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Small town, big beach

More than 32 miles of sugar-white beaches fade into the Gulf of Mexico, while the summer climate provides mild temperatures compared to other coastal communities. Vacation homes in Gulf Shores look as if they’re ready to walk away from any storm that could bear down. The stilted homes line a majority of the coastline, giving the community a quaint feel. High-rise condos remain in the area as well, especially if you travel east toward Orange Beach, Alabama. The sister cities are nearly identical and maximizing your visit will have you traveling between the two.

Gulf Shores International Airport/Jack Edwards Field sits 3 miles north of the beachfront, and is Alabama’s second busiest airport. The recently minted Class D airspace commissioned its newly built tower in November of 2021. AOPA hosted a fly-in at the airport in 2018 that drew 5,710 attendees including 315 pilots who flew aircraft in for the event. The original airfield was established in 1942 as an outlying field for the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. A decrease in military operations transitioned ownership to the state where it has since remained a hub for general aviation.

The airspace surrounding Gulf Shores International is much less congested than in similar beachfront communities. Arrive or depart to the west and views of the coast stretch as far as the eye can see—remain vigilant, though, as tourist and oil rig helicopters frequently fly the coastline. Head to the east and you’ll approach Pensacola Naval Air Station/Forrest Sherman Field, where high-speed military aircraft consistently operate in the area, and military operations areas are dense and frequently active. Landing is a breeze at Gulf Shores International, where the longest paved runway measures nearly 7,000 feet long. The tower is attended from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Central time, and operates as Class G airspace outside of those hours. Gulf Air Center serves as the local FBO, offering hangar rentals, fuel services, and a courtesy car if you’re only dropping in for a short stay. Hertz and Enterprise provide rental cars for weekend getaways and longer accommodations as needed.

A freshly caught grouper po’boy, served fully loaded with fries, is delivered to the author’s table at The Hangout. Photo courtesy of Tyler Bradfield.

Once you’ve settled in, venture to The Hangout for live music, cocktails, and delicious eats. The restaurant sits right on Gulf Shores Beach in the hub of all the action. Naturally, being beachside I had to order the famous shark attack cocktail, a rum-based drink that comes with a decorative shark filled with grenadine. Tip the shark into the drink and the blue waters turn red imitating an oceanside shark attack in this sweet concoction. Seafood boils grace The Hangout’s menu and the grouper po’boy is sure to satisfy any hunger.

Gulf Shores is a music destination for thousands, and the Hangout Fest in late May kicked off a busy calendar of beachfront concerts and other entertainment, notably including U.S. Navy Blue Angels practice sessions. The Blue Angels are stationed at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, about 35 miles east of Gulf Shores by car.

If crowds are not your speed, book a stay near historic Fort Morgan. On our trip we found a vacation rental roughly 20 minutes from downtown Gulf Shores. The beauty of the Alabama coast is that private rentals are abundant and allow you to choose the kind of stay you desire. Our two-bedroom rental was right on the beach and provided a peaceful getaway from the hustle and bustle of life. The view from the front door features the beautiful Bon Secour Bay, and of course the views from the balcony highlight the Gulf of Mexico.

If you love tracking airplanes through FlightAware or similar platforms, you can also track some of the world’s largest cargo ships through platforms such as MarineTraffic. I often found myself looking from our vacation rental’s balcony to see ships navigating the channel to dock at the nearby port in Mobile, Alabama, and would search to see any given ship’s previous port of call. Gulf Shores Beach and Orange Beach serve as the two main public beachfronts in the area. Both are very family friendly and offer volleyball nets, lifeguards, chair rentals, and more. Taking an Uber or Lyft may be your best option as parking can become very limited during peak beach months. Fishing charters and parasailing can be booked in advance of your trip for reasonable rates.

Neon lights illuminate Scoops Ice Cream at night in Gulf Shores. Photo courtesy of Tyler Bradfield.

No beach vacation is complete without trying out all the ice cream shops in the area. Two family-owned local spots dominate Gulf Shores, and we frequented both during our weeklong stay. Scoops Ice Cream can be seen from miles away at night as the neon sign glows, and creamy frozen treats are ready for consumption. I always order two scoops in a waffle cone, and I credit the temperature of the freezers at Scoops to perfecting the ice cream’s smoothness and for not being overly frozen.

Matt’s Homemade Alabama Ice Cream takes the claim of being the only homemade ice cream shop in the community. The classic soda shop feel, with white aprons and hats, takes you back to days of jukeboxes and wanting to drop the top of your ’60s Cadillac convertible. Now, I’m not old enough to know what that feels like, but when I see a classic soda shop that’s the exact feeling I’d imagine.

At Matt’s I ordered my traditional two scoops in a waffle cone, but the ice cream was dripping rather quickly so I reached for a spoon to help tackle the behemoth of a cone. That’s where I went wrong. Like a scene out of a blockbuster film, the quick dip of the spoon crushed my cone, where in slow motion, it fell to the floor. At that moment I felt like I was 5 years old. I stared at the ice cream melting on the floor for what seemed like forever before hopping into cleaning mode as friends laughed at my expense. After cleaning the mess I looked to the likely high-school-aged worker at the counter and he reluctantly scooped me out one scoop into a cone for my troubles.

Yet on this trip it wasn’t dropping my ice cream that served as the most bewildering experience; it was the “throwed rolls” from Lambert’s Cafe in Foley, Alabama. The historic restaurant is known for down home Southern cookin’ and sides dishes that don’t seem to stop. Almost every 15 minutes a staff member peeks out from behind the kitchen and hollers “hot rolls” before chucking them to restaurant patrons throughout the dining hall. Yes, it’s almost as if you’re catching a pop fly at an MLB game, and the rolls are larger than a softball.

A look from above at the Gulf Shores peninsula near Fort Morgan, Alabama. Photo’s courtesy of Tyler Bradfield.

Rolls are thrown like confetti flying in New York City’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and other staff members parade around the restaurant dishing out all-you-can-eat fried potatoes, okra, tomatoes and pasta, cucumber salad, and much more from 10-gallon pots. Come hungry and don’t expect to be beach body ready when you leave—couch nap ready might be the best plan after departing.

Two other local establishments offer tropical fresh catches and creative names to match the atmospheres. Tacky Jacks serves up the local catch and a unique boardwalk feel on the intracoastal waterway with live music and a family-friendly dining experience. Sassy Bass provides a similar atmosphere; the restaurant’s convenience store is a major plus for travelers staying closer to Fort Morgan. The pit stop helps prevent having to drive back into town for any minor pickups.

As we departed town we made a final stop at Drowsy Poet at the Foley Station, a local coffee shop situated inside a former filling station. The interior design work merges the historic gas station feel with unique and modern coffee shop amenities. Seats are made with bike chains and pedals while the tailgate of an old Chevy hangs from the wall. The caffeinated drinks provide a tasty boost of energy to help fuel the trip home.

Crystal blue waters wash ashore the sand at Gulf Shores Beach. Photo courtesy of Tyler Bradfield.

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