By Victor Block
My first thought was that I had taken a wrong turn. This couldn't be Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, perched on the Gulf Coast of Alabama. That place is known for its long stretches of magnificent sand and expanses of unspoiled nature. I was passing a line of high-rise condominium buildings that seemed to be competing for the title of most glitzy. Restaurants ranging from gourmet elegant to beach-dive casual tempted hungry passersby.
It wasn't long, though, before I understood. I was in a something-for-everyone place. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach combine the usual list of to-dos and to-sees available at many sun-and-sand destinations with a number of other possibilities, including some unique to the area.
Those who like to commune with Mother Nature have plenty of ways to do so. Active types may choose from a long and varied list of pursuits. Even folks seeking new learning experiences can drop by museums devoted to a diversity of topics. Enhancing the mix is what many locals consider to be the best of Alabama's 22 state parks.
Granted, beach tourism is the reason why many people visit Gulf Shores, a town of about 12,000 residents; Orange Beach, where about half that number of people live; and the sun-drenched area surrounding them. Sun-seekers find 32 miles of pristine white quartz sand lapped by the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Actually the beachfront consists of several sections that span different locations. Both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have 8 miles of beach. Gulf State Park encompasses 2 miles, and Fort Morgan fronts 14 miles of seashore.
Pentagon-shaped Fort Morgan was completed in 1834. The masonry structure, which occupies a strategic location where Mobile Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, was built to strengthen the coastal defense of the United States following the War of 1812. The expansive site contains historic military buildings, artillery batteries that were constructed between 1895 and 1904, and a museum with exhibits of uniforms, weapons, photographs and letters written by soldiers who served there. A living history program interprets the various military periods in the fort's active life. To top it off, the setting fronts the same kind of broad, gentle snow-hued beach characteristic of the area.
While Gulf State Park is home to the shortest stretch of beach in the area, its other assets help account for its popularity. The nine distinct ecosystems nestled in its 6,000-plus acres include pine forests, coastal hardwood swamps and freshwater marshes. Boggy streams and three spring-fed lakes are among the water features.
A backcountry trail complex stretches for 28 miles. Hikers may spot white-tailed deer, an alligator basking in the sun and even a bobcat looking for its dinner. Boating and fishing are available and, for those seeking modest accommodations, there are cabins, cottages and campsites.
Visitors seeking an even more extensive selection of activities also are in luck. Kayaking and paddle-boarding attract people of all ages. Dinner, sunset and dolphin-watching cruises appeal to those who prefer to take to the sea in a more relaxing manner.
Lake and ocean fishing tempt anglers. Some try their luck off a pier that stretches 1,540 feet out over the Gulf of Mexico. Snorkelers and divers also find much to like. A series of artificial reefs provides experiences geared to everyone from children and beginners to advanced divers. Avid golfers prefer to spend time on the14 courses in the immediate area or within an hour's drive. Two, Craft Farms and Kiva Dunes, have ranked high on Golf Digest "best courses" lists.
People who prefer indoor pursuits also are in luck. Small local museums provide insight into the region's history and character. The Gulf Shores Museum is located in a pre-World War II beach house. Permanent exhibits tell the story of 19th-century settlers in the area and of hurricanes, including how they originate and how a community rebuilds from their destruction. Rotating displays deal with a variety of topics.
In keeping with its name, the Orange Beach Indian and Sea Museum provides introductions to the area's Native American and fishing heritages. The USS Alabama at Battleship Memorial Park, about an hour's drive away in Mobile, is home to the massive ship that saw action for 37 months during World War II, a World War I submarine and a collection of historic aircraft.
An hour's drive in the other direction leads to the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida. Despite its name, the collection of more than 250 aircraft represents every military branch. The complex also is home to the famous Blue Angels, the aerobatic team of Navy and Marine aviators who thrill onlookers with their literal flights of fancy.
Battleships and historic airplanes, golf and a Gulf-related museum might seem to have little in common with an inviting beach destination. That's especially true of one that has been recognized and highly ranked in "best-of" lists compiled by highly respected publications.
And that's the point. Inclusion on "top 10," "best places" and "most beautiful" lists is based upon the magnificent stretches of beach as well as the long list of other attractions that the Gulf Coast and Orange Beach offers those who go there. As one repeat visitor told me, "I came here the first time for the beaches. Now I return for everything else."
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: www.gulfshores.com or 800-745-7263
(SET IMAGE2) tad072119bdAP.jpg (ENDF IMAGE2) (SET CAPTION2). A couple fishes from a pier in the Gulf of Mexico in Alabama's Gulf Shores. Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. (END CAPTION2)
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Alabama's Fort Morgan was built to strengthen the coastal defense of the United States following the War of 1812. Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism.