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Spotlight: Gulf Shores/Orange Beach

Sand and sun rule this laid-back Gulf Coast town

Something incredible happens when you arrive at the white sandy beaches and cozy waterfront towns of Alabama’s southern Gulf Coast: The outside world melts away, and only a landscape of sun-soaked relaxation and adventure remains. More than 50 miles from the nearest big city in the state (Mobile), and essentially surrounded by water on three sides, it’s easy to slip straight into vacation mode here, where history dances with recreation and the hustle and bustle of city life are nowhere to be found.

Once a little-known hidden gem, this sparkling beachfront region is now a go-to getaway destination for families from far and wide. It’s no surprise why—32 miles of soft sandy beaches rim the region’s coastal edges, offering an inexhaustible supply world-class fishing, scuba diving, boating, swimming, kayaking, hiking and guided wildlife tours for outdoors enthusiasts. And when you’re done with the big skies, big horizons and big beaches for the day, there’s the small town of Gulf Shores and the even smaller town of Orange Beach to explore, as well as a slew of eclectic attractions all within easy reach no matter where on the coast you’re calling home.

Most will find themselves centered around the area known to locals as Pleasure Island, where you’ll find the triple crown cluster: Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Gulf State Park. From here, a series of short and easy day trips further west to Fort Morgan, Fort Gaines, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and Little Dauphin Island are popular and recommended for visitors of all ages and backgrounds.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Hit the Beach

The town of Orange Beach is particularly inviting. With a population of roughly 5,000 year-round residents, it’s the type of charming beachfront community that’s easy to imagine only existing in movies. A handful of main streets string together a picturesque village dotted with ice cream parlors, family-owned stores, and delightful mom and pop restaurants. It also offers the easiest access to Wolf Bay, Bay La Launch, Bayou Saint John and Perdido Bay.

When it’s time to stray from the quaint streets and shops of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, set your sights on Gulf State Park. Nestled snuggly between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, it bursts with a generous mix of protected beaches, well-maintained wildlife trails, public tennis courts, a state-of-the-art zipline center and even an 18-hole championship golf course. Freshwater anglers can drop their lines into 900-acre Lake Shelby, and saltwater anglers can cast their lines straight off the pier into the Gulf of Mexico.

A few miles westward, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge offers 7,000 acres of lush protected park space that annually attracts more than 100,000 visitors. Like Gulf State Park, it’s a well-balanced blend of beaches and scrub forest, making it popular with hikers, bird-watchers (the refuge is a migratory bird stopover in spring and fall) and anglers. Celebrity park dwellers include loggerhead sea turtles, red foxes, armadillos and more than 370 distinct species of birds.

Wild Animals and Living History

Quaint small towns and water sports aren’t the only things going on around the Gulf Coast, though. History buffs and families travelling with children are well served with attractions like Fort Morgan, Fort Gaines, the Orange Beach Indian and Sea Museum, the Gulf Shores Museum, the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo and Adventure Island.

Alabama Bureau of Tourism & Travel

Alabama Bureau of Tourism & Travel

Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines are definite must-visit attractions. Bracketing either side of the entry to Mobile Bay—like a pair of hardened, concrete teeth—each site stands as a window back in time to the early 19th century, when the region was a place of battle and brinkmanship. On-site museums, exhibits and guided tours tell the stories of each fort as they played witness to moments from four major wars, including the War of 1812, the Battle of Mobile Bay and the Spanish-American War.

For more light-hearted fare, the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo and nearby Adventure Island are both big hits for visitors of all ages. More than 500 animals, including lions and tigers, call the zoo home. The major highlight is the elevated observation deck that allows for great vantage points and unobstructed views of some of the most exotic animals in the world. Meanwhile, at Adventure Island, thrilling rides and activities like laser tag, go-kart racing and miniature golf offer a nice change of pace. The highlight here is a massive five-story volcano that “erupts” at various scheduled times each day.

Alabama’s Gulf Coast has something for everyone. Buzzing with great activities, fun adventures and gorgeous beaches, the region is well worth a visit.

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