Things to Do in Gulf Shores, Alabama & the Florida Panhandle

Our 2021 Christmas Beach Vacation

For the second year in a row, John and I took a Christmas trip to a beachy destination that I’d never been before.

In 2020, it was coastal Georgia—St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island to be exact. It’s a beautiful area with stunning beaches; however, being on the Atlantic Ocean, it was chilly for December. According to Google, the average high temperature for St. Simons in December is 64-degrees F. When we visited, highs were in the 50s. Not bad, but not warm. (And I never did a recap of that trip. Sorrrrry!)

In 2021, we spent Christmas in Gulf Shores, Alabama—with a few extra days around Port St. Joe, Florida at the end of the trip. High temps were in the low- to mid-70s, so this time it felt like a true Christmas beach vacation. It was also my first time ever in the state of Alabama AND my first time in the Florida Panhandle. Somehow, I never made it to that part of Florida when I lived there for five years before moving to Tennessee.

Our main reason for choosing these destinations was to scope out the area for a second home. John recently started looking at vacation rental properties in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and parts of the Panhandle, and he wanted me to see these areas firsthand before we purchase anything.

If you don’t want to read the entire review of our trip (it’s detailed!), here’s a table of contents. Just click on the section you want to read about:

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Gulf Shores Rentals

Gulf Shores, AL is about a 7.5 hour drive from our home in Knoxville, TN. Definitely not worth flying there for us. And, whenever we drive, we bring Gus, our Old English Bulldog. So, for this trip, we needed a pet friendly rental—and we found lots of options. However, since we wanted to stay as close to the beach as possible, that narrowed things down quite a bit.

Beach Blvd is the road that runs along the beach. West Beach Blvd has more stand-alone homes to rent, with some condo complexes and hotels thrown in the mix. East Beach Blvd is mostly hotels and condos, and eventually runs into neighboring Orange Beach.

Through Vacasa, we found a stilt house across the road from the beach on W Beach Blvd. It didn’t give us direct beach access, but we could see the Gulf from our front porch and walk to two public beach access points within minutes. And, Gulf Shores’ main beach parking lot just over two miles away.

View of rental homes along Gulf Shores Beach in Alabama
View from our Vacasa rental

Here’s a link to our Gulf Shores Vacasa rental, if you’re curious. Oh, and it’s a thing to name your vacation rental down there and ours was “Take it Sea Z.”

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Restaurants

Overall, you’ll find lots of seafood and non-chain restaurants in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach—though there definitely are a few chains restaurants. (And, if you’re not aware, Orange Beach is Gulf Shore’s neighbor to the east.) Here’s where we ate on our trip.

The Beach House Kitchen and Cocktails

That first night, we ate at The Beach House. It was about half a mile from our Airbnb so we walked. I ordered shrimp skewers with veggies and black beans. John got the fish tacos. We both thought it was tasty and loved the ability to walk there from our rental!

Doc’s Seafood & Steaks

Not many restaurants were open on Christmas Eve, and several that were closed early. That’s how we narrowed it down to Doc’s Seafood & Steaks in Orange Beach. It was open later and the wait was maybe 20 minutes when we arrived around 5:15pm. Normally, we don’t eat dinner before 6pm, but we wanted to beat the rush and also planned to get to bed earlier that night.

I guess Doc’s has been around awhile. A local favorite if you will, known for several of its seafood dishes. There are actually two locations. We went to the one closest to the beach.

John and I both loved the grilled oysters for an appetizer—I hate raw oysters and John isn’t a big fan of seafood in general, so that’s saying a lot. For our meals, I ordered the local grilled whitefish and John opted for mahi mahi. Yes mahi is also whitefish, but, if you want a bigger portion size, go with the generic grilled whitefish. I got two large fillets and John only got one.

Christmas Dinner at Waffle House

Yes, Waffle House is open on Christmas. For the second year in a row, we ate there Christmas night. Last year on St. Simons Island, GA. This year in Gulf Shores. It was also only the second Christmas John and I have spent together, so I guess this qualifies as a tradition now, right?

