For most families, spending money on airfare throughout the year isn't always easy or affordable. Sometimes the best solution is to buckle your kids in the car and head out on the open road.
If you're looking for attractions like beaches, ziplining or other kinds of outdoor activities, there's a nearby destination you might have missed. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in Alabama have all of these features and plenty more.
Herb Malone, president and CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, said, "Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are often jointly referred to as 'Pleasure Island' and I think that perfectly describes our culture and atmosphere. We are a laid-back beach destination with a small-town feel."
If you haven't been to Gulf Shores yet, here are a few reasons why you're missing out:
You can get there by car.
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If you love traveling by car, Gulf Shores is just over 5 hours away from Atlanta via minivan. Along the way, the most direct route will take you through the heart of Montgomery where you can stop and visit a civil rights museum or one of the local family attractions. Of course, traveling by car also helps if you decide you need to stay another day.
There are beaches…plenty of them.
As you might have guessed, Gulf Shores and Ocean Beach have a number of beaches available for locals and visitors alike.
Malone feels the beaches are the biggest reason people come into town. "The cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are most popularly known for their beautiful white-sand beaches," he said. "Last year, our beaches attracted more than six million visitors to our destination."
The most well-known location is the Gulf Shores Public Beach. There are restrooms, showers, picnic areas, and open-air pavilions. If you want to park close to the beach, from March 1st through November 30th there is a $5 fee for up to four hours. If you plan to stay longer than that, you can pay $10 for a day pass.
You can find everything you need to know about Gulf Shores' beach regulations and safety on the Gulf Shores government website.
Seafood! Seafood! Seafood!
When you go to a beach destination, there's usually an expectation that you can get some amazing seafood while you're there. Gulf Shores does not disappoint. "Along with enjoying time on our beautiful beaches, guests often take time visiting our many area attractions such as … enjoying nice family meals at any of our local restaurants," Malone said.
A simple Google search will show you the best restaurants in the area, but here's a cheat sheet of the five locations with the best reviews.
- Lulu's Gulf Shores (4.3 stars based on 2,436 reviews) – A casual eatery with live music nightly.
- Original Oyster House Seafood Restaurant (4.4 stars based on 1,296 reviews) – Offers seafood platters and Cajun specialties in a waterfront venue.
- Desoto's Seafood Kitchen (4.3 based on 938 reviews) – A casual, airy setting for a diverse selection of seafood and sides.
- Bahama Bob's Beach Side Café(4.4 stars based on 910 reviews) – Features Caribbean and southern dishes right on the water.
Sea N Suds (4.3 stars based on 703 reviews) – A rustic spot for beachgoers to stop for seafood and cold brews.
The can't-miss annual events are worth the trip.
Once you go to Gulf Shores for the first time, there are plenty of reasons to go back again and again. For example, you can catch the Hangout Music Festival each spring, which brings in 35,000 people for three days of music from around 70 bands. This year's headliners were The Killers, The Chainsmokers and Kendrick Lamar.
If you're a foodie, you can head to Gulf Shores for one of several food festivals that happen in the fall. The Gumbo Festival, Shrimp Festival and Oyster Cook-off are just a few culinary events that visitors come to experience year after year. You can read more about food festivals here.
To find annual Gulf Shores events of all kinds, including motorsports, watersports and the arts, check out this calendar of events.
There are tons of outdoor activities.
The beauty of going on vacation is spending time outdoors and soaking up the nice weather. For visitors to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, there is a whole world of activities you can do that involve sun, fun and family.
Here are a few examples:
- Gulf State Park – Gulf State Park is a one-stop shop for all things outdoors. Whether you're interested in going fishing, visiting the nature center, going on a picnic, hiking or biking, this park is the place to be for family fun. If you're staying in the park, all activities are free of charge, but you'll have to pay $2 per vehicle if you're just visiting.
Waterville USA – Waterville USA Water and Amusement Park is a great stop for those moments when you want to be in the water, but you're not feeling the beach. Waterville has attractions ranging from mini golf to go-karts, water rides and more.
General admission is $35.95 for adults and $25.95 for senior citizens over 60 years old and children under 42 inches tall. This ticket gets you into the water park attractions between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and the amusement park attractions from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m only.
- Zip lining – If you travel over to Ocean Beach, you can visit the Hummingbird Zipline Course for some high-adrenaline action. The course covers over 6,000 feet of zip lining where you can reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour. The full track takes about 2.5 hours and you'll get a chance to ride all eight zip lines.
Depending on the size of your group, prices range from $80 to $89 per person. Reservations are encouraged, but Hummingbird will try to accommodate walk-ins if you're the spontaneous type. For operating hours, you might want to contact the Hummingbird directly.
You can bring your family to experience animals in all habitats.
Whether you like to see animals at the zoo or in the wild, Gulf Shores checks both boxes with a local zoo and a nature preserve. Here's where you can kick off your research:
Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo – If you've got a few animal lovers in your group, the local zoo would be a good place to set them free. Once inside, your crew can check out activities that include animals such as sloths, kangaroos, lemurs and reptiles.
The zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission costs $11 for adults, $9 for seniors over 55 and $8 for kids ages 3 to 12. Children 2 and under can enter for free.
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge – If you prefer to see animals in their natural habitat, the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge might be the place for you. Bon Secour is French term that means "safe harbor." Based on the name, it's no surprise that this area is a part of Alabama's last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitat.
You can visit the refuge free of charge during daylight hours only. If you want to go inside the Visitor Center, the hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
- Dolphin Cruises – THE FUN BOAT Dolphin Cruises guarantee both fun and dolphins on their website. If you head over to Orange Beach, you can board one of the company's two-hour cruise excursions which features information about sea life, fun with water, dolphin sightings and interaction with blue crabs.
The cruises cost $22 per person for daytime cruises (children under 2 are free) and $25 per person for sunset cruises.
There are lodging and activities for furry family members.
Whether you're looking for a pet-friendly hotel or looking for some tips about traveling with your pet, GulfShores.com has a whole page dedicated to vacationing with your four-legged companions. The site includes links to attractions, restaurants, parks and marinas that are open to accepting pets. They only recommend that you call ahead to double check before you bring your pet with you.
If you're looking for hotel recommendations, even if you're not traveling with a pet, you can check the Gulf Shores website.
Between Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and the other beaches within driving distance of Atlanta, Atlanta residents should have no shortage of places to go for a family getaway. But if you're trying to narrow down the list, Gulf Shores might be a great choice.
"Our beaches are a wonderful fit for anyone looking to have a fun yet relaxing time with their loved ones," Malone said. "Whether it's young couples enjoying their first married vacation, grandparents bringing their grandchildren along for a quick getaway or a large reunion of friends and family, all visitors are sure to find that our destination welcomes them all."