For a beach lover, there are few places better in the world than Florida and South Alabama. Soft sandy beaches spread across nearly the entirely peninsula’s circumference, and extend outward through Alabama until Mobile, where the salt marches of the Mississippi Delta gradually wash away a solid outline of coast. There is a wide variety of beach for every sort of comber. There are party beaches, quiet beaches, family beaches, and if you look hard enough, I imagine you’d find some nude beaches somewhere around there. It’s a coastal heaven.
The beach on Perdido Key
We were taking my wife to her first trip to the great American South in order to meet my extended family. Most of them live in South Louisiana, except for my brother and his family, who live towards Florida. That’s why we decided to make the trip to this beach paradise. We found the Ocean Breeze condo complex on Perdido Key, just outside of Pensacola. This part of the stretch lies between the college party haven of Pensacola and the somewhat more family oriented party haven of Orange Beach in Alabama.
Perdido Key hotels and birds
Perdido Key is lightly developed, with only a line of condo complexes stretching along the beach line with only a light smattering of restaurants and bars. Because of this, the beaches are immaculately clean, it’s easy to score an apartment facing the ocean, and there’s a lot of space to spread out to build sandcastles and great pyramids wherever you’d like.
We were staying in Ocean Breeze, a timeshare condo that most owners rent out to visitor’s year round, with many listed on VRBO, which is kind of like AirBnB. This part of the beach is undoubtedly the quietest and cheapest part, making it just perfect for family vacations and gatherings, such as what we had.
View from the room
It was an odd sort of meeting. I hadn’t seen my brother and his wife since before I had left to Peace Corps, and I had never met my niece. This was the first time for that. And the first time for my wife to meet any of them. I had had a falling out with them years before, when I was on my own in Tbilisi in a period of darkness, near revolution, and a raging habit of drinking liters and liters of non-potable Georgian beer—truly terrible swill. But I came out stronger for it all, with a beautiful wife, beautiful life, and mad skills at the accordion, which will undoubtedly take me super far in life, as we all know accordions are all the rage these days. Or at least they should be.
The reunion went well, though most of that afternoon my wife and I spent recovering from the fierce jet lag that’s always carried across trans-Atlantic flights. That evening we finally descended to the beach.
That night like every night people were out walking around, their phone lights waving like torches, searching the sands for crabs. All we ever saw were the smallest sort scurrying across the granular earthen powder.
Then we came to a square trench surrounding a huge pile of sand. There was shouting and a flashing military grade torch from a different balcony in our complex. He seemed to be signaling something.
“He wants us away from his sand pile,” my mother pointed out.
“Impossible, that’s just crazy,” I said. But it seemed my mother was right. Day in and out through the week, this guy was on watch, guarding it as though he were protecting buried treasure. During the day he was out with trench shovels, digging down and down, so his sand pile would grow higher and higher. Eventually we saw what he was up to. He was trying to alert the world of the Illuminati takeover by building a giant sand pyramid and taking pictures in front of it to post on Instagram. To each his own.
a pyramid of cray
The next day we woke up to rain. My wife worried that maybe the whole trip would be rain, that this was a disaster, there would be no sunbathing. But the weather there is a fickle beast, willing to rage and be pacified at a moments notice. The rain soon disappeared and the sun came out to ease us onward for the rest of the week.
a meteorological temper tantrum
Things to do…
Outside of slamming up against the incoming waves until your brain is knocked around like mush, finding the occasional jellyfish to sting you and test your manhood, or killing people over trespassing on your sand-pyramid building site, there are other things to do in the neighborhood, but you absolutely need a car to vacation here.
parasailing in the distance
Firstly, there’s the usual beach activities, run by occasional huts up and down the beach, each with their own parking lot and signs. You can easily rent jet skis, go parasailing, or ride on a giant, inflatable banana. There are fishing tours available too, where you can even get paid if you catch a large enough edible fish on the trip.
a Ferris wheel at the Wharf
Or you can do what we did. Make your way over to the Wharf at Orange Beach for some laser tag. There they also have a ropes course and a Ferris wheel, or you can walk up and down and gawk at all the huge yachts you could never afford. There’s also laser tag, mini-golf and an (replica) erupting volcano at Adventure Island. At night you can catch live music at the Hangout, Flora-bama, or the Sports Bar, though we didn’t take part as we were too tired from the beating sun and the laser tag. And plus I don’t really like drinking at places I can’t walk or take public transit to, a real downer thing in this part, especially with the presence of police cruisers waiting outside the parking lots of every bar there is. One or two buses going up and down the Florabama stretch every thirty minutes or so would do a lot to liven up the tourism activities (I understand this is a thing over at Pensacola Beach).
boats I will never afford
Where to eat?
The place we found to frequent was the Shrimp Basket, a chain that started out of Gulf Shores, Alabama and spread across the southern coastal states. Standard fried baskets of fish were the name of the game there.
A couple of friends I had made from way back when, when my parents and I went on a cruise in Turkey, happened to be living in Pensacola at the time and introduced us to by far the best restaurant where we had eaten this whole portion of the trip. The Sunset Grille is tucked away in Perdido Bay, at a small harbor near the bridge from the key to the mainland. As its name suggests, it’s definitely one of the best places to catch the sunset, with a small dock giving you a view of a palm tree covered island nearby.
Why to go?
The best reason to go for anyone foreign to the Gulf Shores to Pensacola area, rather than the more famous spots in the US, is to do what we did, make it a part of a New Orleans trip. It’s probably not a worthwhile place to go on its own, but combined with a great tour of the South it’s an absolutely perfect and engaging place for anybody. It’s about a 3 hour drive from New Orleans, but you’d have to rent a car to make your trip the most worthwhile. More on that next week.