A Tourist in My Own Town: Taking A Fresh Look at Coastal Alabama
By Marcia Bradford, ConventionSouth Senior Editor
My experiences with the Alabama Gulf Coast go WAY back. My husband and I have lived in Gulf Shores for more than 20 years and our children were raised here. But I also traveled here nearly every year during the 1960s and 70s to visit my grandparents. So, I’ve seen a lot of change and the changes keep coming, but recently, I learned about a lot of new and wonderful things that are happening along this beautiful slice of paradise, all of which are very beneficial for meeting planners and participants. Thanks to the folks at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism and Sports Tourism (GS/OB), I had the opportunity to become a tourist in my home town and it was an awesome experience!
Off To a Great Start
I need coffee to start my morning, so the first stop on my day trip was perfect; breakfast at BuzzCatz Coffee and Sweets in Orange Beach. SportsEvents Editor Sherri Middleton and I met up with GS/OB staffers Michelle Russ, CSEE, Director of Sales for the Sports Commission, and Ally Dorrough, Communications and Marketing Specialist for Tourism and Sports. In addition to fresh locally-roasted coffee, we sampled some of their tasty breakfast dishes. They have delicious daily specials, vegetarian options and homemade pastries, including their popular cinnamon rolls. (Yelp Reviews recently rated this café on Canal Road as the best breakfast in Alabama.)
Of special interest to meeting planners, BuzzCatz is part of a group of hospitality-oriented businesses owned by Brian and Jodi Harsany. The café is just a short distance from Cosmo’s Restaurant & Bar, which features unique versions of local staples, such as the chicken roulade wrapped in bacon, the sesame seared tuna salad and the traditional crab cakes done with a twist. Cosmo’s also specializes in event catering for meetings and reunions. Located within Cosmo’s Courtyard and connected to BuzzCatz, Magnolia Hall is a spacious event venue offering 4,200 square feet of space, with a large veranda and a semi-private patio overlooking a grassy courtyard. Just beyond Magnolia Hall and overlooking Wolf Bay, Luna’s Eat & Drink offers a variety of Southern dishes and craft beers as well as a sandy enclosed playground for children. (alabamacoastalcatering.com)
Exploring OB’s Expansive Sports Facilities
It’s been more than a decade since my daughter played high school soccer games at the Orange Beach Sportsplex
and wow has this facility expanded! Over the years since it opened in 2001, the Sportsplex has added playing fields, a new field house, a 1,500-seat stadium with pressbox, locker rooms and a second concession stand. The facility hosts SEC Women’s Soccer Championships and has hosted NCAA Men’s & Women’s Soccer Tournaments, NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championships, NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship and high school tournaments from various states.
Athletic Director Laura Davis showed us around the sports fields and pointed out the new sand volleyball area. Since the Alabama Gulf Coast began hosting NCAA’s National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship in Gulf Shores, the sport has become very popular in the area, with many young local athletes aspiring to become future champions of the fast-growing sport.
We also ventured out onto the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, which connects the OB Sportsplex to miles of trails in and around Gulf State Park. This is a great area for teambuilding, biking and Segway tours or just strolling through the native environment. (orangebeachal.gov)
Building Castles In The Sand
If you’re like me and thought there were no lessons to be learned when it comes to constructing sand castles, you would be mistaken. With a nice breeze blowing off the Gulf of Mexico, a small group of us (including Amy Peralta, CGMP, Sales Manager for GS/OB Tourism, who joined us for this adventure) gathered at Gulf Place, the public beach area in Gulf Shores near the Hangout restaurant, for Sand Castle 101. This one-hour class that introduces small groups to the basics of building fantastic sand castles is taught by the talented Janel Hawkins, Gulf Shores’ very own sand sculptor. How good is she? She’s been building 14-foot sand sculptures for the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championships the last three years. She did a great job of helping us build our own castles and even demonstrated a few of her more advanced techniques. Besides learning a new skill, this class offers a great team-building exercise as well as a chance to have some fun in the sun, sand and surf (yes, you will need to get into the water, at least knee-deep.)
Sand Castle University will meet at a group’s beach location, including areas of the public beach. All equipment is provided. (sandcastleu.com)
Touring the Fantastic Facilities At The Gulf Shores Sportsplex
I also had many occasions to attend sports events at the Gulf Shores Sportsplex when my kids were growing up and, once again, I was very impressed at the expansion of the facilities there in recent years. We were shown around the 100-acre property by Jeff Hopkins, Parks and Facilities Manager for the city of Gulf Shores, and Ashley Wilson, Sports and Events Sales Manager for GS/OB Sports. This multifaceted site includes the 4,000-seat Mickey Miller Blackwell Stadium, where high school and collegiate championship football games and track and field meets are held. Among the high-profile events hosted here are the NAIA Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track & Field National Championships.
