Quirky and classy. If one destination can be both, this is it.
I’ve arrived on the Gulf Shore of Alabama, where the stain of the 2010 BP oil spill is long gone, and the miles of sugar white beaches are pristine again.
My focus is on Orange Beach, a small city just over the border from Florida. It’s famous in equal measure for its massive fishing pier, Gulf State Park nature area, seafood restaurants, including one owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister Lucy, and luxurious beachfront condominiums.
My home away from home for four days is a one-bedroom, 12th-floor unit complete with kitchen and set up to sleep six. It overlooks the Gulf of Mexico at the Beach Club. A family — or, as I witnessed, an entire wedding party and guests — could spent an entire vacation at this 86-acre property with its private beach running the length of five football fields.
Between the condos, cottages and the beach lies a network of elevated boardwalks to protect the dunes and their most notable inhabitants, the ecologically vital Alabama beach mice.
While resort cocooning has its appeal, I need to explore more and a busy itinerary finds me exploring the area by land, sea, and air.
The area is often brimming with Canadians, particularly the RV crowd, and it doesn’t take long to find a fellow Canuck who’s settled here for good. James Yaskowich, originally from Saskatchewan, quickly reveals his heritage by chatting me up about hockey, but his real purpose is coaching me on the art of Segway riding.
Segways, those two-wheeled, battery-powered vehicles mostly associated with American mall cops, are both easy and tricky to master — easy because you’re up and moving quickly, tricky because, as one member of our party discovered, they require full attention to avoid wiping out.
That’s a thought as we embark on one of eight two-hour trail tours available through Gulf State Park via Coastal Segway Adventures, because there are alligators involved. Spotting gators along the trails through the marshes is virtually guaranteed and, let’s face it, neophyte riders don’t want to roll too close.
Rolling up close to nature on a Segway is a hip way to explore, but seeing the Gulf Shore from the air is a jaw-dropper. Three at a time, we snuggled into a Robinson R44 Astro helicopter to check out the beach and park from above as our pilot explained selfie-sticks are banned and the lack of doors is simply Alabama air conditioning. Ours is the most economical of tours offered — other, longer flights include a sea life flight that spots sharks and stingrays and a sunset tour.
As much of a memory-making experience exploring Orange Beach by Segway and chopper were, nothing quite compares with an evening voyage with Captain Skip Beebee.
A free spirited California native, he weighed anchor one day in his houseboat and eventually docked in Alabama. His Sailaway Charters has been offering different boat tours for 20 years. We’re on the early afternoon cruise through the estuaries and backwaters of Wolf Bay and Longs Bayou.
After a safety briefing, including which of the passengers had the best lungs to cry man overboard if required (it’s never happened, Beebee assured us), we’re off in search of dolphins, pelicans, great blue herons and cormorants.
There’s joy in spotting the birds or seeing pods of dolphins, but Beebee really had us landlubbers amazed after he started dragging the waters behind the boat while yours truly took the wheel.
In little time, he raised a collection of curious creatures from the deep — jellyfish, stingrays, shrimp, and invasive sea walnut among them.
The best walk in Orange Beach takes me out over the waves along the second longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico. The 1,540 (470 metre) Gulf State Park Pier is packed with fishers, angling for species such as bluefish, Spanish mackerel, gulf toadfish and southern flounder.
The pier, which costs $3 to enter, was built in 2007 after hurricane Ivan destroyed an earlier, shorter one and for a time held the title as longest on the Gulf of Mexico until Florida one-upped Alabama by building a pier five feet longer.
All this adventure can build up a thirst, and to solve that I key in on what appears to be the only craft brewery in southern Alabama, Big Beach Brewing Company.
Taproom manager Evan Komyati guides me through a flight selection from among 12 taps, highlighted by For the Love of Mosaic American pale ale and Satsumo Belgian wit, made with locally grown Satsuma oranges.
When I checked back, they’d added a tribute to Canadians, the Bock Man-Turner Overdrive. Big Beach’s IPA is called 100 Daze and comes in at 69 IPU and 6.8 per cent alcohol, both of which are pleasing numbers to hopheads.
Whatever craft beer one chooses, it’s a refreshing way to toast one of America’s most interesting shores.
Wayne Newton is a freelance journalist based in London.
- Lulu’s at Homeport Marina, 202 East 25th Ave. Owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of Jimmy, it’s known for live entertainment. Lulu’s serves up to 4,000 people a day during peak season in the summer and includes the Fountain of Youth wet area and Mountain of Youth three-storey rope climbing zone. There’s an allergy menu covering gluten, shellfish, egg, seafood, and dairy.
- GT’s on the Bay, 26189 Canal Rd.. Overlooking Wolf Bay, GT’s features local seafood and Cajun empanadas.
- DeSoto’s Seafood Kitchen, 138 West First Ave. Fresh catches can be prepared to your choice of New Orleans, Mediterranean or Caribbean styles. Or choose the house favourite style, pecan encrusted.