Alabama Beaches Family Vacations: Where Memories Last a Lifetime

For many people, vacations mean time with loved ones in exciting destinations. They provide a way to have fun, spend quality time together and escape from the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life. One of the most popular beach destinations is the Alabama Beaches area, which includes Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan historical site. These areas offer their own vibes, activities and attractions, but at the end of the vacation, it’s about all the memories. To get an in-depth look at Alabama beaches family vacations, we talked with Emily McMackin, a longtime visitor:

Alabama Beaches Family Vacations Spotlight

alabama beaches family vacations

Photo: Emily McMackin

What’s your background? How many times have you visited Gulf Shores and Orange Beach?

I’m originally from northwest Alabama, Tuscumbia to be exact. I work as an editor for a custom content publisher, Hammock Inc., in Nashville. I have visited the Gulf Shores-Orange Beach more than 30 times. It was the closest beach to where we lived, only six hours away, so it was the go-to place, especially when we were kids.

What are your favorite memories of your Alabama beaches family vacations?

Arriving at Gulf Shores Plantation where we always stayed in a condo on the beach. We usually got there about sundown and would rush out to the balcony before unpacking to breathe in the salt air. There were bunk beds in the hallway, and my sister and I would race over to see who could claim the top bunk first.

After breakfast, we would head out to the beach after Momma sufficiently slathered us in sunscreen – we used to say that she made us look like Casper the ghost! We would all walk down the boardwalk together – my dad, my sister and me – and I remember how excited we all would get at the first glimpse of sugar white sand sparkling and shimmering in the distance. We would spend most of the day at the beach, only coming back in for sandwiches at lunch.

Looking down from the boardwalk entrance, the sand glittered like gold. It literally felt like sugar running through your hands when you picked it up. It was soft, smooth and pliable, and perfect for making sand castles – as long as you mixed in enough water. The Gulf Coast reminds me of some of our happiest times as a family.

We had this flimsy raft; it was the first thing we bought from the grocery store on our way into Gulf Shores. We would spend hours riding the waves with my dad. All three of us would climb on that raft while my dad pulled us out into the waves. We got knocked off and knocked down so many times, but would laugh so hard every time despite getting mouthfuls of saltwater and skinned knees from falling down into the sand.

If we veered out too far, my mom would run to the edge of the water and wave her hands wildly for us to come back. My sisters usually defected back to the beach, but my dad and I were fearless. We would ride the waves all afternoon until my stomach hurt from laughing so much, the saltwater stung my eyes, and my cheeks were sunburned from going too long without sunscreen.

My sisters and I also loved collecting shells. The best time was late afternoon during high-tide. When the sun started sinking, we strolled down the beach and scoured the shore for sand dollars and bright-colored shells wrapped in curvy shapes.

alabama beaches family vacations

Photo: Emily McMackin

How did these vacations bring your family closer together?

Alabama’s Gulf Coast is the backdrop of so many of my favorite summer memories. My parents were strong believers in family vacations, and they hardly missed a year of taking us down there. We looked forward to it every year and made so many memories. My parents were almost like kids when it came to the beach, and we all played and explored together! Gulf Shores is not what you would call a party beach, except if you go to the Flora-Bama! It’s very centered around families and family fun. There is such a great mix of history, shopping, restaurants and water activities.

The beach was our playground. We enjoyed being there with nothing to worry about, stress over or think too hard about. We had fun taking it all in and even seemed to get along better at the beach!

Now that we are all grown up and my dad has passed, those carefree summer days on the Gulf Coast are some of the memories I treasure the most. I think about all the laughs and lively dinners we had; the food we discovered and stuffed ourselves with; the cheesy souvenirs we bought; the sand castles we built; and the waves we conquered. They are memories we will always share as a family and we still talk about.

alabama beaches family vacations itrip

What are your favorite things to do, places to eat, attractions, etc.?

There was a little cabana on the beach where we stayed that made the best chocolate milkshakes. They were rich, thick and tasted like heaven after a hot afternoon in the sun. We would go out to dinner every night, and it was always an event! My sisters and I would wear our favorite sundresses and get ourselves all fixed up.

Some of our favorite restaurants are LuLu’s Gulf Shores (owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister), Wolf Bay Lodge (where I had my first taste of real seafood and my love of seafood began), Papa Rocco’s in Gulf Shores (Italian), and Shipp’s Harbour Grille in Orange Beach. I loved LuLu’s. They had the best live music – which, of course, played all the Buffett hits. The dishes came with this mouthwatering dip called Alabama caviar made with black-eyed peas, onion, peppers and tomatoes seasoned with parsley, oil, vinegar and sugar. Side note: I also had one of the best cups of coffee of my life there!

One of my favorite memories as a kid was eating at restaurants overlooking Perdido Pass, the body of water connecting Perdido Bay in Florida with the Gulf, and going to get ice cream at night. Our favorite stop: Scoops Olde Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor, which is still there.

In recent years, we also visited The Wharf, an entertainment and shopping complex in Orange Beach, and it was a fun place to shop and visit! The shops always had lots of quirky items, locally made jewelry, and beachy clothes and collectibles.

Do you have any tips for those visiting Gulf Shores and Orange Beach?

Take time to visit some of the historical sites, especially in the Gulf Shores area. I’ll never forget our trip to Fort Morgan, the site of several naval battles during the Civil War, and the USS Alabama, a WWII battleship that saw action in the Pacific. There is so much history in the area, including the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

If you love to shop, don’t miss the great deals at Tanger Outlets in Foley located 20 minutes north of Gulf Shores. Most people don’t know this, but downtown Foley is the most charming place to visit. They have art studios, an old-fashioned soda shop and a classic Southern buffet-style restaurant called The Gift Horse, famous for its apple cheese casserole recognized by the state tourism bureau as one of the 100 dishes in Alabama to eat before you die.

Oh, and before you leave Gulf Shores, stop by Souvenir City – famous for its giant open-mouthed shark entrance. It’s a great place for photo ops, air-brushed shirts, and you can find any kind of souvenir you can imagine!