Alabama’s small yet welcoming coastline area is ready for your visit “” so bring your bird-watching binoculars, golf clubs, and an appetite for seafood.
By Kathryn Lemmon
It’s a rare person who doesn’t find the sea and sand tempting, especially during the cold months up north. While Alabama’s shoreline may not be the first place that pops to mind when planning a winter getaway, don’t overlook it.
But what about the devastating consequences of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf coast? You might assume that Alabama’s coast was adversely affected, too. Such was not the case. Although Hurricane Ivan did make its presence known in September 2004, Katrina and Rita were kinder to this area. In fact, by the time Katrina hit in August 2005, the Alabama coastline was well on the way to recovery, welcoming guests back to the beach.
Situated at the southernmost part of Alabama, the coast contains 32 miles of sandy shores along the Gulf of Mexico. Along the shore are little towns called Fort Morgan, Gulf Shores, and Orange Beach, which welcome RVers and offer up funky and fun things to do.
Birding On The Coast
Bird-watching is becoming more popular each year as a hobby. Whether you’re a proud owner of an ever-increasing life list (a formal list of birds you have seen and identified, and their locations) or you simply relish the solitude of nature, you’re going to want to check out this area’s bird-watching opportunities.
The Alabama Gulf Coast is home to a variety of feathered friends who live near the water. But there’s an added dimension, for this section of the gulf is situated on the Mississippi Flyway, a major route for migratory birds.
Bird migration “” travel between breeding grounds and winter quarters in the Western Hemisphere “” generally takes place along north-south routes called flyways. There are four major North American lanes: the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific. They basically follow significant topographical features. The Mississippi Flyway is the longest, as it covers more than 3,000 miles, from the coast of Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.
If you’re just getting starting in birding, the Alabama coast could be a good introductory location. Observation points are easy to find and situated in public areas. In essence, you get two activities for the price of one, since you can try a new hobby and enjoy a relaxing beach vacation at the same time.
Bird-watching in the region was simplified several years ago when the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail opened in April 2002. The birding trail is arranged as a series of six loops covering a total of 220 miles, with 50 marked sites. Directional and interpretive signs keep everyone from novices to experts on the right track. And you don’t have to drive the entire trail, of course. For more information about it, call (877) 226-9089 or visit www.alabamacoastalbirdingtrail.com.
Fort Morgan is a historical fort located near the tip of the peninsula that juts into the entrance to Mobile Bay. It is the first landfall point and the last departure point for thousands of migrating birds as they make their way across the ocean waters. The fort’s strategic location offers researchers a rare and needed opportunity for study.
Furthermore, each spring and fall, bird banding takes place at the fort. It’s a two-week-long endeavor during which certain species are identified (banded) and checked. Trained volunteers briefly capture and band thousands of migrant birds representing dozens of species. Soon the little guys continue on their journey, but not before being photographed, weighed, and measured. Bet they wonder about the strange interlude in their trip.
The fort also is a bastion of history. During the Civil War, in 1864, it was the site of the Battle of Mobile Bay. The siege lasted for almost three weeks, and ended with the fort’s falling to the Union. During the summer, interpretive programs are offered there, and every five years the battle is re-enacted.
Drive west on State Route 180 from Gulf Shores to visit this historical site, which is open daily year-round. On November 11, 2006, a Veterans’ Day and Armistice Day observance will be held at the fort, and all events are included in the price of admission. Uniformed interpreters will offer guided tours of the fort and conduct firing demonstrations, including a Civil War cannon. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children ages 6 to 12, and free to children 5 and under.
Some Fun In The Gulf
Beyond the usual sunbathing and beachcombing, fishing and nature cruises draw people to the water. Anglers have the option of an inland waterway or an adventure into the deep. Inland you’ll find trout or redfish. Deep-water challenges can net yellowfin tuna, wahoo, or blue marlin. Orange Beach has a fleet of more than 100 charter boats for hire. For those unfamiliar with fishing, the types of bait used are dependent on the time of year you visit and the type of fish you’re after.
Other kinds of seafood can be found in these waters, too. Sailaway Charters offers a Nature Tour boat excursion that teaches passengers the customary methods of harvesting these delights from the sea.
