Last Updated on July 7, 2023
While it’s tempting to spend your entire Alabama Gulf Coast getaway at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach sunning yourself on the island’s 32-miles of white sugar sand beaches, resist the urge. With so many activities to get out and try, you’ll want to take in some exploring too.
The Gulf Coast is a popular regional driving destination and a favorite warm-weather getaway for Midwest snowbirds. If you plan to fly in, the closest airport is Pensacola, Florida, about 35-miles and an hour drive east from Gulf Shores.
Check into Turquoise Place
Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Turquoise Place by Spectrum Resorts in Orange Beach offers luxury accommodations right on the beach. Most condos sleep 8—12 people in 3—4 bedroom configurations. They also have five bedrooms.
The fully-furnished space features a wet bar with a wine chiller, blender for that icy margarita, and even an ice machine separate from the frig, so you’ll never run out of ice. The cupboard even offers that large pot you’ll need the night you serve the crab boil. You can cook on the balcony grill for the rest of the week or have the restaurant chef cook dinner for you.
By staying at Spectrum Resorts, you get free access to all the resort amenities. That includes complimentary hot breakfast in the Spectrum Resorts Club Lounge. There you’ll find ping pong and pool tables to entertain you on a rainy day. The hot tubs on the balcony create a romantic environment to unwind after a day of building sandcastles and watching a fiery sunset.
Remember to Call Your Mom
The Beach Moms that is. Gulf Shores, for most visitors, is a driving destination, and it’s common to rent a condominium rather than a hotel stay. That means you’ll need sustenance for those picnics on the beach and even the crab boil you have planned.
But no one wants to get back in the car after a 10-hour drive to go to the store and fill the refrigerator. That’s where the Beach Moms come to the rescue.
The Beach Moms offer full-service concierge services, including grocery shopping, unpacking the groceries, texting pictures of the full pantry and refrigerator, and include a snap of that much-anticipated beach view. They take care of everything before you arrive; all you need to do is show up. After all, that’s what Moms do.
Breakfast With Local Produce
You’ll need some fuel for that hike, and Woodside Restaurant at Gulf State Park is just the place to start your morning. Farm-to-table ingredients like hand-picked berries and local honey add freshness to the dishes. Breakfast choices range from a light breakfast like the egg white veggie omelet to a more substantial meal in the hotcakes or biscuits and gravy.
While I went to Woodside Restaurant for breakfast, you’ll find other meals and activities there throughout the day. If you need something while you’re at Gulf State Park, stop in at the General Store and gift shop inside Woodside Restaurant. It’s also known as a place for family fun. Outback, they have a stage with live music, backyard games, and a fire pit where you can roast the marshmallows that accompany the free s’mores.
Hike or Bike 9 Ecosystems
After having that big breakfast at Woodside Restaurant, put on those hiking boots and burn some calories on a Gulf State Park hike. The park covers 6,150-acres on the Gulf of Mexico and is one of Alabama’s most popular attractions. You’ll find nine ecosystems, including woodlands, beaches, freshwater lakes, and dunes filled with wildlife. You’re likely to see an alligator or two, and birding is a popular activity in the park. An occasional bald eagle punctuates frequent sightings of owls, woodpeckers, herons, and osprey.
Have Tapas at the Zoo
The Safari Club at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is Alabama’s first certified “Green Restaurant.” The Green Restaurant Group in Boston has singled them out as a leader in conservation, reduced waste, and recycling. They compost on-site and work with the animal care staff using every possible product for the animals.
To reduce their carbon imprint, they source ingredients locally from farmers, reducing the average two-week and 1,500-mile journey food products must travel to reach their destination. They grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs on-site in their garden. Try the Crunchy Goat Cheese tapas with a crisp crust, fig jam, and some fresh blueberries and strawberries. They were the perfect appetizer to the start of our meal.
Pro Tip: You don’t need to pay the zoo entrance fee if you are going to eat in the restaurant.
A Zoological Wildlife Encounter
After lunch, explore the 25-acre Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. The zoo is a sanctuary to 22 critically endangered species, where you’ll find over 118 species, 31 subspecies, and over 600 animals.
While you can get close views of the caged animals, they also offer several animal encounters where you can get up close and even hold the animals. They had three joeys, photogenic baby kangaroos during my visit that you can hold in a snuggly pouch and take a picture.
