Published – Southern Boating
©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert
The Gulf Islands National Seashore is a series of sugar sand and scrub islands peppered with centuries old forts that run along the Gulf Coast from Mississippi to Florida and together they hold some of the greatest cruising grounds in all of the deep south. Named after the heir to the King of France in 1699 by French explorers and situated in the center of this run of long, narrow barrier islands, Dauphin Island is the only developed island in this chain and home to a rustic fishing village and quiet, undisturbed beach cottages. Forming the southern boundary of Mobile Bay and located directly on the ICW, Dauphin Island is a natural destination and homebase for exploring the vibrant beachside communities of coastal Alabama and these desolate, yet stunning barrier islands.
Only 14 miles long, Dauphin Island with her sand strewn roads and year round population of only around 1,300 people was briefly the center of France’s control of their new colony in the 17th century and a major trading depot with goods arriving from Haiti, France, Cuba and Mexico due to her deep water access. Today the island is visited mainly by thousands of migratory birds returning north from South America, beach lovers and transient cruisers.
Controlling the entrance to Mobile Bay, the island’s east end is home to a stunning and well preserved Fort Gaines which was constructed between 1821 and 1848 and is bookended by the equally historic Fort Morgan on the mainland. Both saw fierce combat in the Battle of Mobile Bay between Confederate forces and the Union Navy in 1864 which included ironclads on both sides and where Admiral David Farragut commanded the now famous phrase, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
The spring and summer are the high seasons for tourists who mainly rent the many raised beach houses and enjoy the warm Gulf of Mexico rolling onto her quartz sand beaches and grassy dunes that long ago washed down from the Appalachians. In April, nearly 200 sailboats will swarm down Mobile Bay for what will be the 57th running of the Dauphin Island Race and the crews and racer chasers take control of the island and the Dauphin Island Marina in one of the largest regattas in the entire United States.
Old school Gulf Coast seafood joints like JT’s Sunset Grill, Barnacle Bill’s and the Islander are overrun by sailors and locals seeking watering holes and the bounty of the seafood from South Alabama and the Northern Gulf Coast. Fresh caught shrimp from Bayou la Batre and Bon Secour (made famous by the movie Forest Gump), oysters, speckled trout and blue crabs are only the start and the raw ingredients for the culinary wizardry enjoyed by the islanders on a daily basis.
When not enjoying sweet tea or adult beverages on wide beach verandas at sunset with neighbors or beach combing alongside ghost crabs and ospreys over the miles of undisturbed sand, cruisers can join with tourists coming across on the ferry from Fort Morgan to visit the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Estuarium on the east end of the island. This state-of-the-art live science facility affiliated with Alabama’s university system is a large draw to the island and a great way for kids and adults to learn about the diverse biosystems in the coastal estuaries and habitats on these barrier islands.
After exploring Dauphin Island, multiple cruising opportunities are available. From day trips to the secluded and undeveloped barrier islands such as Horn or Petit Bois to the west which broke off of Dauphin Island in the 18th Century or to the more heavily trafficked waters of Florida’s panhandle to the east. Constantly in a state of flux as these sandy islands shift and move westward at up to 130 feet a year with the prevailing current and winds, they are remote, beautiful and rarely visited except by fishermen or shrimpers who trawl through the night. Only a few miles to the north of these Gulf islands lies Ocean Springs, Mississippi with her booming live music and dining scene that many are calling the Austin of the Gulf Coast.
Directly to the east on the mainland lie the beach communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach with the ICW passing directly behind them along with their multiple marinas and waterfront restaurants. Sharing the same sandy beaches and emerald green waters of the panhandle of Florida, this stretch of Alabama’s eastern coastline has rapidly developed and become a destination on their own with magnificent homes and condo developments. The Wharf at Orange Beach is now a major resort on the coast with a modern marina, major concerts held at its Amphitheater including regular Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney concerts and it serves as host to some of the greatest fishing tournaments on the entire Gulf Coast.
At the entrance to the ICW off of Mobile Bay and only a few hours cruise from Dauphin Island lies Lulu’s Homeport. Lulu’s is another destination marina, but this one is owned and operated by Jimmy Buffett’s sister and has the exact feel of a joint and marina coming from the Buffett family. Lulu’s is a great overnight destination catering to those interested in live music, great seafood, beach volleyball and perhaps an impromptu concert by her brother at the back bar – if you’re lucky.
Just to the north along the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay is Point Clear and the legendary resort of the Grand Hotel which has catered to the deep south since the early 1800’s. Home to multiple transient marinas, the resort has hosted the finish of some of the first sailing regattas ever held on the Gulf Coast and has the pistol balls buried deep in the oak trees from dueling 19th century skippers to prove it.
Fairhope is the crown jewel on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay and less than a half days cruise from Dauphin Island. A thriving local arts community and incredibly quaint downtown makes this town a must visit on any cruising itinerary on the Alabama coast. Home to the transient friendly Fairhope Yacht Club, Fairhhope is well known to great loopers as they either begin or finish their long expeditions.
Dauphin Island and coastal Alabama hold that classic deep Gulf Coast feel that remains authentic and not harried by the Starbucks crowd. It offers a varied cruising experience that depending on your mood, can take you from the quiet sugar sands of the Gulf of Mexico to the raucous Oyster Festival of Gulf Shores. From fishing quiet coves for redfish or telling tall tales with parrotheads, the short 53 miles of Alabama’s coastline along with her barrier island sanctuary of Dauphin Island all have a hidden and undiscovered feel to them – one that reminds cruisers of why they decided to untie those dock lines in the first place.