Paradise in Alabama: Gulf Shores and Orange Beach

Tell the kids to grab their flip-flops and toss their bathing suits and sand buckets in the suitcase. For a family-friendly vacation, you can’t beat the warm weather and beautiful beaches in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where the sand is sugary-white, the ocean is the color of emeralds, and the sky is an endless blue.

Of course, there’s more to the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area than sand and sun. You’ll find fun restaurants with menus to please every palate, plenty of outdoor activities, and lots of educational things to see and do, and almost everything is affordably priced.

A dolphin and nature cruise is a great choice for starting your trip. Kids of all ages will enjoy a trip with Cetacean Cruises. You’ll have your choice of two vessels: a 52’ Hawaiian Catamaran sailboat, or a 40’ pontoon boat. You don’t have to make reservations, but plan ahead if you can, because the cruises fill up fast. Either trip will take you into the bays and sounds of coastal Alabama, where you’re likely to see dolphins, crabs, and such birds as ospreys, hawks, and herons. Keep your eyes on the shore, and you may spot an occasional alligator or deer. Take the glass-bottomed pontoon boat if the kids are restless and want to move around (although be warned: the sometimes silty Alabama waters are not as clear as those in the Caribbean, so you may not see as much as you’d think). Both boats are equipped with heads (that’s bathrooms, for the land-lubbers).

You’ll probably be hungry after a long morning on the water, so head to lunch at King Neptune’s. The restaurant may look humble on the outside, but inside you’ll feast on some of the tastiest Royal Red shrimp, crab claws, oysters, and fresh fish in the Gulf. The coleslaw is creamy and the hushpuppies are seasoned just right, but your meal won’t be complete without a slice of King Neptune’s famous fried cheesecake. Warm and crunchy on the outside, it’s filled with cool, creamy goodness on the inside. Better get an extra fork, so you can share.

To work off that big lunch, take the family next to Fort Morgan Historic State Park. Dating to 1864, this fort was commanded by Admiral David Farragut during the Battle of Mobile Bay, when Confederate and Union forces clashed over control of the harbor. It was Farragut who cried, “Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!”

2011 is the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and a variety of events are planned into 2014, to lead up to the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay. If you’re in town during the July Fourth holiday, catch the artillery demonstrations, which will include the firing of a Civil War cannon. You can also take a candlelight tour of the fort on Tuesday evenings during June and July, led by living history re-enactors in period dress. For times and prices, call 251-540-7127.

For a laid-back evening after your busy day, head over to The Tin Top Restaurant and Oyster Bar in the quiet fishing village of Bon Secour. It’s off the beaten path, so it makes a restful stop. Give the younger kids a coloring book and crayons, or let the older ones plug in to their iPods or Ipads (there’s free Wi-Fi both indoors and outdoors), while you kick back. Try the 45 foot-long outdoor oyster bar, where you can sip a cold beer and relax on the patio in the shade of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

The next morning, sneak in a little education with your fun, and visit the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research and Education Center. You’ll wind along the boardwalk through 6,000 acres of wetlands and a protected estuary, where freshwater and salt water meet to provide a rich home for many kinds of fish, plants, and animals. Children are welcome to explore the drawers and cabinets in the Interpretive Center, which are stocked with fascinating specimens of birds, fish, bats, mammals, and reptiles. Volunteers are often on hand with living animals to discover, too. A short distance away, another boardwalk leads to a native Pitcher Plant bog. Tell the kids to keep their eyes peeled for insects landing in the sticky blossoms of these carnivorous beauties.

When the day heats up, catch another nature trip with Captain Skip onboard Sailaway Charters. You’ll zip along comfortably on a shaded pontoon boat while your knowledgeable captain, a certified Nature Tour Guide, tells you about oystering, shrimping, and crabbing in Longs Bayou and Wolf Bay. When he hauls up his shrimp net and crab pots, you’ll come eye to eye with live shrimp, blue crabs, catfish, puffer fish, and other sea creatures. Watch the coastline so you don’t miss any pelicans, cormorants, hawks, herons, and even eagles. On many trips, “Mr. Friendly,” a dolphin who likes Captain Skip, may appear alongside your boat.

For dinner, hit The Hangout, a fun restaurant offering great hamburgers, wings, crab cakes, salads, and much more. Styled after the beach hangouts of the 1960s, this place has something for everyone. You’ll enjoy the vintage posters, pictures, and collections of oddities like Pez candy containers, while the kids climb over a nearby sand pile, play in a flood of foamy bubbles, or try to beat each other at the outdoor foosball tables. Later, head to the outdoor amphitheater and lean back in a comfortable chair to catch some music. You can wiggle your toes in the sand while a live band jams out the latest tunes.

No trip to the beach is complete without some souvenirs, and you’ll find plenty of shops to fit all budgets around Gulf Shores. If you’re looking for unique art, try the Orange Beach Art Center, which houses original paintings, sculptures, and jewelry and clothing items made by local artists. Be sure to let the kids watch internationally known artist Sam Cornman as he demonstrates glass blowing at The Hot Shop, Alabama’s only public-access glass studio.

You won’t have enough time to do everything there is to do, from parasailing to kayaking, to playing golf or watching the sun set from the outdoor dining area at Cobalt, a new, gourmet restaurant in Orange Beach. But if you find yourself headed home with sand in your shoes and a little sunburn on your shoulders, just consider it a reminder to come back to the beach. Soon.