If you haven’t eaten at Waffle House for Christmas, well, it’s an experience and I really rather like it! I also managed to find some dairy free options on the menu—ham, hashbrowns, and eggs, cooked in oil, not butter.

Gulf Shores Steamer

On our last night in Gulf Shores / Orange Beach, we found this little place called Gulf Shores Steamer. Dang, was it good! I’d seen red royal shrimp on the menu at a few other places and apparently it’s local to the gulf. As much as I love shrimp, I’d never eaten this variety before, so I knew I had to order it, along with some steamed potatoes (also a local thing) and steamed veggies. John ordered blackened grouper with similar sides.

I gotta say, this seafood loving girl was in heaven. That was the most unique tasting shrimp I’ve ever had and it made me wish I’d ordered it at the other places, too. Well, now I know. And now YOU know. Eat all the red royal shrimp when you visit coastal Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

Grocery Stores in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach

While we do eat out for dinners, we generally get breakfast, some lunches, and snacks at grocery stores when we travel. Gulf Shores has quite a few options: Publix, Walmart, Rouses, Target, and a pretty decent looking Dollar General.

While not quite as built up, Orange Beach also has a Publix, Rouses, and a Walmart Neighborhood Market.

We saw several smaller mom and pop grocery stores, too, as well as lots of beach accessory shops, like Alvin’s Island.

Things to Do in Gulf Shores & Orange Beach

Gulf Shores Beach

The main public beach access for Gulf Shores Beach has a decent sized parking lot. It also has pay stations, but they were covered over Christmas so we didn’t have to pay—and, I’m not sure what the usual charge is. If you visit Gulf Shores, I recommend finding a place to stay that’s close enough to walk to the beach.

On Christmas day, John and I woke up early and power walked to the beach to catch the sunrise. Given our sense of adventure, I can’t think of a better way for us to celebrate Christmas morning. God’s glory was in full force with the color display and the temperature was somewhere in the high-60s. It’s a memory I’ll cherish forever!

Couple selfie on Gulf Shores Beach at sunrise
Christmas morning sunrise

Unfortunately, Gulf Shores public beaches aren’t pet friendly.

Fort Morgan

Nearby Fort Morgan beaches do allow dogs on leashes, but Fort Morgan is a bit out of the way—about 40 minutes from our Airbnb. On Christmas Eve, we drove there without realizing the fort itself was closed that day. Normally, I Google everything, but we just didn’t think to check.

Since we went all that way, we parked in the Fort Morgan Ferry parking lot and walked along the road for a bit. Gus needed to stretch his legs and so did we. You can also see part of the fort from the road. On our next visit, we’ll definitely check out the fort. We thought about going to the beach, but decided to move on to our next stop for the day.

Bamahenge

Did you know Alabama has its own version of Stonehenge? This aptly named site is literally out in the middle of nowhere in Elberta, Alabama. I didn’t know it existed till I Googled random things to do near Gulf Shores and Bamahenge was a search result. How could we not check it out??

Couple with dog in front of Bamahenge in Alabama
Bamahenge

A few things to note about Bamahenge:

  • It’s a full-sized fiberglass replica of Stonehenge, and free to visit.
  • It was designed and installed by a Virginia artist named Mark Cline.
  • There’s a tiny parking lot just off the road by the path that leads to Bamahenge. In peak season, I imagine it fills up, so you may have to park along the road.
  • The walk from the road to Bamahenge is short. Like, 1 minute or less short.
  • If you drive further down the road past Bamahenge, you’ll see fiberglass “Dinosaurs in the Woods.” created by the same artist.

If you like odd roadside America attractions, this is a must-see. Especially if you have 1.5 to 2 hours to kill while in the Gulf Shores area. It’s just over 30 minutes away!

The Wharf in Orange Beach

The Wharf labels itself as a “one-of-a-kind entertainment, shopping, and dining” destination in Orange Beach, which neighbors Gulf Shores. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we decided to check it out.

Assumedly, it’s a hot spot for tourists during busy season. And, events are held there, like firework shows and things like photos with Santa. To me, it felt more geared toward families. The upper level space also seemed filled with office spaces. Honestly, not as much as I expected. But again, it was off season.

