Alabama’s Gulf Coast offers uncrowded beaches with sand that doesn’t get hot — a chill alternative to Florida (2024)

For much of my youth, central Florida was synonymous with summer vacation. Tampa Bay, Clearwater and Orlando is where I spent many summers at my Aunt Nancy’s condo and had my theme park rites of passage.

So when I had the opportunity this spring to visit Alabama’s shoreline instead of Florida’s, I jumped at the chance to see what life was like on the northern side of the Gulf of Mexico. Would the path slightly less beaten provide the same summery perks Florida is famous for? I packed my camera and favorite straw hat and went to find out.

‘Bama bound

Getting there was surprisingly easy.

My friend and I flew into Pensacola International Airport from O’Hare International Airport, which took just over two hours on a full flight. Pensacola is typically the airport of choice because it’s cheaper and offers plenty of flights.

We picked up our rental and began the leisurely hour journey, passing through small towns and crossing several bridges as we drove parallel to the water. We quickly waved goodbye to Florida, heading over Perdido Pass into Alabama’s Orange Beach.

Orange Beach and its neighbor, Gulf Shores, are two small beach towns on Perdido Key with combined populations of roughly 22,000 locals — which swells to millions with annual visitors. With a strictly tourism-driven economy, 85 percent of the area’s real estate is vacation rentals — or about 15,000 hotel and condo units, according to Kay Maghan, public relations manager for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism.

We stayed at Turquoise Place, a luxury resort along Orange Beach with spacious condos in two buildings. Our unit had a fully equipped kitchen, a full-size laundry room and an ocean-view balcony with a hot tub and gas grill. Elsewhere on the property were pools, a water slide and a lazy river.

After settling down, we had dinner at The Gulf, an outdoor restaurant and bar with walk-up service made of cobalt blue shipping containers. Its patio shares a sea wall with the gulf and showcases plush couches and string lights that pair perfectly with my spicy blackberry jalapeño margarita, mahi-mahi tacos and a half pound of chilled peel-and-eat shrimp.

Alabama’s Gulf Coast offers uncrowded beaches with sand that doesn’t get hot — a chill alternative to Florida (1)

We watched as the sun went down as a watercolor masterpiece and stopped for a nightcap at 8 Reale OBAL, a speakeasy bar that will cost you a small pirate’s booty. With drinks averaging $25, the swanky spot is concealed behind a storefront posing as a jewelry store. We entered a code — provided daily on its Facebook page — and walked through a heavy vault door. The copper ceilings and navy velvet chairs showed off a secretly bougie side of Orange Beach — one that allegedly lured in Morgan Freeman the day after we left.

Up-close adventures

We began the next day on the beach, which stays cool courtesy of fluffy sugar-white sand washed down from the Appalachian Mountains, known as crushed quartz crystal.

Alabama’s Gulf Coast offers uncrowded beaches with sand that doesn’t get hot — a chill alternative to Florida (2)

The shoreline glittered with shells, partial sand dollars and colorful umbrellas as gentle waves rolled in the distance. Across the gulf were various water activities, including fishing, boating and parasailing. We watched cunning pelicans soar past, holding massive, doomed fish.

The mood was calm and friendly; even at the day’s peak, it never felt overcrowded, rowdy or messy.

Next was our hourlong lesson with Sandcastle University. Using buckets, measuring spoons, a cup, a plastic knife, and a straw, our instructor, Catie, astonished us with her simple techniques for building a turreted tower. The basics were a door and windows; the frills were staircases and cobblestone etching. For a 34-year-old, this was exceptionally fun.

We stopped for a quick lunch at longtime mainstay DeSoto’s Seafood Kitchen, known for its authentic Royal Reds — a premier variety of Alabama shrimp. Be prepared to twist a few heads off, but the buttery reward is worth it.

Alabama’s Gulf Coast offers uncrowded beaches with sand that doesn’t get hot — a chill alternative to Florida (3)

After some golden coconut shrimp and peppery au gratin potatoes, we began the 40-minute drive west to Fort Morgan, a seaside military fort built in the early 1800s and used during the Spanish-American War and both World Wars. A National Historic Landmark, it features spacious grounds with networks of connected rooms, tunnels and budding stalactites. The up-close access to history is amazing. In the distance, ships and oil rigs lay beyond the sea birds resting on cement blocks as waves splash against them.

We sought shade in the nearby Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and took a relaxing 1-mile loop walk through the Jeff Friend Trail, which put us in the thick of a serene jungle. Surrounded by towering long-leaf pines, ferns and saw palmettos, we glimpsed only a tiny lizard, but heard a symphony of bird songs, squirrel chatter and plenty of mysterious fluttering from the bushes. Dirt trails led to a waterfront boardwalk before it curved into a lily-pad-filled bog.

Alabama’s Gulf Coast offers uncrowded beaches with sand that doesn’t get hot — a chill alternative to Florida (4)

The last stop for the evening was the lovely Jesse’s On The Bay. Upstairs, a fine-dining restaurant serves dry-aged steaks and fresh seafood. Downstairs, a bar called The Cold Hole serves co*cktails.

Just steps from the bay, we watched the sun go down in a fiery blaze while sipping colorful drinks — the best way to end the day.

Cruising the coast

Saturday began with a free, heart-pumping 5-mile bike ride through Gulf State Park. Our tour guide, Corey, led us past grassy marshes, through ridges and across creeks. The oak canopies dripping with Spanish moss evoked the Southern gothic aesthetic you’d expect from Tennesee Williams.

