By Sherri Middleton, Managing Editor
I recently spent the day exploring my hometown. This adventure was the result of many conversations with the local tourism board and the sports commission about how we, in the industry, travel near and far but often neglect the note-worthy places in our own backyard. I already knew our area attracted some amazing sports events, including the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) track and field events, the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) and even the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Beach Volleyball Championships in Gulf Shores. But our area attracts year-round athletes and events for softball, triathlons, marathons and more, because who doesn’t want to combine a beach weekend with an event?
With 32 miles of beach, 14 golf courses, 60 miles of paddling areas, 36 miles of trails, historic sites and more than 120 sports events hosted each year, this area is popular with families and athletes for the obvious; it’s an outdoor paradise.
I suppose part of the reason that we write about other places is the ability to shed new light on the unfamiliar. New places are wonderful and the experiences we discover are worth sharing.
But I wondered what was I missing in the place I call home? What was I avoiding about writing about my own place where the beaches are blindingly bright on a sunny day and the water is warm most of the year?
I must admit I was avoiding the idea of favoritism in my editorial role. I can’t play favorites in my writing. But I also could not forget that I moved here because life along the Alabama Gulf Coast is amazing because of the quartz-white beaches, laid-back attitude, small-town feeling and an abundance of good food, good drinks and less of the rat-race traffic that I had been living before my return to Gulf Shores, Ala. It is worth sharing.
I was a baby in diapers on my earliest visit to the Gulf Coast and all I truly remember is sitting in the sand with a spinning sand wheel my parents obviously purchased for this very event. I have seen pictures of my mom and dad on our small white and red-striped fishing boat and me standing on the pier, or with a fishing pole in hand with a flounder or skip-jack in my hands.
As I grew older, we continued to make the long drive South to the beach as often as possible. Some happy times; some not so happy. We spent a while down here prior to my college days and then as life will have it, moved away to try new things and new places. But what I knew was I would one day call this place my home again.
So, when the opportunity came about to explore my hometown from a different perspective, I was “all-in.” I wondered what had I missed since moving to my dream destination?
The answer is that I missed a lot.
You think you know everything about the place you live, but I suggest that there is always something to learn.
First things first. Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are neighbor cities. Both cities are located on the coast of Alabama and both have a different vibe. When we talk about restaurants, hangouts and places to enjoy the weather, we might confuse first-timers because the land area stretches from the Intracoastal canal to inlets and the Gulf and these places are one, but totally separate zones for our pleasure.
We started the day at BuzzCatz Coffee & Sweets on Canal Road in Orange Beach. I’d never been there but was happy to discover the daily quiche specials and amazing cinnamon rolls. Everything is made-from-scratch and they have an extensive menu of items and baked goods. After breakfast, we toured the entire establishment owned by Brian and Jodi Harsany who wanted to provide locally roasted coffee and pastries to the area.
We took a quick tour of the other properties owned by the Harsany’s at the same location. Great food. Meeting space. Outdoor space. Luna’s, Cosmos’, BuzzCatz and offer great food and experiences that welcome families and groups. Plenty of meeting space, a nice bar, TV’s, dining room, outdoor space and combined-use kitchens make this a good place for group gatherings.
After the tour, we headed to the Orange Beach Sportsplex to visit the new recreational volleyball courts, kids’ play area and the 1,500-seat stadium and field that has hosted the SEC Women’s Soccer Tournament. The complex also hosts multiple baseball and softball events, youth football, flag football and other recreational activities. With upgraded baseball fields, outfield fencing and dugouts and an improved backstop with pro-style netting, the fields are ready for tournament play. The complex has hosted the NCAA men’s and women’s soccer tournaments, the NAIA Region XXIII Women’s softball tournament, the MAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship and high school and college tournaments.
With newly refurbished restrooms, concessions and fields with shading structures, and the prospect of hosting baseball, softball, football, soccer and other events, this complex provides an upgraded area with plenty of parking for events.
The Orange Beach Sportsplex also backs up the Gulf State Park and its natural areas and trails where running events often take place. Phase one of the park’s enhancement project is now complete and includes more trails and a Learning Campus and Interpretive Center. The Lodge at Gulf State Park – a Hilton Hotel was also added. We visited the Lodge later in the day, so I’ll highlight that in a moment.
From Orange Beach, we traveled to Gulf Place in nearby Gulf Shores to learn about building sand castles with www.SandCastleU.com. Parking at Gulf Place in Gulf Shores at the front of the Hangout is where locals and visitors enjoy oyster cookoffs, the annual Hangout Festival and live music just steps away from the beach, we signed waivers for broadcast and trekked to the water to build our own versions of sand castles with Janel – the owner of Sand Castle University. You might live at the beach and you might have some knowledge about sand castle building, but you’ll be amazed at what you don’t know. Sign up for a class for an hour or more. It’s a great opportunity to pull a team together and spend some time digging in the sand.
We learned about the ratio of water to sand and how to create windows, doors, towers, stairs, trees, tunnels and trees. It is a lot more complicated than it seems. Who knew?
Gulf Shores’ main public beach, Gulf Place includes 20-foot-wide concrete paths, picnic areas, playgrounds, restrooms, greenspace, a stage and staff buildings to handle events.
