The Gulf Coast Road Trip, Part 1: Gulf Shores, AL

Publisher’s note: This article is a continuation of Spring Break 2022: The Gulf Coast Road Trip

Link to Spring Break 2022: The Gulf Coast Road Trip

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With 32 miles of pristine white sand beaches from Fort Morgan to Florida, high-rise and boutique hotel and condo complexes stretch as far as the drone’s lens can reach in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Family-friendly activities abound in an area highlighted by beachgoing, shopping, world-class dining, water and theme parks and, of course, excellent golf.

With my wife and our 3- and 4-year-old along for the adventure, this year’s Spring Break trip to Gulf Shores was more family-oriented than my last visit in 2015, which was a buddies trip (link to 2015 article) dominated by long days on the links, mostly quick and convenient meals, time spent playing cards and watching The Masters in our condo, and maybe a few too many evening hours (if that’s possible) at the Flora-Bama. Our activities during this go-round provided me with a fresh perspective on the area’s versatility as a vacation destination.

Staying at The Beach Club Resort & Spa in Fort Morgan, toward the far west end of the Gulf Shores region, we were a bit off the beaten path but at a resort that’s kid-friendly with a gorgeous beachfront, plenty to do on-site and just a 15-minute drive to the main strip.

This part of Gulf Shores is fairly isolated from the central tourist area – 10 miles west of the main drag and separated by Little Lagoon. The Beach Club is a self-contained tourist community with four high-rises and over 250 condominiums, four pools and hot tubs, beautiful white sand beaches and a clubhouse with a bar/restaurant, golf simulators and ice cream shop.

A little R&R on the boardwalk porch swings

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While families will find plenty onsite for a wonderful vacation, it’s hard to avoid venturing toward the action of downtown Gulf Shores for the excitement that accompanies this Spring Break hot spot.

When I say Spring Break, don’t think too much about college Spring Break, because it’s not. While I’m sure there are plenty of college Spring Breakers in the area (which I can attest to from my first visit), it’s much more family-oriented than Daytona, Panama City Beach or Galveston. The activities here are a bit more adult and centered around families, which was perfect for us.

The Beach Club, like the Turquoise Place we stayed at in 2015, is a Spectrum Resorts property. Both resorts are massive condo-style developments with sizable beachfronts, spacious units and plenty of pools. The Beach Club also has a number of options for food and beverage, though, which I don’t remember there being at the Turquoise Place. Being nearer the action and with a litany of bar and restaurant options nearby, having those amenities onsite is probably of less importance at Turquoise.

The Beach Club in Fort Morgan, AL

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We stayed in a 2-bedroom, 2-bath condo on the fourth floor of the Catalina Tower during this visit. The condo’s setup, which included a large full kitchen, dedicated living and dining spaces and a separate double-occupancy bedroom and bathroom for the kids was ideal for our purposes, and was headlined by spectacular sunsets on the back porch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

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Our vacation experience

We rolled into Gulf Shores on Saturday, following a really long day of travel from Tennessee.

What we expected to be a seven-hour drive became nine with terrible interstate traffic, and with a 6:30 dinner reservation in Orange Beach (on the opposite end of the Gulf Shores region), we had no time to get acquainted with our new home but were looking forward to experiencing The Pier House.

An upscale but approachable dining experience – nobody took issue with our kids crawling around from time to time (we brought their tablets for when they got restless) – the food and atmosphere at the Pier House were fantastic.

The Pier House in Orange Beach, AL – highly recommended!

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I ordered the seafood pasta, which was phenomenal, Kelly had the fish of the day (redfish) and the kids got fried shrimp and fries. All of it was delicious, but the star of the show was the Cajun Popcorn. Having never had crawfish before, it became a family favorite and the Pier House’s Cajun Popcorn (fried crawfish tails) was the best we had during our vacation down south.

Day two of our trip started early as our new friend and Gulf Shores media contact, Easton, picked me up at 6:15 to ensure we’d be on the course at Kiva Dunes (a few blocks from the Beach Club) with my drone in the air as the sun rose.

This was an all-time top five sunrise for me. The coloration of the sky and horizon was glorious, and all the sand and water surrounding the course truly helped the photos pop.

A glorious sunrise over Kiva Dunes in Fort Morgan, AL

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There is a lot to do in Gulf Shores besides golf, and on the way into town our 4-year-old son, Charlie, noticed The Track. It’s like he was magnetically attracted to its go-kart tracks and myriad of other activities. He’s obsessed with cars, especially fast ones, and with the general concept of racing. We promised on the way in we’d take him, and it became all he could think or talk about. Kelly had a long morning staving off his requests to go-kart, and especially dealing with the temper tantrums from having to wait.

The kids were restless and the adults famished, so when I returned from Kiva Dunes we made our way to LuLu’s for lunch. This place was exactly what we needed. Charlie and Quinn played in the enormous sand box area, made friends with random kiddos and got out energy while Kelly and I caught up on our mornings.

For food, Kelly and I shared the Big Fry Seafood Basket, including redfish. This was only the second time I’d ever had fried crab claws, and whoa they were good.

Specializing in fresh seafood, Lulu’s is owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister, Lucy Buffett, and the from-scratch recipes featured on its menu are all her own.

Lulu’s also has locations in Myrtle Beach and Destin, so if you make your way to any of these areas be sure to give them a shot. We really enjoyed it.

