Beach umbrellas, towels, snorkel gear and plenty of sunscreen. These are just a few of the things you'll need for a trip to Gulf Shores on the Alabama Gulf Coast. The state doesn't have a long stretch of coast, but its short strand compares easily with that of the Florida Panhandle next door to the east. And Gulf Shores is at the center of beach-related activities and other fun on the coastline of the Heart of Dixie.
Hit the Sands
The main draw at Gulf Shores is the beach, flat and wide, with sugar-white sands and clear, emerald-hued waters. Generations of tourists from the South have come to Gulf Shores to bask in the sun and splash in the Gulf of Mexico. Rental cottages, hotels and condo highrises line the coast. The beach gets extra crowded between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In spring and fall, it's still warm enough for a beach vacation and much less crowded. Between late fall and early spring, the water may be too chilly for swimming and the crowds long gone, but the beachcombing is still enjoyable -- just bring layers of clothing to shed or put on as needed.
Beyond the Beach
Nature enthusiasts and hikers will want to explore the trails at Gulf State Park and the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. The state park also has a golf course and allows RV and tent camping. Just north of the state park, the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo provides the opportunity for up-close and hands-on animal encounters. Featured in the Animal Planet TV series "The Little Zoo That Could," the zoo is known for its resiliency after surviving three hurricanes in the early 21st century. Waterville USA is a large water park featuring a variety of thrill slides, amusement park rides, a mini golf course and a large arcade.
Dining and Nightlife
Most restaurants worth their salt in the Gulf Shores area feature two specialties on their menus: royal red shrimp and bread pudding. Royal reds are a pricier deep-water, jumbo type of shrimp, with meat that tastes more like lobster than regular Gulf Coast shrimp. Bread pudding is the most common dessert served in the area, usually topped with a whiskey sauce. Not all the best seafood joints are on the beach. King Neptune's and the Original Oyster House are two longstanding establishments a few blocks inland along Highway 59/Gulf Shores Parkway. For nightlife, the Hangout, on the beach, and LuLu's at Homeport Marina -- owned by Jimmy Buffett's baby sister -- both provide top-notch live musical entertainment on a regular basis.
The Hangout Music Fest takes place directly on the beach in front of the Hangout restaurant that gives the festival its name. Each May, the top names from a variety of musical genres come to perform on large stages set up yards away from the waves. The event usually sells out early, so purchase your tickets and book accommodations well in advance. Other notable annual events are the National Shrimp Festival each October and the SEC Beach Fest in August. The latter allows football fans of the Southeastern Conference to intermingle with their favorite players and coaches in a relaxed coastal setting.