Our Eat & Burn series showcases destinations through their cuisine and inviting ways to burn off the calories.
By Hope S. Philbrick
The Alabama Coast can pack a whole lot into a little.
It’s just 53 miles long, but inlets and juts stretch the measured shoreline to 607 miles. And that space is home to 347 species of birds and 240 species of commercially harvested freshwater fish, marine fish and shellfish.
Restaurant plates are as densely populated, typically arriving to the table heaped with food. Eat it all and you’ll still be encouraged to order dessert.
Overindulging could be easy in this popular vacation destination where the laid-back vibe ignores calories. But if you want to leave wearing the same size pants that you arrived in, get active. The good news is that with thousands of acres to explore, it’s easy to keep active before you return to home routines.
On the Alabama Gulf Coast, even the most discerning gourmand can find something tempting on even the most humble menu. Fresh, local seafood is the main attraction, including some species that aren’t available anywhere else. Since fried preparations far outnumber grilled on most menus, and generous serving sizes are more common than gourmet cooking techniques, if you’re trying to eat healthy or just prefer the taste of simple preparations, a keen menu-reading eye is the key.
Stop to eat first at the place that’s been an Alabama Gulf Coast tradition since 1938: Wintzell’s Oyster House, which is best known for its oysters—served fried, stewed, raw, grilled and whatever other way the chef may dream up for a special. For people-watching, local kitsch, easy entertainment—the walls are plastered with humorous quips and signs to keep you occupied reading for hours—and a simple meal of cold beer and oysters, this place has no rival. Stick with the oysters or other fresh-catch items like fish, shrimp and crab. Or go for turf with a steak or classic cheeseburger. Skip the lowcountry dishes native to South Carolina and Georgia, as both the frogmore stew and shrimp & grits were disappointments here.
For lunch consider The Gift Horse, which is housed in a historic building originally constructed in 1912. The current owners purchased it in 1984 and have renovated it into a gracious space with a Bavarian vibe. The menu varies daily, but the idea is “classic Southern buffet.” The food is what you might expect to find at a typical Southern potluck, with options like ham, biscuits, gumbo, chicken and egg salad. Food is plentiful, decent and yet nothing special. Dessert is the best option, especially the cakes which are displayed whole and ready for slicing.
The most upscale restaurant on this itinerary, Saltwater Grill at Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa is a must on any serious foodie’s visit to the region. Start with the restaurant’s signature lump crab cakes or shrimp cocktail, followed by the cedar-roasted redfish, pecan-crusted shrimp or the fresh catch of the day. Get a side of the five-blend mac & cheese. And finish with the signature bread pudding.
King Neptune’s, an über-casual family-run seafood restaurant, is best known for its Royal Red Shrimp. Get a steamed, peel-and-eat platter of that local shrimp species and you won’t leave hungry. Other popular menu items include fried coconut shrimp, fried crab claws, fried shrimp po’boy with French fries, and fried cheesecake. Servers are so genuinely warm and friendly, odds are you’ll feel like you’ve made a new friend.
Owned by a former football player (a super nice guy who just so happens to have the biggest hands that I’ve ever seen on any human!), Bob Baumhower’s Compleat Angler Seafood Grille & Bar boasts it has “the most stunning vistas of the sunset anywhere on The Gulf Coast.” It certainly does have the largest restaurant patio I’ve ever toured, and the view is impressive. The restaurant has adopted the “think globally, act locally” philosophy, thus seafood is purchased locally as much as possible. All meats are fresh, never frozen. Don’t miss the West Indies salad—a lump crab meat concoction popular in the Mobile, Ala., area—the seafood gumbo or the award-winning Piña Colada.
Lighthouse Bakery serves straightforward sandwiches and pastries that really sooth the palate and the digestive system after several days spent eating rich, fatty foods. This is no chain hoagie house; it’s a mom-and-pop shop where the owners’ somehow manage to exceed expectations with even the simplest bites.