There’s also the 5-Plex, a group of five 300-foot baseball/softball fields that encircle an elevated, indoor press box and officials area. The pentagonal shape is perfect for multi-team tournaments, which is why the USSSA Global Sports World Series and the NCAA Sand Dollar Classic Softball Tournament have been hosted here. The Gulf Shores Sportsplex also features soccer fields and a varsity baseball field, along with locker rooms, concessions and picnic areas. (gulfshoresal.gov)
Lunch at Lulu’s
After a busy morning it was great to relax and enjoy the coastal cuisine offered at Lucy Buffet’s Lulu’s in Gulf Shores. This is a place I have often taken out-of-town visitors as it offers up a nice slice of life along the Alabama gulf coast. Located along the Intracoastal Canal, this iconic venue is more than a restaurant that serves great food and drink; it’s also a family-oriented attraction, with live music featured many evenings, fun activities for kids of all ages and a wonderful gift shop. Many visitors, including sports teams and meeting goers, regard it as a “must-visit” spot when they are in the area. And even as it retains a somewhat historic feel of simple, laid-back gulf coast atmosphere, there are constantly new additions and changes to keep the experience fresh and new. Recently, along with local seafood, meats and produce, the menu was expanded to offer many vegan, gluten-free and other options that address specific food allergies and preferences. Additionally, the spacious restaurant allows groups to dine together and guests can avoid waiting in the long lines that sometimes form by “getting online to get inline.” Many thanks to Marketing and Communications specialist Gabrielle Barnett, who told us all about the most recent developments at Lulu’s. (lulubuffett.com)
Meetings in PBR Paradise
When looking for a place along Alabama’s Gulf Coast to hold serious meetings mixed with fun waterfront activities, planners arranging conventions, conferences, sales meetings and special events have long turned to the Perdido Beach Resort (PBR) in Orange Beach. This elegant yet comfortable resort, which is an excellent spot for conducting business by the beach, has 45,000 square feet of meeting space, in-house state-of-the-art audio/visual services and five dining options, including Voyagers, a gourmet restaurant with stunning sunset views. Each of the 344 guest rooms also offer views of the gulf from private balconies.
Larry Morris, director of sales for the property, showed us a variety of indoor and outdoor meeting spaces, many of which were renovated in 2018 and several of which provide beautiful views of the beach and Gulf of Mexico. He pointed out technology upgrades and new design features in the meeting areas and energy-efficient LED lighting installed in the pool area. He also announced that a new children’s program, offering indoor and outdoor activities for kids while parents attend meetings or enjoy an evening out, is opening in time for the summer season.
A privately-owned and operated resort, the PBR not only has its own beach area, it also offers guests access to a range of water-based activities on Perdido Bay, located just across the street. Paddle board, kayaks, pontoon boats, parasailing and rides on the Wild Heart catamaran are just some of the options for individuals and groups. According to Morris, the resort staff can help groups arrange for a variety of team-building activities ranging from margarita and salsa making competitions to catching ghost crabs to beach Olympics and bonfires with s’mores. (perdidobeachresort.com)
An Eco-Friendly Meeting and Event Site
Having watched the development of The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel, I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to tour this new property which is seeking to become the first LEED-Gold, FORTIFIED Commercial, and SITES Platinum hotel and conference facility on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Opened in October 2018, the new venue replaces the original Lodge at Gulf State park, which was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. While the new facility has a completely different design and reduces the footprint of the original buildings by nearly one-third, it pays tribute to the original with photos, artwork and signs.
Director of Sales and Marketing Dan Keyser proudly pointed out all of the energy-efficient and attractive design elements of the 350-room hotel and 40,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space. For starters, the buildings are set back 200 to 225 feet from the gulf to allow for dune restoration and natural dune movement. They are also positioned to take advantage of the sea breezes and to maximize natural light. These and other design details reduce energy use by 32 percent and interior water use by 35 percent.
The new resort is surrounded by 6,150 acres of Gulf State Park’s pristine coastal ecosystems and each guest room has either beach or park views. There are family-friendly rooms with bunkbeds and lots of gulf-front terraces accessible from the lobbies and hallways. Meeting planners will appreciate business-friendly rooms with murphy beds that also have their own gorgeous views of the gulf. Included in the meeting space, most of which offers views of the gulf, is one of the largest ballrooms on the gulf coast with a direct view of the Gulf of Mexico.
Recreational options include a gulf-front infinity pool, 24-hour fitness center, 28 miles of hiking and biking trails and 900-acre freshwater fishing lake along. There are also five dining options, including two restaurants with great views of the gulf. Perch, which offers freshly prepared and locally sourced dishes, is open for dinner and late-night dining and has a large outdoor deck as well as indoor seating. Food Craft, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner offers a more casual setting but also locally sourced food.
During our visit we enjoyed some wonderful crafted cocktails at Perch, while watching the waves roll in. There are lots of cozy seating areas for groups to gather and listen to the nightly entertainment. (lodgeatgulfstatepark.com)
Grand Finale at Fisher’s
We ended our day with a fantastic meal at Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina. Named one of The South’s Best Restaurants for 2019 by Southern Living, Fisher’s offers both dockside and upstairs (indoor) dining. While I had previously enjoyed dining by the dock on previous occasions, I had never gotten to experience the upstairs restaurant. This is truly a fine dining establishment, with white linen tablecloths and draperies, cypress tables, unique lighting fixtures and incredible food! I loved the Seared Jumbo Scallops but the Filet Mignon also looked excellent. Chef Bill Briand has created a seasonally inspired menu that celebrates both local ingredients and his Louisiana heritage. Meals are enhanced by craft cocktails created at two stunning bars, and a carefully curated wine list produced by Sara Kavanaugh. As the sun set over the bay and marina, we all raised our glasses to a fun-filled day of being tourists in our own home town! (fishersobm.com)
Come check it out! You and your group will want to return again and again!