Unless you’re from the South, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Alabama has a sliver of coastline that borders the Gulf of Mexico. But, lucky for active types, this relatively small geographic area is chock full of outdoorsy things to do—many of which center on the region’s world-class beaches, whose squeaky white sand and turquoise water could be right at home in the Caribbean, and other waterways that stretch like fingers into the landscape. Even if you simply plant yourself on one of them, with nothing more than sand, sun, or fishing on your agenda, you’d have two days well spent. However, if you really want to deepen your experience and get to know the 60 miles of Alabama’s shoreline while gaining a new appreciation of the laid-back lifestyle here, we’ve devised the perfect two-day adventure for you.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to wake up at the Dauphin Island Harbor House, you will be served a delicious Southern-style breakfast to start your day. But if not, grab a perfectly made latte and a mouthwatering pastry at Lighthouse Bakery and walk a few blocks to Indian Shell Mound Park at Coronado Cove. It’s a park and bird refuge, as well as a historic site known for its six oyster shell middens.
Dauphin Island is surrounded by Mississippi Sound and Mobile Bay to its north and the expansive Gulf of Mexico to its south, a perfect home for the Estuarium—a public aquarium and coastal waters resource center—which is part of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Here, you can gain close-up, hands-on experience with marine life, including a 7,000-gallon stingray touch pool.
From there, drive your car onto the Mobile Bay Ferry for a 40-minute boat ride to Fort Morgan, located across the bay on another sandy peninsula, Mobile Point. History buffs can stop at the historic star-shaped fort named for Revolutionary War hero Daniel Morgan, built in 1834 on grounds that were previously used as stockade fortification toward the end of the War of 1812. Or grab a beachside seafood lunch—coconut shrimp, oysters, steamed crab legs served with garlic butter are all on the menu—on the beach at Bahama Bob’s Beach Side Café, where the motto is, "the lower the latitude, the better the attitude."
Just to the east you’ll find two miles of soft, white sandy beaches at Gulf State Park, along with 15 miles of hiking trails, campgrounds, fishing, and paddling. Since you’re likely to never want to leave once you stop at GSP, it’s a worthwhile detour to first check out Alligator Alley, about 20 miles north up Route 59, to see hundreds of gators in a natural wildlife habitat.
After you’ve had your fill of wildlife, catch the evening ferry back to Dauphin Island. (If you miss it, you’ll have to make the horseshoe-shaped drive about 85 miles around Mobile Bay back to Dauphin Island, which takes about two hours, depending on traffic). Once you’re back on Dauphin Island, grab dinner and drinks at Pirate’s Pleasure, a delightful dive with a gorgeous view of the sunset. Be ready to settle in for the night; you’re on island time.
Get an early start (and a quick nosh for the road from Lighthouse Bakery) and head about 20 miles west to drive through the harbors and shipyards of Bayou la Batre—a small fishing village known as the seafood capital of Alabama, and a shipbuilding epicenter where you’ll find Master Boat Builders along the Mississippi Sound. Don’t be surprised if you find celebrity chefs sampling seafood here, or the occasional Hollywood producer scouting for locations and vessels; think Forrest Gump and Pirates of the Caribbean, for starters. This is the setting where Forrest returned to in order to fulfill the shrimping legacy of "Bubba" Blue, and Disney launched its famous pirate ship, the Black Pearl, which was secretly built in the Bayou.
From there, drive nine miles east to Bellingrath Gardens and Home. Its 65 acres contain year-round natural beauty: meandering pathways, stunning statues, artwork, an Asian-American Garden, Mirror Lake, the Bubbling Brook, the Bayou Boardwalk, and so much more. The offerings are enough to spend a relaxing day here; for lunch, go for a picnic on the grounds or dine at the Magnolia Café for traditional homemade soups, salads, and sandwiches.
If you’ve got the time and energy, head eight miles to Fowl River Marina for late afternoon or sunset paddling up the beautiful blueway, Fowl River Paddle Trail, soaking up its reflective waters and breathtaking flora and fauna.
Afterward, just a few steps away from the Marina, end your tour of the Alabama Gulf with mouthwatering seafood at the Pelican Reef restaurant, whose cheeky motto is "the only thing we overlook is the water."
Originally written for BCBS of AL.