UPDATE: The Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area is once again welcoming visitors following Hurricane Sally. Certain businesses may still be recovering; for the most up-to-date information on what’s open and what’s not, visit gulfshores.com.
When it comes to planning a family beach vacation, the Alabama Gulf Coast towns of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores want you to know that they’re “Ready When You Are.” In addition to wide beaches covered with soft, white sand and the warm, turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, these two cities offer a variety of lodging, dining and activity options that can fit any family budget. If you’re looking for a quick getaway on the cheap or seeking out a more luxe experience, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have plenty of family fun waiting for you at any price level.
Your first stop for any vacation-planning information should be the extremely helpful Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism website. The site is full of all sorts of advice, ranging from the region’s extensive efforts to ensure safe practices during the Coronavirus pandemic to special vacation discount offers to a handy events calendar to restaurant and lodging suggestions. There’s even a sort of “choose your own adventure” section of the website that suggests itineraries based around whether visitors are seeking a girlfriends’ getaway, a romantic couple’s weekend or a family vacation. We’ve taken advantage of the website to put together a trio of itineraries at three different price points to help you with planning your own next trip to the sandy white beaches of Alabama.
Traveling with the whole family can be an expensive proposition, and we understand that not everybody has a lot of extra discretionary spending money in their pockets right now. Fortunately, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offer a host of options that aren’t too tough on the wallet and still offer the chance to experience the best of what the region has to offer.
If your family is the rustic sort, the Alabama Gulf Coast is a great place to enjoy the great outdoors by staying in a campground, RV park or renting a cabin without having to sacrifice most of the amenities of home or isolating yourself too far out that you can’t enjoy the beach and all the other attractions of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores.
Search the tourism website, and you’ll quickly discover that the area is chock full of campground options, many of which offer easy access to beaches within walking distance or to the peaceful bay areas just north of the beach. Gulf State Park is an Alabama treasure, with 6,500 acres of protected land that includes two miles of public beach, a large campground with plenty of bathhouses to make sure you don’t have to “rough it” when it comes to taking a shower or brushing your teeth. In addition to Gulf access, Gulf State Park is also home to Lake Shelby, where you can swim or paddle to your heart’s content if you need a break from the beach. The Cabins at Gulf State Park are a fantastic option for economical lodging for the whole family — 19 units along the edge of Lake Shelby or nestled among the pine trees of the park. Each cabin has a kitchenette to save a little money on dining out, and the variety of floor plan options offers accommodations for families large and small. You can even bring your four-legged family members along for a small pet fee.
With miles of free public beaches, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a great time in Orange Beach or Gulf Shores, but there are plenty of other things to do in addition to time in the sun and surf. A great family activity to break up your beach time is to book a session with Sand Castle University. You may already think you’re an expert, but until you’ve learned from the masters of sand sculpture, there’s always something new to discover. Your trained professional can meet you anywhere along the beach and bring all the materials and tools you’ll need to construct your sandy masterpiece, and they’ll even shoot a time-lapse video of the whole process for you to remember it, because stomping down your temporary structure is the grand finale of each class.
Other fun family activities that won’t break the bank are a couple of rounds at one of the area’s numerous miniature golf courses or a few hot laps at a go-kart track. If you’re a history buff, visit nearby Fort Morgan to tour the site that was an important part of the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Or just take advantage of the many hiking and biking trails at Gulf State Park along the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail.
For the freshest seafood around, head to a local market to pick up some fish or the local favorite Royal Red shrimp that taste like tiny lobsters and take them back to your campsite or cabin to cook up a feast. There are also plenty of affordable local dining options, and the Orange Beach/Gulf Shores tourism website has plenty of suggestions. One fun option is to explore one of the “Food Trails” that the tourism bureau has set up to guide you to the best spots for specific types of cuisine like burgers, oysters, gumbo or Key lime pie. It makes for an easy and delicious adventure!
As we already mentioned, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offer a wide variety of experiences at many price points, so if your family is looking for a slightly more upscale vacation, they’ve got you covered.
If you are the sort who has outgrown the allure of camping and prefers sleeping with something underneath you (like say, two stories of a hotel,) there’s still an excellent option at Gulf State Park with their recently remodeled The Lodge at Gulf State Park, operated by Hilton. With comfy rooms and five dining options ranging from a coffee shop to an upscale seafood restaurant, The Lodge is more like a resort that just happens to be in a state park. With more than 300 rooms, the facility can host conventions, family reunions or just a fun weekend getaway. The Lodge is actually built above and amongst the dunes, intentionally designed to let the wind and water move the sand around naturally without harming the environment while offering unparalleled vistas of the Gulf.
