You’d be hard pressed to find another beachfront roadhouse bar that all but straddles two state lines and accommodates a standing-room-only Sunday morning church service in the same spot that routinely hosts a honky-tonking crowd the night before.
The Flora-Bama Lounge and Package Store, a cultural landmark in Perdido Key in Pensacola, Fla., adjacent to the Alabama-Florida state line — is regularly hailed as one of the best beach bars in the world by media ranging from Southern Living and USA Today to CNN Travel.
Meanwhile, it also gains notice with a large sign out front that reads, “Come Worship in the Ultimate No Judgment Zone.”
It’s one of a variety of treasures found along Alabama’s 32-mile Gulf of Mexico coastline. The area, stretching from tiny Dauphin Island in the west to the Florida border (just east of Orange Beach,) and southeast of Mobile, is not as well known as the Florida Panhandle, but it features the same type of aqua clear water and white quartz sand, plus some blissfully uncrowded beaches.
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Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are established adjoining seaside communities with a range of cultural, natural and recreational offerings, and they also boast an active culinary scene.
Beachside views frequently include leaping dolphins, soaring osprey and diving pelicans, and in the same day, it’s easy to fit in a round of championship golf, rent a bicycle at Beach Bike Rentals (251-968-1770) or take a hike in the 6,150-acre Gulf State Park’s 13.5 mile-long Back Country Trail, a National Recreation Trail.
Fishing enthusiasts might try their luck at the park’s pier, the second largest in the Gulf of Mexico, or explore a deep-sea fishing option, since Orange Beach boasts one of the largest charter fishing fleets on the Gulf.
Another possibility is Lake Shelby, one of the nearest bodies of fresh water to a body of saltwater along the Gulf. The Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge, historically a large migratory bird stopover, offers hiking, surfing and fishing, and Wild Native Tours (251-272-4088) promises daytime and sunset coastal eco-tours on the Intercoastal Waterway, Bon Secour River and Oyster Bay.
Away from the beach, shoppers frequent the Tanger Outlet Center’s 120-plus stores, and family adventure comes in the form of Pirate’s Island Adventure Golf or the Track Family Recreation Center’s go-karts, bumper boats, mini golf, arcade and 110-foot Skycoaster.
Meanwhile, the Fort Morgan State Historic Site and museum, dating from 1834, provides insights about the area’s role in the Civil and Spanish-American wars as well as in both World Wars.
Music is a big draw in this region — country, rock and blues music abounds — and the Coastal Arts Center of Orange Beach (251-981-2787) is paradise for music lovers, with many live music venues, including the aforementioned Flora-Bama, a home-away-from-home for Nashville performers that offers three stages with live music 365 nights a year.
Jimmy Buffett hails from the Gulf Coast area, and his sister, LuLu, owns an action-packed live-music venue, Lulu’s at Homeport Marina (251-948-4101.) Lulu’s has a lively beach vibe and delicious grass-fed beef burgers, as well a wide range of salads and seafood. The most popular item on the menu? Cheeseburgers in Paradise, of course!
And sometimes, the locals tell us, you-know-who turns up to perform for lucky diners.
These communities have excelled in organizing various popular year-round events, such as the multi-day Frank E. Brown Songwriters’ Festival, held at some 30 venues, featuring more than 200 songwriters from around the world. It is dedicated to the memory of the late, locally beloved Frank Brown, who, as the night watchman at the Flora-Bama lounge for 28 years, retired at an astonishing 91 years of age.
Running alongside the Frank Brown Festival, the Annual Oyster Cook-Off and Craft Beer Festival at the Hangout is a fun affair, with more live music, scrumptious twists on oyster presentation (“Southern Rockefella,” anyone?), an oyster shucking competition, cooking demos, some 25 craft brewers from around the nation and samples of moonshine and other hard liquors.
The Flora-Bama also hosts a variety of eclectic, highly popular events, such as the Interstate Mullet Toss, the Annual Polar Bear Dip, and the Mullet-Man Triathlon.
Drawing tens of thousands, the Hangout Music Festival is a three-day affair in May, with world-class acts like Stevie Wonder, Zac Brown Band and Tom Petty.
Making a comeback
Alabama’s coastal beach communities were part of the region tragically affected by BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill — the biggest accidental marine oil spill in U.S. history, with 200 million gallons of crude oil pumped into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days, polluting hundreds of miles of coastline in Louisiana, Alabama and other states.
Reclamation efforts were massive and have continued, with London-based BP required to spend billions of dollars on fines, cleanup costs and compensation settlements to spill claimants.
Tourism officials are quick to tout the success of the efforts and promote signs of environmental recovery in the area. During my fall visit, evidence of oil spill damage was largely hidden and flocks of birds were everywhere — a heartening sight. On a bicycle ride, we surprised an armadillo scuttling through the underbrush, and visited with other cyclists, “snowbirds” from Indiana, who said they regularly see river otters and a large resident alligator.
In November, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation earmarked more than $99.2 million from its Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund for 25 projects in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, furthering recovery.
Music and food fests
If you need a reason for a road trip to Alabama’s Gulf Shores, festivals scheduled year-round offer plenty of possibilities. Here’s a smattering of the offerings:
▪ Concerts at the Coast Series: year-round; includes all concerts that are part of the C-Spire Concert Series at The Wharf as well as the Hangout Music Festival and more. www.gulfshores.com/concerts.
▪ Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Mardi Gras: a month of parades and Mardi Gras fun, Saturday-Feb 17. www.gulfshores.com/things-to-do/calendar-events.
▪ 7th annual Tropical Re-Union Wedding Vow Renewal Ceremony: Feb. 14 at LuLu’s. www.lulubuffett.com.
▪ The Original German Sausage Festival: March 28 and Oct. 31 in Elberta. www.elbertafire.com.
▪ Interstate Mullet Toss & Gulf Coast’s Greatest Beach Party: April 24-26 at Flora-Bama. www.florabama.com/events.
▪ Annual Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival: May 1-2 in Foley. www.southbaldwinchamber.com.
▪ Hangout Music Festival: May 15-17 at the Hangout. http://hangoutmusicfest.com.
▪ 2015 Blue Marlin Grand Championship of the Gulf: July 7-12 at The Wharf Marina. www.thewharfmarina.com/bmgc.
▪ 12th annual John L. Borom Alabama Coastal Birdfest: Oct. 1-3 in Fairhope. www.alabamacoastalbirdfest.com.
▪ 44th annual National Shrimp Festival: Oct. 8-11 at the Gulf Shores Public Beach. http://myshrimpfest.com.
▪ Annual Oyster Cook-Off at the Hangout: Nov. 5-8. www.hangoutcookoff.com.
▪ 31st annual Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival: Nov. 5-15 at Flora-Bama and other venues throughout Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, Pensacola and Perdido Key. http://frankbrownsongwriters.com.