Unless you live near the Gulf Shores region of Alabama, the thought of boating in the state probably includes mental images of sticky summers and bass boats. It might be surprising to find out that families who can't decide between a beach vacation and time on the boat often wind up in a nautical Alabama haven called Orange Beach.
It isn't so surprising, though, when you find out Orange Beach is located within a day's drive of at least two dozen states, or that the powder-sand beaches of the Alabama Gulf Coast have long been a favorite vacation destination for America's heartland. Like other popular beaches in the central Gulf region, Orange Beach has ranks of oceanfront condos backed by plenty of shoes-optional eateries and diversions ranging from alligator farms and go-cart tracks to championship golf courses and one of the South's largest outlet malls. What sets this particular beach berg apart is not the sand strand, but the surrounding waterways.
The Orange Beach area is a magnet for owners of smaller boats because of the easy water access into protected back bays and the intriguing coastal habitats.
Downtown Orange Beach is actually situated on a peninsula that juts into Perdido Bay, just minutes from the open waters of the Gulf, and also adjacent to a variety of coves and backwaters, which provide miles of sheltered shoreline for pursuits ranging from fishing to skiing or just anchoring for a swim.
At some point, visiting boaters are likely to find the nearby Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and convey either eastward to Pensacola — home of the National Museum of Naval Aviation — or westward to Mobile, with a waterfront of historic forts, the USS Alabama, and bird-watching and beachcombing at the wildlife sanctuary on Dauphine Island. Closer to home base in Orange Beach, boaters will find numerous waterfront watering holes, 14 marinas and a waterfront resort complex known as The Wharf, which encompasses shopping venues, restaurants, hotel rooms and a marina.
Fishing is big business, with many of the area's 14 marinas lined with rows of gleaming sport-fishing yachts; some can be chartered for forays into the deep blue for tries at trophy catches of marlin or tuna. Nearer shore, small-boat anglers can try for snapper, mackerel, grouper and dolphin, or keep to the inside for trout and redfish. It makes bass fishing on inland lakes seem like small pickins.
First Impression: Though the region is sometimes known as the "Redneck Riviera," Orange Beach actually encompasses a number of upscale developments, along with a wide array of family-oriented vacation activities — most involving water.
Something You Have to Do: Hone your fish-flinging skills at the Flora-Bama Lounge's annual Interstate Mullet Toss. Literally straddling the state line, this legendary tavern.
Trivia: The nearby inlet separating Fort Gains and Fort Morgan was the site of the Civil War battle that prompted Adm. Farragut to utter his famous quote: "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"
Trailering Here: I-10 is less than 25 miles away over straight two-lanes, and all bridges have received post-hurricane repairs.
Launch Advice: There are two city-maintained, free boat ramps in Orange Beach. Boggy Point Park features recently renovated docks and ramps.
Local Flavor: Loyal parrotheads have to go for the Cheeseburger in Paradise at Lulu's Bait Shack. Cliché anywhere else, but the owner is Jimmy Buffett's sister, so that makes it totally legit.
Bedding Down: Phoenix All Suites Hotel (800-211-7802, phoenixallsuites.com) offers beachfront views and kitchen facilities; rates start at $129 for a one-bedroom suite.
Distance from Pensacola: 28 miles
Best Contact: The local visitor's bureau handles both Orange Beach and neighboring Gulf Shores (orangebeach.com). Also go to orangebeach.ws
The term "waterfront" can refer to a number of waterways around here, so it's possible to find reasonable prices. We found a two-bedroom/two-bath, recently redecorated waterfront condo with views of the Ole River. It's located across the street from the Gulf with deeded beach access. It has access to two swimming pools, covered parking, tennis courts, docks with a fishing station and boat slips with power and water. It was listed at $349,000 at karensgulfproperties.com.