If you’ve been following our vacation journey so far, you’ll recognize our final destination as Gulf Shores, Alabama. An area affectionately known as the Redneck Riviera. So why choose the Redneck Riviera, when there’s much closer beaches in Galveston? Pretty simple, really. Gulf Shores provides a nicer beach than Galveston, and it’s a lot closer than Southwest or South Florida. Plus, it’s usually cheaper than all three. That made it an ideal place for sun, fun, sand, and seafood on the beach.
Dates of visit: April 25-28, 2017
What is the Redneck Riviera?
There’s not actually a standard definition of what makes up the “Redneck Riviera”. The term most commonly applies to the stretch of westernmost Florida Panhandle Gulf Coast. Roughly, that takes you from the Alabama border to Panama City. The stretch of sand also goes by the nicknames “Lower Alabama”, “LA”, and the “Emerald Coast”. However, others extend the term as far west as Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. For simplicity, I’ll define it as the Alabama and Florida Panhandle coasts, from Dauphin Island to Panama City. Though it may seem derogatory, “Redneck Riviera” is meant in good humor. Yes, you might find someone who looks like Larry the Cable Guy knocking back beers on the beach. But people use it mostly to note that the area is cheap for a beach destination.
We explored the stretch from Dauphin Island to just outside Pensacola. This virtual tour proceeds from west to east, and is photo heavy.
Getting To the Redneck Riviera
When coming in from the west, there are two ways to reach the Redneck Riviera. The easy way takes you down I-10 past Mobile, then south to Gulf Shores and points east.
The long way, though, is far more scenic, so that’s what we did. This route follows Highway 90 along the Mississippi coast, then south to Dauphin Island in Alabama, and across a ferry to the west of Gulf Shores.
The ferry increases travel time quite a bit – more than indicated by Google Maps. That’s because the ferry runs only every 60-90 minutes. However, what better way to ease into “beach time” than a leisurely boat ride?
Redneck Riviera Preview – The Mississippi Gulf Coast
Whether the Mississippi Gulf Coast counts as part of the Redneck Riviera or not is up for debate. What you do enjoy here, though, are the same gorgeous white sand beaches that its Alabama and Florida counterparts are known for. After crossing the US 90 bridge over Bay St. Louis to Pass Christian, those sugar sand beaches beckon right off the shoulder. (Compared to the oft-grungy brown sand of Galveston, yes, white sand is a big deal.)
We didn’t spend much time in Mississippi, though we did briefly stop in Pascagoula to show Ashok the beach. He enjoyed himself as usual. The water, at least, though not so much looking at the camera.
After our brief pit stop here, we hit the road again for the short hop to Alabama.
Arrival at the Redneck Riviera – Dauphin Island, Alabama
Just inside the Alabama border, head south on Highway 188. This part of the Alabama’s Coastal Connection scenic highway looks more like typical Southern pine forest than beach road. Once you reach Alabama Port, though, head south on Highway 193. The waters of Mobile Bay soon greet you as you approach the bridge to Dauphin Island.
Cross the bridge, and you arrive at my unofficial Redneck Riviera starting point, the town of Dauphin Island. The town seems like a sleepy little beach town, largely an outpost for birding and deep sea fishing. The town also features Fort Gaines, a Civil War-era fort. Next door is the Estuarium, an aquarium showcasing the marine wildlife of coastal Alabama. (Source: Fishlab.com)
We arrived at the ferry landing about 45 minutes early, so I would have liked to visit one of the two. However, Ashok was sound asleep. Interrupting an 8 month old’s nap is never a good idea, so I just took photos at the landing. To the west is a coastal marsh and some expensive-looking homes.
Directly ahead lies a small fishing area, with Mobile Bay past the sand bar.
Note that there is a small store at the ferry landing, but it was closed when we arrived. The Mobile Bay Ferry itself doesn’t take long, about 40 minutes. The ferry traverses the mouth of Mobile Bay, providing nonstop scenic views out on the water. Once the ferry employees secure your car, you can get out to take photos or walk around.
I didn’t expect to find offshore oil rigs this far east, but you also pass by plenty en route.
