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The Inspirational Beauty of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach, Alabama

It’s not often I get the opportunity to right a wrong or set the record straight while thoroughly immersing myself in sugar white beaches, clear blue ocean waves, and warm tropical breezes. Pair that with total engagement in culinary nirvana, a high-end waterfront condo stay, art, music and eco-friendly golf cart tours and I can truly say I’ve lived the life of an oil-free Diva in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama.

A few weeks back the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism Bureau invited me to visit this oil-spill impacted area to see for myself what the clean-up efforts have accomplished and to experience a Gulf Shores and Orange beach stay. I am here to tell you quite simply it all looks, feels, and tastes good to me.

Day one found me joining a group of travel writers inbound from all over the Unites States. Arriving at the Pensacola Florida Airport, we met up in baggage claim and the party was on. First stop, about 40 minutes away, was check-in at our lodging at Turquoise Place in Orange Beach. Let me first explain that the Orange Beach experience is not one of hotels and motels. Instead most visitors rent condos or stay at condo-like beach resorts. I liked this idea – a lot. Turquoise Place has two towers. One is 24 stories with units ranging from 2,400 to 5,900 square feet. The second one includes 224 units over 30 floors. Think high end everything from beach front access and views and to Wolf and Sub-Zero stainless steel kitchen appliances. If it’s about a high end amenity, it’s here. Pre-construction prices started around $1.2 million. My condo was on the 6th floor, featured 3 bedrooms, amazing furnishings, and all amenities. OMG would nicely describe my stay.

Dinner was at the hip and casual Lulu’s at Homeport Marina. Wouldn’t you just know that this being a water- based town, diners can arrive by land or water. This first dinner would be my introduction to Southern style cuisine… big, tasty and a whole of fried choices. I really enjoyed the Jalapeño Hushpuppies and Fried Green Tomatoes, with a side of Sweet and Savory Spinach Salad. To explore all the delights available here buy yourself a copy of Crazy Sista Cooking by Lucy Anne Buffett (Yes, Jimmy Buffet’s sister). The music scene was also in full swing. This is a great place to relax and let go.

The next morning found us at Orange Beach Art Center. The gallery offers jewelry, paintings, crafts, sculpture and glass from local artists. I have to say our group did some major spending, purchasing some very unique gifts. The highlight of this place is the Hot Shop Studio where we watched Sam Cornman, a contemporary glass artist, create a beautiful hand blown vase. Most of us had no idea what an enthralling experience it is to watch a master at work. Definitely a stop for singles, couples and families. Don’t miss it.

Our mid-morning activity was a healthy brunch and site tour at the venerable five-room Magnolia Springs Bed & Breakfast. Expect classic Southern romantic Alabama, meets comfy relaxing space at this wonderful retreat. Nestled amongst a canopy of oak-lined streets, days begin with aroma therapy – the amazing smells of a homemade breakfast. Cool drinks, and sunny afternoons on a wraparound porch (complete with swing and comfortable chairs) complete the picture. Innkeepers David Worthington and Eric Bigelow work hard at providing a memorable experience. They love to provide the complete experience for their guests, so visit their Web site for package information, including amazing wine dinners.

Just down the street is Jesse’s Restaurant . Voted best steakhouse for 4 years, this is one of those spots locals love and all visitors should know about. The menu is impressive, ambitious and is complemented by an extensive wine list. Our group was there to sample desserts…and we did in a big way: Elaine Cake, Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie, Key Lime Pie, Chocolate Truffle Cake and more. Bakery Manager Jennifer Haffner deserves an award of some kind for these over-the top, delicious, to-die-for creations. Everything is made from scratch. You really really can’t beat the creativity and yumminess. And while you’re there, stroll over next door to the Moore’s Brother Market to purchase Jennifer’s exquisite Granola.

Back at the condo we enjoyed some “mandatory” time off to enjoy the beach. Just a few steps down from the Turquoise patios, we all got our sand and water groove on and enjoyed the sugar fine beaches and clear blue Atlantic waters. If it wasn’t for the oil-recovery workers in my sight line quietly and efficiently going about their business, I would have never guessed that a traumatic event had occurred. Nothing looked out of place, nothing felt different. You can relax and book your vacation here without a thought to a second rate experience.

Ready for some more night life, our group headed out for the fun and quirky Cosmo’s Restaurant. If you’re an animal lover, than this is the place for you to support. Located in Orange Beach this bistro and locals gathering spot has earned a loyal following. Cosmo, a shelter dog, rescued by proprietors Brian and Jodi Harsany, was the inspiration in the naming of this local hot spot. The colorful, eclectic decor celebrates our four-legged friends. I think you’ll be impressed with the extensive flavorful menu, cocktails, wine choices, and upbeat art. Be sure to make time to visit the fun gift shop for all sorts of animal, foodie, and wine aficionado gifts. This is a fun, foodie-focused place that I can highly recommend to you.

I happen to be a person who appreciates breakfast – especially when it’s done right. I am really glad that Tacky Jack’s, Orange Beach was included in our tour the next morning. Sitting outside next to the waterway, the sun kissed experience was a true delight. There really isn’t anything much better than an omelet and a Mimosa in the 8 a.m. hour, chased by a couple of songs by Nashville’s own Marc-Allan Barnette. Marc was there as part of the Frank Brown International Songwriter’s Festival and entertained our group on a spur of the moment request by one of the writers. Not only was his music fun and lively, but we also now know who to call when in Nashville for customized nightlife tours or for a frank evaluation of any country-western songs we’ve written. All in all, this is a must do for you…and hey! For the yummy recipe to their world-famous Farmer’s Omelet Recipe visit www.tackyjacks.com/farmervid.htm .

