Gulf Coast Comeback

Exactly one week before I arrived on the Alabama Gulf Coast, something happened that had me — and the entire nation — concerned. The Deepwater Horizon, BP’s offshore drilling rig near the U.S. southern shoreline, exploded, causing an estimated 53,000 barrels of oil a day to spill into the Gulf of Mexico. It would be another month before the oil and tar balls reached Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, but a few steps away from our well-appointed beach house, the sand was pure white, the water a deep turquoise, and the breeze intoxicating.

As the tragedy unfolded last spring and summer, I couldn’t help but think back to that moment on the beach. Would this area and its incredibly hospitable locals survive one of the worst industrial disasters in maritime history?

Of course, beaches and seafood are the biggest draws for tourists to this area. A beach deep-cleaning effort began at the Alabama-Florida state line and moved west; according to BP’s Alabama Gulf Response website, the goal is to clean all beaches by spring break 2011. As for the safety of seafood, the FDA’s website says the agency “continues to closely monitor this developing situation and its potential impact on the safety of seafood harvested from the area. Fish and shellfish harvested from areas reopened or unaffected by the closures are considered safe to eat.”

The Deep South
A short drive away from the gulf, I began my adventure in Magnolia Springs, Ala. A postcard-perfect community of about 4,000, Magnolia Springs sits on the banks of the Magnolia River and harkens back to a time when an early evening stroll under a canopy of century-old oak trees was the perfect end to the day. It still is, especially if you are staying at the Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast. Innkeepers David Worthington and Eric Bigelow renovated the original Sunnyside Hotel, circa 1897, and opened in 1997. Both the B&B and the hosts exemplify Southern charm and graciousness. Dinner was a gourmet comfort food treat: a whiskey marinated rib-eye steak, champagne crab bisque, and fried green tomatoes from the nearby Jesse’s Restaurant.

Well-fed and thoroughly relaxed, I started the next day with a golf cart tour of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail. Later, I enjoyed the same trail on a bicycle where I saw an alligator in the marsh. (Fortunately, I don’t think he saw me.) The 7.8 miles of paved trails wind through wet and dry pine savannas, coastal wetlands, dune scrub, and maritime forest of Orange Beach all the way to the beach of Gulf State Park. It was like traveling through at least three seasons in just a few short hours. Also nearby is the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. This 7,000-acre wildlife habitat is in a strategic location for the spring and fall migration of millions of birds.[pagebreak]

Everything You Need Is Here
A trip to The Wharf resort in Orange Beach proved to be another great way to explore more than the coastline. This recent development is an upscale multi-use resort facility featuring boutiques, restaurants, an Aveda spa, an outdoor amphitheater, the Southeast’s tallest Ferris wheel, an 18-hole championship golf course, a lazy river and wave pool, and a marina next to condominiums and resort accommodations only a few miles from the gulf.

Also a favorite, The Beach Club in Gulf Shores is an elegant vacation residence offering fine dining, a spa, fitness and game rooms, shopping, golf, a kids’ club, and magnificent views from its gulf-front location.

Royal Reds and Bushwhackers
True Southern delights showed up on every menu, but my favorite had to be King Neptune’s. Unassuming on the outside, this Gulf Shores restaurant is the kind of joint you go into not prepared to leave so happy and full. Here’s why: royal red shrimp. This crimson-colored shrimp, caught in the deeper, colder waters of the Gulf of Mexico, is a little sweeter and somewhat like crab legs in texture. The restaurant serves them piled high with melted butter because they don’t need anything else. If that wasn’t enough to double my dose of Lipitor, then the fried cheesecake rolled in cornflake crumbs and topped in a pecan praline sauce surely sent those cholesterol levels soaring.

My next meal was more of a liquid diet. The quintessential beach drink here is a Bushwhacker. This blend of vanilla ice cream, Kahlua, dark crème de cacao, and light rum is served cold and frothy at LuLu’s, a Parrothead haven owned by Gulf Coast native Lucy Buffett. She knows how to throw a party like her big brother Jimmy. On any given day, the musician may stop in for a cold one and sing a song or two. This family-friendly beach fest on a marina features live music every day.

Life’s a Beach
Back at the shore, I found out where all the cool cats and surfer dudes were: The Hangout. A popular beach destination in the 1950s and 1960s, it still is hip today. 2010 was the first year for the Hangout Music Festival. Last year’s three-day event featured bands including John Legend, The Black Crowes, Zac Brown Band, and Alison Krauss and Union Station. This year’s event is May 20-22.

My last night in Orange Beach took me all the way to Florida — at least to the state line. The Flora-Bama is an institution in these parts. This hobbled-together bar, sitting atop the Florida-Alabama state line, is part biker bar, part beach bar, part disco, and 100 percent home to the mullet toss. The game involves competitors throwing mullets (the fish variety, not the haircut) from a 10-foot circle on the beach in Florida across the state line into Alabama. 

I’m eager to take my family to Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. And when I do, I’ll be transported back to that day when the sand was pure white, the water a deep turquoise, and the breeze intoxicating.

When You Go
Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau
Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast
The Wharf
The Beach Club
Jesse’s Restaurant
King Neptune’s
The Hangout

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