Other reasonably priced lodging options include high-rise condominiums, beach house rentals and hotels, most of which offer easy access to public beaches and surrounding amenities. Many also offer umbrella and beach chair rental services so you won’t even have to drag your gear down from the room every day for a little sunshine time.
Some of the beach rental services also offer the chance to enjoy a unique experience for your family: a bonfire on the beach. Fires are closely regulated and require permits, so it’s much easier (and safer) to contract with one of these services to bring everything you’ll need for a special two-hour evening on the beach: chairs, a fire pit, wood, tiki torches, right down to the makings for s’mores.
Another fun family excursion is a trip to the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, recently reopened after moving a few miles inland from its former location. Believe it or not, it’s been more than two decades since a new zoo was built from the ground up in the United States, and the new iteration of this zoological park is triple the size of its previous footprint. It’s home to almost 120 species of animals, including many endangered species that have been rescued and protected in the facility. The new zoo also features a full-service restaurant, appropriately named the Safari Club.
No trip to the Alabama Gulf Coast would be complete without spending a little time on the water, and whether you prefer the adventure of parasailing or riding a jet ski across the ocean waves or more tranquil activities such as paddle boarding or kayaking in the placid bay, there are plenty of opportunities to get wet in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. If underwater is your domain, there are also lots of snorkeling and scuba diving outfitters to take you on an excursion, including some packages that will take you through the instruction and certification process before your first open water dive.
While the atmosphere in most of the restaurants in the region is decidedly casual, that doesn’t mean the dining isn’t fine. You can search for a specific type of cuisine on the tourism website, or pick from a list of fan favorites chosen from the votes of past visitors. Some winners from that list include Big Fish and the Original Oyster House for seafood, The Gulf, Lulu’s and Cosmo’s for al fresco dining, and especially family-friendly spots like Doc’s Seafood Shack and Oyster Bar.
For a more upscale family vacation, look no further than Gulf Shores and Orange Beach’s luxurious resorts, filled with so many amenities that you may never want to leave the property. Strung across more than 20 miles of the sugar sand beach that make up Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, guests can pick which area they want to spend all that time in the lap of luxury.
The tourism website suggests several choices among these higher-end properties, so feel free to do a little online browsing to pick which one fits your family best, especially since you may end up passing most of your vacation time inside the resort gates. In Orange Beach, options include Caribe Resort, Perdido Beach Resort, and the Island House Hotel. On the western edge of Gulf Shores are two more lovely properties at Kiva Dunes and The Beach Club.
Each property offers unique amenities, but you can expect treats like private pools with lazy rivers, hot tubs and cabanas, tennis courts with teaching professionals, spas and saunas, and high-end dining experiences. Caribe offers slip rentals for your boat plus charter boat services; Island House boasts a festive outdoor tiki bar; and Kiva Dunes has easy access to Alabama’s No. 1 rated public golf course. The Beach Club focuses on relaxation in its sprawling spa, and Perdido Beach offers a complete Aquatic Adventures program with beach equipment rentals and aquatic toys.
If you need to get out of the sun for a few hours or are just looking for a change of pace, take a visit to The Wharf at Orange Beach, a shopping, dining and entertainment complex that’s accessible by land or sea thanks to an attached marina. The open-air mall features boutiques and gift shops that are perfect for an afternoon of browsing and buying followed by drinks or a meal at one of almost 20 bars and restaurant options. The property is also home to a multiplex cinema, a miniature golf course and one of the tallest Ferris wheels in the region. The Wharf Amphitheater hosts concerts under the stars and attracts national touring acts all year long.
Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are home to one of the largest fleet of charter boats in the country, offering private or public excursions for deep sea or inland fishing, dolphin tours, sunset sails, snorkel and scuba trips. Or you can rent your own boat from one of the marinas for a day of fishing or just floating on the water. Some boats come equipped with the toys you’ll want for fun or all the gear you’ll need to reel in a big catch.
Whether you’re staying at a resort or not, most of the fine dining restaurants are available to the public and let you enjoy a taste of the good life, so don’t be afraid to check out spots like Voyagers at Perdido Beach, Cobalt at Caribe, Coast at The Beach Club or Kiva Grill at Kiva Dunes. Other higher-end restaurants that make local “best of” lists include Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina where the upstairs dining room is a little fancier than the more casual ground floor, The Louisiana Lagniappe for upscale seafood, or Picnic Beach, a breezy little smoothie and healthy foods restaurant decorated in soft pastel hues and artificial grass patios to bring the outside in. It’s not all healthy food and power bowls at Picnic Beach, though; they also smoke up some fantastic barbecue dishes.
When you’re ready to start planning your trip to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, visit gulfshores.com. They’re ready when you are!
This article is sponsored by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. All photos provided by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism.