Michigan, Wisconsin, Ontario. The number plates in the condo parking lot said it all. The Snowbirds were in town. Like the migrants in the nearby bird reserves, the frozen inhabitants from the north of North America had come south for the winter. And not to Florida, but to Alabama.
Alabama’s Gulf Shores has 32 miles of sugar-white and light-tan sand, running all the way from Mobile Bay to the Florida state border. It continues on then into the Florida Panhandle, which experts say is that state’s best-kept secret. In which case, what does that make Gulf Shores? We were about to find out.
It was early March. We collected the keys to our 8th floor condo, where we walked from the front door to the balcony (which was so far we had to pause for breath halfway), and stepped out into the Mediterranean sunshine to gaze at the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It felt good. Our free copy of The Mobile Register, dropped on our doormat every morning, told us it was 38 degrees and snowing in London. It suddenly felt even better.
Down on the beach, the dazzling sand disappeared into the distance on either side. There were few other visitors, apart from some gulls and scuttling crabs, and after walking for thirty minutes towards Florida, the beach still rolled before us like a sandy deep-pile carpet. Sandals came off, toes were tickled in the hot sand. Thirty minutes in the other direction, pointing towards Mississippi, and the condos that backed the beach petered out, to be replaced by brightly-painted wooden homes and guesthouses, leading straight onto the beach. Beyond these was the start of the Gulf State Park, as this part of Alabama is riddled with waterways and protected areas, with nature trails to explore.
Next day we explored one of them, the Pine Beach Trail, leading through shaded groves of oaks draped with Spanish moss, of wild olive trees, red basil plants and, naturally, magnolia. This is the Deep South, after all. As we reached Little Lagoon (which is of course big), a huge grey heron took flight across the water. There was the plop of fishes popping up to catch flies on the surface. The lagoon was fringed with white sand, and a gull circled and then dove into the water several times, looking for lunch.
As we returned to the car, a jovial truckload of Americans pulled up in a 4×4 and tumbled out. ‘Hi y’all, did you see any ‘gators? We just been up Gator Trail along the road apiece. Didn’t see no ‘gators, though. But it’s real nice, y’all ought to try it. Hey, you from England? Well, welcome t’Alabama, folks. You have a good one, now.’
Having grown up with an image of Alabama as the land of rednecks and race hatred, my picture of it was about as up-to-date as those Americans who still ask about London’s fogs.
We lunched at King Neptune’s Seafood Restaurant, the kind of place that looks little more than a shack from the outside, but which a friend said she would eat at every day of her life, if she could. With oysters at a dollar each, who could blame her? We ordered the local speciality, steamed royal red shrimp, and the waitress brought a plate the size of a dustbin lid filled with shrimps as big as lobsters. They tasted peppery and seemed to have as much meat as the average chicken.
I got into conversation with a local lady at the next table, and asked her why she preferred Alabama to Florida. ‘Well,’ she drawled in that wonderful southern accent, ‘we’re more laid back here than in Florida, the pace is slower, folks have got time to talk. It’s good value too, a lot cheaper’n Florida. Good restaurants. You know, it’s safe too… why, we were sleeping with the front door open till Sunday, to keep it cool at night. And we got that southern hospitality.’
She was right about everything. Especially the hospitality. And the pace. We spent day after day strolling on the beach, eating seafood, renting movies just like the locals, and generally becoming so laid-back we were horizontal. And in all that time, the only red necks we saw were our own. We forgot the suntan cream one day.