We splashed in the water, dusted off the sand and headed to the Gulf Shores Sportsplex where the 100-acre facility hosts high school football, college and high school track and field events and softball teams come to play. The USSSA World Series Baseball tournament is hosted here and local recreation leagues enjoy playing on the multiple soccer fields throughout the year.
The Gulf Shores Sportsplex offers a five-plex with concessions, restrooms and a press box for softball and baseball in addition to the stadium and football field, track, shot put and javelin area, a field house, baseball fields, soccer fields and ample parking for large sports events are available. Future plans suggest an expansion might be on the horizon under the city’s long-range goals. We’ll have to wait and see what’s next.
After the tour, we headed to Lucy Buffett’s LuLu’s for lunch on the waterfront. Lucy Buffett is the sister of famous musician Jimmy Buffett. Lulus is known for its open-air dining, live music, Southern coastal dishes and it’s a place where kids can be kids with a three-story climbing ropes course, a smaller course for young kids, an arcade, sandy areas for hours of entertainment and the waterfront location allows boaters to pull up to the dock or marina.
LuLu’s is known for hosting large groups and has multiple bars and seating options. The restaurant also offers a full allergy menu for those who require special meals and meal preparation.
From LuLu’s we headed to the Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach to tour the meeting space, restaurants, guest rooms and amenities.
Perdido Beach Resort is the largest privately owned and operated Orange Beach hotel and the property has been a fixture on the beachfront for years with families, corporate groups, associations and others looking for a relaxing beach resort vacation with fine and casual dining, more than 44,000 feet of meeting space and outdoor recreation both at the pool and on the beach or across the street on the bay.
Locals and visitors alike find fine dining with Gulf views at Voyagers where Executive Chef Brody Olive leads the team. With a seasonal menu of local produce, seafood and organic meats, a stunning wine list and first-class service, this restaurant within the resort doesn’t disappoint. For a more laid-back dining experience, sample the pizza, sandwiches and craft burgers or the Splash Bar & Grille.
As part of on-going updates and refurbishments, the resort is currently sprucing up guestrooms with a coastal color palette. From suites, doubles, club level rooms and courtyard options families and groups can choose the right sleeping arrangements for their needs.
From Perdido Beach Resort, we traveled the short drive back toward Gulf Shores where we toured the newly opened The Lodge at Gulf State Park – A Hilton Hotel. This environmentally-friendly property was designed using the highest standards in environmental sustainability, meeting LEED Gold and SITES Platinum Certification along with FORTIFIED Commercial Superior Construction standards.
With 350 guest rooms, including 20 suites and 40,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space and the largest beach view ballroom on the Gulf Coast, the property is situated in the Gulf State Park on the Gulf and features crosswalks to allow access to the State Park trails, lake, cabins and outdoor areas.
The Lodge features several outdoor gathering, dining and hospitality areas in addition to a Gulf front pool, pool bar and pool grill with terrace seating, a fitness area, a restaurant and bar and a coffee and wine bar.
Gulf State Park features 6,150 acres of wildlife habitat and more than 27 miles of hiking trails and a 900-acre freshwater lake with six piers. A nature center is situated in the park and an interpretive center teaches visitors about the dune ecosystems. The park also includes 496 RV camping sites, 20 cabins and 11 cottages and the fishing pier stretches more than ¼ mile into the Gulf for saltwater fishing.
We had planned to head to The Gulf, but a brief rain shower changed our plans. Even though we didn’t visit as a group, this business is always worth mentioning. The Gulf was designed using shipping containers in an open-air concept that allows visitors to enjoy the views of passing boats making their way from the Gulf into the pass. With comfortable lounge areas, sandy space with palm trees and open decks, the Gulf offers a bar and a menu that changes daily to reflect the freshest seafood and local produce. From tacos to fish sandwiches and craft burgers, the menu has something for all tastes.
We ended the evening at Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina where the menu features some of the best locally-grown produce and sourced seafood and meats. Decorated in white linens, antique cypress tables and reclaimed wood, the menu constantly evolves, and the view provides a first-hand look at the yachting lifestyle. Fisher’s offers two dining options at the marina location – the upstairs restaurant where we dined and the more casual dockside downstairs that includes a landscaped grass courtyard. For a more formal dining experience, head upstairs and sample the craft cocktails and extensive wine list. Downstairs features casual original recipes. Fisher’s overlooks 160 boat slips with yachts so the nautical atmosphere and refined decor are well-suited to the location.
As you might imagine, we could have spent weeks seeing all the sights, dining at the local restaurants and enjoying the great outdoors, but we only had a day.
There’s plenty to do in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach including watching dolphins, parasailing, sailing, deep sea or back bay fishing, learning about the coastal ecosystem or lounging by the pool or on the beach.
The area is also home to the 2019 48th Annual National Shrimp Festival in October, the World Food Championships at The Wharf and the Annual Oyster Cook-off and Craft Beer Weekend at the Hangout.
Arts and crafts, shopping, historic Fort Morgan and the World-Famous Flora-Bama Lounge, Package and Oyster Bar are just a few of the places to visit when in our part of the country.
And don’t forget the sports. Down here there’s always something on the calendar to challenge athletes and get the heart pumping.
The Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission arranged this mini day trip and provided meals and entertainment as part of the experience. The thoughts and suggestions written here are my own.