I honestly didn’t have a clue what to expect when I went to visit Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama. I was invited as part of a group from the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association to see firsthand how the region is recovering from the oil spill caused when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform caused a massive spill releasing millions of gallons of crude oil into the fragile Gulf of Mexico. Objectivity is an important quality when covering stories and I went there with curiosity and an open mind.
We flew into Pensacola and met Jo Duncan, one of our tour organizers and Jason Johnson, our soon to be indispensable bus driver. We crossed the Florida/Alabama border and shortly thereafter arrived at Turquoise Place, our home away from home for the next four nights. Turquoise Place is a member of the Spectrum Resorts family and features 3 to 5 bedroom residence suites on the water with every amenity you could imagine. Wolf and Sub Zero appliances in the kitchen, private hot tub on the balcony, an enormous master bedroom with a walk in closet big enough to live in. The views will take your breath away. While looking out from the balcony, the clean up crew was in plain sight, about 8 to 10 vehicles that go up and down the beach cleaning the sand down to six feet. That work is scheduled to be complete by January 1. As of now, the sand looks like powdered sugar.
Our first order of business was to grab some dinner and for that we headed to Lulu’s at Homeport Marina. Lulu is Lucy Buffett, Jimmy’s younger sister. He is known to pop in from time to time for an impromptu performance, but neither he nor Lucy were there when we arrived. General Manager Johnny Fisher welcomed us and shortly thereafter the food began to arrive. We dug into L.A. (Lower Alabama) caviar (black-eyed peas in balsamic vinaigrette), peel ‘n eat shrimp, crab claws, chicken fingers and gumbo. I ordered a Cheeseburger In Paradise with bacon. I decided to forgo wine for the evening so I opted for Lulu’s Favorite Margarita and didn’t regret my choice. For dessert we shared a Krispy Kreme bread pudding, Key Lime Pie and a Brownie In Paradise. As a bonus, we were there during the 16th Annual Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival and enjoyed music from Jerry Salley, Carl Jackson & Larry Cordle followed by Anthony Crawford, Savanna Lee “Sugarcane Jane” & Lisa Mills, the first of several performances we enjoyed during the week. It was also our first taste of Southern hospitality and we were made to feel most welcome.
We began the next day with a visit to the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach Welcome center where we met Ron Kutter, chairman of the annual National Shrimp Festival. Ron said they were a little apprehensive about how big the crowds would be following the spill. Much to everyone’s relief, folks arrived in droves. More than 100,000 people showed up for the four day festival, providing a much needed shot in the arm to the area’s economy and morale. I’m going to make every effort to attend the 2011 Festival, the 40th annual. We met and heard from Brody Olive, Executive Chef at Villaggio Grille in Orange Beach. Brody speaks with an obvious passion and was last year’s winner of the Shrimp cookoff during the Festival. We all left eager to taste his cuisine two nights later.
From there it was off to the Orange Beach Art Center, where Wanda Price showed us some of the lovely local artwork on display and then took us to see Sam Cornman at work blowing glass in the Hot Shop. What Sam does is hard to put into words, so I’ll let you watch him at work. He showed off for us at the end.
We took the short drive to the charming town of Magnolia Springs and enjoyed brunch at the Magnolia Springs Bed & Breakfast. Innkeepers David Worthington and Eric Bigelow prepared a wonderful meal of a fritatta, bacon, mini blueberry muffins and garlic cheese grits for us and David told us about the historic inn that was constructed in 1897 and has been faithfully restored to its earlier grandeur. They have operated the inn since 1997 and it is another excellent example of true southern hospitality. We strolled underneath a canopy of oak trees to Moore Brothers Village Market and Jesse’s Restaurant for dessert. Nicole Houser and her husband Shay operate this delightful place, serving steaks and seafood and desserts you simply have to try to believe. Pastry Chef Jennifer Haffner owed us with an incredible array. You may remember Lane Cake from To Kill A Mockingbird. We tasted that southern specialty as well as bourbon-pecan pie, a fabulous bread pudding, brownies with ice cream and more. Nicole and Jennifer exuded charm and I left with a desire to return for a full meal and a longer visit.
We were scheduled to take a tour boat to see the dolphins, but Mother Nature had different plans. It was raining and the Cetacean Cruise tour wasn’t completely covered. Captain Bill Mitchell boarded our bus and gave us an overview of dolphins and how he’s gotten to know them over the years. They travel in small groups called pods and he refers to many of them by name, recognizing them by distinctive markings they bear. I was lucky enough to spot a pod rollicking in the waters in front of our balcony. Missing the tour is another reason I look forward to returning to Alabama.
We returned to Turquoise Place to freshen up for dinner. We set out for Cosmo’s, owned and operated by Brian and Jodi Harsany. The name of the restaurant comes from a dog the Harsanys rescued from a shelter. You’ll notice canine references throughout the restaurant and the adjoining gift shop, Maggie’s Bottle & Tail. Brian shared with us that they pride themselves on using local farmers whenever they can and that they make everything fresh from scratch. Wine Spectator has honored them with an Award of Excellence for their wine list. Chef Bart Wilson spent some time with us and then we dug in, sampling a wide array of food. I enjoyed a pecan crusted redfish while others had rib-eye steak onion rings, a banana leaf wrapped seabass and other taste sensations as well as appetizers like crabcakes and firecracker shrimp (one of my favorites) and once again, sinfully good desserts including peanut butter pie and a three layer Death by Chocolate cheesecake. One layer had peanut butter, oats and brown and white sugar, the next contained cocoa, choclate chips, marshmallows and cream cheese and the final layer was almost a mousse with melted chocolate and whipping cream.
Our trip was off to an excellent start. I was developing a strong fondness for Alabama’s Gulf Coast and we had barely scratched the surface. I’ll have more tales to share in the weeks to come.