by Stephen Covey (NOT!)
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama is more than a geographic destination. It’s a state of mind, a Zen-like approach to life that lowers blood pressure, strengthens family bonds, promotes peace of mind and elevates joy.
But to fully enter beach consciousness takes practice. Lucky for you, I’m providing this handy dandy cheat sheet for thoroughly chilling on Gulf Shore’s 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 your Blackberry, your Kindle, your Macbook, your I-Pod. Okay, now pack them neatly into the nearest carry-on. Deposit said bag in the farthest reaches of your closet. Take a couple deep breaths and back out slowly. Do not, under any circumstances, look back. Grab another duffle, toss in a bathing suit, a pair of flip flops, a couple t-shirts and voila! not only have you mastered the Gulf Shores dress code, but you’re packed for at least a week.
2. Down a beer at the Flora-Bama Lounge. This 50-year-old hole-in-the wall that straddles the Alabama, Florida state line (you’ll recognize it by the two phone booths outside, one in either state) is step number two enroute 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 Belles, often dancing together on top of the tables. Hit it right and you can even compete in the Annual Interstate Mullet Toss, a yearly event where participants fling a mullet (the fish, not the hairdo) from a 10-foot circle in Florida into the Yellowhammer State. This internationally-famous event attracts Mullet Olympians (including former NFL quarterback Kenny Stabler) attempting to outdo the current 189’8” record. Other popular, not-for-the-gutless Flora-Bama events are January’s Polar Bear Plunge, the Mullet Man Triathlon and the Superbowl Chili Cook-off. www.florabama.com
3. Do a little jig. To further cement your new laidback attitude, head next to Lulu’s. Owned by Jimmy Buffett’s baby sister, Lucy Anne, this indoor/outdoor restaurant with the motto “Where life is good and lunch lasts forever” not only has a concert stage (daily live concerts provide the soundtrack for your jig), but it has a volleyball pit, a summer average of 4000 potential new friends 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 near here with her famous big brother Jimmy. After ten 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. Green leaning-types can further relax knowing they’re sitting in chairs made from recycled milk jugs, that their margaritas blenders are powered by a wind turbine and that Lulu’s menu brims with local produce. www.lulubuffett.com
4. Challenge your BFF to a game of ping pong. Choose between indoor/outdoor ping pong tables at The Hangout (yep, that’s its official name), a crazy fun beachside restaurant with sand mountains, cruise ship-like games and a 15-foot-tall wishing wall. Guests are invited to jot down wishes on pastel slips of paper, roll them into scrolls and slide them into the slots on the wall. It looks a lot like an oversized Lite Brite, the toy of choice for most first-graders. www.thehangoutal.com
5. Build a sandcastle. Throw down a lounge chair or a blanket or make a sand snow angel and relax into the loving arms of this legendary sand that’s white as a newborn’s bottom and soft as the baby powder that’s applied there. With 32 miles of beaches to choose from, there’s plenty of sand for everyone. Parking is free at most beaches (practically unheard of in Florida and California) and the beaches range from Gulf State Park’s two-mile, mostly deserted beach of sand dunes and wild seat oats to The Hangout’s non-stop, volleyball-playing party beach. Or choose the beach at Bon Secour National Wildlife Preserve where 80-something Chan West has been known to give barefoot tours along the preserve’s two-mile path through palmettos, live oaks and Spanish moss.
6. Say hello to Flipper. It’s not enough to gaze lovingly over the ocean’s wide horizon. You have to actually get ON the water, not a difficult task since Orange Beach Marina alone has a fleet of more than 100 charter boats. Highly recommended (although not located at Orange Beach Marina) is an ecocruise with Cetacean Cruises’ Captain Bill Mitchell. A former waterski champion, Captain Bill 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. After the oil spill, he worked with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to monitor local dolphins and other marine life. His fleet includes a 40-foot glass bottom pontoon boat and a 52-foot catamaran. After spending an hour communing and photographing the dolphins (Captain Bill knew just where to point the cameras), he’ll take you into a deserted swamp where you’ll see osprey, Great Blue Herons, Great White Egrets and alligator flag, so named because its presence indicates the presence of alligators. www.cetaceancruises.com
7. Sleep in luxury. Toss the Ambien in the nearest bin. With more than 15,000 condos, beach houses and hotel rooms, you’ll sleep like you did in first grade before money, before responsibility, before members of the opposite sex moved in our your mental turf. More than half of all accommodations are actually on the waterfront with big balconies and porches for watching sunsets, another prerequisite for any self-respecting beach bum. www.gulfshores.com