Standing barefoot on my high-rise condo balcony, glass of white wine in hand and a bubbling hot tub behind me, I lean against the white railing and take in the expansive white-sand beach views and sweet-smelling Alabama Gulf Coast breeze.
West of Destin and the Florida Panhandle’s tony Highway 30A beach towns, the seven-mile stretch between Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Ala., has shed its former “Redneck Riviera” persona thanks to new luxury accommodations and an influx of upscale restaurants, shops and spas.
Visitors have long flocked from the Midwest for a convenient, under-the-radar beach getaway, but now a surprising boost in tourism, post BP oil spill, is attracting more vacationers from around the country for a taste of Southern hospitality with a coastal twist.
The twin towers of Turquoise Place — the tallest in Orange Beach at 31 floors — are my home during this stay. My three-bedroom, 2,700-square-foot beachfront condo offers a spacious kitchen and wet bar outfitted with stainless-steel appliances, floor-to-ceiling beach view windows and enough balcony space to host an outdoor dinner party using the provided gas grill.
But waterfront Southern coastal dining is on the menu this evening, and I’m soon slipping on a cover-up and sandals for dinner reservations nearby.
Southern hospitality, coastal style
I swoon over Driftwood Bar and Grille owner and chef Chris Kelly’s lump blue crabmeat cheesecake appetizer before forking through its layers, garnished with caramelized apples, candied bacon and Creole hollandaise.
The dish is representative of his Southern-inspired, seafood-heavy menu, as was my ’Bama shrimp stack entree, which came with poached jumbo gulf shrimp, a crispy sweet potato risotto cake and a fried green tomato atop sauteed spinach and drizzled with sweet peach-butter sauce. I barely have room for the warm white chocolate bread pudding paired with bourbon-peach cobbler for dessert.
After dinner, a sunset stroll overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway is in order. My location: The Wharf — a palm tree-lined shopping, dining and entertainment destination where Kelly operates Driftwood along with his other concepts, Ronin Sushi and Steak, and the Blue Chair Bar. I sip coconut rum and pineapple juice on an outdoor bar stool at the latter and admire the many yachts docked just steps from my seat.
In the distance, I hear cheers for the opening act for country music superstar and Texan Miranda Lambert at the Wharf Amphitheater. With many concertgoers prancing about in cutoff shorts and cowboy boots, I begin to understand that the Alabama Gulf Coast is like Texas-meets-Margaritaville — a little bit country but very much coastal.
Perhaps Lucy Buffett, little sister of the mayor of Margaritaville himself, describes the still-somewhat-secret Alabama Gulf Coast vibe best.
“It’s a bit more laid back than our neighbors in Florida. It’s very homey and very Southern, with sugar white sand and [nearly] 40 miles of the most gorgeous beaches,” she says. “So many people don’t even know that Alabama has a beach.”
Buffett, a native, embodies the Alabama Gulf Coast lifestyle through her island-time attitude and her Gulf Shores restaurant, LuLu’s, a popular destination for waterfront dining and live music. It is where, the next day for lunch, I enjoy blackened mahimahi tacos with chipotle cream sauce and shredded cabbage washed down with a cold, salt-rimmed Cadillac margarita on the rocks.
The wait for dinner, especially during the peak summer season, can last up to two hours, but opportunities to pass the time include several outdoor tiki bars, a vast gift shop, and LuLu’s “Mountain of Youth” playground for all ages.
I could sit on this covered patio for hours, but there’s more to the Alabama Gulf Coast than eating, drinking and listening to live music. And while all three might be my very favorite pastimes, outdoor activity and spa-going come in as close ties for second.
Fitness, spa-going and wildlife galore
Earlier that morning, I had been treated to a private yoga class on the soft white beach in front of Turquoise Place.
Hosted by Gulf Shores-based Glow Yoga, the session stretched my limbs and awakened my senses. Gentle waves lightly splashed along the shoreline, while the warm sun and my continuous, flowing movement brought refreshing beads of sweat. I worked on a large wool blanket provided by the instructor, so I could feel the softness of the sand beneath me but I wasn’t covered in it.
At the end, I rested in the Shavasana pose on my back while the instructor placed a chilled towel on my forehead and massaged my neck. Again, with enough sunscreen, I could have stayed there for hours.
But I had an appointment to get to: a soothing massage at the Beach Club. A Spectrum Resorts sister property to Turquoise Place, the Beach Club’s four condo towers sit on 86 acres of private white beaches on the nearby Fort Morgan peninsula. My muscles melt just minutes after I lay on the spa massage table, and the scent of coconut-kissed shea butter sweetens the air.
