When most Americans think of Alabama, sugar-sand beaches and palm trees aren't the first things that come to mind. Many forget that Alabama's heel nudges onto the Gulf of Mexico, its coastline a natural extension of the Florida Panhandle. In fact, this region, Gulf Shores, has 32 miles of enviable waterfront real estate. Once again, the ignorance of others is a boon to the enlightened traveler.
"Gulf Shores is a bit of Florida mixed with southern charm and hospitality," says writer Andrew Der, who visited the area in 2005. "It rivals any Florida destination I've seen, but without the expense or the crowds."
The area has tried to make itself into a laid-back beach destination for families and outdoor enthusiasts, without the flash of theme parks, swanky resorts, and college spring break action. Most visitors come to spend a week relaxing on the beach with occasional forays out to visit the attractions. Nature lovers can explore Gulf Shores' protected wilderness areas including the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and Gulf State Park. Those interested in learning about Alabama history can check out Fort Morgan State Historic Site, a Civil War era fort. Playing golf at one of Gulf Shores' championship golf courses and fishing are also popular pursuits.
Going out to sample some of the local cuisine, fresh seafood with a southern flair, is a must. "Gulf Shores is known for some of the best seafood in the country—you should not eat anything else while there," says Der. Try the highly acclaimed Gulf Shores Steamer, where a steamed platter of shrimp, crab legs, oysters, and mussels costs $35 for two people. Or, try a shrimp, oyster, or soft-shelled crab po' boy from King Neptune's Seafood Restaurant for around $10.
Where to stay: The vast majority of accommodations in Gulf Shores are rental homes and condos. On the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau website, you can search and link to the websites of available properties and rental brokers. One of the most well-reputed condo resorts, Gulf Shores Plantation, rents studio and multi-bedroom condominiums, plus a variety of beachfront vacation cottages. I found weekly rates in July starting around $1,000 with all the fees included.
Getting there: Gulf Shores is located about an hour's drive from the Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida, airports. You can use SmarterTravel's price-comparison tool to check for the lowest airfares from multiple travel providers.
Online resources: For more information, visit the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau website.