By Paris Wolfe
Travel writer for Northeast Ohio Boomer and Beyond
[email protected] 440-867-8966
Alabama can’t compare to the amount of coastline in Florida, but the state offers an engaging experience along the beautiful sugar sand beaches it has. For those who want to get away from winter for a few days or a few months, it’s fairly easy on the budget.
We took three days to travel 1,000 miles south in our RV during the shoulder season and spent four days parked at Pandion Ridge RV Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The year-old park offers 142 sites on 30 acres surrounded by generous grassy open space. When we weren’t checking out the surrounding attractions, we unfolded lounge chairs and soaked some sun.
The common area here includes a pool, hot tub, and pond. You’re cautioned to watch out for gators, but sitings are few and far between. Bikes are available for those who want to explore the 23 miles of paved trails in the adjacent Gulf State Park and Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail.
While we like to cook, dining out helps immerse in the localness. The most remarkable restaurant we visited was Salt, powered by local celebrity chef and former Boy Scout Chris Sherrill. When you walk through the doors you smell bacon from handmade, animal-fat candles. The environmental commitment to recycle/repurpose continues throughout the restaurant with composting and more.
Most intriguing are the specials. Two years ago Sherrill helped found NUISANCE Group, “a team committed to raising awareness of Gulf Coast flora and fauna considered to be a Nuisance, Underutilized and/or Invasive that are also Sustainable and Available through Noble Culinary Endeavors.”
His pick of the underutilized, invasive nuisance is the lionfish. Lionfish – just 13 to 16 inches long – gobble feeder fish that native species need to survive, and they reproduce like bacteria. They’re threatening the sustainability of reef habitat, fish populations and fisherman livelihood.
In the kitchen, lionfish become a versatile, flaky white-fleshed fish. If our fried lionfish dinner with satsuma beurre blanc and risotto was any example, we should eat the problem.
Another night out we rode our motorcycle – we hauled it in a trailer behind the RV — from Gulf Shores to the Florida border and the iconic Florabama complex. Best known for its casual Lounge, the kitchen steps it up at the waterfront Yachtclub.
When not eating, the ocean beckoned. Along the shore, we squinted behind our sunglasses to soften the sun’s intensity. Wading in tepid saltwater, we watched seagulls swarm beachgoers with snacks.
Despite decades near Lake Erie, neither of us could build a respectable sandcastle. So, we hired Janel Hawkins owner of Sandcastle University. The 23-year-old artist and entrepreneur teaches more than 300 classes per year.
At our beachfront meeting spot, she lined up four water-filled five-gallon buckets, two child-size spades, several carving tools, an aerosol can of WD40 and a plastic form made from a bottomless bucket. A three-foot-wide pyramid of dry, loose sand awaited construction.
The sand pyramid was essential. She douses it with water, then mixes and tamps the wet sand into a hard, flat platform.
Hawkins sprays WD40 inside the form — the bottomless bucket — to ease release. Then, she centers the form on the hard sand foundation. She fills the bucket halfway with sand, mixes in water and lets gravity drain it so grains settle tightly together. She repeats the process to fill the form. Then, with a gentle twist, she lifts the form to display a blank sand tower.
With tools – kitchen implements like spatulas, drinking straw, pastry brush and measuring spoon –she cuts “teeth” on the turret, carves a balcony and windows, and defines bricks and staircases. She washes rough edges with a pastry brush and uses a straw to blow stray sand from delicate features.
Interested? Hawkins also teaches an advanced two-hour class that includes multiple structures and additional details.
The Gulf is known for its watery sunsets and Gulf Shores/Orange Beach is no different. Wild Hearts Sail provides appetizers on a 53-foot catamaran sailboat for a waterfront seat. Jellyfish are sighted over the sides and dolphins sometimes rise to the occasion.
So many more activities are possible. In Pensacola, the National Naval Aviation Museum is an easy hour drive. On most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from March to November, the Blue Angels—five F/A-18 Hornets — practice maneuvers there. Speed and synchronized flight typically begin at 11:30 a.m. (Central Time), and last about 55 minutes. Admission is free. Wild Heart Sail also offers an all-day cruise to the event.
After soaking in some Southern sun and fun, a northern winter seems more bearable.