GULF SHORES, Ala. — Standing waist-deep in the Gulf of Mexico, I scanned over a white-sand beach, past a coastal nature preserve and towards an aging Civil War fort just up the shore. It was almost the hottest day of the year, short by a degree or two, and thunderstorms the day before clouded everything in a warm steam.
This was a South I hadn’t expected.
There are more than 30 miles of beachfront from the Florida state line to mouth of Mobile Bay. Beach culture and white-sand resorts are peppered all along it.
Although it’s easy to skip on a map, don’t overlook Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Rich ecosystems blend with modern condos, hotels, restaurants and concert venues.
History is all over. One and a half miles from where I waded into the Gulf is the site of one of the more memorable battles of the Civil War. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay.
The city of Mobile was a critical economic and military hub for the Confederacy. Mobile Bay provided shelter for Confederate troops and military supplies.
On Aug. 5, 1864, a fleet of 18 Union ships, led by Rear Adm. David Farragut, entered the bay in an effort to close it off, sparking the battle. Union ships exchanged fire with the CSS Tennessee, one of the South’s ironclad battleships. At one point early in the fight, Farragut coined the phrase, “Damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead.”
The Union prevailed, taking over the forts after a series of land routs. Both forts still stand, and they are included on the Alabama Gulf Coast Civil War Trail.
On the trail
The Civil War Trail is a self-guided route of 18 stops along the edge of the bay, ranging from old Confederate campsites to the actual battlegrounds.
On the weekend I visited, re-enactors from at least three states met at Fort Morgan, the fort on the east side of the bay’s entrance, to mark the battle’s 149th anniversary. Four men in gray, wool uniforms fired a cannon toward the water while another group marched across the lawn, muskets in hand, to a knoll to practice shooting.
Between demonstrations they sought shade and Gatorade under the massive, brick arches inside the fort. Fort Morgan was built after the War of 1812. It underwent expansions and housed the U.S. military through World War II, and now it is a National Historic Landmark administered by the state.
A ferry ride away is Fort Gaines, which guarded the west side of the bay’s entrance. Unlike Fort Morgan, Fort Gaines is operated privately, by the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board. In 2011 it was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s List of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places due to severe coastal erosion.
Just north of Mobile Bay, Blakeley State Park sits on the site of the last major battle of the Civil War. The Battle of Blakeley took place April 2-9, 1865, and led to the capture of Mobile by the Union.
The park boasts miles of trenches, graves and archaeological sites, many of which are still buried. Because the battle occurred in the war’s final week, it often registers merely as a footnote in Civil War history, but for local residents its story is essential.
“It’s really remarkable that these Confederates stayed here and didn’t run and fought until the bitter end,” park ranger Stacey Gardner said.
Gardner grew up in the park’s neighborhood, studied it in college and went to graduate school specifically to put his skills to its preservation. The staff is small at Blakeley Park, but there is much to do. In addition to being a historic site it is an ecological haven of swampland and forest.
Gardner said the fox squirrel population is growing and an orchid once thought extinct was recently found growing in the park. While Gardner was giving an interview, a threatened and rarely seen Gopher Tortoise tore down a dirt road.
Off the Civil War Trail, Alabama’s Gulf Coast feels more like a Floridian beach town. The population swells in the summer with tourists renting condos and beach houses by the week and picks up again in the winter when retirees move in for the season.
Seafood is the most popular local fare. Shrimp, crab, oyster and fish are usually fresh and local. Of course, fired comfort food is also easy to find. Several locally-owned restaurants have found enough success to open multiple locations.
Orange Beach, Ala., which is closer to the Florida border than Gulf Shores, boasts The Wharf, an upscale shopping complex complete with the largest Ferris wheel in the Southeast. Boats leave from Orange Beach every evening to chase bottlenose dolphins.
There are events happening throughout the year. In May, a popular local restaurant hosts the Hangout Music Festival, which has featured the Flaming Lips in the past. It’s easy to find live music on almost any night all along the coast.
Travel and accommodations via an organized press trip through Geiger PR.
If you go
Gulf Shores, Ala.
The Alabama Gulf Shores are brimming with resorts and public beaches. It’s billed as a family-friendly place to enjoy Gulf beaches from a condo or beach house. I stayed in a condo at Sunset Properties.
Seafood is the local fare. Fresh shrimp and oysters are on the menu everywhere, and there are many locally-owned restaurants, including:
•Lulu’s, a burger joint with live music every night named for its owner, Jimmy Buffet’s sister.
•Original Oyster House, which has a location over a bayou with occasional visits from alligators.
•Tacky Jacks, a popular spot for casual dining.
•The Hangout, which is on the beach and hosts a popular music festival every year.