Life as a travel writer is two sides of the same coin: On one side, you want to share your travel adventures with everyone to let them know where to visit and what to see; on the other, you don’t. You want to selfishly shield the secret destinations for yourself—and a few select others—so they remain guarded against the onslaught of tourists.
One of the unexpected places I wanted to keep under wraps is the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach region of Alabama. Alabama? Yes, Alabama. The beaches here are some of the best I’ve seen, surely the best-kept secret of the South. This 32-mile stretch of sun-kissed beach along the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico looks like a Caribbean oasis. The family-friendly beaches are simply stunning, blanketed in crystal, sugar-white sand and plaited in wind-swept rows along the emerald-green water. The year-round mild temperatures make it an ideal spot for an array of outdoor activities, from swimming, fishing, trail hiking and golfing.
There are a variety of accommodations in the area, ranging from hotels, resorts, and beach-front rental homes, to fit any group or any budget. Golfers will love Kiva Dunes, an elite, beachfront golfing resort with an 18-hole course designed by pro golfer, Jerry Pate. It’s a par-72 course featured in Golf Digest and offers challenging water hazards, deep bunkers and fast greens. Non-golfers can relax on the sprawling expanse of private beaches steps away from the first-class, Kiva Dunes condos. On-site amenities include three outdoor pools, tennis courts, and the Kiva Dunes Restaurant.
Another lodging option is to rent a home. Kaiser Realty, based in Gulf Shores, manages properties along the 32-mile stretch of beach with a wide selection of fully-furnished condos and homes ranging from one bedroom rentals to beach homes that can accommodate up to12 guests or more. Most homes and condos include full kitchens, but why cook when an on-site chef from Staycations Catering can shop and prepare gourmet meals for you in the comfort of your own (rental) home.
If you prefer to dine out, the choices in the Gulf area are endless—and the repertoire of Southern cuisine is more than just batter and butter. The tide has turned toward more ethnic restaurants with an emphasis on fresh, local foods and a farm-to-table attitude. In order to showcase the culinary changes, the state has created a campaign called “The Year of Alabama Food,” featuring a select list of “100 Dishes to Try in Alabama Before You Die”, with something on the list for every palate. Of course, there are plenty of traditional dishes featured such as fried green tomatoes, buttermilk fried chicken and catfish fingers to choose from, but the selection also includes new surprises: tuna spring rolls with soy lime dipping sauce, sea bass wrapped in banana leaves, and seafood-filled mushroom caps, just to name a few.
A great choice for ethnic fusion food is Zen Restaurant, an upscale restaurant in Orange Beach that blends Southern hospitality with Pacific Rim cuisine in a relaxed, contemporary setting. The innovative appetizers range from tempura onion rings to crawfish and chorizo wantons, and the eclectic sushi menu is the best around with curry Hawaiian and oyster Rockefeller rolls. Zen also offers hands-on cooking classes where you and your friends can experience life as a chef in a professional kitchen and learn the secrets behind crafting the perfect sushi roll.
Innovation isn’t limited to exotic menus. One of the most unique dining experiences to enter the Southern scene is The Gulf Restaurant, a casual, outdoor pop-up restaurant in Orange Beach with sand-front seating along the glistening Gulf. Owner John Fisher came up with the unique idea to use four overseas shipping containers to construct his restaurant, a “food truck 2.0” concept that was designed by Courtney Britt, the youngest licensed architect in America. The menu includes natural Angus beef burgers served with aioli on a brioche bun; fresh-cut fries; snapper ceviche with cucumber, cilantro and satsuma; and a mushroom risotto with oysters, crimini and shitake mushrooms topped with cheese and herbs.
Don’t leave the Gulf Shores area without experiencing a bushwacker. This adult milkshake beverage packs a punch with ice cream, Kahlua, rum and chocolate syrup, garnished with a cherry on top. Accept no imitations; go to the source at the iconic Flora-Bama Lounge and Oyster Bar, one of the last great American roadhouses located on the Florida/Alabama border known for the annual Interstate Mullet Toss. Flipper’s Seafood and Oyster Bar serves a solid bushwacker on the waterfront or on a boat as you watch dolphins flip and play in the surf aboard the Cold Mil Fleet Dolphin Cruise. Dolphin sightings are guaranteed due to their “doublesurf” method where two boats cruise side by side, creating ideal waves and a fun afternoon outing.