Alabama's Gulf Shores ready for golfers, beach-goers to return
“How about that oil?”
That was the first thing out of Rich Gehr’s mouth as we met inside the pro shop at Craft Farms Golf Resort in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Later that night, the manager at The Hangout, an ultra-cool joint right on the Gulf of Mexico known for its live music jams, asked if I had gills growing on my body from contaminated seafood. He will host Bon Jovi (Oct. 15) and Brad Paisley (Oct. 17) to revive what has been a lost tourist season.
Unfortunately, the now infamous BP oil spill’s impact on the region has been no joke the last six months, but the locals have turned to humor to keep from crying. Tourism dollars are way down at the dozens of seafood restaurants, bars, golf courses and condo hotels lining the strip.
Maybe brighter days could be ahead. There’s no better time to visit the region than now. The weather isn’t sultry steamy like it is in summer. A hot streak this fall finally broke last week to reveal wonderful 80 degree temperatures. Prices are more affordable in the shoulder season. The waves lapping the shore are still warm. The beaches aren’t crowded. There’s no oil, either.
I visited Gulf Shores for the first time in my life last weekend and was immediately smitten with its charms.
I made it a point to walk an entire stretch of beach outside the Lighthouse Condominium where I was staying (check out the view from my balcony above). Locals will admit they see tar balls every once in a while and media reports have indicated that some oil can be found digging 18 inches under the sand, but I saw nothing except the pure white sand that makes this part of the world so beautiful. I did see a cleanup worker walking the beach every morning just to be sure.
I was surprised to hear several locals admit that BP has done a great job with the cleanup. You’d think they’d be still ticked about the whole fiasco.
Gehr, the director of golf at Craft Farms, just happened to be staying with his family at a property on the beach the day the oil came ashore in June. He says he saw pools of oil about the size of a person but not the drenching that many believe was portrayed in the mainstream media.
“When it hit the beach it broke up,” he says. “We still walked the beach every day. Overall, the perception (of the problem) wasn’t true (in some places). The oil was in the Louisiana marshland, not on our beaches.”
I talked to a number of people on the beach to get their take. Tourist Sarah Callaway of New Orleans says she canceled several church-related trips to the region this summer, but still found time to make five trips to her “favorite” vacation destination since the spill April 20.
One trip she says her feet became covered with orange tar balls that she had trouble cleaning off. And she didn’t go in the water, filled with chemicals to disperse the oil.
But during her most recent visit, sitting in the water enjoying a perfectly sunny day, she was thrilled with results of the cleanup.
“This is the nicest it has looked,” she said last weekend. “The water is beautiful now.”
So are the golf courses. The Gulf Shores/Orange Beach region is loaded with quality places to play, headlined by the nationally ranked Kiva Dunes golf course (in the two photos below). A renovation of the greens last summer from Tiff Dwarf Bermuda to Champion Bermuda gives the Jerry Pate design the best, fastest greens around. See Mike Bailey’s Kiva Dunes review here.
Honors Golf delivers top conditioning with 36 holes of Arnold Palmer golf at Craft Farms and 27 holes by Earl Stone at Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club. The Golf Club of the Wharf in Orange Beach was given a multi-million-dollar redesign by Jay and Carter Morrish.
The Beach Club, a Spectrum Resort on the Fort Morgan Peninsula, is currently offering a golf package that includes 2-for-1 rounds at many area courses. The Beach Club is the largest full-service resort in the area with four tower condo hotels, cozy cottages (some with their own pools or hot tubs), a marketplace for shopping, a spa and the Southbeach Bar & Grill. The resort sits in an ideal location with its own secluded beach just down the road from Kiva Dunes and Peninsula. It’s also the only area resort offering a 100 percent refund if you’re not satisfied with your stay (i.e. the beach).
Gehr says he read somewhere that it takes three years for vacationers to rediscover a tourist destination after a national disaster. He and the other hard-working folks in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach hope to prove that theory all wrong.
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