Finally, as you approach the shore once again, Fort Morgan comes into view. Though the first garrisons on the site date back to the War of 1812, the current structures date to the 1830s forward. Interestingly, the British successfully captured the fort in February of 1815. There was just one problem, though – the War of 1812 ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent three months earlier. Oops. Anyway, several buildings on the site remain open for tours. We arrived too late to visit, but if you stand at the front of the ferry, you can get some decent shots of the fort.
Overall, the ferry made for a relaxing way to get to our destination. I hoped Ashok would enjoy the time on the water. Unfortunately, the cranky bug bit, and he didn’t seem to enjoy himself very much.
Arrival at Gulf Shores
The Mobile Bay Ferry terminates at Fort Morgan, 23 miles west of Gulf Shores. Highway 180 takes you along a narrow peninsula, with Mobile Bay on one side and the Gulf on the other. There aren’t very many water views along the road, though. Most of the scenery consists of Southern pine forest like this. Pretty, but it only whets your appetite for the main course.
With little traffic in April, the drive to Gulf Shores takes about half an hour. So what’s Gulf Shores all about? First and foremost, the incredibly wide white sand beaches. And of course, picture perfect sunsets when the weather cooperates.
Our first day in town featured perfect sunny weather, making for the idyllic beach day.
The second day dawned gloomy, but at least the rain stayed away despite the threatening skies. Even a moody Redneck Riviera beach is ideal for a relaxing stroll. (The puddles aren’t from rain, but from a high tide that had just receded.)
Despite the gloom, Ashok LOVED looking at the sand and water.
Besides the beach, Gulf Shores is home to the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. Some of you may remember the zoo as the star of the reality TV show The Little Zoo that Could. The zoo is relatively small, but does house about 300 animals and a variety of exhibits. If you’re traveling with small kids, they’ll really enjoy the petting zoo. Ashok even made a new four-legged friend. Overall, it’s well worth the $11 admission ($8 for kids 3-12, 2 and under free).
Just east of Highway 59 lies Gulf State Park, which includes a beach, lagoons for birding habitat, lakes and a pier for fishing charter, hiking trails, and camping. Admission is $2 per vehicle to the campground area, which includes the Nature Center.
Gulf Shores also pays tribute to another Redneck Riviera icon, the kitschy tourist trap. In this case, welcome to Souvenir City, home of the giant fake shark. ‘Murica, y’all.
If you have kids, stop in to pick up some cheap t-shirts so they can pose with the shark.
If live music is your thing, make sure to check out The Hangout, one of the Gulf Coast’s premier music venues. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of goodies for the whole family, like the Pirates & Princesses breakfast all summer.
On to Orange Beach
Head a few miles east on Highway 182 and you’ll reach Alabama’s other beach town, Orange Beach. The main attraction? Yep, more sugar sand beaches. The town officially stretches from the east end of Gulf State Park to the Florida line. For the best beaches, keep going past the main part of town, and cross the Perdido Pass bridge.
Then, turn either left or right onto the service road at the end of the bridge. The road leads to a parking area for Florida Point, or the mouth of Perdido Pass. Adjacent to the bridge is a wide, sandy beach.
But a real hidden gem lies on the other side of the parking lot. A boardwalk leads across the dunes.
The dunes themselves make for a pretty scene.
Walk all the way to the end of the boardwalk, though. And enjoy the view of Perdido Pass, and the Perdido River emptying into the Gulf. When the sun is out, you’ll have an outstanding view of the sunset.
Tired of the beach? Head over to Adventure Island, play some laser tag, and watch the erupting fake volcano. In the mood for music and dancing? Head east to the state line and visit Flora-Bama, a Redneck Riviera institution since 1964.
A Taste of Florida – Gulf Islands National Seashore
I really wanted to show Ashok his eighth state, so we snuck across the Florida line for an afternoon drive. The destination? Johnson Beach on Gulf Islands National Seashore, on Perdido Key, southwest of Pensacola. Johnson Beach is an eastward extension of Perdido Key, one of many Gulf Coast barrier islands. Big Lagoon, an arm of Pensacola Bay, lies to the north, with the Gulf of Mexico to the south. A road leads a couple of miles down the beach, though the actual island extends several more miles east. You can hike that portion if you want to.
