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A fun family vacation on Alabama’s Gulf Coast

ALDT108 - Lucy Buffett at LuLu's shoot Lucy Buffett serves up delicious grub at her restaurant, LuLu’s in Gulf Shores. | Photo courtesy Alabama Tourism Department/Tad Denson

Inside an airy enclosure, Sofia slooooowly opens her mouth for a slice of yellow squash as a wide-eyed 6-year-old Avah Danley gazes up at the fuzzy two-toed sloth’s glacial movements. Avah’s family drove 12 hours from Missouri to the Alabama coast for a much-needed family vacation. The sloth encounter at Gulf State Zoo is just a fraction of their itinerary. What does Avah think so far? “Good,” she says, shyly. 

Nearby, just past the African servals, 11-year-old Landry Smith of Texas has a little more to say. “It’s just good to get out of the house!” he exclaims with the exuberance of everyone who’s spent the last year cooped up. 

As family minivans head south for the first big summer since the pandemic hit, the twin towns of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are welcoming back vacationers with expanded entertainment options, family-friendly accommodations, festive waterfront dining, and an atmosphere that caters to kids (and kids at heart). 

sloth at zoo

Sofia the two-toed sloth accepts a bite of squash during a sloth encounter at Gulf State Zoo. | Photo by Jessica Fender

Gulf State Zoo, which opened in its new 25-acre space in 2020, is far from the only outdoor adventure awaiting families.

gulf state park beach

Visitors can take a lunch break at one of Gulf State Park Beach Pavilion’s many picnic tables. | Photo courtesy Gulf State Park Beach Pavilion

There are, of course, the white-sand beaches for which the region is famous. You can grab a cooler and towels and start at the iconic Beach Pavilion at Gulf State Park. Concessioner Ike’s offers beach chairs, umbrellas, volleyball nets, kayaks, and other beach-day essentials for rent.

Or you can opt to see the sights on two wheels. Bicyclists 16 and older can ride free bikes on the 28 miles of paved trails and boardwalks that crisscross Gulf State Park’s 6,000 acres. Farther afield, Gulf Shores boasts 5 miles of multiuse trail along Fort Morgan Boulevard, and the area’s sand-fringed main drag, Beach Boulevard, offers bike lanes. Cycling trail maps are available at most bike-rental shops or at the visitors centers in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

Read more: Alabama’s 7 natural wonders: How many have you seen?

Over in Orange Beach, about seven miles east of Gulf Shores, a dozen people perch on small aluminum risers watching glassblower Dan Rush craft hot glass before their eyes. “Hold your breath, everybody!” Bollinger says. “This is the scary part.” 

A glowing orange orb affixed to the end of one metal rod must be transferred to the end of another, so Rush can finish the lip of the vase-in-progress. With the help of a little water and a deft “thunk” of rod-hitting-metal-workbench, the switch is made. The piece returns to the 2,100-degree furnace and the small crowd cheers in the open-air workspace. 

Coastal Arts Center

Browse art in the Coastal Arts Center gift shop, open Monday through Friday. | Photo courtesy Alabama Tourism Department/Chris Granger

Demos like this take place all day Monday through Friday at the Coastal Arts Center, which also offers hands-on classes in glasswork and pottery at its pretty campus overlooking Wolf Bay. 

The Gulf State Park’s new Learning Campus offers week-long STEAM (that’s science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) summer camps through July, as well as one-off events. And the park’s Nature Center hosts guided nature walks, stargazing sessions, and encounters with Homer, the Gulf Coast box turtle, as well as Hawkeye, the red-tailed hawk that lives on-site. 

Read more: 10 thrilling summer activities you have to try in Alabama.

dolphin tours

You might spot dolphins and other water creatures on the Wildlife Tour with Wild Native Tours. | Photo courtesy Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism

For a more in-depth lesson on local ecology, Wild Native Tours takes paddlers on three-hour kayak excursions in search of the area’s playful bottlenose dolphin, learning about their environment and behaviors along the way. 

Where to eat

lulus restaurant

Choose from fried green tomatoes, fresh fish of the day, burgers, and more at Lucy Buffett's LuLu’s in Gulf Shores. | Photo courtesy Alabama Tourism Department/Chris Granger

Family meals on the Alabama Gulf Coast are activities in their own right. On a sunny Friday afternoon, the sounds of Taylor Swift and the squeals of excited children greet guests arriving at Lucy Buffett’s LuLu’s. To call this iconic spot nestled against the bank of Portage Creek “a restaurant” is an understatement. The compound features a man-made beach, a ropes course, a hair-braiding and body art station, an arcade, three bars, and live music.

It’s a recipe of food and fun that’s caught on throughout the area. Yo Ho Rum and Tacos in The Wharf entertainment district—an outdoor mall that’s a destination in itself—offers cornhole and a boat-shaped outdoor bar. The hip and family-friendly Anchor Bar serves up signature brisket tots, enough to feed an army, while the cove beach beckons the kiddos.

And for dessert? While there’s no shortage of confectioners in town, no spot better encapsulates the over-the-top joy of Alabama’s Gulf Coast than The Yard, where guests order pint-sized milkshakes crowned with a peanut butter brownie, cotton candy, or an entire cupcake—with a cherry on top, of course. 

Where to stay

gulf state park outpost

Love to camp? You can reserve a spot at one of Outpost’s campsites in Gulf State Park. | Photo courtesy Alabama Tourism Department/Chris Granger

Gulf State Park: Choose your own adventure at the Alabama park system’s crown jewel. You can “rough it” at well-appointed campgrounds; stay in one of the newly renovated cottages; or reserve a room at the chic and eco-friendly Lodge by Hilton, one of the few beachfront hotels in the area.

Springhill Suites at The Wharf: With a palatial pool and buffet breakfast, this off-beach Marriott hotel caters to traveling families with rooms that include pull-out sofas. The nearby Wharf entertainment district is packed with lots of to-dos, including a Ferris wheel, multiple arcades, alfresco dining, and a wine bar for the grown-ups.

Vacation tips

Like other popular vacation destinations, many Orange Beach and Gulf Shores businesses are experiencing staffing shortages. Here’s how to handle longer-than-usual waits at happening spots.

  • Go early or at off times. You’re on vacation! Make your own schedule. 
  • With plenty of picnic spots around, choose takeout. Ordering through the Waitr app works best.
  • The Beach Moms (thebeachmoms.net), a new concierge service that helps set up your appointments for you, can save you the trouble of tackling crowded grocery stores and last-minute reservation making.

Guide author and award-winning journalist Jessica Fender writes about her adventures throughout the South at travelerbroads.com.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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