And, all that to say, we did browse several cool shops and I wound up buying a present for my sister and some shark jerky.

OWA in Foley, AL

Back on the day we arrived in Gulf Shores, we passed an amusement park in nearby Foley called OWA. Googling it later, we learned it’s more than an amusement park; it’s a dining, shopping, and entertainment destination as well. And, it was open on Christmas Eve. With extra time before dinner, we drove there out of curiosity.

Unfortunately, though it was open, nearly all of the shops were closed due to the holiday. I think I saw two bar-type restaurants and a soap store open, and that was it. We walked the entire downtown area and it really looks like a fake little town. The whole area kinda reminds me of The Island in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee—or at least a similar concept. Very touristy, but far better than The Wharf, in my opinion.

Gulf State Park

On Christmas morning, we headed to nearby Gulf State Park with Gus. Gulf State Park is essentially the dividing line between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. After passing by on our way to dinner one night, we knew we had to walk there. Gulf State Park trails are dog friendly; the beach section is not.

We walked almost 5 miles, starting with the boardwalk (visible from the main road) and down the trail that runs along Shelby Lakes. It felt wonderful to wear shorts and sweat a little outside on Christmas day!

We also saw a small alligator and snapped a few family photos.

Couple with dog walking along boardwalk at Gulf State Park Alabama
Family photo
Small alligator on a bank in Gulf State Park, Alabama
Gator sighting
Woman standing on edge of dock in Gulf State Park Alabama
Old English Bulldog standing on dock by lake in Gulf State Park Alabama

Gulf State Park Pier

We let Gus take a much-needed nap at the Airbnb and drove back to Gulf State Park to check out the pier and walk on the beach. Parking at the pier is $3 and it looked like you had to pay to walk to the end of the pier, too—though we later realized that you maybe just had to show your parking pass. Maybe. I still don’t know.

We walked the beach east of the pier for over a mile, so about 3 miles roundtrip. Most of the beachgoers congregated on the sand right near the pier. And, because that stretch of beach is owned by the state part, we only passed one hotel—The Lodge at Gulf State Park (a Hilton that partnered with the park, apparently).

John and I prefer avoiding the crowds, so we enjoyed this beach for its seclusion. Of course, I’m sure the entire stretch is busier in spring and summer months!

Gulf State Park Pier and Gulf of Mexico
Gulf State Park Pier

Dauphin Island, Alabama

Mobile Bay Ferry to Dauphin Island, AL

On our last full day in Gulf Shores, we woke up early to make the 8:30am Mobile Bay Ferry from Fort Morgan to Dauphin Island.

It’s recommended to get to the Fort Morgan Landing at least 30 minutes before departure. We arrived about 45 minutes early and there were already two cars ahead of us. Well before 8:30, there was a line behind us, too. I believe the ferry holds between 20 – 30 vehicles, so during peak season, getting there early is a MUST.

The total cost was $24 one-way for two adults and one vehicle. While we could’ve driven around Mobile Bay instead of crossing, that would’ve taken twice as long and probably cost us at least as much in gas.

I wouldn’t exactly call Dauphin Island a tourist destination, though there are touristy things to do.

Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island

You can see this Civil War era fort from the ferry, and its walls are well intact. We walked up to the wall section closest to the parking lot to check out the view, but didn’t tour the entire fort. We had Gus with us and our goal was to get to the beach adjacent to the fort.

Dauphin Island East End Public Beach

This beach on Dauphin Island is dog-friendly, and it was a treat to finally take Gus on the beach during this trip. He LOVES the sand and water.

To get to the beach, we walked along the road between the walls of Fort Gaines and the Gulf. It’s paved till you get just past the fort. Then we saw heavy machinery parked in what looked like a giant dirt-filled parking area. It wasn’t open to vehicles at the time, but walking was okay.

Entering the beach, we saw a few fisherman on that end, but there was no one else on the beach. At the end, we saw houses and stopped short because we saw a dog in the distance. Gus doesn’t know his manners with other dogs, so we avoid them when we can.

