Gulf Shores, AL
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, at a souvenir shop (Souvenir City)
For cost savings reasons (it was a holiday weekend), we stayed about 45 minutes away from Gulf Shores in a suburb of Mobile; Daphne, AL. The drive from Daphne to Gulf Shores was four lane highway and a very easy drive. We knew we were only doing one day at the beach so this made a lot of sense for us. We did drive down the main strip along the beach and there are lots of options in Gulf Shores right on the beach (hotels/condos/beach houses) if that would work better for your family.
Gulf Shores has several public beaches (complete list: https://www.gulfshores.com/things-to-do/beach-water/beaches.aspx#sm.0000zy9sux31ze3wval1xyzsa1sgu). With four kids in tow we knew we wanted a beach with facilities. We opted to go to Gulf Shores Main Public Beach. There are two parking lots that are right next to the beach. There are parking fees ($5 for 4 hours, $10 for all day). You pay at the automated parking kiosk and then place your receipt in your window.
The beach is very nice and well maintained. Next to the parking lots are several covered picnic tables so you could easily picnic off the sand if you wanted to. There was a nice bathroom that was in good repair and fairly clean (I don’t think you can count sand against them at the beach but toilet paper was stocked and trash wasn’t over flowing). There were outside showers to rinse off. There are life guards on duty. There were several trashcans placed along the beach which were also not overflowing. They had a tractor out raking the sand to pick-up trash and debris from the sand. The sand was a beautiful white and very fine. We did find some seashells but nothing really fantastic.
Now we got semi-unlucky as a tropical storm came ashore that morning in Florida.
The pros of having a large storm coming ashore nearby:
- We arrived at the beach at 9:30 on Memorial Day it was us and the reporters from The Weather Channel.
- It was overcast all morning (sunscreen anyway, hubby and brother in law both did a poor job of that and got very nice sunburns) so the temperature was nice.
- Storm surge had caused a small tidal pool on the beach (about mid shin deep on me) that the toddlers loved splashing in.
The cons of having a large storm coming ashore nearby:
- The storm surge caused us to be under red flag warnings. The surf was NOT swimmable. We took the older girls out to what was knee deep water on us and even that was hard. The waves would about push an adult over and the rip tide would yank the sand out from under your feet. The kids still had a good time playing in the shallows.
- While we were eating lunch (which we luckily had vetoed picnicking on the beach like we had originally thought) there was torrential rain downpour for about 20 minutes. Then it would downpour off and on the rest the afternoon.
Lesson learned: Bad weather in the Gulf might change your plans, be flexible.
We had originally planned to spend the whole day at the beach. However, since we were unable to really swim in the water and there are only so many sandcastles you can build we decided to find a sit down lunch and come up with something else to do for the afternoon.
We decided to eat lunch at Lulu’s Gulf Shores which had been suggested on some travel websites. The restaurant (entertainment venue might be a better term though) is on the bay so it’s about a 10-minute drive from the beach. The restaurant offers free bottles of water in coolers all around the property which was nice while we waited for a table (you almost always have to wait for a table when you are a party of 8). We also checked out the gift shop which had a fair selection of items. You aren’t going to find good deals here but everything was fairly reasonable. The dining area is mostly opened air but completely covered (I assume they have the ability to close it in during cooler months). We were seated on the outside patio that is next to the giant sand pit. Lulu’s provides sand toys and it has a small water feature so your kids can play while you wait for your food or you could hang out at the bar across from the patio and enjoy adult beverages while your kids played. Service was very good. Prices and portion sizes are what you’d expect for seafood in a tourist town. I think you would get more of the atmosphere of the restaurant if you came for dinner. They had a stage for a live band and there were ropes courses available for the kids but they were not open at lunch time. Overall it was a fine meal.
After lunch Gulf Shores was due to have random bands of heavy rain. We opted to do some souvenir shopping and then head west to see if we could get a little away from the storm. We did our shopping at Souvenir City. We scientifically picked this place because the door way is a giant shark that you walk through its mouth to get inside and the older kids HAD to go there. If you decide to go there, park in the back lot and the front lot has one entrance so if there is no available parking your stuck doing an awkward 3-point turnaround in a crowded parking lot (the back entrance is a pirate ship). The store is very large and had a large variety of items (hold tight to your kids, you would not want to lose a kid in this store). Most the stuff they had you could probably purchase from Amazon so it’s not unique finds. Prices were so-so. We did find a few smashed penny machines and I managed to find some locally made ornaments that we purchased one of. If you are looking for unique or local items, this is not your stop.
After the kids were done spending some of their money, we decided to check out Fort Morgan.
Overall impression: Gulf Shores is a nice town. I kept seeing people say it wasn’t touristy like Destin. I disagree. It was touristy but not nearly as crowded as the beaches in Florida. The beaches were very nice and very clean. It had all your normal tourist offerings (go carts, ice cream shops, putt-putt, water parks) plus it’s not too far from Mobile (about an hour) so you could make and easy week long vacation here.