What happened when a group of women in the golf industry hit the Gulf Coast of Alabama might make you want to round up your pals for a Gulf Shores golf vacation of your own.
WHEN THE INVITATION to an all-woman golf media tour arrived, I barely looked at the destination before emailing back an all-caps YES! Every other golf media tour seems to be designed for men and about men, unless I go by myself on behalf of GottaGoGolf.
So the concept offered up by Pam Shaheen, president of Crossroads Marketing, seemed too unique and refreshing to pass up. I landed in Pensacola, Fla., excited to meet up with Shaheen, Kay Maghan of host Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, Pat Mullaly of GolfGurls.com, Patricia Hannigan of Golf Girl’s Diary, Donna Hoffman of Women on Course and Amber Narro of Backspin Magazine.
And within the hour, it became apparent why the Gulf Coast of Alabama warranted our womanly attention. That’s about when we crossed the state line, kicked off our shoes and sank our toes into the soft, white sand at a couch-furnished restaurant called The Gulf. The Gulf is so women-friendly, it has its own gift shop. Off came sweaters and out came a relaxed, jovial esprit de corps that accompanied our exploration of golf courses, gastronomical goodies and delightful destinations.
To a woman (or, as they say in the South, “to a lady”), we were seduced by the side-by-side towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. By the last night, we were introducing ourselves with an Alabama drawl. We all wanted to come back with friends and stay longer.
We couldn’t wait to tell other women why they should visit the Gulf Coast of Alabama. Drum roll, please.
Beautiful beaches. The worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, in 2010, disabled coast beaches temporarily. The exhaustive cleanup subsequently left them among the cleanest in the nation, and they continue to undergo close monitoring. The water is tested as often as twice a week in swimming season. Though our rigorous schedule did not leave us time to visit the water, its clarity and sparkle begged us to return.
The wide range of lodging choices. We stayed in Barefoot, an eight-bedroom beachfront rental house with six master suites and a swimming pool, up north in Fort Morgan. Rental houses up and down the coast provide a great option for families, groups and those who do not want to eat out every night. (However, see below for why you might want to eat out every night.) But we also saw attractive condominiums with expansive views of bay and gulf; the hole-in-one option is probably Turquoise Place, a beachfront high-rise in Orange Beach with big, luxurious units to be found on many vacation rental websites. For the ultimate golf resort, there’s Kiva Dunes, which has on-course condos as well as vacation homes with amenities that include a new Beach Club, a complex with a gorgeous pool, creative bar and a grill. The gulf-front condos at the large resort also called the Beach Club offer easy access to the spa there. And of course there are hotel rooms galore; large groups will find everything they need at the Perdido Beach Resort, which has one of the classiest restaurants for enjoying a meal at sunset, Voyagers.
Cute waiters. Usually on a fam trip, the loveliest women are sent to serve the group. Was it just a coincidence that our tables often had the attention of handsome, charming young men? Not to mention Leck Lilayuva, the owner of Big Fish, where creative seafood dishes are served in a casual fine-dining ambiance. Lilayuva was a model (think Calvin Klein) whose travels exposed him to international cuisines. Check out Lech, uh, and the sauteed crab claws appetizer when you visit.
The Blue Angels. Based in Pensacola, the high flying stunt pilots practice regularly (usually Tuesdays and Wednesdays) over the coast. We didn’t see them, or even hear their unmistakable roar, but if you want to, be sure to check the schedule.
The seafood. Stereotypically, most golf media trips visit the top steak places, or a lively sports bar with 20 beers on tap, or the famous local rib joint. If you really want steak, you can find some of the best choices on the coast at Perdido Beach Resort’s Voyagers. But on that menu we also found a delicious Southern paella, broiled oysters and a fried green tomato appetizer featuring lots of blue crab. At Lulu’s, a sprawling destination restaurant that is owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of singer Jimmy, crowds show up nightly for fried crab claws, gumbo and more fried fruits of the sea. I believe I ate more fried food on this trip than I did all year, and with a smile on my face. I also enjoyed some fish that were new to me — triple tail and lionfish. When I go back to Gulf Shores, I will be sure to check the Eat Your Way Around the Beach itineraries on the tourism site.
The bars. As we stopped at the “Welcome to Alabama” sign, we could see that legendary Flora-Bama Lounge and Oyster Bay, where everyone who visits the beach must pop in for a dangerous cocktail called the Bushwacker. Our grueling itinerary left us too exhausted for such adventurous nightlife. We did enjoy our refreshing mojitos and sangrias at The Gulf, a striking complex built from brightly painted shipping containers. And at the Anchor Bar & Grill, with tables on the pier above Terry Cove, chef-owner Jonathan seasonally changes up a short but distinctive menu of what he calls “bar fare,” designed to encourage guests to indulge in the creative cocktail menu. Pat Mullaly took one for the team and ordered a Blonde Bushwacker, just so we could all try it. Here’s a thought: Have one for dessert, and call a cab! Oh but wait, then you’d miss the desserts at Fisher’s, where a team of servers brought out eight for us to sample. The variety of gelatos and sherbets were a hit, especially the caramel popcorn sundae, and I thought the maple creme brulee was world class. I know, this section was supposed to be about bars. Sorry.
The shopping, events and other activities. We had a wonderful, mellow afternoon visiting the newly rebuilt Coastal Arts Center, which offers workshops in glass blowing and pottery, and then shopping at The Wharf, an outdoor collection of local shops and restaurants. (If you must have your chain stores, there is a Tangier outlet mall in nearby Foley.) Adventurers can find water sports and cruises. And visitors throng to the region for festivals including the National Shrimp Festival, the Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival and, my favorite, the World Food Championships, in progress today. If you’re a foodie, visit that last website to find out how you can become a judge.
Oops, almost forgot this one: The golf! Maybe it’s not a coincidence that “Gulf Coast” in Southern sounds just like “Golf Coast.” There are many golf course communities in the area. We played at Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club, Kiva Dunes Golf Resort and Arnold Palmer’s Craft Farms, and found all three to be exceptionally Women-Welcome, with few scary carries, friendly service, fair green fees, well stocked shops and comfortable grills for a relaxed 19th hole. Front-tee yardages at the Gulf Coast golf courses range from 4,807 at Arnie’s Lost Key Golf Club into the low 5,000s, and the slopes were in the 110s to low 120s. Greens were perfect and fast, and conditions were so impeccable when we visited in October, I felt like I was walking on a plush carpet. I expected Kiva Dunes, billed as the only beachfront golf course in the area, to offer Ocean Course-like views, but golfers can’t see the gulf from the course. That’s probably best; the golf at Kiva Dunes deserves your undivided attention. It’s a bucket list golf course that feels like a sanctuary, and I would rank it among my all-time top 10. Designer Jerry Pate came back recently to soften up some of the harsh bunkers, making it less torturous for beginners. But even though there is only one forced carry from the forward tees, if you can’t hit your golf balls straight, bring lots of them.
Men will like it too. In the end it must be said that men would probably like the Gulf Coast of Alabama as much as we did. But, for once, it wasn’t about them!
To plan your own Gulf Coast golf getaway, start with the great resources at GulfShores.com.