Catch a memorable vacation at Alabama's Gulf Coast and
Standing at the stern of his 24-foot pontoon boat, Captain Skip Beebe tells our small group everything we could ever want to know about oysters, crabs, and shrimp. Known as Captain Skip in these intracoastal waters at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, he takes us on his Sailaway Charters nature cruise where, for the next two hours, we'll spot birds and all types of water creatures in Longs Bayou and Wolf Bay.
Beebe knows these waters as well as his own kitchen, probably because he is obviously so at home in the boat. Tall and trim, his skin is the color of a Dooney & Bourke tote bag. His floppy safari-style hat covers his head and neck, and he wears rubber boots, a white T-shirt, and blue jeans that you just know have seen many days on the water.
We touch oysters, baby puffer fish, and crabs. We look for dolphins, but come up short on this cruise. Yet each outing is an adventure – you never know what the waters will yield.
And what bountiful waters they are.
A Gulf View
There are more than 100 boat captains in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach ready to take you out on the water. One of those captains is Randy Boggs. His business, Reel Surprise Charters, has been at the Marina at San Roc Cay in Orange Beach for eight years, though he's worked in the industry for 17 years.
Boggs grew up on a farm but grew tired of that work as a young man.
"My dad let me work on a boat while I was in college," he says. He soon became, well, hooked. While catching his lunch after bringing in a boatful of happy anglers, he adds that he started his own charter business because he didn't like working for someone else.
People can fish year-round at Alabama's Gulf Coast, though – not surprisingly – summer brings the most anglers to Boggs, while February is the slowest month. He sees interesting trends, however, including brisk business around Black Friday.
"Black Friday is huge for us," Boggs says. "Wives go shopping and the guys will go fishing all day."
Fall months, September–November, often mean longer trips to look for wahoo, marlin (white and blue), and tuna (black- and yellow-fin).
Not only can you easily fish for wonderful Gulf Coast seafood, the area has a growing number of notable chefs to expertly prepare your catch or offer you a marvelous creation from their menus.
Two of those chefs – Chris Sherrill and Brody Olive – push creative boundaries to create memorable dishes using locally sourced items. Sherrill, executive chef at Flora-Bama Yacht Club at the Alabama-Florida border, said it's important for chefs to educate themselves on the sustainability of Gulf seafood. Over the last 25 years, red snapper has been a species "deemed by some that's been over fished," Sherrill says, but it's important for people in the fishing and restaurant industries to teach the public there are so many other wonderful fish to enjoy. In addition, it's important to waste less of the fish we catch.
"If we're going to eat a fish, we're going to eat as much of it as possible," Sherrill says. So while some restaurant patrons may want a grouper sandwich or filet, Sherrill also will suggest trying the fish's cheeks in a dish.
"We can prepare something traditional, but I'll also talk to the customer and say ‘let me do something that will blow your mind for the same price.' We have to try and educate our guests in a professional manner," he says.
To that end, Sherrill and Olive, who is executive chef at Perdido Beach Resort's Voyagers restaurant, have teamed with Chandra Wright, naturalist with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, to create The NUISANCE Group in an effort to share information and create artful cuisine using what many people may regard as trash fish. And for The NUISANCE Group, public enemy No. 1 is the invasive lionfish.
This species is destroying Gulf Coast reefs. The problem is epidemic, Sherrill says, because lionfish are such voracious eaters and have no natural predators. A female lionfish can lay as many as 40,000 eggs every four days.
"It's just awful," Sherrill says.
So, The NUISANCE Group's plan is to make lionfish and other fish diners may shy away from into amazing dishes.
"We want a challenge," Sherrill says. "The challenge to us is ‘you can't make that taste good.' So we cook it and watch the shock factor set in. It's a whole lot of fun."
And check out what they can do with saltwater catfish, king mackerel, or crevalle jack, which Sherrill refers to as the "prime rib of fish" because of its red flesh. He likes to marinate it like a steak and grill on a skewer of rosemary.
Using fish that often are overlooked is a delicate balance between commercial fishermen, wholesalers, and chefs. Chefs have to be committed to push the boundaries using the less popular fish, wholesalers have to keep the pricing competitive, and fishermen have to haul it in.
"As long as the fishermen are getting taken care of, I think it all starts with them," Olive says.
Come to the table
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach isn't a destination for the indecisive. A generation ago, you might have had burgers and fried shrimp baskets, but today, dining choices are indeed bountiful. The burgers and shrimp baskets still are here to enjoy, but foodies can get their fill at any number of fine dining spots. In a brilliant moment, Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism devised an "Eat Your Way Around the Beach" itinerary that highlights many of these do-not-miss establishments. Here are a few of my favorites.
Grilled oysters: Some of the best oyster farms, including Murder Point Oysters, are located in this coastal region. Try them grilled at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club at Perdido Key and taste the balanced briny flavor that melds with butter and plenty of garlic. Located on Ole River across the street from the famed Flora-Bama Lounge, living is easy and the food is great here.
Alabama wild shrimp: Local shrimp doesn't get much fresher than right off the boat, and that's what you'll find at King Neptune's Seafood Restaurant in Gulf Shores. I went with the platter of Royal Reds. This casual restaurant is great for families, and lunch specials start around $5 (Monday–Friday).
Smoked tuna dip: We got our party started the right way by stopping for lunch upon pulling into Gulf Shores at The Hangout on East Beach Blvd. in Gulf Shores. Local tuna is perfectly smoked and served on a platter with hummus, olives, fresh vegetables, and warm pita bread. This dip and an ice-cold beer paired with an unobstructed view of the water at The Hangout were worth the 700-mile drive from St. Louis.
Red snapper: You could get the cheeseburger in paradise at Lulu's in Gulf Shores, but with delicious fresh red snapper on the menu, why would you? Plus Jimmy Buffett's sister's place can tell you when and where your snapper dinner was taken from the water, thanks to the Fish Trax system.
After a week of enjoying limitless seafood at the Gulf, we had a taste for a steak, and the beef filet at Fisher's at Orange Beach Marina was a perfect cap to a wonderful week. While my daughter savored her steak, I enjoyed the catch of the day, and we both marveled at the vibrant sunset over the marina's waters and fabulous boats. Fisher's had a stylish vibe while still offering first-class Southern hospitality to its guests. Wonderful food and atmosphere, plus a connection to the water. There couldn't have been a better way to say farewell to Alabama's Gulf Coast.
Except if we added, "see you next year."
Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of AAA Southern Traveler magazine.
September/October 2016 Issue
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