What to do in Gulf Shores, Alabama

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Destin offers gorgeous beaches and one of the largest water parks in the state

Emerald-green waters, sugar-white beaches, and warm, salty breezes lure sun-seeking travelers to Destin, Florida, on the Gulf Coast. The resort area offers plenty of activities: sandcastle building classes, party boats, dolphin cruises and Big Kahuna, a huge water park with slides, a lazy river, a wave pool and even a miniature golf course with several waterfalls.

Destin also attracts sport fishermen. This seaside town has been dubbed the “luckiest fishing village in the world,” thanks in part to its variety of fish species, such as snapper, grouper and mahi-mahi.

In high season, the beaches accessible to the public are full of families eager to swim or snorkel in the crystal clear waters. Many are booking a week in one of the countless high-rise condos, and family vacation rentals are selling out fast too.

Okaloosa County, home to Destin and Fort Walton Beach, reported 7.5 million visitors in 2021. An average year sees around 5 million sun worshipers flock to the area. Get ready for another busy season on the shore. Sometimes, though, you don’t want all that, you know, hustle and bustle.

Location: Destin is in northwest Florida, just over an hour’s drive east of Pensacola, Florida.

Discover quiet beaches, wildlife and miles of trails in Gulf Shores

In Gulf Shores, Alabama, you can close your eyes and hear only the gentle lapping of the waves and the soft cries of migrating seabirds as the sun warms your skin. It can be intoxicating, especially for those who enjoy a quiet stretch of uncrowded white-sand beach, which you can find at Gulf State Park, at the eastern end of the 32-mile coastline that makes up Gulf Shores.

Gulf State Park has 6,150 acres of land. It’s a pristine piece of paradise that’s deliberately free of valets to set up beach chairs. The city’s Leave Only Footprints initiative keeps glass, pets, fires, vehicles and some tents off the beaches.

In Gulf Shores, alcohol is prohibited on the sand between late February and mid-April. Gulf Shores isn’t keen on ranking for a lively party scene. “We’re a family destination, not a party destination,” says Easton Colvin of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. “There are no party bars or strip clubs.”

Plan to soak up the area’s natural beauty, as well as its focus on sustainability. Gulf State Park received $85.5 million as part of the original settlement from BP following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. It has since used the funds to upgrade facilities at the state park, including including its 350-room park lodge: The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel.

The original lodge was open from 1974 until 2004, when it was devastated by Hurricane Ivan. The Lodge at Gulf State Park reemerged in 2018 as an eco-friendly coastal development. The smaller footprint, one-third smaller than the original pavilion, allowed for the natural restoration of the dunes. The hotel buildings have also been designed to reduce energy consumption by around a third.

Another major attraction is the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, a network of paved trails over 28 miles long that allows visitors to trek through the park’s various ecosystems, including maritime forest, freshwater marshes, and coastal dunes. . Visitors can unlock bikes at multiple locations using the Bloom bike-sharing app. Bikes are free for the first three hours, then cost $5 an hour.

There are also three restaurants in the park: Perch and Foodcraft, both at the Lodge, which serve local flavors and craft cocktails, and the Woodside Restaurant. A fishing pier, nature center, and freshwater lake are accessible on foot, by two-wheeler, or by nature tram, which makes stops at the park daily between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Sleep under the stars at Gulf State Park’s expansive campground with 496 full hookup sites. Alternatively, there are nearly a dozen elevated Eagle Cottages (literally, 10 feet above the ground) located on the shores of Lake Shelby that have earned a spot on National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World list in 2019 for best sustainability practices.

Next up for Gulf Shores is the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism & Sustainability, an ecotourism and learning center slated to open in early 2023. In the works are outdoor learning spaces, gardens biological courses, rope courses and summer camps, all part of an effort to help visitors and locals better connect with the unique ecology and ecosystems of the Gulf Coast region.

Location: Gulf Shores is on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, about an hour’s drive southwest of Pensacola, Florida.

Gifford is a writer based in Ashburn, Virginia. His website is eringifford.com. Find her on Instagram: @gohikevirginia.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.

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