Our family has been vacationing in the Orange Beach/ Gulf Shores, Alabama area for years now. It turns out that there are a lot of people from the Tulsa area who go there. We’ve learned a lot from them and found out a few things ourselves and I’d like to pass on a few nuggets of information that we have found helpful and I’d love it if you have been there, if you would toss in your own two cents. (Note that nobody either individual or business has comped me or my family anything, nor have I taken any money for anything related to this post.)
Who should go?
Anybody who wants to go relax on the beach but be able to be more active from time to time and likes to eat well will do well at Orange Beach/Gulf Shores.
Where to Stay
There are several hotels on the beach, and close to the beach but the action for tourists in Orange Beach/Gulf Shores are the condos. The bigger the unit, and the closer it is to the beach the more costly it is. My wife does all the condo shopping and she works it hard and the parameters change constantly. Google “Orange Beach Condos” and start from there and be sure to check AirBnB and VRBO. There are thousands of condos at all sorts of price points. Most of the condo listings these days come up with photographs of the interiors, pools, beaches, and other common areas and have lots of information. Start working this early in your planning process.
Why a Condo? – Because you will be spending a week there or so and it is nice to have the space to spread out and cool off and maybe prepare your own simple breakfast. The condos should come with everything you need from washers and dryers, full furnished kitchens with plates, glasses, cooking utensils, pots, pants, etc to coffee makers.
Plus Condos generally have access to the beach especially if there are right on the beach. If they are across the street from the beach or further away, make sure that it has some sort of beach access. Beaches are of course public property but not necessarily the access to the beach. You cannot cut across private property without permission. If you don’t have access to the beach you will have to go to one of the State or Local parks. They are fine and keep the facilities up but do you really want to load up in the car and drive somewhere to get to the beach?
If you are meeting family at a condo make sure that you have enough parking. Usually they will tell you how many spaces you have and that is all you get and they are not kidding, and there is not much street parking. So that can be a major inconvenience if somebody has to park a few miles away and be shuttled to and from their car.
How to Get There
This is mainly for those who live broadly west of Orange Beach/ Gulf Shores. The whole western USA it seems has to go through I-10 tunnel underneath Mobile Bay and sometimes it really backs up. One year we waited with the car shut off for two or three hours on the interstate, two miles from the tunnel. We decided to do something different. We now drive from Tulsa down to Mobile, spend the night and then scoot through the tunnel the next morning. Works like a charm. I’ve looked at routes that bypass the tunnel and they would add about an hour and a half to the route.
So plan for the tunnel!!
What to Do?
Well first off, the beach is fantastic. White sugary sand, clean water, gentle waves. Its wonderful. Just bring your sunscreen. If you want to splurge get a lounge or chair from the beach service along with an umbrella. It’s pricey and we have done it a few times and it is great but we don’t do it any longer. Here is what we figured out, bring your own beach chairs and carry them out and place almost on top of the water. We found out that you get the cool Gulf breezes when you are on top of the water. Back where the services lounges are, it is at least ten degrees hotter, it seems anyway. Oh and if you are planning on bringing a shelter, the City of Orange Beach requires that they be away from the waters edge, a long ways. So be aware. They patrol it and they will ask you nicely, and firmly, with sympathy toward all the work you put into putting it up, to move it. Also know that you are not allowed to leave anything on the beach overnight. So shelters, chairs, and anything else you bring, needs to be removed or the city will throw it in their nightly dump truck run down the beach.
There are lots of Parasailing outfits. Google them before you go and check out the reviews. My wife and son love parasailing, and I go do something else. (Be aware that no spectators on the boat so if you want a photographic record of the activity you have to shell out $35 bucks or so for the crew to do it on their camera and they give you the memory card. So the wife only paid one or two years. It’s kind of repetitive)
Same for Dolphin Cruises. There are lots of options. Boats go out in the Gulf and others stay in the Bay. We have done the bay cruises a couple of times and it might take the crew a little bit to find the dolphins but it is thrilling when they do and they get the dolphins to come along and play in the bow waves.
Kayaking! We have used two different outfits. Paddled by You is a family owned outfit, in Orange Beach located right on Cotton Bayou and has both Kayaks and Paddleboards for rent and you can launch right there on their property into the Bayou. So the experience is nice, but you are right in the middle of an active waterway. Very fun though. We have used them three times and are very satisfied with them. Beach n River Kayaks is further away, near the town of Foley. They have kayaks and again with them you launch right from their property into the Bon Secour River. An historic river feeding into Mobile Bay. This is a beautiful peaceful experience. I wrote a post about it if you want to learn more. The owners are a Mom and Pop couple and they will make sure that you have a great experience. Also, they have lived in the area a long time and know all the out of the way local type restaurants to go to. We didn’t make it see them this last trip but next time! Besides these two outfits there are others, use my good friend Mr. Google to find them and be sure to read the reviews.
Bicycling – There are several bicycle rental places who rent very reasonably. Orange Beach and Gulf Shores both have extensive bike trails and the huge Gulf State Park is right in the middle of both towns and has miles and miles of trails and boardwalks connected to the city bike trails. We used Beach Bike Rentals and they did a great job making sure that we had a good time and you can go directly from their shop to the Gulf State Park trails.