Stretched, kneaded and plentifully fed, I embark on a leisurely afternoon bike ride through the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, where the terrain changes significantly. Tall, shady trees, lush greenery and various ecosystems surround me. My sleek cruiser comes from Beach Bike Rentals in Orange Beach, located within easy access to the Gulf State Park trails.
Along the way, I spot a nonthreatening snake, which scurries off the bike path and into the woods, and an alligator named Lefty, who’s napping while halfway submerged in a small swamp.
My experience with coastal wildlife doesn’t end there. A late-afternoon eco-cruise with Wild Native Tours takes me through the coast’s lesser-traveled waterways, including Oyster Bay and the Bon Secour Bay, via a 22-passenger pontoon boat. My guides are two young marine biologists who are passionate about coastal Alabama’s nature and history.
I learn how dolphins court each other while spotting more than a few pods bobbing in and out of the water nearby, as if waving hello. I see ospreys, herons, pelicans and other birds of the region, as well beautiful bayside homes. There is no white sand in sight, but this side of the Alabama coastline is just as attractive and tranquil.
Royal Reds and the Flora-Bama
While rickety oyster bars with shrimp basket specials abound in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Big Fish is a must-visit for a more sophisticated seafood experience. The upscale Orange Beach restaurant is my destination for dinner, where husband-and-wife duo Leck and Jana Lilayuva serve up to a dozen types of a fresh fish daily — all hand-filleted by Leck himself — along with steaks and sushi.
Grouper, swordfish and amberjack are just some of the Gulf fish that might appear as Big Fish’s daily catch special, but if Royal Red shrimp is on the menu, don’t miss it. These monstrous crustaceans that resemble lobsters in taste are only found 60 miles or more off the Alabama coast, primarily late summer through the end of fall.
Unfortunately, my visit is too early to experience their sweet, crimson-skinned goodness, so a return trip is a must. But my scallop ceviche and chili garlic sashimi serve as more than suitable substitutes.
Another Alabama Gulf Coast venue known for plump, steamed Royal Reds, when in season, is the Flora-Bama. But that’s not why visitors from around the world flock to this ramshackle, half-century-old bar that sits on the Florida-Alabama state line. They go for live music, libations and to escape from reality.
Country music sensation Kenny Chesney, known for embracing a rum-sipping, beach-hopping, Jimmy Buffett-inspired lifestyle, might describe the place best in his song with the same name:
“Sitting here at the Flora-Bama, ’bout to open up a big old can of good times, unwind. There’s ball caps, photographs, dollar bills and bras; license plates from every state nailed up to the wall.”
The description is true, and with a rum and Kahlua-based bushwacker — the bar’s signature drink — in hand, I venture from room to room at the massive beach bar and hear country and rock ’n’ roll cover songs from live musicians in each one.
Outside, a rodeo is happening in the sand. The “Bulls on the Beach” professional bull-riding event takes place once a year, in September, and while I’ve been to the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo countless times, I had never seen a bull on a beach until now.
In her newest cookbook, “Gumbo Love: Recipes for Gulf Coast Cooking, Entertaining and Savoring the Good Life” (Grand Central Life & Style, $30), Buffett writes a love letter to coastal Southern food culture with recipes for crab and corn bisque, mahi Reuben sandwiches, her signature summer seafood gumbo and dozens more.
“Whatever saltwater secret it is that makes us coastal Southerners a little different, a little mystical, it has nurtured a heart connection to a place that I love … ,” she writes.
And while I’m a third-generation Texas native with minimal Southern Gulf Coast experiences, my short stay in coastal Alabama — along with my Flora-Bama bushwacker — resulted in the same sentiment.
Celestina Blok is a third-generation Texan but felt like an honorary Alabama Gulf Coast Southerner during her Orange Beach and Gulf Shores stay.
WHERE TO STAY
Turquoise Place: 26302 Perdido Beach Blvd., Orange Beach, Ala. 225-323-3671. turquoiseplace.spectrumresorts.com. Three-bedroom condo rentals start at $480 per night. Five-bedroom penthouse suites start at $1,145 per night.
WHERE TO EAT
Driftwood Bar and Grille: 4851 Wharf Parkway, Orange Beach, Ala. 251-981-0140. driftwoodbarandgrille.com. LuLu’s at Homeport Marina: 200 E. 25th Ave., Gulf Shores, Ala. 251-967-5858. www.lulubuffett.com. Big Fish Restaurant: 25814 Canal Road, Orange Beach, Ala. 251-981-5516. bigfishrestaurantbar.com.