Dog on beach in Alabama
East End Public Beach

Overall, we loved the seclusion of this beach. It felt more natural—definitely not a white sand, touristy beach. I even found a piece of seaglass!

We walked about 2 miles roundtrip at the beach, then hopped back in the truck and drove on to Mississippi from there.

Ocean Springs & Biloxi, Mississippi

This trip marked my first time in both Alabama and Mississippi. I’ve reached 35 out of 50 states now! But I digress. Here’s what we did in Mississippi.

East Beach, Ocean Springs

In my search for dog-friendly beaches in Mississippi, I discovered East Beach in Ocean Springs, MS, which is right next to Biloxi, MS. Parking is free along the street on the west end of the beach. There may be a parking lot further down, but we didn’t go that far. Across the street from the beach are residential homes and each has a dock on the beach. And, though the beach isn’t private, the docks are.

We didn’t walk too far on East Beach—just over a mile total. It isn’t overly wide, but there are a few things that made it more distinctive: (1) lots of oyster shells, if that’s your thing; and (2) a nice view of the Biloxi skyline.

Man and dog on beach in Mississippi
East Beach, Ocean Springs, MS
Couple and dog on beach in Mississippi
Beach with dock in Mississippi
East Beach looking toward Biloxi, MS

Downtown Ocean Springs

On the way to Biloxi from East Beach, we drove through downtown Ocean Springs. Thing is, we didn’t realize we’d be driving through this area, and WOW. It made me want to stop and walk around! We didn’t, but now we know for next time.

We passed several blocks of unique shops and restaurants, with some New Orleans architectural inspiration thrown in the mix. I could easily see myself spending an entire afternoon there, with plenty of lunch and dinner spots to choose from.

Biloxi, Mississippi

I can’t say much about Biloxi because we only drove around without stopping anywhere. Here are a few things I observed:

  • Biloxi is a straight-up casino destination. I didn’t count how many, but quite a few line the main strip—Beach Blvd.
  • Biloxi has the fanciest Waffle House I’ve seen yet, also along Beach Blvd. I’m talking a brick exterior with a wrap-around porch, and elevated on stilts so it looks like a two-story building. If we ever go back to Biloxi, we’re eating there for sure.

Lastly, I learned from my darling husband that I pronounced Biloxi wrong. My pronunciation? Bil-OX-ee… just like it looks. But John said no. It’s Bil-UX-ee. What? Please tell me in the comments which of us is right!

So yeah, that’s all we did in Mississippi. We didn’t have major plans other than some beach time and driving along the Gulf. We’re firm believers that not all adventures have to be elaborate or grand. Since Mississippi is so close to Gulf Shores, we just wanted to spend a few hours there to check it out.

While driving through Biloxi, we made the decision to continue on into Louisiana. It was only an hour further west and John hadn’t been to Louisiana yet, so we thought… what the heck? John asked, “What’s the closest city in Louisiana?” Google Maps showed Slidell, LA… and that’s where we went.

Slidell, Louisiana

If you haven’t heard of Slidell… I hadn’t either. It’s a small town only 30 minutes northeast of New Orleans. We got off the highway and drove around for maybe 10 minutes before deciding to head back. But first, we grabbed lunch. Car snacks just weren’t cutting it and John wanted to try something Creole. I’m not sure if this counts as authentic, but he ordered “REAL Louisiana gumbo” at The Lost Cajun—a chain restaurant. Cajun is not typically my jam, so I opted for Panera.

Mobile, Alabama

We decided not to take the ferry back to Gulf Shores so we could check out Mobile. Though we didn’t stop anywhere, it was interesting to drive through historic Mobile and see massive homes and the downtown district. Did you know, Mobile is actually home to the beginnings of Mardi Gras? It’s true. Read about it here.

The causeway across the top of Mobile Bay is loooong. And, traffic was backed up, so we spent even more time on it. I wasn’t complaining, though; it was sunset hour and the views were magnificent!

We saw a large battleship docked at one end of the causeway, and I Googled it to learn that the ship is the USS Alabama, now home of Battleship Memorial Park—a military history park and museum. Next time we’re in Mobile, whenever that is, it’s now on our to do list!

