“Just let it go,” the bird bander says. One of the authors, who has “adopted” a now-banded and rather cross catbird, opens her hands and the bird rockets off to a nearby tree where
it twitters reproachfully – another memorable moment in our escape to Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where birds, dolphins, fish, golf, antiquing, museums, relaxation and sugar-white sand beckon.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach can claim only 32 miles along the Gulf of Mexico, but sure make the most of those miles. We’ve found nothing in the world more satisfying to the soul than walking at the edge of the ocean, so sunrises and sunsets found us hand-in-hand along a beach.
Of course, being on the water is a close second, and we spent time afloat, although we didn’t have our own boat. Many visitors trail their rigs to fish for blue marlin, yellowfin tuna, amberjack, red snapper, cobia and other species. Several RV parks have their own boat ramps, local marinas rent boats and most day-fishing captains welcome walk-ups.
We cruised with Dolphin Express and enjoyed the narrative about the area’s history, geography and wildlife. Several times during the cruise we spotted dolphins – possibly drawn by the cheerful Cajun music – rushing toward us to leap and play in the boat’s wake.
Glenn’s vacation highlight was our cruise aboard the Corsair – a classic working Biloxi Schooner. While we enjoyed wine, snacks and peaceful scenery, the crew trawled for shrimp as crews have done for centuries. Small fish were tossed back to swim another day, while the shrimp were dispatched to the galley to be part of our gourmet sunset dinner.
Connecting with the natural world is another important vacation ingredient for us, and there are several significant nature areas nearby. Bon Secour, a National Wildlife Refuge established primarily for migratory birds and sea turtles, is thick with huckleberry, live oak and magnolia. It was one of the few places we saw residual damage from Hurricanes Ivan, Frederic and Katrina. Our guide explained that the stands of damaged trees that had been waterlogged or defoliated, were simply part of nature’s cycle and in the refuge things are left natural. (Outside the refuge, all is restored, repaired or replaced.)
Gulf State Park has more than 2 miles of preserved coastal beaches inviting picnics, strolling and contemplation. There are boat ramps, a picnic pavilion and a year-round nature center, which schedules activities such as beach walks and nature films. Fishermen, swimmers and water skiers use the freshwater Lake Shelby.
Another day we visited the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research and Education Center, which has indoor exhibits and a live animal room. Outside, an ADA-compliant boardwalk protects the marshy land on the way to a large observation platform on the bay. We spotted songbirds and waterbirds and were thrilled to watch the aerial displays of some once-endangered peregrine falcons.
Camera bugs will want to stop by the Weeks Bay Pitcher Plant Bog. We were not the only ones fascinated by four native species of this exotic plant, which we suspect may be the most photographed vegetation in southern Alabama.
Another favorite part of our vacation was the bird banding by the Hummer/Bird Study Group. In October 2008, the volunteers at Ft. Morgan – a historic park as well as a globally important bird site – banded 1,112 birds of 69 species. This year’s fall banding will be October 10-11 from dawn to mid-afternoon.
“It’s been a joint venture and a labor of love for many years,” declares Chief Hummer Bob Sargent, a retired electrician who founded the Study Group with his wife, Martha, in 1993. Many of the birds launch out over the Gulf of Mexico for a nonstop flight of hundreds of miles. “You can actually see flocks on Doppler radar,” Bob says.
Volunteers erect 60 to 70 nearly invisible “mist” nets among the trees which snare flying birds. They fall into a state of inactivity until they are painstakingly untangled, banded and released. Volunteers band up to 6,000 birds in a season including wrens, thrushes, kinglets, warblers, whippoorwills, mockingbirds and many other species.
Visitors often “adopt” a bird as a way to offer financial support to these dedicated volunteers. “The American Birding Association says it’s legit to count a bird for your life list once they fly free,” Bob says. (Marilyn added four to hers.) He recommends early-morning visits to the banding site at Fort Morgan. Why? “Fewer people, more birds.”
Another pleasant day trip is to Ft. Gaines, which is reached by the Dauphin Island ferry at Ft. Morgan. Along with birding, you can enjoy some historical exploration, picnic tables and a snack shop. And for yet more historical insight, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores each have community museums with information and exhibits.
Shop-until-you-droppers can choose among boutiques or the Tanger Outlet Center, home to more than 125 name-brand stores in nearby Foley. Coupons are available online, and there’s also a food court.
Bicyclists will enjoy pedaling on the level and scenic roads. There is also an extensive network of trails (a map may be downloaded) for walkers, runners and bicyclists.
All 10 golf courses in the immediate Gulf Shores area are open to the public and tee times can be reserved online. The courses, planned by designers such as Arnold Palmer and Robert Von Hagge, range from Scottish-style links to beachside greens. In fact, the Kiva Dunes course is the No. 1 rated course in the state.
But our trip wasn’t all about action. We didn’t do all our own cooking and we soon learned that fried green tomatoes are an integral part of the culture here. The nearby town of Magnolia Springs is the one-time home of Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, and has a completely different atmosphere from the beach areas. A number of the homes are marked as historically significant and we loved meandering under the live oaks.
Just down the street from the nicely restored Magnolia Springs Bed & Breakfast is Jesse’s – an unexpected gourmet restaurant named for the long-time proprietor of the town’s general store. Decorated with local artists’ works, it is noted for its Whiskey Steak, an award-winning wine list and, naturally, fried green tomatoes.
In fact, fried green tomatoes are on every menu. Take Lulu’s for instance. This popular eatery on the Intracoastal Waterway is owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister and offers fried-green-tomato sandwiches along with salads, seafood, barbecue and toe-tapping live music.
For a casual lunch, we enjoyed Diane and Al Sawyer’s King Neptune’s Seafood Restaurant, a family-owned eatery with a wide range of seafood, especially royal reds – a special deep-water shrimp – as well as po-boys, homemade soup, grilled items and, you guessed it, fried green tomatoes.
One night we went upscale at the Beach Club’s elegant restaurant overlooking the Gulf with gourmet selections such as pecan-crusted grouper or lobster napoleon. Here, the fried green tomatoes are tempura-battered and served as an appetizer with the house remoulade sauce. Later, we strolled the beach as the sun set before us and the moon rose behind us – the perfect end of another day.