Alabama's Gulf Coast: Where Kids Drive the Fun


Jeff Greenberg

Some of the best family memories are made on a beach vacation. Ditching your regular routine and setting out for Alabama’s 32 miles of sandy seashore welcomes a bit of magic into your lives. The special times aren’t simply limited to the beaches though. The entire coastal region – the wetlands, rivers, and bays – is a rich playground full of a variety of adventures.

Surf’s Up!

Until your teens or tots sink their toes in the sand, you haven’t really arrived at the beach. So make haste down AL Highway 59 (Gulf Shores Parkway) to land’s edge where you can slather on the sunscreen and catch a wave. All of the major resorts in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach maintain beach services with lounge chairs and umbrellas (typically about $25 per day), and some even rent kayaks or catamarans (typically about $50 an hour).

Look beyond the high-rises to discover less-crowded strands, where you’ll feel as if the entire beach belongs to your family. At these tranquil spots, you’ll need to bring your own blankets, chairs and umbrellas for comfort (don’t forget a cooler with cold drinks, snacks and wet cloths to wash hands and faces). One of the best sites along AL Highway 182 is Gulf State Park. The 3.5 miles of sugary sands separate Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. The park features the second-longest fishing pier (1,540 feet) anywhere along the Gulf of Mexico. (Kids younger than 16 don’t need fishing licenses, but adults do. They can be purchased right on the pier.)

Cross Over the Bay

When you’re ready for a break from the beach, make tracks for Mobile Bay. As the fourth-largest estuary in the U.S., the bay is home to dolphins and seabirds as well as 2 19th-century forts. The entire bay encompasses 413 square miles, with 6 different rivers feeding into it. Plus, a really cool auto ferry crosses its southern tip. Pack up the kids for a full day of ecological and historical adventure.

Drive out Fort Morgan Road (AL Highway 180). As the peninsula narrows, the bay laps against the north shore of the road, and the Gulf on the south. At road’s end (just over 20 miles), spend a morning climbing over the 1834 star-shaped fortifications at Fort Morgan. Exhibits describe the events of the War of 1812 as well as the Civil War. Barrel-vaulted ceilings carry echoes between masonry walls that whisper of centuries past.

Afterward, drive your vehicle (or walk) onto the Mobile Bay Ferry to putter across the mouth of the bay ($30 round trip for cars and $5 for adult walk-ons; children free). The ferry is an adventure in itself. Dolphins frolic in the ferry’s wake as it crisscrosses the 3 miles to Dauphin Island. Huge tankers use the ship channel to make their way in and out of the bay. On clear days, take along some binoculars to spy the historic Sand Island Lighthouse a couple of miles south. Built in 1873, the 125-foot lighthouse and its island have been ravaged by time and hurricanes.

Upon arrival, visit The Estuarium. Run by Sea Lab, a university-level research facility, the aquarium is a hands-on touch-the-horseshoe-crab kind of place geared toward families. Exhibits explain the local ecosystems, from barrier islands (Dauphin Island is a classic example) and river deltas to living marshes and the universe of the Gulf. You’ll learn about salt marshes, sponges, oil production and even Gulf weather.

Afterward, wander into Fort Gaines, which was built to protect the western entrance to the Mobile Bay. Completed during the Civil War, Fort Gaines also played host to soldiers on U-boat watch during World War II. Today, Farragut’s anchor is on display where living-history actors enact the fort’s legends.

Enjoy Family-Friendly Evenings

Get a bird’s-eye perspective of Orange Beach’s Intracoastal Waterway at The Wharf. It soars 120 feet above the amphitheater and boutiques that line the development. Afterward, check out the waterfront eateries. The best view is at The Compleat Angler, an upscale seafood house on the water. Mom and Dad may want to sip a cool drink at The Pilar boat bar outside, but the kids will relish icy Dippin’ Dots. To get to The Wharf from Gulf Shores, take AL Highway 59 S., turn left on AL Highway 182 E. (Perdido Beach Blvd.) and continue to Orange Beach. Turn left on AL Highway 161 (Orange Beach Blvd.) and follow it until it ends at AL Highway 180 (Canal Road). Take a left on Canal Road. The Wharf will be on your right just before the turn for the Beach Expressway toll bridge.

Gulf Shores also revs up the nighttime with adventures at Waterville U.S.A. In the warm summer months, the water park stays open till 10 at night, making the slides and themed rides even more fun – without the worry about sunburn. Or, if you have some young golfers, take them around the 36 holes at Pirate’s Island Adventure Golf with Jean Lafitte and Blackbeard.

Where To Eat

Everyone feels uber cool at The Hangout, the centerpiece of Gulf Shores beachfront gatherings. Huge juicy burgers and fresh shrimp lead the menu in the open-air dining room that sidles up to the beach. And when the kids aren’t eating, they can build sand castles or play in the bubbles from the bubble machine.

At San Roc Cay Marina, dig into a pile of Royal Red shrimp or crab claws at the Gulf Shores Steamer, where none of the food is fried. It fits health-conscious family appetites, especially those in love with fresh seafood.

When you’re up near the outlet mall in Foley, 15 minutes north of Gulf Shores on AL Hwy. 59, kids can’t resist Lambert’s Cafe home of the “throwed rolls.” Burgers, sandwiches, salads, steaks and good country cooking fill the bill here. Cash and checks, please; no credit cards.

Where To Stay

Kids are happy anywhere along the Gulf, but two properties cater to them best. If you want to stay away from the crowds, go to The Beach Club on Fort Morgan Road. Condos, cottages, multiple restaurants, plus a spa, and more than 40,000 square feet of pools and a lazy river make this a top resort.

On the edge of Orange Beach, the Caribe Resort features more condo accommodations where your family can spread out. You’ll appreciate the multiple pools, spa, boat rentals and even parasailing.

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