Skip crowded Florida beaches and head to this Gulf Coast paradise instead

If you’re hoping for a vacation full of gorgeous pink and purple sunsets over sugary white sand beaches and brilliant blue water, you may be surprised to find that you can get all of this and more in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

A short drive from more popular (and often more expensive) beaches on Florida‘s west coast, Gulf Shores offers everything you could want from a beach vacation, with a Southern twist.

The sheer variety of activities here makes it a wonderful destination for families interested in amusement parks and other activities for the kids; outdoor enthusiasts looking to explore bird sanctuaries or turtle hatching; or couples seeking a romantic getaway for two.

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Getting there

While Gulf Shores does have its own airport, Gulf Shores International Airport (GUF), it mainly services private and corporate jets instead of commercial airlines.

Because of this, visitors who plan to fly should book a flight to either Mobile Regional Airport (MOB) or Pensacola International Airport (PNS). Both are about an hour away, an easy drive for those who rent a car or drive direct, though you can also take an airport shuttle from either airport.

It’s also an easy drive from other popular cities such as New Orleans, which is only about three hours away.

To fully explore the region, you’ll want to have a car on hand. However, basic facilities such as restaurants, groceries and gift shops are all within walking distance of most accommodations, so know that you won’t really need the car once in Gulf Shores. In the city itself, you can also rely on ride-hailing services like Uber.

Related: The ultimate road trip through the coastal South

Things to do

Situated on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, Gulf Shores offers all the beach vacation essentials but with a Southern spin. GEORGE DODD/GETTY IMAGES

There’s a distinct vibe to the Gulf Shores area. The city is no doubt beachy, yet it also manages to be a little country at the same time.

Available activities range from more traditional beach town offerings like sunset cruises and water sports to one-of-a-kind experiences you can only find here, such as the Interstate Mullet Toss, an annual hair-themed event set for April 28 to 30 in 2023, at the iconic Flora-Bama Lounge, a community landmark since 1964.

The main draw, though, is the region’s beautiful beaches. There are about 15 different entrances here between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

There’s even Gulf State Park, which features both a beach as well as undeveloped marshland areas guests can hike through and camp in.

The Orange Beach area provides a number of shopping experiences like The Wharf, an outdoor mall with an amphitheater, a Ferris wheel and a working marina.

Families looking for a thrill won’t want to miss the Waterville USA water and amusement park, which offers a variety of rides like waterslides and simulated surfing alongside drier activities like mini golf and gocarts.

One of the most anticipated things to do in Gulf Shores is the annual Hangout Music Festival, a three-day event featuring top musical acts. The festival, held May 19 to 21 in 2023, often draws impressive crowds thanks to its beachfront location and performances from big names like Post Malone, The Lumineers, Cardi B, Hozier and others.

When to go

Although prices and temperatures are pretty high during the busy summer months, it’s still the best time to visit Gulf Shores. You’ll enjoy ideal conditions for swimming, sunbathing and more at the region’s beaches.

The summer months (plus May, September and October) are terrific for viewing wildlife, too. This is when three different species of endangered sea turtles come to shore to lay their eggs. Visitors can watch the turtles from a safe distance but are not permitted to disturb them or the nests they leave behind.

Note that this time of year coincides with the Atlantic hurricane season, so you’ll need to be prepared, especially from June to November. Keep an eye on the weather as you lock in details for your trip, and consider buying travel insurance just in case a storm derails your plans.

Related: 3 timely tips for finding and using travel insurance this summer

Where to sleep

The Lodge at Gulf State Park is a Hilton property right on the beach. THE LODGE AT GULF STATE PARK

There are several hotels in the area, including the Hilton Garden Inn Orange Beach Beachfront, which is a few miles from the abovementioned Waterville USA. Rates start at $169 or between 38,000 and 159,000 Hilton Honors points per night.

The Lodge at Gulf State Park is another Hilton property that puts guests right on the pristine beaches of the state park. Rates here start at $542 or between 45,000 and 205,000 Hilton Honors points, depending on the time of year. Other properties in the area include Best Western and Holiday Inn Express.

There are also hundreds of reasonably priced vacation rentals, ranging in size from cozy studios to multibedroom properties ideal for families and larger groups.

Related: When a vacation rental makes more sense than a hotel

Where to eat

There’s no shortage of great food here, especially if you crave fresh-caught Gulf fish and shrimp.

Head to LuLu’s, where colorful picnic benches and an enormous outdoor jungle gym await diners. It’s run by Jimmy Buffet’s sister, so expect a fun atmosphere similar to what you’ll find at the Margaritaville chain of restaurants.

Looking for something fancier? Try Fisher’s Upstairs, helmed by James Beard Award-nominated chef Bill Briand. Known for its upscale Southern coastal cuisine, such as its shrimp and cornbread-stuffed quail, as well as its gorgeous location on the marina in Orange Beach, it’s the perfect location for a romantic night out or to celebrate a special occasion.

Featured photo by George Dodd/Getty Images.