“OK, y’all, I’m about to bring out the owl,” says Kelly Reetz, a naturalist with Alabama’s Gulf State Park, pulling on a tough brown leather glove from a box marked “owl encounters.”
A group of excited kids encircles Reetz in the park’s nature center, quiet for just this moment, while she introduces them to the resident screech owl, the glassy-eyed bird now perched on her arm. Soon, its raucous flapping wings will cause commotion in the room as the naturalist tries to restore peace. “This owl can hear all of your heartbeats,” Reetz tells them.
Gulf State Park (alapark.com/gulf-state-park) is an appropriate location to begin an entrée to Alabama’s Gulf region. Situated across the freeway from the area’s famous white-sand beaches, the wide-eyed wonder of nature begins to unfold here through dozens of nature programs for campers and day visitors, a theme that continues throughout the area with dolphin cruises, a surprisingly intimate zoo and brag-worthy fish caught from the 1,500-foot pier here, among other nature-based activities.
The focus on animals and nature makes Gulf Shores and Orange Beach an ideal family destination, especially during the spring, when throngs of spring breakers head to the more populated beaches in Florida, Mexico and elsewhere.
Appreciating the diverse species living in this area of Alabama — located near the Florida state line — is heightened after the devastating 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest oil spill in U.S. history. In the years since, beach communities on the Gulf have bounced back with the aid of billions of dollars in settlement money.
Here in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, that money has gone toward dune restoration and beach and park enhancements, including a new beach boardwalk slated to open this spring and 27 miles of paved hiking and biking trails.
Visitors can also rent a Segway like I did (coastalsegwayadventures.com) and zip through these trails at a top speed of 12.5 miles per hour, stopping at various points of interest. On one stop, our tour group saw a wild alligator named Lefty (so named because of a missing eye and front paw due to a fight with another gator) and her new hatchlings.
Scores of volunteers through Share the Beach (alabamaseaturtles.com) work every year to ensure sea turtles during the May-October nesting season make their way back to the Gulf. And an endangered creature called the Alabama beach mouse is free to make its home among the sandy dunes.
Even the zoo here is a little different. It may be small, but the opportunities for animal encounters at Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo (alabamagulfcoastzoo.org) abound, allowing visitors to pet and hold lemurs, kangaroos and sloths.
Out on the water, the dolphins seem to follow you everywhere in April and May. One day, I bravely climbed aboard a wave runner (aewatersports.com), following tentatively in the wake of my wetsuited instructor until opening the throttle wide and giggling at the rolling choppiness of the water. As I looked over to the banks, two dolphins took turns surfacing and diving gracefully, nature’s true wave runners.
Another day, I went with a group on a chartered shrimping boat with John Beebee, aka Captain Skip (sailorskip.com), an interesting character whose pre-launch safety lecture turned inadvertently comical. (“If someone falls in, we need a pointer. We need someone to dive in, someone to hold a rope, someone to act as captain if the captain falls in, someone to cut someone out of the shrimp net if they get caught in the net, someone to call 911…”).
First we “tickled the shrimp” with chains, and as we cast our net, dolphins were our constant companions (baiting dolphins is illegal, but they are smart enough to know to follow shrimpers and nose a few snacks). Seeing their smooth gray heads emerge so close to our vessel was a constant source of delight among the group — most of us depleted our cellphone batteries capturing videos and photos.
Fresh off the hook
The dolphins have the right idea: the food here on the Gulf redefines freshness. Straight-off-the-boat seafood like royal red shrimp (a slightly sweeter, meatier relative of garden variety shrimp), trigger fish, snapper and oysters is widely available on menus throughout the area.
Look for a Fishtrax notation on the menu, which allows you to scan your seafood entree and look up where and when it was caught. It’s all part of an effort to bring awareness to the local fishing industry. About 90 percent of the fish Americans consume is from overseas, and about half the fish we eat is farm-raised.
One of many kid-friendly restaurants that offers a taste of that Gulf-fresh seafood is Lulu’s at Homeport Marina (lulubuffett.com), owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister, Lucy. In addition to waterfront seating on the marina, Lulu’s includes an on-site fountain for kids and a three-story ropes course. Grab a dessert from Matt’s Homemade Alabama Ice Cream (mattshomemadeicecream.com), the only homemade ice cream shop in the area. Parents may want to partake in the area’s famously potent Bushwhackers, a coconutty variation of a Mudslide, widely available.
What’s fresher than fresh? Consider casting your line off the Gulf State Park Pier — you can purchase your license and bait and rent your gear right here — and see what you can catch. By the way, be mindful that sharks can, and do, visit this area. Fishers are allowed to clean their fish and throw scraps off the pier, which attracts sharks. Greedy pelicans try to intercept the food, which makes a pier walk entertaining even for people who don’t fish. The state park also leads a pier walk for those interested in learning more about the fish that live here.
Several area restaurants, including Shipp’s Harbor Grill (shippsrestaurant.com), Fisher’s Dockside (fishersobm.com) and the Flora-Bama Yacht Club (florabamayachtclub.com), offer “hook and cook” options for preparing your prized catch.
Where to stay
Accommodation options in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are plentiful for a range of budgets. With all the amenities that Gulf State Park offers to visitors, snagging a site at the campground would be an ideal adventure for a family. The park offers nearly 500 campsites, primitive and full-hookup sites, with a swimming pool and other amenities — plus the daily slate of activities offered at the nature center.
Several of the beachfront resorts are condo-style rentals operated by a central management company. For example, I stayed at the Beach Club Gulf Shores managed by Spectrum Resorts (thebeachclub.com/spectrumresorts) and enjoyed a private bedroom, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, dining room and balcony. My closet was retrofitted into a hideaway bunk bed, ideal for little ones. In addition to enjoying morning walks on the beach, guests have access to several pools, hot tubs and an on-site workout facility.
Other options include Caribe Resort (caribe-resort.net), which offers lazy rivers, kayak and boat rentals on-site. Guests at Perdido Beach Resort (perdidobeachresort.com) enjoy private beach access and several on-site restaurants. A new Hilton property will open in late 2018.
Regardless of how you fill your itinerary, a spring break getaway to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach should include plenty of beach time and a toes-in-the-sand view of nature’s diverse bounty.
“If we can educate kids to care for and respect nature as it is — or be fascinated by it — then nature will continue as it is,” says Reetz.
It’s almost a guarantee you’ll come away from your trip with a sense of that fascination.