If you like shopping like I do, make time to visit the SanRoc Cay shopping center on Peridio Beach Blvd. In Orange Beach. You can purchase clothes, beauty supplies, purses, jewelry and home décor (and our group did big time), but there is also Beach CITE Studios an art education facility provides high-caliber art experiences through art classes, cooking classes, music classes and performances. Overall, this shopping center truly is an impressive facility that got us working off calories to assist with our luncheon plan, Cobalt the Restaurant. Big and beautiful with impressive water views the restaurant makes a great girls luncheon, family celebration or date night place. This waterfront experience has three distinctive kitchens and an in-store bakery that dresses to impress. Expect a great wine list, interesting cocktail selections and a hands-on owner and manager who are there to make sure your every wish is met.

I love tourist places that think outside of the box, so it was a great treat to buckle up in a golf cart with five other journalists that afternoon for a guided eco tour on the Hugh S. Branyon Back Country Trail. Winding through the gorgeous Georgia flora and fauna side by side with joggers, cyclists and power walkers, we got to experience firsthand the pristine trail with four distinct ecosystems covering 10 miles. It’s an insider’s deal at $60.00 per cart or $15 per person for a two-hour ride. Bring a camera. Restroom stops along the tour as well as water fountains. You can bring your own snacks; beverages if you like…and oh yea…don’t forget the insect spray in high summer.

That evening we were treated to Villaggio Grille. For me, this was the culinary highlight of our time in Orange Beach. Award winning Chef Brody Olive is one talented guy. He has a fresh take on Mediterranean classics. Cooking wholesome fresh ingredients on a wood burning stove and grill, he’s found the right touch of spices and herbs for his dishes, treating them with respect and letting them speak for themselves in a fabulous fresh flavorful voice. Afterwards we had a nightcap at the over-the-top, last of the great American roadhouses Flora-Bama Lounge & Oyster Bar . Located in Florida right on the Alabama line expect live music daily, exciting drinks and bras hanging from the ceiling. This ain’t your grandma’s cocktail lounge, but for the music lover who loves a rusty beachy atmosphere, this place will literally sing for you.

Our last day started out at the Southbeach Bar and Grill which is located at The Beach Club, Alabama Gulf Coast’s premier destination resort. Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Southbeach Bar & Grill serves some of the Gulf Coast region's finest cuisine in a relaxed, casual setting. I liked the light airy dining and the variety of breakfast selections. I got the feeling this is much more than a beach destination, more like a lifestyle choice, and Eva, Director of Public Relations, shared that they have a special 100% guarantee going on at the moment. Book your room without any deposit, stay and play and if it wasn’t everything you expected it to be, you pay nothing. This is a limited time offer, so check before you book.

Fueled up and ready to go, off we went to visit the Fort Morgan State Historic Site. Civil war buffs will be in 7th heaven. A testament to the evolution of American coast defense fortifications from 1834 to World War II, it’s truly a living history lesson calling all history buffs. Our second stop was the lovely Kiva Dunes Golf Course. If it’s golf you like this is the place for you. A lot of thought and care have been put into the stunning grounds, pricing and package offers. Even though I am not a golfer, even I could tell that this is the place to check it out before going elsewhere.

On a quest to find the most unique lunch place, The Hangout may have just made my list. This is a large open air beachy place. Look outside and it’s all white sand, volleyball and swimmers. The owner is the grand marshal of fun, having included games and kitschy decorations (like a wall of 50’s & 60’s lunch pails) to encourage family fun. But make no mistake this is also a great place for adults. Big food, big drinks and live music add to the charm of this place. This was also my introduction to fried pickles (called frickles). Yup, believe it or not, they were outstanding. Take time to go here.

After lunch, what could be better than dessert and conversation? Seriously, not much. Our hosts made the right decision to introduce us to Hope’s Cheesecake in Gulf Shores. Offering over 30 luscious, rich flavors of homemade cheesecakes since 1996, this is a wondrous place. HOPE’s is staffed by bakers with more than 30 years baking experience who are dedicated to making the best cheesecake money, time or spirit can buy. The cheesecake has a unique crust and is made in small batches with the finest ingredients like Kraft Philadelphia® cream cheese, fresh whole eggs, pure-cane sugar and juice squeezed from fresh lemons. If you can think of a flavor you like, you’ll find it here. I can tell you there was certainly a whole lot of lip snacking, finger licking activity from our group in celebration of these fine creations. Online options are available!

Our farewell dinner was at the memorable Shipp’s Harbour Grill. Located in Orange Beach this is another local’s favorite. We enjoyed the stunning Sportsman Marina views while dinning on an eclectic menu of seafood, sushi, beef dishes and notable wines. Chef/Owner Matt Shipp has owned and operated four restaurants in his memorable career. He’s is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and has worked in restaurants from New Orleans to New York. With live music Friday’s and Saturday’s this waterfront place is perfect for singles or couples. I liked the upscale, but still casual and hip décor, and it was a special treat to have Matt come out to talk to us about his cuisine. He’s another passionate chef focused on the total dining experience, from walk-in to walk out. I’d recommend dinner here for sure.

Alabama Gulf Shores is a one-of –a-kind experience that I wholly and highly recommend to you. Break out of your regular hotel/motel routine, arrive by land, sea, or air, rent a condo, and dig your mind and body into 32 miles of pristine sugar white beaches, extraordinary cuisine, and matchless activities. You can, of course, thank me later.

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