LuLu’s at Homeport is more than a restaurant, it’s a “family entertainment destination”—so yes, the Odds of Encountering Children are high. Owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister, the place has a ‘Let’s Party!’ atmosphere with live music every day, volleyball, a large sandy beach, retail store and more. Waiting for a table can be a two-hour ordeal, so arrive early (LuLu’s doesn’t take reservations). The menu is coastal eclectic, with everything from gumbo to quesadillas, jerk chicken sandwich to shrimp and grits, Greek salad to peel and eat shrimp, fish tacos to cheeseburgers. It’s all straightforward and full of flavor.
Give your itinerary a ‘surf and turf’ flavor by incorporating a mix of water- and land-based activities.
Paddle the Bon Secour River with BeachnRiver Kayak Rentals. The launch site of this homey operation is in the business owners’ backyard (though, when the water is low, you’ll need to trudge out few hundred feet to water deep enough for smooth sailing). The river twists and meanders under trees and past neighbors’ houses; much of the paddle route offers a peek over boat docks into backyards. But pelicans, fish and other creatures are routinely spotted and—unlike kayaking in a grassy salt marsh—it’s easy to keep track of where you are going and how to get back to the start.
Located on the Fort Morgan Peninsula, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is a 7,000-acre wildlife habitat for more than 370 species of birds, nesting loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, and the endangered Alabama beach mouse. The maritime forests, coastal marsh, beaches, and open waters of the refuge provide essential habitat for an amazing diversity of birds. Explore the four trails—one of which, the “Jeff Friend Trail,” is ADA accessible—and beaches on your own or stop by the office to find out about free guided tours plus see an educational video and wildlife exhibits.
Stroll miles of walking trails at the Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary, including a 1,000-foot boardwalk from the parking lot to a wharf overlooking Galliard Lake. There’s also a raised walkway through a Tupelo swamp, controlled access to the Gulf shoreline, and a dune observation platform. Yes, you may see birds; but the certain reward for anyone who visits is a breathtaking view.
Stroll the boardwalk at the Estuarium at Dauphin Island Sea Lab. It’s a short, easy walk. The main attraction is the opportunity to expand your mind inside the educational center where you’ll find aquariums, films, demonstrations and more.
Meander along 5,000 feet of elevated boardwalk at the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research and Education Center. “Estuaries are the most productive areas on the planet,” explains a guide. Encompassing over 6,000 acres in and around Weeks Bay and Mobile Bay, you can explore a network of 28 areas representing distinct biogeographic regions that are protected in the U.S.—including a pitcher plant preserve. A free educational interpretive center houses indoor exhibits and live animals.
‘Been There’ Tip: If your goal is to see the rare pitcher plants, plan a visit for late April/early May or late September/early October for the best odds.
More To Do…
Tour Bellingrath Gardens and Home. The former residence of Walter Bellingrath—who was one of the first 10 Coca-Cola bottlers—and his wife Bessie, the 15-room, 10,500-square-foot “English Renaissance” –style home (circa 1935) was designed by architect George B. Rogers. It contains original furnishings, Mrs. Bellingrath’s extensive collections and lingering mementos of the couple’s enduring love story. The Gardens first opened to the public in 1932 and today there’s always something in bloom on the 65 acres. Take a self-guided walking tour of the Top Public Rose Garden in the U.S. (2004 winner), the Bayou Boardwalk, along the shores of Mirror Lake, formal terraces, a butterfly garden and more. You can also take a 45-minute cruise along the Fowl River to look for birds and learn area history.
Take an educational eco-tour and watch for dolphins aboard a 40-foot pontoon boat with Cetacean Cruises. “We have 30 resident dolphins,” says Captain Bill Mitchell, so odds of spotting the intelligent creatures are good year-round. Since 2008, Mitchell has operated under the Dolphin SMART Program, which was designed in cooperation with NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society to protect the safety of wild dolphins. Cetacean Cruises was the first commercial tour company outside of Key West, Fla., to receive Dolphin SMART approval.
Where To Stay…
Odds of Encountering Children: Inevitable. The Alabama Gulf Coast is a very family-friendly destination. During summer months and school holiday breaks, the beaches and most all public areas will be packed with people. Plan a visit while school is in session to limit the likelihood of encountering children while raising the chances of enjoying elbow room pretty much everywhere.
-Photos by Hope S. Philbrick; © HSP Media LLC