Beach vacations have been a tradition in my family since I was a little girl. With the exception of one trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, we always went to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Panama City Beach and Destin were our main destinations, but we also visited other places.
So when we decided to go to Gulf Shores, Alabama to save driving time with the kids this year, we wondered what it would be like.
I haven’t decided whether I prefer Gulf Shores or Destin, but the very fact that I can’t decide shows I really enjoyed the area. Our family of four went, as did my parents and my aunt.
If you’re planning a trip to the Gulf and are considering Gulf Shores, here are some of my take-aways as a first-timer.
The first thing I noticed about the beach at Gulf Shores was the amount of sea shells. This was a very fun activity for Alyssa, 2. Considering the vast amount, you’d have thought we’d have cuts on our feet but we didn’t somehow. I’m sure it would have been the time of year or weather conditions, but I’ve never seen so many sea shells in Florida.
The beach itself had more trash on it than I’ve seen. I tried to chalk it up at first to the fact that we arrived on Memorial Day, but I don’t think that was the case entirely. I recall at Destin seeing beach trucks combing the sand, cleaning debris I assumed. I didn’t see any of those in Gulf Shores. Don’t get me wrong; the beach wasn’t “trashed,” but the occasional water bottle or bottle cap wasn’t uncommon. I’m just not used to that.
The seaweed was pretty bad, which I’m sure can be blamed on the intense surf and weather conditions. The good news was, it wasn’t the slimy seaweed I recall as a little girl in Panama City Beach. It’s more of a bushy, curly seaweed that was more of an eyesore than an inconvenience.
We stayed at the Royal Palms, which is the last condo before getting to the State Park. As such, this was an excellent location. We were able to walk to the Pier two nights. It was a long, leisurely walk – a good nighttime activity for all ages. Alyssa got tired at times so I carried her but it wasn’t bad. On the other side of the State Park is Orange Beach, making it a convenient location if we wanted to go anywhere in either Gulf Shores or Orange Beach.
Part of our vacation is eating out! Since we only stayed 5 nights, I only have 5 restaurants to tell you about, but I’d recommend them all.
Oyster House: This local seafood restaurant was recommended to me by several people. The wait was about an hour, which I wasn’t a fan of, but it was a nice place. It was the favorite place we went for a couple of us. Since the only seafood I’ll eat is shrimp, I don’t appreciate places like this like others. But if you’re a seafood lover, you’ll like it. If you’re not a seafood lover, there’s not a whole lot to choose from. It was kid-friendly.
Longhorn Steakhouse: I know this is a chain, but if it’s not in my hometown, it’s a treat. This was my favorite place to eat. The food was de-lic-ious.
Zen: As our third family vacation with my parents, they traditionally keep the kids one night so we can go out for dinner. We chose Zen, a pacific-island restaurant in Orange Beach. The Asian food was unique and tasty. Matt loved it. The atmosphere was sophisticated, perfect for a date night.
Baumhowers: My dad’s favorite place, this was a fun sports bar restaurant located in the Wharf. With a different sport playing on every TV (several in every direction) and food named for sports phrases, any sports fan would like it. Even those who aren’t sports fans will enjoy the fun atmosphere and good food. Located next to the canal, it had excellent views, too.
Lulu’s: Recommended by several, the joke of the family was that my mom chose this because she wanted my dad to have a seafood buffet. When we were seated and handed a menu, we wondered where the buffet was. The name of the owner is Lucy Buffett, which is written on the menu and on the web site. All of us thought we read “buffet.” Still, we really enjoyed this restaurant. We were seated next to the canal, with beautiful views on a beautiful night. I enjoyed the food because I got shrimp but this is another local place that doesn’t offer a whole lot that isn’t fish. Besides the open-air restaurant, they also had several activities, such as a ropes course and sand volleyball court. Part of the enjoyment of this restaurant is definitely the atmosphere.
Hazel’s Nook: We enjoyed one breakfast and we chose this local breakfast buffet. It’s not IHOP, but its basic breakfast was very enjoyable. They also offered made-to-order omelets, which Matt really enjoyed. Everyone was friendly and you felt like you had stepped into an episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.
The beach was our main point of interest, of course, but we still took time to enjoy several other places.
Tanger Outlet Mall: This is HUGE and a very fun shopping experience. I rented a car stroller for Alyssa, and she was perfectly content. There was also a large playground and merry-go-round in the main area, which she enjoyed. I also discovered my new favorite children’s clothing store: Hartstrings. LOVED this place! This mall is a must-enjoy when you’re wanting a break from the salt and sand.
Adventure Island: We took the kids to this Orange Beach fun center one afternoon when the wind was making staying on the beach miserable. It had lots of arcade games, mini-golf, paddle boats, go-carts, and bumper boats. We did the mini-golf, which was fun, and the bumper boats. It was a nice little outing. However, if I had it to do over again, I would have chosen the Track in Gulf Shores. The go-cart track was much larger, and it had little carnival rides that Alyssa would have enjoyed.
The Pier: I REALLY enjoyed the Pier, but I’m kind of weird in that I like piers. Always have since I was a little girl. It’s the longest one in the gulf and was a beautiful sight. We walked there two nights. You can go up to a certain point and then it’s $2 per person (kids free with paying adult) to go farther. They had a little concession area and waterfront tables to enjoy concessions and drinks. Since we went later at night we didn’t get to enjoy this but it would have been nice. We also got to see the serious fishermen (because this is what the Pier is really for as Matt reminded me) with their catches. We saw a saltwater catfish and some really big fish being fileted (is that what it’s called?). But for the squeamish, that was completely optional. J The Pier has a huge parking lot that was always full so lots of people drive to enjoy the sights; we just thought it added extra ambiance to walk there at dusk.
The Wharf: This was my FAVORITE place, mostly for the atmosphere. I would compare it to the Branson Landing. We went about 5:30 and ate at Baumhower’s but there were other restaurants that looked nice like the Villagio Grille and the Compleat Angler. After dinner, we rode the Ferris Wheel, which is supposed to be the tallest one in the South. Completely enclosed, it seated 6 and boasted views of the entire area. On one side was the condo complex at the Wharf and the canal. On the other were the beachfront condos in both Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. After the Ferris wheel, we went shopping at the specialty shops until 8:30, when the Sound and Light Show began. Light-lined palm trees, strobe lights, spotlights, and lights on the Ferris Wheel synched with all varieties of music for about 15 minutes. Children danced in the street and families enjoyed the unique experience. Beautiful. The next night I was able to look from our 13th-floor walkway and see the light show in the distance several miles away.
Overall, the best part of Gulf Shores was being together as a family, and that could have been done anywhere. But getting away to a place like this is hard to beat. I would definitely recommend this area and would like to return. If I had the choice between Destin and Gulf Shores, at this point, it’s a toss-up. If Gulf Shores or Orange Beach ever gets a Fudpuckers, that just might make the decision for me. 🙂