If you enjoy this type of experience, they also feature lemur, reptile, and sloth encounters for a similar adventure. Keeper Talks and Shows provide another close-up view of the animals. Keepers share specific knowledge about individual animals and teach about their role in wildlife preservation and conservation.
The day I was there, I met Norman, a Eurasian eagle-owl, and Keeper Brittany. One fun fact is that while Norman looks quite heavy, he only weighs about three pounds under all those feathers.
More than animals, the zoo features a zipline adventure that pauses at the top for a bit so that you can get an aerial view of the entire zoo. Then, you can take a carousel ride to add to the fun, and the kiddos will have a great time interacting at the petting zoo.
Dine at LuLu’s
If you’re a Jimmy Buffett fan, you’ll want to have dinner at his sister, Lucy Buffett’s place, LuLu’s. Music lovers will have fun singing along to the live music.
At the same time, foodies will want to check out the gift shop to purchase one of Lucy’s cookbooks to replicate that “to die for” recipe at home.
A favorite at LuLu’s is the shrimp and grits. They start the dish by combining shrimp and Andouille sausage in a Tasso ham and tomato cream sauce, and then they serve it on top of Gouda grits.
LuLu’s makes all their dressings from scratch in-house, and you’ll find all the southern dishes you’re dreaming about, like pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes, along with the choice of fresh Gulf Coast seafood.
Pro Tip: LuLu’s has one of the most extensive allergy menus I’ve seen. A manager is required to take the order from those with allergies.
Go to Sandcastle University
No matter which beach you’ve decided to play on for the day, the instructors at Sandcastle University will come to you. They bring the equipment, and for a flat fee for a group of up to 10 people, they’ll instruct you for an hour and a half, in all the finer points of professional sandcastle building. That means you don’t use a mold to build your castle; you learn to carve it from a pile of sand with ocean water acting as the glue to hold it together. As you work, they film the process and create a time-lapse video of your build.
Grab a Cuppa Joe
Whether you need some caffeine to kick-off your day, breakfast is on your mind, or you want a snack, BuzzCatz in Orange Beach will take care of everything. In addition to the coffee, the house-made pastries, similar to pop tarts, are among the star attractions.
Pro Tip: Late in the day, they offer happy hour pricing on baked goods.
Hands-on Glass and Clay
Overlooking Wolf Bay in Orange Beach, the Coastal Arts Center offers demonstration and hands-on art experiences. The Hot Shop features demonstration-style glass art that you can observe from the bleachers. You’ll see glass blowing while the artisans create ornaments or shaped objects such as flowers and paperweights that look like starfish. If you’re inspired, you can also make your own piece under the artisan’s supervision.
The Clay Studio provides another opportunity for artistic expression, where you can throw an object on the pottery wheel or hand-build your own design. If you prefer to enjoy other artists’ work, the 10,000-square-foot fine art gallery and gift shop housed in an airy two-story building showcase Gulf Coast artists’ works. While you browse, you’re sure to find something to take home to remind you of your Gulf Coast getaway.
Pro Tip: They require closed-toe shoes in the Hot Shop.
Have a Milkshake in the Yard
After spending time at the Hot Shop, you’ll want to cool off a bit at The Yard Milkshake Bar. Their over-the-top milkshakes and sundaes feature toppings you might find in your favorite bakery, like brownies, cookies, and candy. Not just one baked item, but they pile on several for an over-the-top experience. When you’ve eaten as much as you can, clean your jar at the washing station and take it home as a Gulf Shores souvenir.
Dolphins and Sunsets
To end your vacation, go for a sunset sail from Orange Beach with the Cetacean Cruises. Whether you’re looking for a family nature encounter or a romantic evening, Cetacean Cruises will fit the bill.
The most popular cruise is the two-hour dolphin and nature cruise, where we spent the first-hour finding and watching the dolphins, and then in the second hour, we floated through the back bay’s hidden creeks and swamps. Our boat, the Explorer, a 40-foot pontoon-style boat, only requires 16 to 18-inches of water, so the captain can take you where others may not be able to navigate.
The wildlife is the exciting part of this cruise. In addition to the dolphins, bird-watchers may get a glimpse of ospreys, red-tailed hawks, herons, or bald eagles. Those with a sense of adventure might even see an alligator.