Alabama’s Gulf Coast offers uncrowded beaches with sand that doesn’t get hot — a chill alternative to Florida (5)

In the evening, we sailed into the gulf on a yellow catamaran with Sail Wild Hearts. We enjoyed complimentary snacks and yacht rock as we savored our last magnificent sunset. A family of dolphins jumped beside us.

Before we left, we ate at Big Fish Restaurant and Bar — an unassuming fine dining gem on the end of a single-story strip mall — and CoastAL, a beachy brunch spot with fresh seafood, pastries and massive cinnamon rolls. I had been looking forward to Big Fish for its beloved sushi, which did not disappoint. Straightforward and simple, the cucumber salad, pork gyoza and classic tuna roll were everything I’d hoped for. Get there early or be ready to wait.

Alabama’s Gulf Coast offers uncrowded beaches with sand that doesn’t get hot — a chill alternative to Florida (6)

With phenomenal food, views, access to nature and soft beaches, plus all the Southern hospitality you’d expect, Alabama’s Gulf Coast was a lovely antidote for Chicago’s fickle spring. It was a well-balanced mix of commercial and local, hometown and upscale. I could have spent longer exploring the area and would happily return.

For those who can’t make it for a summer vacation, a trip in mid-April is also a good bet. The weather is perfect and there are fewer crowds.

Linze Rice is a freelancer.

Alabama’s Gulf Coast offers uncrowded beaches with sand that doesn’t get hot — a chill alternative to Florida (2024)


What beaches are not crowded in Alabama? ›

Alabama's Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have all the appeal of a Florida panhandle beach town, with none of the congestion.

What are the beaches like in Gulf Shores, Alabama? ›

The Alabama Gulf Coast boasts 32 miles of pristine beachfront with more than 15 public-access beaches along the shoreline, most of which have picnic facilities, and many have restrooms and showers. Your best bet is to start at Gulf Place, the main public beach in Gulf Shores at the end of Highway 59.

Are Alabama beaches warm? ›

Beautiful, Warm Waters

The Gulf waters of Alabama are warmer than the beaches on the Atlantic coast. The waves tend to be more gentle, rarely rising or falling more than a foot or so.

Are Alabama beaches as nice as Florida? ›

Alabama's Gulf Coast offers uncrowded beaches with sand that doesn't get hot — a chill alternative to Florida.

Are there white sandy beaches in Alabama? ›

The white, sandy beaches of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and Dauphin Island are popular vacation destinations for Alabamians and out-of-state tourists. The fine quality of the sand and gentleness of the surf make for some of the prettiest beaches in the world and are the top tourist destination in the state.

What is the number one beach in Alabama? ›

Ranked #1 in Coastal Living's list “The Best Beaches in Alabama,” it only takes one visit to Gulf Shores before this is your favorite destination. Miles of coastline, award-winning restaurants, and family-friendly attractions bring visitors to Gulf Shores each year.

Is Dauphin Island or Gulf Shores better? ›

Where Gulf Shores has a population of 9,500, Dauphin Island is barely over 1,000. The focus here on the island is the quality of the experience and a peaceful place to make memories. There's no question that Dauphin Island is a considerably quieter and more family-friendly vacation escape.

What is the most comfortable beach temperature? ›

What is the best water temperature for swimming in the ocean? There's no real optimal temperature, but many people feel “comfortable” swimming in water that is 70° to 78° Fahrenheit.

Is the water warm enough to swim in Alabama? ›

A southern, coastal U.S. state, Alabama has 97 coastal beaches that stretch along the Gulf of Mexico coast plus over 110km of bay and island shoreline. Warm temperatures from April through to October and hot peak summers months make Alabama the perfect state for swimming.

What is the coldest month in Gulf Shores, Alabama? ›


Which beach is not crowded in Alabama? ›

Alabama Point Beach

Less crowded than other area beaches, Alabama Point is a low-key destination perfect for families. Amenities along the mile-long stretch of the sandy beach include free parking, restrooms and showers, picnic areas, and boardwalks.

What is the cutest beach town in Alabama? ›

The nine best beach towns coastal Alabama has to offer
  1. Orange Beach, Alabama. Need we say more?
  2. Gulf Shores, Alabama. ...
  3. Dauphin Island, Alabama. ...
  4. Fairhope, Alabama. ...
  5. Mobile, Alabama. ...
  6. Daphne, Alabama. ...
  7. Lillian, Alabama. ...
  8. Perdido Beach, Alabama. ...
Oct 16, 2023

Is Alabama or Florida cheaper? ›

Cost of living

If you'd guess Alabama would be more affordable than Florida, you'd be right. It's no surprise that living in Alabama costs less than living in Florida, considering the population of Alabama is almost four times less than that of its neighboring state.

What is the least populated beach? ›

15 Best Secluded Beaches in the US
  • Enderts Beach, California.
  • Roque Bluffs, Maine.
  • Cumberland Island, Georgia.
  • Kauapea Beach, Hawaii.
  • Caladesi Island, Florida.
  • Secret Beach, Oregon.
  • Daufuskie Island, South Carolina.
  • Mansion Beach, Rhode Island.
Nov 13, 2022

What beach has the clearest water in Alabama? ›

The Hidden Beach In Alabama With Clear Waters That Rival The Caribbean. Alabama is well known for its beautiful Gulf Coast beaches. Fort Morgan Beach is a hidden beach with the clearest water in Alabama.

What is the less crowded beach on 30A? ›

Located along the last section of 30A before merging with U.S. Highway 98, Dune Allen Beach is one of the more secluded beaches in the area. There is a small public access point with only a couple dozen free parking spaces and a public restroom.


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