Quinn working hard to move sand
Quinn & Charlie playing
Quinn eating ketchup for lunch… I obviously preferred the crab claws

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Following lunch, and at long last for Charlie, we ventured across the street from Lulu’s to The Track.

Charlie’s young, sure, but I’ll go out on a limb and say it was quite possibly his favorite afternoon ever. The kids rode the carousel and trains, Quinn and I drove on the “Family track” (you drive while your kid is seat-belted in shotgun), we played tons of video games in the arcade and – realizing his dream – Charlie got to race.

Go-carting with Quinn
Charlie ready to crush it at the track!

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He kept telling us he knew how to drive, and we had no idea how that could be. But, the kid could drive!

Our mini Matt Kenseth started behind two other kids who were a couple years older but similarly experienced as race car drivers. They had no idea what they were doing, and Charlie took full advantage passing his first competitor on the outside and the next on the inside (this part was hilarious), then finished by rear-ending that kid’s go-kart when it was time to park (not funny – I actually pretended I didn’t see it in case his parents got mad). Then again, how’s a 4-year-old supposed to know how to brake in a go-kart?

The Track was a lot of fun, and one of many highlights from our trip for the kids. If visiting Gulf Shores with little ones, pencil it in to your itinerary.

Charlie and Quinn were over eating at restaurants for the day, so we ordered carryout from The Beach House Kitchen & Cocktails on West Beach Blvd for dinner. Like all the dinners we had on the Gulf Coast, it was seafood better than anything we can find in Wisconsin. The kids and I loved the crawfish mac and cheese, but the bacon-wrapped shrimp appetizer was the best part of the meal to me.

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Monday morning was another early one, teeing off at 7:10 with Easton on the Cypress Bend course at Craft Farms.

Lighting up beautifully, I grabbed a few blue hour shots behind the Beach Club before heading to the course:

A beautiful start to Monday morning’s sunrise

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The Arnold Palmer designed Craft Farms is a Golf Digest 4-1/2 star rated facility with plenty of challenge and variety in its layouts. The property features two tracks: Cypress Bend and Cotton Creek.

It’s been seven years since I played its sister course, but Cypress Bend seemed wider and more forgiving than Cotton Creek. Both have tons of water features and are well worth playing when in the area, as is Peninsula Golf Club just down the road from the Beach Club.

Craft Farms is on a beautiful piece of land. While I wasn’t able to send my drone up for the sunrise (there’s an airport across the street and it’s in a hard no-fly zone), I did get a few cool non-golf shots I hope you enjoy:

The sun cresting the clubhouse
Sunrise over the pond
Bald eagle hunting at Craft Farms

Following golf, Easton and I met up with my wife and kids at the zoo across the street.

Hurricane Ivan ravaged the original Gulf Coast Zoo in 2004, causing the staff to evacuate more than 250 animals to the director’s own inland property and rebuild infrastructure over the course of a full year at its former location.

The experience was captured as “The Little Zoo that Could” – an Animal Planet series that ran in 2006-2007 about this mid-sized zoo and its staff and animals that overcame tremendous challenges to rebuild and, with the help of generous donors, reopened better than ever at its new, more suitable location less than two years ago.

Benjamin the giraffe visits for snacks

We kicked off our visit to the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo by feeding the giraffes, Benjamin and Akayla. We love giraffes and even sponsored one for several years in Charlie’s name at the Milwaukee County Zoo, but this was our first time getting to feed them and be so upclose and personal. The kids got a kick out of their long, dark tongues that keep them from getting sunburnt while foraging for food up high.

Quinn, me, Easton, Charlie & Kelly at the zoo
It took them a little bit to warm up to the giraffes

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The Zoo promotes a nice, leisurely walk with close-up and engaging exhibits, and it’s all compact and can be fully enjoyed in a few hours. It’s an ideal afternoon family activity.

We were treated to lunch at the Safari Club afterwards. Far and away the best zoo restaurant I’ve eaten at, the Safari Club is Alabama’s only certified “Green Restaurant” and sources all of its ingredients locally (thankfully, the meat doesn’t come from the zoo!). Fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables are all grown sustainably on its grounds. I had a great cheeseburger, and Kelly was very impressed with her salad.

We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming with the kids. The beach was red-flagged for a dangerous undertow, so we dipped our toes in the tide and played in the sand before spending several hours at the pool and hot tub that were better sheltered from the howling wind.

Building sandcastles
Charlie being a goofball
Playing in the kids pool

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The resort has four total pools, each with its own hot tub, an outdoor tiki bar and many other amenities.

“The sea was angry that day…” – G. Costanza

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It’s not goodbye but see ya later

We said good bye to the Beach Club and treated Charlie and Quinn to sundaes at The Village Creamery – the resort’s on-site ice cream shoppe – on our way out and onward to Coastal Mississippi.

We loved our time in Gulf Shores, which I’ve come to know as a wonderful vacation destination for snowbirds like us during the cold Winter months in Wisconsin.

Kelly also recommends Beach Girl Coffee for tasty drinks and (parent-friendly!) drive-thru window. Get your caffeine fix without needing to wrangle kids in and out of car.

Have you spent time in Gulf Shores? If so, what did we miss this time around that we should make sure to fit into our next visit’s itinerary?

Stay tuned for more on the second half of our Gulf Coast Road Trip, which will be linked below, on the beautiful “Secret Coast” of Mississippi!

The Secret Coast, from Shaggy’s Biloxi Beach
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