WHAT TO DO
The Beach Club: 925 Beach Club Trail, Gulf Shores, Ala. 251-224-3500. thebeachclub.spectrumresorts.com.
Beach Bike Rentals: 22989 Perdido Beach Blvd., Gulf Shores, Ala. 251-968-1770. www.beachbikerentals.net.
Wild Native Tours: 251-272-4088. www.wildnativetours.com.
Flora-Bama: 17401 Perdido Key Drive, Pensacola, Fla. 251-980-5118. www.florabama.com.
Lucy’s Signature Summer Seafood Gumbo
Serves 14 to 16
- 3 pounds medium wild-caught Gulf shrimp, heads on
- 2 pounds cooked blue crab claw meat, picked through for shell, handled carefully to keep the meat in big chunks
- 4 large, ripe tomatoes, or 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes with their juices
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil or bacon grease
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 large onions, coarsely chopped
- 1 bunch celery, coarsely chopped, including leaves
- 2 green bell peppers, coarsely chopped
- 8 cups shrimp or seafood stock, heated
- 2 to 3 teaspoons sea salt, or to taste
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons dried thyme
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 2 tablespoons LuLu’s Crazy Creola Seasoning (recipe follows), or other Creole seasoning
- 1/4 cup hot sauce
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 4 blue crab bodies, if available (optional)
- 2 1/2 pounds fresh okra, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces, or thawed frozen cut okra
- 2 cups finely chopped green onions
- 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
- Cooked white rice, for serving
- French bread and butter, for serving
- Peel and devein the shrimp. (If you’re making your own stock, reserve the heads and shells to make the stock.) Refrigerate the shrimp and crabmeat until ready to use.
- If using fresh tomatoes, fill a medium saucepan with water. Bring to a boil. Carefully drop the tomatoes into the boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and let them cool. The skins will slip off easily. Remove the cores and coarsely chop the tomatoes over a bowl to retain as much juice as possible. Set aside. (If using canned tomatoes, chop each tomato into eighths and return them to the juice in the can.)
- To make the roux, in a large stockpot (about 10 quarts), heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, gradually add the flour, whisking continuously, and cook, stirring and adjusting the heat as necessary to keep it from burning, until the roux is a dark mahogany color, 25 to 35 minutes. Be careful: If the roux burns, you will have to start all over again!
- Carefully add the onions to the roux and stir with a large wooden spoon for 2 to 3 minutes. (The onion will sizzle and steam when it hits the hot roux, so caution is advised. All seasoned gumbo cooks have roux battle scars on one or both arms.)
- Add the celery and cook, stirring continuously, for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add the bell peppers and cook, stirring continuously, for 2 to 3 minutes more. The mixture should resemble a pot of black beans in color and texture.
- Add the heated stock and the tomatoes with their juices. Stir in the salt, black pepper, cayenne, thyme, bay leaves, oregano, basil, Creole seasoning, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Stir well. Bring the gumbo to a boil and cook for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to maintain a slow simmer. Add the crab bodies (if using) and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour.
- Add the okra and bring the gumbo to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to maintain a slow simmer and cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes, or until the okra has lost its bright green color and cooked down like the other vegetables. If the gumbo gets too thick, add a little water. If it is too thin, continue to simmer it, uncovered.
- Gumbo is always better the day after it has been cooked, although I’ve never had a complaint when I served it the day I made it. At this point, you can cool the gumbo. Turn off the heat and let it sit for about 30 minutes. Then place the pot, uncovered, in an empty sink. Fill the sink with cold water and ice around the stockpot (try not to get any in the stockpot itself). Stir every 15 minutes to facilitate cooling. (The gumbo will spoil if improperly cooled.) When completely cool, refrigerate the gumbo in the stockpot, uncovered.
- When ready to serve, slowly bring the gumbo to a simmer over medium-low heat. Thirty minutes before serving, add the green onion, parsley, and lemon juice to the gumbo. Cover and cook for 15 minutes. Add the shrimp and crabmeat, mix well, and cook for 2 minutes. Cover and turn off the heat. Let it sit for at least 15 minutes more to cook the seafood. The gumbo will stay hot for a long time. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Taste and adjust the seasonings; serve over cooked white rice with French bread and butter.
LuLu’s Crazy Creola Seasoning
Makes 1/2 cup
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons granulated garlic or garlic powder
- 4 teaspoons granulated onion or onion powder
- 1/4 cup paprika
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons white pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Combine all the ingredients and store in an airtight container.
— “Gumbo Love,” by Lucy Buffett