Oil? What oil?

I had to do it. I had to see for myself the damage inflicted by the infamous oil spill on my beloved gulf beaches.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, an island at the northernmost tip of the Gulf of Mexico, is where I lifted the curtain to take a peek.

You know the place: where Jimmy Buffet played his benefit concert, the one that was televised on CMT. Where tens of thousands of families come for their annual summer vacations to soak up sun on 32 miles of beaches. Where fishermen, golfers and nature lovers migrate to enjoy 400,000 acres of protected lakes, rivers and bayous.

I knew this popular destination had taken a hit this summer. Even today, six months after the fact, googling “oil spill” provides 52 million possibilities.

So I braced myself for the worst. After all, the sand on Gulf Shore beaches is as white as a newborn’s bottom and as soft as the baby powder that’s applied during diaper changes. Any oil, blobs or balls, would definitely stand out.

But when I checked into my luxury condo on Gulf Shores East Beach and looked out over the horizon, the sand looked as pure and pristine as ever. When I walked along the shore to the pier, the sand still looked like snow. In fact, the only hint of oil I could find was the notice on the foot bridge asking me to please respect the condo carpets by checking for signs of telltale oil.

“The oil spill didn’t do half the damage as the inaccurate media reports,” says Kim Chapman, PR manager for the tourist destination. “Our summer, our peak season, was off by 30 percent.”

And this is a place accustomed to natural disasters. Gulf Shores’ website, in fact, hosts a dormant “crisis” page, usually hidden, but ready when hurricanes strike or, in the case of this summer, oil rigs explode. This summer while America looked helplessly on, Chapman and colleagues provided up-to-date daily reports at www.thebeachfacts.com.

The main fact they should broadcast to America now is there has never been a better time to score a bargain at Gulf Shores. Needless to say, business this summer was way down. And to make up for lost time, everything from condos to excursions are going for a song.

Condos can be rented at two-thirds their normal rates. Concerts with such big names as Bon Jovi (October 15) and Brad Paisley (October 17) are free. And best of all? Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is still as beautiful and inspiring as ever.

While there, I visited Bon Secour National Wildlife Preserve where 80-year-old Chan West gives barefoot tours along the preserve’s two-mile path through palmettos, live oaks and Spanish moss. Walking past Gator Lake and Little Lagoon, West slyly names off both the common and Latin names for the vegetation, the 370 types of migratory birds, the nesting sea turtles and the endangered sea mouse. In fact, it was the sea mouse that convinced locals to preserve this coastal dune ecosystem back in 1980, soon after Jack Nicklaus knocked on West’s mother’s back door.

Another highlight was Cetacean Cruises’ ecocruise led by 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 spill, he worked with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to monitor the 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), we headed into a deserted swamp where we saw osprey, Great Blue Herons, Great White Egrets and alligator flag, so named because its presence indicates the presence of alligators. While cruising by the boat dock of a homeowner whose three dogs came to greet us, we heard this call:

“Hey Captain Bill,” said the homeowner who was standing on his docked boat. “What do you think of their plan to build homes back here?”

Without waiting for an answer, he went on: “Well, they can’t do it now. I just bought it.”

Our entire boat hooted and cheered, elated that this magical bayou would be saved.

I also kayaked with Chris Nelson of Alabama Kayak Adventures, and drank foo-food drinks at both Lulu’s (Jimmy Buffet’s sister, Lucy, owns this amazing indoor/outdoor restaurant/concert venue that has the motto “Where life is good and lunch lasts forever.”) and The Hangout, a beachside restaurant that reminded me of a cruise ship.

It has pingpong tables, sand mountains for kids to climb, crazy games like limbo and a 15-foot 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 reminded me of a giant Lite Brite, the toy of choice for most first-graders.

While I certainly don’t want to jinx anything, I will give this hint: my wish had something to do with hoping this enchanting place in southern Alabama will rebound with grace and will still be around so my grandkids and great grandkids can build sandcastles on Gulf Shore Beaches and kayak through sea oats and get to know Captain Bill’s dolphins by name.

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