Dolphins frolicked near the boat as we tooled along during our excursion. As you might expect, this caused a mad rush for the cameras. The voyage travels at a leisurely pace along the estuaries and backwaters of Longs Bayou and Wolf Bay. The waters are calm, so no need to worry about seasickness.
The Sailaway crew demonstrates the traditional methods of crabbing and catching shrimp and oysters. Along the route, be on the watch for ospreys in the trees and great blue herons at the water’s edge. (Maybe it’s time to start that life list.) Contact Sailaway Charters at (251) 974-5055 or visit www.geocities.com.sailorskip for more information about this voyage.
A few miles north of the gulf, you can enjoy a quiet interlude of another sort in the town of Magnolia Springs, just west of Foley. Things move at a relaxing Southern tempo along the Magnolia River. This burg of 1,000 residents is the only place in the United States where some folks still have their mail delivered by boat “” the way it’s been since 1915. Sure enough, we saw mailboxes attached to the docks.
The village derives its name from the abundance of magnolia trees and many natural springs along both sides of the Magnolia River, where the water is considered some of the purest in the world. The trees, clearly longtime residents, hang in a verdant canopy over the streets.
The town has some commercial establishments that are not to be missed. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places are Moore Brothers Village Market and Jesse’s Restaurant. At the market you can shop for knickknacks, and at Jesse’s you can sample seafood and Louisiana specialties, including Caesar salad with encrusted catfish; crab cakes; soft-shell crabs; Gulf shrimp étouffée; and goat cheese grits.
The area’s fair weather makes golf an enticement. Alabama’s Gulf Coast area boasts 16 courses that provide challenges for every level of player. Some of the biggest names in golf have crafted this region’s courses.
Jerry Pate’s Kiva Dunes is one noteworthy example. The course is relatively new, built in 1995, and consistently gets high marks. It sits among the white-sand dunes just 1,000 feet from the Gulf of Mexico. Stunning views and a sea breeze make a day on the links all that much better.
Craft Farms offers another golf alternative. The resort features 36 holes including Cotton Creek, the original Arnold-Palmer-designed course on the Gulf Coast, and Cypress Bend, a picturesque course offering ample water challenges. This setting combines the mystique of legend Arnold Palmer with the famous hospitality of the old South.
Once you’ve seen how the seafood makes the trek from the water to the plate, you might get a craving to try a sample or two. Fresh seafood is the standard along the gulf, and chefs create an endless assortment of dishes.
Landlubbers may not realize that shrimp come in brown, white, pink, and deepwater Royal Reds, and that each variety is caught in a particular season of the year. Royal Reds represent the pinnacle of the gulf shrimp experience. Shrimp fleets troll daily along the gulf from Brownsville, Texas, to Key West, Florida, and all spots in between.
Each October the town of Orange Beach celebrates the small but mighty shrimp in a festival that has been presented for 35 years. If you can think of a possible way to prepare shrimp, you will find it at this festival. I once tried shrimp dipped in chocolate, but can’t say I found it very tasty. Shrimp ice cream doesn’t top my list either, yet you have to admire these cooks for their ingenuity!
If you don’t get there in time for the shrimp festival, never fear. Time-tested recipes and traditional preparation can be enjoyed in a variety of restaurants. Try King Neptune’s Seafood Restaurant in Gulf Shores and Gulf Bay Seafood Grill in Orange Beach.
Any repeat visitor will testify to the appeal of the little seacoast claimed by Alabama. If you’re hunting for a winter retreat, consider this your invitation.
Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau
P.O. Drawer 457
Gulf Shores, AL 36547
(800) 745-SAND (7263)
Other helpful Web sites:
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the FMCA Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Bay Breeze RV Park
1901 Bay Breeze Parkway
Gulf Shores, AL 36542
424 Orange Beach Blvd., #50
Orange Beach, AL 36561
Doc’s RV Park
17595 State Route 180
Gulf Shores, AL 36542
Fort Morgan RV Park
10397 Second St.
Gulf Shores, AL 36542
Island Retreat RV Park, C9666
18201 State Route 180 W.
Gulf Shores, AL 36542