Speaking of Gulf State Park, we always just kind of ignored it until the last few trips and was that a mistake. It is huge and has everything. You can go camping there, park a trailer, take a Segway Tour, go fishing in the Gulf off their incredible pier, rent a cabin, go hiking, bicycling, rent kayaks, and on and on. I am a geocacher and they have lots and lots of geocaches just waiting for you to find them. I feel bad that we ignored it for so long. The towns are lucky to have this treasure
And you know, sometimes you need a place to hang out on vacation. Our favorite place is Florabama at the far east end of Orange Beach, right on the Alabama/Florida state line. It is a giant, family friendly, beach bar. During the week they have free bingo games in the afternoon. They have a pretty darn good little food service with the best hamburgers in the area in my opinion. For the grownups they have live music in the afternoon at a small bar upstairs and for later in the evening they have a bigger bar and stage. Be aware that it is a bar so come about five or six pm, if you have minor children with you, you will have to leave. In the meantime, try their signature drink, the Bushwhacker which is ice cream with a bunch of rum. We always get a condo within walking distance of Florabama.
Gulf Shores has The Hangout which is family friendly all the time and features a giant sand pile for the kids to play in, a restaurant, live music and all sorts of fun.
Gulf Shores also has Lulu’s which besides being a great restaurant has lots of activities, and music to keep everybody occupied and is another great place to hang out. The owner is Jimmy Buffet’s sister, Lucy.
And you know there are other things to do as well. Fishing, putt putt golf, arcades, Just google or use trip advisor to find them and I like I keep on saying, read the reviews!!
Where to Eat
Some of the places we have tried and really liked (and almost all are seafood oriented) are Lunas Eat and Drink, Big Fish Restaurant and Bar, Cosmo’s Restaurant and Bar, Cobalt, Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina, Lulu’s. Everytime we go, we find out about new places so let Trip Advisor be your friend. Let me know in the comments if you know about other places.
Do you want to have cold boiled shrimp in your condo? Buy them at Blalock’s and pick up some shrimp boil, red sauce and new potatoes. Ask them what to do if you are unsure, they will fill you in!!
But Hey!! Don’t get carried away the home cooking, that makes it kind of unfair on whoever does the cooking. Take them out for some nice dinners!! And for goodness sake share the cleanup chores!!
Tips on Condo Life
If you are driving, bring enough groceries to get you through breakfasts the day after you arrive. Otherwise you will have to join the crowds and long lines at the local grocery stores. You don’t want to spend your first day doing that. You want to go out on the beach!!
Also, the condo people are not going to give you enough paper towels, bath tissue, garbage bags, dish and laundry soap to last a week so just throw them in your stuff before you leave home. Bring what you normally use so you can just take what you don’t use back with you.
Speaking of Grocery Stores, Publix and Walmart, although great establishments, get crowded and noisy. Check out Rouses nearby for just as big a selection but a lot less people. Publix is the place to go for people watching: husband – wife spats, kid’s trantrums, housewives with thong bikinis, middle aged guys hitting up on teenagers (while the wife is in the next aisle.) You have to go Saturday nights to see and hear the good stuff. The rest of the time its just a nice grocery store. And Walmart, well its Walmart.
Also, don’t pack so much. You are going to have a washer and dryer so take advantage of it. One thing I do is wash all my clothes before I come home, kind of nice to come home from vacation with clean clothes. Before you start hammering me about spending all the time washing clothes, I don’t spend a lot of time. Throw a load in the washer, have a beer or two, go out to the beach, come up, put it in the drier, go out to the beach some more, take it out of the drier. Dirty little secret is that I never sort clothes, never have. If you have the sort of clothes that need sorting, then for goodness sake don’t take them to the beach!!
Leave your grill at home, you won’t be able to use it at the condo. Most of them have condos available for residents. It’s a good way to get to know the fellow vacationers and get some more tips on what to do and not do. And guys, brush up on your college football game. They take college football seriously in the south and even if you are from freaking New Hampshire make sure you know who the coach is and the quarterback as a minimum or you will lose major Bro Cred. I overheard a conversation on the beach years ago about this subject and wrote a post about it . (And yes, I eavesdrop on conversations, it’s a hobby of mine.)
Well that’s all I know for now. I intend for this to be a living post in that as I find out more information and get feedback I will change and modify it as time goes by.
Have a good time!!
And just a reminder, I received no renumeration of money, services, drinks, food, or anything else written about here.
Working Out – Maybe you don’t feel like walking or running on the beach and want to get a Zumba class in or something. Check out the Orange Beach Community Center or the Bodenhamer Community Center in Gulf Shores. Both have exercise classes and aquatic facilities. My wife has used both facilities in recent years.
Craft Beer – Check out the Big Beach Brewing Company in Gulf Shores. Their beer is pretty good and they have a brewery cat as a bonus. Also check out Maggies Bottle and ‘Tail in Orange Beach. They have wide selection of Craft Beer in bottles, cans, and on tap and various wines. They can fill your growler or get you a crowler. Plus they have a parlor where you can sip your brew and listen to some of their vinyl. And they have canned wines. Remember, no glass on the beach!!
Supplementary Material Suggested by Readers of this Post
The fine folks over at BeachnRiver Kayaks, mentioned above provided a link to several suggestions. Visiting Fort Morgan that at one time guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay, The gorgeous Bellingrath Gardens south of Mobile, the battleship USS Alabama moored just east of Mobile, and other attractions. Our family have visited several of these and can second their nominations. Here are posts I have made of our visit to Bellingrath Gardens, the USS Alabama, and Fort Morgan.
They also provided a link to the the Bon Secour Pine Beach Trail if you are interested in a little hiking and birding in the area.