From my postings, I know it seems like I am frequently at the beach. Actually, I don’t even like ocean swimming. I do love the sound of the pounding waves, the beautiful people and sunsets, and the warm sun. To me, “seen one beach, seen them all.”
So I was understandably surprised when I stumbled upon the nicest beach I’ve experienced near Mobile, Ala., of all places. At the Gulf, the coast of Alabama is a sliver compared to the adjacent Florida coastline. In fact, the Alabama communities of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Perdido Beach run right into adjacent Florida beaches starting at Perdido Key. As you cross the Alabama/Florida state line at the honky tonk Florbama Bar — where the free bingo with prizes is meant to encourage you to eat and drink the mostly fried and unhealthy staples of the Alabama diet along with Gulf oysters, beer and liquor — you barely know you have left one state and entered another.
The beaches in Alabama have a different feel to them. They are sparsely used and very informal. Some beaches have piers from which locals flock to fish for their lunch and dinner, and hopefully a little extra fish to sell. The condos and resort hotels along the Alabama coast generally cost less than the more prestigious Florida equivalents and, therefore, attract a more cost-conscious consumer. Prices along the Alabama coast are generally cheap, with nightly deals like Las Vegas — early bird specials, $1 martinis and similar come-ons abound.
The highlight for me (not being a big beach lover) is the National Park that runs along the coast east from Alabama into Florida and west to Mississippi, known as Gulf Islands National Seashore. Don’t miss it! It’s adjacent to the Gulf State Park run by Alabama. When you enter the National Park, however, you pay a fee. The cost apparently keeps out a lot of people, but don’t let it scare you off.
This park is a sliver of land that has the Gulf on one side and the protected bay on the other, separated by sand dunes and a single road in the middle. The sand here is as white and soft as bleached sugar, pristine and majestically beautiful. The solitude of the beach that stretches as far as the eye can see without development is overwhelming and spiritual. The part of the National Park I visited is called Johnson Beach. Especially during September and October, there are so few people here that it feels as if you have this beach to yourself. You feel like the explorers must have felt when they stumbled upon this beautiful piece of Earth — a place you should definitely go see and experience.
I am told that the BP oil spill disaster spoiled the beach for a time before BP spent a lot of money to clean it up. Now there is no sign of oil or tar.
The National Park Service has a visitors’ center that explains all the wildlife in the park, typical of national parks. Ranger guided tours are available for birding, snorkeling, fishing and more. The park also is home to several historical forts worth visiting. A park activity schedule is on the Gulf Islands National Seashore/Alabama website.
To access the nearby Florida part of the National Park — which includes Fort Pickens and surrounding beaches — you must approach from the east, as there is no land bridge connecting the two sections.
It’s got to be seen to be believed how pure the sand is here. Finding a beach of this high quality was a treat since I wasn’t even aware of these nice beaches here. I am told even spring-break partiers haven’t found this relatively unknown spot yet. So, do me a favor — let’s keep this little secret to ourselves.
For a beach with a little foreign travel involved, visit this Panama beach.