Above: Along Gulf Shores’ 32 miles of beaches, sandcastle building tops vacationers’ to-do lists. Alabama Tourism Department photo
Below : The beachside Hangout Restaurant in Gulf Shores offers ping-pong and foosball tables to enjoy before or after dinner. Pam Grout photo
But to fully enter beach consciousness takes practice. In the spirit of best-selling author Stephen Covey (“Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”), this cheat sheet will help you to thoroughly relax on Gulf Shores’ 32 inspiring miles of white sand beach. Follow these seven steps and in no time, you’ll be living in the moment, following your bliss and moving items like “make a sand castle” to the top of your to-do list.
1. Gather all electronic devices
Pack them neatly into the nearest carry-on bag and deposit it into the farthest reaches of your closet. Take a couple deep breaths and back out slowly. Do not look back. Grab another duffle, toss in a bathing suit, a pair of flip-flops, a couple of T-shirts and voila! Not only have you mastered the Gulf Shores’ dress code, you’ve packed for at least a week.
2. Down a beer at the Flora-Bama lounge
Since 1964, this unassuming establishment that straddles the Alabama/Florida state line (at state highways 282 and 182) is the next step en route to Margaritaville. Jimmy Buffet, in fact, immortalized this wildly popular roadhouse in his song, “Ragtop Day.
Be prepared for a lesson in diversity, as this rustic bar with the unmatched tables and chairs attracts everyone from ponytailed surfer dudes to elegant Southern ladies, often dancing together between the tables. Annual events include the Interstate Mullet Toss in April and a Superbowl Chili Cook-off in February.
3. Do a little jig
To further cement your new laidback attitude, head next to LuLu’s. Owned by Lucy Buffett (Jimmy’s baby sister), this indoor/outdoor restaurant has daily live concerts to provide the soundtrack for your jig. You’ll also find a volleyball pit and a diverse menu featuring everything from nine types of margaritas to fish baskets and, not unexpectedly, a Cheeseburger in Paradise.
Lucy, who calls herself the Crazy Sista, grew up here with her famous big brother. After 10 years of what she calls “plastic California,” she moved back home to open a burger joint on Weeks Bay, the very spot where her daddy took her fishing. Five years later, she loaded the whole restaurant onto a barge and sailed it to a bigger spot at Homeport Marina along the intracoastal waterway in Gulf Shores.
Environmental types can further relax knowing they’re sitting in chairs made from recycled milk jugs, the margarita blenders are powered by a wind turbine and the menu brims with local produce, grass-fed beef and honey.
4. Challenge friends to a game of ping-pong
Choose between indoor/outdoor ping-pong tables at The Hangout, a crazy fun beachside restaurant on East Beach Boulevard (Highway 182) in Gulf Shores. Guests are invited to jot down wishes on pastel slips of paper, roll them into scrolls and slide them into slots in a 15-foot-tall wall. It looks a lot like an oversized Lite Brite, the toy of choice for many first-graders.
5. Build a sandcastle
Throw down a lounge chair or a blanket. Make a sand snow angel and relax into the loving arms of this legendary stuff that’s white as a newborn’s bottom and soft as the baby powder that’s applied there. Parking is free at most beaches (practically unheard of in Florida and California).
Check out Gulf State Park’s two-mile beach of sand dunes and wild sea oats or choose the beach at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Fort Morgan. Here, 80-year-old Chan West gives barefoot tours along the preserve’s two-mile path through palmettos, live oaks and Spanish moss. As this is a refuge, there are no facilities on site.
6. Say hello to Flipper
It’s relaxing to gaze lovingly over the ocean’s wide horizon. But to gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Gulf Coast’s riches, you have to actually get on the water.
An “ecocruise” with Cetacean Cruises’ Capt. Bill Mitchell is recommended. Mitchell is not only extremely knowledgeable about dolphins (he knows the 30 or so members of the resident pod by name), but he’s a great advocate for marine protection. Indeed, after the BP oil spill, he worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to monitor local dolphins and other marine life.
From his Orange Beach waterfront home, Mitchell operates charters using a 40-foot glass bottom pontoon boat and a 52-foot catamaran. After spending an hour communing and photographing the dolphins, he’ll take you into a deserted swamp where you’ll see osprey, Great Blue Herons, Great White Egrets and an alligator flag, so named because its presence indicates the presence of alligators. Get a coupon from his Web site, www.cetaceancruises.com.
7. Sleep in luxury
Toss the sleeping pills into the nearest bin. With more than 16,000 condos, beach houses and hotel rooms, you’ll sleep like a baby, before money, responsibility and members of the opposite sex moved in on your mental turf. More than half of all accommodations are on the waterfront and sport big balconies and porches for watching sunsets, another prerequisite for any self-respecting beach bum.
After watching a few sunsets, building a sandcastle and playing a game of ping-pong, you’ll see how highly effective these seven steps are to achieving real relaxation on the Alabama coast.
Pam Grout is a contributor from Lawrence, Kan.