As we entered the park, my first impression was that it looked a lot like Padre Island National Seashore in South Texas, a similar barrier island though with prettier sand.
We started off with a walk on the Gulf side. The beach itself isn’t much different from what you’ll find in Orange Beach or Gulf Shores. Since you’re in a National Park, though, it’s a whole lot quieter. I have to say, though, it was just a tad strange seeing condo towers in the distance in the middle of a National Park!
The wind had kicked up a little by this time, making it quite hazy right along the water. That didn’t stop folks (and birds) from enjoying an afternoon of fishing, though. One thing to watch: note the abrupt drop-off in the sand. The sand here is very soft, so be careful if you plan to stick your feet in the water.
What makes this park unique is just how narrow the island is. It’s literally a hop, skip, and a jump to the Pensacola Bay side. Seriously – just walk across the narrow road, and you’re there. There isn’t much usable beach on the lagoon side, though some might find the still water preferable. Look north, and you’ll also have a nice view of Pensacola in the distance. Another thing I found interesting – the howling wind on the Gulf side was nonexistent over here. Apparently the dunes act as a wind break. Be warned that in summer, this means the lagoon side will be quite a bit hotter than the Gulf side without the wind.
If you make it this far, there’s quite a lot more to do in this area. A separate unit of Gulf Islands National Seashore houses Fort Barrancas. The Spanish occupied the site as early as the late 17th century, though the US Army built the current barracks in the late 1830s. Down the road lies the Pensacola Lighthouse; you can climb 177 steps to the top for a fantastic view of the area.
Both sites lie on NAS Pensacola, an active Naval base. You can also visit the National Naval Aviation Museum, a must for hardcore avgeeks or military enthusiasts of all ages.
You do have to go through a security checkpoint for the base to gain access to all of these locations, but fear not, they are open to the general public. Be aware that the public (West) gate stops allowing visitors at 4:30 PM. We wanted to see the lighthouse, but our little goober fell asleep again before we made it.
Redneck Riviera Cuisine
Of course, no post of mine would be complete without talking about food. And yes, we ate plenty while in Gulf Shores. The food offerings are actually quite diverse, but naturally, the area is best known for seafood. Therefore, we mostly stuck to that (my wife loves seafood anyway). Of course, this is the Deep South, so the best seafood is of the fried variety. We visited three places (links below the photos), all walking distance from our hotel in Gulf Shores. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.
Should you find yourself seafooded out, head down to Orange Beach and visit Cobalt. A waiter in New Orleans tipped us off to this place, and we’re glad we took his advice. Cobalt serves seafood, of course, but also has plenty of options for landlubbers. I had a tasty filet with mashed potatoes.
Or indulge your sweet tooth. I ordered a fried apple pie (hey, it’s the South) with ice cream. I’m not kidding when I say it was one of the best deserts I’ve ever had.
My wife’s triple layer chocolate cake wasn’t too shabby, either.
All prices were quite reasonable. Cobalt is the most expensive, but the total bill with tip was less than $90 for both of us. Sea ‘n Suds bookmarks the low end, at $30 for two. The other places ranged from $50-60 for both of us. That’s really not terrible for fresh seafood, especially with an adult beverage or two included.
We really enjoyed our trip to the Redneck Riviera. The baby’s peculiar schedule does make squeezing activities in a little more challenging, but we still found plenty to do and relax. An eat, of course. If you’re looking for a reasonably priced beach vacation in a friendly location, give the Redneck Riviera a look.
This post is part of my trip report series about our first vacation as a family to Gulf Shores, Alabama. Click here for the trip report index and introductory post.
Baby alligator photo: “C’mon In” by Maureen, via Flickr Creative Commons, license Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Photo of Pensacola Lighthouse: “Pensacola Lighthouse” by Coast Guard News, via Flickr Creative Commons, license Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Photo of US Navy plane: “1969 McDonnell Douglas C-9B Skytrain II BuNo 163511 (C/N 47431) “City of Marietta” (National Naval Aviation Museum)” by Tomas del Coro, via Flickr Creative Commons, license Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).