully provided a guide to what to expect when you visit their beaches. Social distancing is encouraged while enjoying the beaches, the restaurants and other attractions in the region, but they also understand that many people travel as families or as part of a trusted group of friends, so you won’t have to stretch your towels out six feet apart from each other on the sand or sit at different tables as long as you’re comfortable. Use common sense and be sensitive to other groups by just giving each other a little space whenever you’re out in public.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have long been popular destinations for Southeastern travelers, thanks to easy access via interstates and highways; the beautiful blue water of the Gulf; soft, white, sandy beaches; amazing seafood; and recreation activities available along the ocean, bays, lagoons and intracoastal waterway. As soon as the beaches reopened, long-time fans returned to their favorite vacation spots, including some of our friends of StyleBlueprint. We reached out to a few of them to hear why Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are so special to them and what you should seek out to experience on your next visit.
Zoe Yarborough is a staff writer here at StyleBlueprint (and you can bet our resident “Grammar Girl” will be checking the grammar in this story!). She’s also a big fan of Orange Beach and took a group trip down there the week of Memorial Day. “It’s a yearly deal for us,” she recalls. “We ended up joining in with some friends on the trip they had already planned, and it was such a great escape from ‘all of this!’ People were being mindful, but we really didn’t think much at all about the virus. It was so nice!”
Zoe admits that she did take a few extra precautions, though. “There were lots of people on the beach, but everybody pretty much stayed in their clusters. We rented beach chairs for our group, so it was easy to keep a little bit separated. We just used our judgment and didn’t do everything the rest of our group was doing. We went on lots of walks along the beach and spent a little more time in our rental condo, including a whole day at the pool. I loved it, and the weather was awesome!”
Lane Lyon of Greenwood, MS, has been making the short drive down to Gulf Shores/Orange Beach for more than 25 years. “Having four kids, we like what’s familiar,” she explains. “The kids always want to do the same things, and we really love the beach!” Lane usually stays in rental units and has spent time all over the area. A favorite family hobby is tennis, and the Lyons take advantage of trained teaching pros and quality courts at many of the resorts.
“Our favorite time to go is at the beginning of the summer, so we put together a girls’ trip before Memorial Day. We really love the amenities, the restaurants and the bars at the resorts like Perdido Beach Resort and The Beach Club.” Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism has several helpful lists of resorts and other lodging options if you’d like to check out some of these amenities in advance of your next visit. Lane gushes about the Beach Club, “That’s one of our favorites because we can play tennis and there are a couple of restaurants and a little grocery store for just about all of our needs. It’s a little slower pace that’s just so nice!”
Birmingham’s Kathy Thomson is fortunate enough to own a family condominium in Orange Beach, so she’s a frequent visitor. “We try to go at least once a month, and lately we’ve been going more often. It’s a special place, and we love that there’s a lot of low-density development instead of one highrise after another. We love to walk on the beach and enjoy the beautiful blue water and white sand.”
Kathy appreciates what great destinations Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are for the entire family. “It’s the perfect family destination with a really wholesome atmosphere.” She also considers dogs to be part of the family, too. “The area is really dog-friendly, and we take our dogs walking on the State Park trails where you can see alligators in the water and enjoy the picnic areas and safe, clean trails.” While you can’t take Fido along on a beach walk, he is welcome at the lovely shaded Orange Beach Dog Park and at another park a little further inland in Gulf Shores.
On her most recent visit, Kathy felt like other visitors were doing a great job remaining as safe as possible. “People were staying spread out, and we never felt uncomfortable. There are so many fun places to eat outside, so we did that, and it was a great experience.”
Lane agrees with Kathy about the al fresco dining options in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, “It was very nice to be able to go to a restaurant; it had been so long! We said, ‘Wow, that felt like normal for a little bit!’ It was like the world before the virus.”
In addition to all the fantastic outdoor dining at many spots along the Alabama Gulf Coast, some restaurants have been coming up with novel approaches to offer more spacing between patrons. The world-famous Flora-Bama Lounge has been a drinking and dining destination for decades, and the massive restaurant complex would seem to already have plenty of space for socially distanced fun with multiple stages, several levels and dozens of bars. But they’ve gone the extra mile to make this epic roadhouse an even safer place for patrons. Zoe took full advantage of this addition. “We were staying close by, and they’ve added a huge new outdoor bar on the beach with lots of tables so that people could stay with their own groups,” she says. “It was kind of cool to be able to walk up from our beach chairs to get a Bushwacker,” referring to the famous boozy milkshake concoction that is popular at many bars in the area.
Zoe was also excited to see something she’d been missing, especially as a Music City resident. “I haven’t heard live music in three months, so it was so great to be able to experience that.” Her experiences at restaurants in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores were also quite positive. She recalls, “The tables were spread out, and all the employees were wearing masks and paying attention to safety. It felt fine to be eating out again, and, of course, the food was great!” Other favorite dining spots for Zoe include Flora-Bama Yacht Club and The Gulf, a casual outdoor restaurant and bar that offers an unparalleled view of the Gulf from its long footprint along the water.
Lane and Kathy also have plenty of restaurant advice. Lane admits, “We usually eat at the same restaurants when we’re down there, but there are so many great choices! We love Cobalt at The Caribe, Fisher’s Upstairs, The Louisiana Lagniappe and Cosmo’s on the canal road.” As such a frequent visitor, Kathy’s list of favorites is long: “We love going to Playa and The Gulf, along with Fishers and a little place up in Bon Secour named The Tin Top. We always go to The Wharf to visit the cute shops there, and our favorite restaurant there is Villagio Grille.” Kathy also recommends SanRoc Cay as a fun spot to browse in fun little stores and find a bite to eat.
If you want to get off the beach for a while, Lane suggests renting a bicycle or taking a hike through the trails of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, offering miles of flat, paved paths through stands of tall pines, a butterfly pavilion, a boulder park for the kids to climb on and even a resident gator named “Lefty.” Spot Lefty sunbathing on the bank of the marsh or hanging out in the shade under a bridge to see where the name came from.
Both Zoe and Kathy recommend taking advantage of the Gulf, bays and bayous by getting on the water in a boat, either a private rental or kayak or as part of a chartered excursion. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have many marinas and one of the largest charter fleets anywhere, so you can take advantage of dolphin cruises, sailboat trips or charter a boat for some fantastic offshore fishing. Zoe really enjoyed spending a day aboard a boat on her most recent trip, saying “It was a great way to enjoy the area while maintaining a little distance from some of the crowds. You can get on the Intracoastal and travel to some places that are really difficult to get to by car.”
If this inspires you to jump in the car and head to Orange Beach and Gulf Shores to enjoy everything the areas have to offer, check out the tourism bureau’s helpful website, which is filled with additional suggestions and itineraries to help you take advantage of your time in paradise. While our own experts shared some excellent advice, they’ve really only scratched the surface. So check out gulfshores.com because remember, they’re ready when you are!
This article is sponsored by Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. All photography provided by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach.