There's no need to wait for the sands of summer to warm enough for bare feet when Alabama's coast lures visitors year-round with an abundance of natural attractions.
Snowy sand beaches are the No. 1 attraction. Comprised largely of quartz, the beach covers 35 miles from the western point at Fort Morgan to Perdido Pass in the east. Beyond lies the Gulf of Mexico, a fisherman's dream for red snapper, grouper, amberjack, king mackerel, marlin or wahoo, to name just a few. Coast native Mo Shaver will take clients fly-fishing, night fishing or inshore fishing. He even provides tackle, bait, fish cleaning and the fishing license. Just load up a camera to illustrate your personal "big-fish" story.
|GORGEOUS ALABAMA - Alabama's snowy sand beaches are a prime tourist attraction. Comprised largely of quartz, the beach covers 35 miles from the western point at Fort Morgan to Perdido Pass in the east. CNS Photo by Carolyn Thornton. |
|RIVER TOWN - Magnolia Springs is a sleepy inland Alabama river town where mail is still delivered by boat. CNS Photo by Carolyn Thornton. |
|ALONG THE BOARDWALK - This boardwalk along County Road 17 protects fragile bog plants from destructive footsteps. The area contains sphagnum mosses, thread-leaf sundew, native orchids, and several species of carnivorous pitcher plants. CNS Photo by Carolyn Thornton. |
|OYSTER HUNT - Aboard one of Sailaway Charter cruiseships, Janet Beebee tongs for oysters using a device that resembles a post-hole digger. CNS Photo by Carolyn Thornton. |
Self-guided Coastal Birding Trails wind through the area since this is a major flyway for migrating birds. Historic Fort Morgan on Mobile Bay was completed in 1834. Today, it is a key spot for April and October banding. A hummer/bird study group led by Bob and Martha Sargent weighs and measures captured hummingbirds and other neo-tropical songbirds, then bands them before release. Early morning is the ideal time to capture the action with cameras. (There is an admission charge to Fort Morgan, but the banding site is free.)
A cardinal marks signage for the Bird Sanctuary of Magnolia Springs, a sleepy inland river town where mail is still delivered by boat. The old town grew up along the Magnolia River, a short detour off Highway 98, west of Foley. Fannie Flagg's novel, "A Redbird Christmas," captures the town's quaint, folksy character. While staying in Magnolia Springs, Flagg read a brochure on the early 1900s Woodbound Resort. The climate and healthy spring water - purported to cure many aliments - drew northerners to take the cure. She imagined a modern plot in which a Chicago bachelor seeking a healthy retreat discovers bird-watching and a bevy of widows eager to make him feel welcome.
Jesse's Restaurant and Moore's Village Market form the heart of this "better than Mayberry" community. It's just one area restaurant serving royal red shrimp. With extraordinarily long and pointed rostrums the crustaceans resemble medieval jousters poised to attack. One of four kinds of wild shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico, royal red shrimp are available year round, but the peak season is late summer and early fall. Because it takes bigger boats with longer lines and the capability and fuel to stay out longer, only two boats from the Bon Secour Bay area trawl for royal reds.
"We can keep them iced down for two weeks," said Al Sawyer, owner of King Neptune's Seafood Restaurant in Gulf Shores and Gulf Bay Seafood Restaurant in Orange Beach, "less in summer." Due to this short shelf life, the royal reds aren't suitable for packing and shipping, which means eat them wherever you find them.
Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve flanks both sides of Hwy 98 a few miles west of Magnolia Springs. The Visitors Center has displays that explain the importance of an estuary, where fresh and salt water come together. Tidal action aids these wetlands to filter out pollutants and supply nutrients for spawning fish, crab, shrimp and oysters. The Live Oak Trail boardwalk leads to an overlook for marsh bird-watching. Some 300 species of migratory birds seek marsh grasses for their habitat. Reserve ahead for guided tours (251-928-9792).
A second boardwalk trail rises above a pitcher plant bog along County Road 17 east of the Fish River. The boardwalk protects the fragile bog plants - sphagnum mosses, thread-leaf sundew, native orchids, and several species of carnivorous pitcher plants - from destructive footsteps.
Minimac Wildflower Bog is a privately owned preserve open by reservation (205-947-3044) April through September. Located at Silverhill, the bog surrounds a five-acre lake. The Biophilia Nature Center and Native Nursery east of Elberta on County Road 95 south is an ecological restoration project that also includes a bog, butterfly garden, bookstore and library.
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge takes its name from the Bay of the same name. The two mile long Pine Beach Trail meanders through palmettos, pines and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. The trail crosses a bridge over the mouth of Gator Lake. The beach side of Bon Secour is a haven for nesting turtles. Loggerhead turtles (the predominant type found here) come ashore to nest and lay eggs from May through October.
Loggerhead females, which can weigh between 200 and 350 pounds often nest several times during the season. Each nest can contain 100-126 pingpong-ball-looking eggs, which hatch by moonlight and starlight. When they hatch, 53 to 55 days after the female lays the eggs, the 2-inch hatchlings immediately waddle toward the sea. Share the Beach volunteers mark and protect the nests from humans and predators such as raccoons, dogs, seabirds and crabs. If they survive their first two years, sea turtles can live up to 50 years. They spend most of their lives riding rafts of sargassum in the open ocean.
Porpoise watching is a bit like a game of hide and seek. Several companies cruise Bayou St. John and Bay La Launch simply to look for wild porpoises. It is illegal to feed or touch wild marine mammals, but boat captains know porpoises love to hang out around fishing boats, so they will steer toward boats with telltale signs of circling gulls. A small geyser of water as the porpoise takes a breath of air, signals their location. Males often buddy up with males or travel in larger groups called pods. They don't like to swim alone. When a porpoise breaches near a cruise boat, the captain slows to idle, not only in hope of seeing the porpoises surface again nearby, but also to prevent injuries from the propeller.
Sailaway Charters cruises the back bay while shrimping, crabbing, oyster tonging, and bird-watching. Onboard the Miss Janet pontoon boat, each passenger receives a slip of paper to check off the wildlife spied during the cruise. The Nature Tour sheet lists 16 birds, three mammals (including porpoises), two types of crab, four types of shrimp (none of which are royal reds), and 19 species of fish found in the bay.
Reaching shallow water, Janet Beebee tongs for oysters using a device that resembles a posthole digger. "Oyster eggs are fertilized in open water," she explained. "They feed by opening a door (of their bivalve shells) just enough to filter water through. Once they mature they turn into females. Out of millions spawned, only 12 reach adult size, mainly due to fish feeding on them." Shells must measure 3 inches point-to-point before the oysters can be harvested. They develop 1 inch per year, and are called spats before they attach to an underwater surface for life.
Some of Alabama's coastal wildlife occurs indoors. Hermit crabs, for example, are favorite souvenirs. These crab charmers are painted in gaudy colors, stripes or polka dots and sold at Souvenir City as "Fancy Crabs." On summer evenings when families dine out, Calypso Restaurant holds crab races while waiting for dinner to be served. The center of a round wheel marks the finish line. Children "adopt" a painted hermit crab, which is then placed in a crowd of crabs onto the wheel. The first to crawl to the center wins.
Less predictable, but even more intriguing is jubilee, a phenomenon that only occurs around Fairhope and Daphne on Moblie Bay a few times of the year, generally during the summer. There's never advance warning, and longtime residents and vacationers report it always occurs in the middle of the night.
Someone will yell, "Jubilee!" which sends everyone scrambling out of bed, grabbing buckets, bags, boots, scoops, sacks, lanterns and pails to collect a bounty of sea creatures. So many fish and crustaceans flounder in the shallows that the water appears to boil. Jubilee only lasts a few hours, generally ending by dawn, but a single Jubilee can result in a year's worth of seafood to freeze.
No one knows why it happens, but some believe it occurs when fresh water flowing into salt water unbalances the oxygen in the water. Sometimes only crabs jubilee. Other times flounder, catfish, eels, shrimp, crab and other fish rush toward shore. According to www.wikipedia.org, folklore suggests several factors must be in place for the event to occur. The tide will be rising. The sky will be cloudy or overcast the previous day, and a gentle wind will be blowing from the east. Regardless of its origins, jubilee becomes an impromptu beach party hosted by Alabama's coastal creatures, naturally.
IF YOU GO:
Climate: Mild winters average 50 degrees F in winter. Shore breezes temper the 90-degree summer averages.
For information on lodging, activities, restaurants, and attractions contact The Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau 800-745-7263 email@example.com or www.gulfshores.com. An extensive list of condos and individual rental properties can be found through Kaiser Realty 800-225-4853 firstname.lastname@example.org or www.kaiserrealty.com
The Beach House is a B&B by the sea at 9218 Dacus Lane, Gulf Shores, AL 36542. 800-659-6004.
The Magnolia Springs B&B is the only lodging in Magnolia Springs. 251-956-7321 email@example.com or www.magnoliasprings.com.
© Copley News Service