And that’s all I’ve got on Mobile. If it helps, we definitely plan to go back to see more!

Port St. Joe, Florida

After leaving Gulf Shores, we drove 4 hours along the coast to Port St. Joe, FL. For the Monday after Christmas, traffic was surprisingly pretty heavy from Pensacola, through Destin and Fort Walton Beach, and all the way to Panama City. And, it’s pretty much nonstop strip malls, restaurants, hotels, and rentals. I can only imagine the snowbird and spring break traffic through there. No thanks!

Port St. Joe is a small town along 30A. While it may not seem like much if you drive past, its historic downtown is just one block from that main coastal road, with numerous restaurants and shops, as well as a lighthouse.

Port St. Joe lighthouse lit up at night
Port St. Joe lighthouse

We walked around the lighthouse our first night and Gus apparently thought we were going to the top. Ha!

Dog climbing lighthouse steps

For grocery stores, there’s a Piggly Wiggly and a nearby Dollar General. Not as much as you’ll see in other parts of the Florida Panhandle.

Also note, Port St. Joe was hit hard by Hurricane Michael in 2018. Hurricane damage is still present in some areas; however, you can also see and sense a spirit of survival and strength in the town.

Port St. Joe Rentals

For Port St. Joe, we booked through Airbnb. Since we decided kind of last minute to add an extra day and a half in the Port St. Joe area, the pet-friendly options were limited. Or maybe they always are. I dunno.

Anyway, our Airbnb was a small cottage on a property with two other rental units and it was exactly what we needed—also within walking distance to the downtown area!

Port St. Joe Restaurants

The first night, we ate at a place right on 30A. KrazyFish Grille. It looked interesting when we drove past, so we gave it a go. I ordered steamed shrimp and John got a fish sandwich (I think!) and it was all fresh, local, delicious seafood.

For our last night in Port St. Joe, we ate dinner at Uptown Raw Bar & Grill. Originally, we thought about driving 15 minutes away to a place near Mexico Beach, but while scoping out the downtown area, we passed Uptown, and the menu looked GOOD. And, it was a quick walk from our Airbnb. That sounded better than driving, too. This time, John and I both ordered the same thing—fresh, local grilled grouper with steamed potatoes and corn on the cob. The atmosphere was more bar-like, but with tables in the middle and an overall cool vibe. Of the two restaurants, Uptown was our favorite.

Cape San Blas, Florida

There’s not an actual beach within walking distance of the town of Port St. Joe, but drive about 20 minutes each way and WOW. The beach along Cape San Blas has a few public access points, and it’s dog-friendly! We took Gus and walked over 4 miles roundtrip.

Man and dog on Cape San Blas Beach Florida
Cape San Blas beach
Selfie shot of couple and dog walking on a beach in Florida

Mexico Beach, Florida

To the west of Port St. Joe, Mexico Beach also has public access points. Unfortunately, most of this beach is not dog-friendly, except for the St. Joe Beach section on the east end. But John and I wanted to walk Mexico Beach, so we had to go without Gus. We put in about another 4 miles, and while we walked we observed more of the Mexico Beach hurricane damage, with houses and hotels right along the shoreline undergoing repairs. Other homes looked almost brand new, and were likely repaired more quickly after Hurricane Michael damaged them.

Beach dune fences along Mexico Beach, Florida
Mexico Beach, Florida
Couple with Christmas tree on a beach in Florida
Found a Christmas tree on the beach!

Which beach was my favorite? Probably Cape San Blas, though I have to say, if you’re in the area, you MUST experience both!

And, overall, if you like to avoid the super touristy areas like John and I do, Port St. Joe, Mexico Beach, and Cape San Blas give you that Florida Panhandle beach vacation without feeling like you’re on a college spring break or wasting time in traffic or visiting strip malls with kitschy souvenirs. This area has an Old Florida feel. It’s just more real.

And, that’s a wrap on our 2021 Christmas vacation recap. Have you visited any of these places yet? Or, did I convince you to visit one soon? Let me know in the comments!

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