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(2014 - Fall Issue)


Each morning, just before the pink sun rises, I happily wake up, pull on my neon-yellow jogging shorts, grab a banana and head down to the beach in anticipation of my 30-minute run.

I park my flip-flops on the immaculately kept condominium walkway, where water hoses dangle waiting to spritz down my soon-to-be very sandy feet.

Not expecting to see a soul, I stumble by early birds and great blue herons, squeak open my sleepy eyes in time to witness the tangerine skies and feel the crystal-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico wash over my toes.

The Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, recently named some of the best Gulf coast beaches by The Travel Channel, feature 52 kilometres of meandering white sand that feels and looks more like fine sugar crystals.

It doesn’t take long to fall in love with Alabama’s sweet tea and southern hospitality where strangers become fast friends connecting over football and a bowl of fried crab claws, and locals giggle every September about the arrival of the lovebugs (a.k.a. Plecia nearctica) and their unusual acrobatic inflight mating rituals.

Summer’s a busy time with families from neighbouring Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana flocking to these expansive beaches, so I choose to visit in the fall, when it’s much quieter, the weather is hot and the waters are still remarkably warm. Having only a few heavenly days in this exceptionally beautiful area, I try to squeeze in as many adventurous activities as I can. There are kayaking, zip lining and biking trails to explore for all levels, a slew of wildlife to admire, and plenty of outstanding fish and seafood eateries that would make any foodie delirious, all served up in casual family-friendly settings.

On the Wild Side

Although I never planned on visiting a zoo while in the Alabama Gulf Coast area, it turns out to be one of those special places where adults and children can equally have a blast.

I meet Patti Hall, Director of the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, as she pats her 200-kilogram Siberian tigers, “Salt” and “Pepper,” through the chain-link fence. “We’re resilient,” Patti chimes in, referring to Hurricane Ivan (2004) when Patti and her staff managed to evacuate most of the animals to her home. Their heroic efforts inspired the television show, The Little Zoo that Could, produced by Animal Planet.

I even have one of those “it doesn’t get better than this” moments while holding Lolly, an absolutely adorable young kangaroo, swaddled comfortably in a pillowcase.

Focusing on Habitat

If you are drawn to secluded beaches, like to fish or have always wanted to spy on an osprey, then you’ll enjoy exploring the Pine Beach Trail in the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Situated on more than 2,830 hectares of coastal lands, the refuge is also a nesting site for endangered loggerhead sea turtles where every May through to September, volunteers can sign up and help monitor the nests.

“There are more than 400 species of birds during migration season, which peaks in mid-October,” boasts our enthusiastic park ranger, Denise McInturff, on our three-kilometre trek to the beach. However I’m even more intrigued by the tiny dotted tracks on the dunes made by nocturnal white beach mice and even more thankful there are no alligators or venomous cottonmouth snakes surprising us on our path, although they do inhabit the area.

Our reward, after carefully tiptoeing around the state-protected sea oats, a species of tall golden grass sprouting from the sand dunes, is reaching a breathtaking uninhabited beach, where all conversation is lost to the sound of the waves rolling in.

From Sea to Table

It’s easy to build up an appetite after dolphin cruising in Wolf Bay, tanning on a catamaran or paddleboarding around a small island in Perdido Key. I can’t resist trying the local offerings of turnip greens, fried green tomatoes, cheese grits and crab cakes, but there is much more of the Gulf coast cuisine to sample.

Hanging out for lunch with Bob Baumhower, former Miami Dolphins’ defense player at his restaurant, the Compleat Angler Seafood Grille & Bar, is fun and tasty. I decide on the Mango Bay Salad, which features a hearty piece of mahi mahi served on top of gourmet greens, crispy spicy pecans and chunks of mango.

Another excellent place to dine is at The Gulf, an uber-cool outdoor waterfront restaurant, constructed from cobalt-blue shipping containers. Guests relax on swanky white sofas in the sand and eat at impressive long teak tables. With a menu that changes daily, the food is simple and fresh. Burgers look awesome, but I opt for simply seasoned grilled snapper on a heap of jicama and carrot slaw.

I discover a similarly modern vibe at Lucy B Goode Coastal Café. This indoor beach-chic restaurant is owned by Lucy Buffett, chef, restaurateur, Crazy Sista cookbook author and sister to Jimmy Buffett, who had stopped by for a snack earlier that day. 

Lucy B Goode’s small-plate dining encourages patrons to taste more of the local foods, such as Lucy’s creamy Baldwin County peanut soup and West Indies salad, made with succulent jumbo lump blue crab.

A Perfect Send-off

Although I never try a “bushwacker,” the signature local chocolaty rum drink, I do manage to fit in a two-hour zip line adventure at the Gulf Adventure Center.

Decked out in zip lining gear, trying not to trip on the heavy clip dangling between my legs, I climb up a sturdy wooden tower, look down and notice a two-metre-long ’gator swimming directly under the zip line.

Before I have a chance to back out, Chase, our expert guide, shouts, “Go!” I obey, jump from the platform, swing my trembling legs in front of me, and then serendipitously, five F-18s from the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels, based in Pensacola, Florida, fly by. I finally relax, sitting comfortably in my harness, catching the wind and the beauty of the beach below.

Travel Planner

Delta Airlines (delta.com) offers service from Toronto to Pensacola, Florida, connecting through Atlanta, Georgia. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are approximately a one-hour drive from the Pensacola airport. Typically, visitors to the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area stay in condominiums. Summer is high season, so plan ahead, and book your accommodation preferably by March.

For more information, visit:

Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism: gulfshores.com

Brett/Robinson Vacations: brett-robinson.com

Cetacean Cruises: cetaceancruises.com

Gulf Adventure Center: gulfadventurecenter.com

Lucy B Goode Coastal Café: lucybgoode.com

Meyer Vacation Rentals: meyerre.com

Sail Wild Hearts: sailwildhearts.com

Young’s Suncoast Realty & Vacation Rentals: youngssuncoast.com

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