We kicked off our “Island Hopper” series a few months ago, and we’re back with our second article in the series. As a refresher, we’re introducing you to some of the many island destinations located right here in the Southern United States, a region that is lined with literally hundreds of islands, each with their own unique personalities.
Make sure to check out our first article, which details Florida’s First Coast, and then follow along as we take a tour of island destinations from the white sands of Dauphin Island in Alabama to the historic beach at Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers took their famous first flights. Hopefully you might even find a new favorite vacation destination!
With the memories of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael on portions of the Gulf Coast still fresh in our memories, travelers might be looking at other destinations for their vacation plans. While the area around Mexico Beach certainly sustained serious damage, there are still plenty of nearby islands worthy of your attention. In fact, even in the region where the winds and waves did their worst damage, residents are working feverishly to recover, and they could use an influx of tourism dollars to assist in the their efforts to return to normalcy. Moving from west to east, here are some great island destinations along the Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast.
Island Hoppers: Alabama Gulf Coast & the Florida Panhandle
People often ignore the Alabama Gulf Coast in favor of the long Panhandle of Florida, but The Yellowhammer State has more than 60 miles of coastline with fantastic beaches connecting fun little towns like Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. That doesn’t even count the 100+ miles around Mobile Bay. For island lovers, Dauphin Island is Alabama’s highlight.
Dauphin Island is one of the largest barrier islands along the entire Gulf Coast, connected to Mobile Bay south of Bayou La Batre. Mapped by the Spanish and named “Ile Dauphine” by French explorers in honor of the young princess and future queen of France, the final “e” in the name was eventually dropped to change the name to Dauphin. Ironically, the new name is the French word for “dolphin,” and visitors are very likely to see plenty of those aquatic mammals off the coast of the island.
A little more than a thousand residents live full-time on the island, but tourism swells during the summer. Public beaches are a popular attraction, open year-round and featuring amenities like trails, public shelters and ample parking. The beaches of Dauphin Island are also pet-friendly, an anomaly for the region.
For more rustic fun, Dauphin Island features plenty of hiking trails and campgrounds with 155 acres of space for tents, RVs and picnic areas. You won’t even have to go off the grid because they offer free WiFi!
History buffs will enjoy visits to sites like Indian Shell Mound Park and Fort Gaines. The former is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features 11 acres with trails that wind around the park to show off oak trees that are estimated to be 800 years old. Fort Gaines played a significant role in the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War, and the restored fort still showcases some of the original cannons used in the skirmish when Union ironclad vessels captured control of Mobile Bay. Fort Gaines hosts a day of commemoration of the battle every August in addition to the Colonial Isle Dauphine Festival in October and “Christmas at the Fort” in December.
Other great times to visit Dauphin Island are for their festive Mardi Gras celebration and during their annual three-day Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo in July. No matter when you go, you’ll find something to entertain you on this beloved isle.
Moving east along the Alabama coast, you’ll next encounter a chain of small barrier islands that are nestled in Perdido Pass between Orange Beach and Perdido Key, FL. These islands are named Bird Island, Gilchrist Island, Robinson Island and Walker Island, and while they don’t have any permanent structures on them, they’re popular spots for watersports like jet skiing or just for stretching out a towel on the beach to enjoy the view of the water. Accessible via personal watercraft, rental pontoon boats or kayaks, the Orange Beach Islands are a short trip from the shore. Although they look close enough to swim to, that is not recommended due to strong currents and lots of boat traffic in the channel.
Gilchrist Island is still privately owned, so you’ll have to admire its beauty from the water, but the other three are open to the public 24/7. Bird watchers particularly enjoy the variety of species on the islands, and walking the pristine beaches is a great way to discover the flora and fauna of the Alabama Gulf Coast.
Visitors to the Destin area have probably been on Santa Rosa Island without ever realizing it, because the causeway between the popular tourist destination and nearby Fort Walton Beach runs for about three miles along the island before hopping across Santa Rosa Sound to the mainland again. But Santa Rosa Island is a destination in and of itself, home to three communities: Navarre Beach, Pensacola Beach and Okaloosa Island. The 40-mile-long island is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and features plenty of public beach access points with parking lots, restrooms and boat launches for a full day of exploring and entertainment. Like at most beaches along the coast, please leave all glass containers at home.
Although it’s tiny, Shell Island in St. Andrews Bay in Panama City has been a popular destination with tourists for years. Boat shuttles are fun and inexpensive ways to get between the island and the mainland, and you might even get a free dolphin tour as part of your journey!
Shell Island is still a completely natural place, so don’t expect public restrooms or picnic tables. Be sure to bring a trash bag and take home anything you bring onto the island. What you will find are pristine beaches covered with the seashells that give the island its name. There are all sorts of wildlife on the island, too, including birds, deer and even nesting turtles. Be sure not to disturb any of their habitats, but feel free to take all the pictures you want of the lovely scenery.
Hurricane Michael made landfall about midway between Panama City and Tallahassee, ravaging the popular tourist destination of Mexico Beach. While the residents of this cozy fishing village are scrambling to recover from the storm, there was little coverage of the damage to two nearby islands that were also beloved by visitors to the area. St. Vincent Island was relatively undeveloped before the hurricane, primarily used by tourists for day trips to see the wildlife refuge established on the island in 1968. St. Vincent is still open to visitors looking to view a wide variety of native animals including a pair of endangered Red Wolves, Loggerhead turtles and Sambar deer. It’s also still popular for hiking, biking and kayaking. Unfortunately, the storm destroyed all the public restroom facilities, so plan your trip accordingly.
More developed is St. George Island, a 22-mile-long barrier island in Apalachicola Bay that was one of the last islands along the Gulf Coast to be inhabited. The island does feature hotels and lodges that can be rented for extended stays, but many of them were damaged by Michael as the storm surge completely covered the island. Luckily, the determined residents of St. George are building back, and the island is already prepared to welcome visitors who want to support their efforts while enjoying bird watching, fishing, hiking, biking or just taking in the resplendent views of the Gulf from the island’s beautiful beaches. You might want to wait a while until the rebuilding process is further along, but keep St. George Island in your future plans for a visit. They could use your support, and the experience will be worth the trip!
Enjoy your travel adventures, wherever they may lead!
Find more great Southern travel destinations in our archives. Click HERE and then plan your next great escape!