When someone in my family suggested we go to Alabama for a family beach vacation, I thought they were crazy. I thought (out loud) “there isn’t a beach in Alabama!” – but I had no idea how wrong I was.
I was accustomed to beach houses the east coast, especially North Carolina down through Florida. Those were the prime locations for houses that could hold all 15 of us for a week, right? I never thought to look at Alabama.
That was over 10 years ago, and our annual family beach vacation has been on Dauphin Island every year since then.
Dauphin Island is a small island about an hour south of Mobile, Alabama. The quiet beaches and relaxing atmosphere makes every minute feel like island time. As relaxed as it is, there is so much activity on the island, adventure is never far away.
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What Has Us Going Back To Dauphin Island Each Year?
The lazy days with family, spent swatching the waves and all the little sea creatures. The local adventures, like the one we had on an airboat, scouting out alligators at a nearby swamp. And pulling up a chair for a dinner of the freshest shrimp, crab, and oysters you can find.
But most of all, it’s the small town, family-friendly feel to the island that makes Dauphin Island our summer destination year after year. No over-crowded beaches or heavy traffic every time you venture out.
Where To Stay
There are a few options for accommodations that fit almost every need. If you are traveling with a larger group, there are a lot of house rentals that will hold the entire family. There is also a small motel, condo rentals, and even a few RV parks if you don’t need as much space as the beach houses tend to have.
With the condos and many of the rental houses are right on the water, you’ll get easy access to the beach. And this means you’ll get to leave a lot of your beach gear there through out the day, or even overnight – no need to pack up and haul everything back and forth. This was a lifesaver when the kids were too little to haul all their sand toys in each night!
We always bring a pop-up canopy to provide plenty of shade when spending long days on the beach. Ours is similar to the one available here.
The Best Ways to Spend Your Week (or Weekend)
Head to the east side of the island and visit Fort Gaines, the Sea Lab Estuarium, or the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. There is plenty for the kids to explore!
On the west side of the island, but sure to hit West End Beach for free outdoor movies on Wednesday nights (schedule may vary, so check the town’s calendar for movies and other events).
Looking to get a little more activity? The island is very bike friendly, but if you didn’t bring your own, there are plenty of places to rent from. Have golfers in your group? Check out the 18-hole golf course right on the island. And if that’s not quite your speed, there is miniature golf too!
Shop at one of the boutiques and souvenir shops on the island. Our favorite is the Happy Octopus for cute clothes and jewelery!
Or just sit back, relax, and watch for wildlife. From the deck of the house, we can see dolphins swimming and pelicans dive-bombing for their lunch. Hermit and sand crabs are busy trying to escape back to their holes in the sand. And sea turtles are laying their eggs right on the beach (if you are fortunate enough to experience this, be sure to respectfully observe from afar). Egrets take walks on the beach with you, and even pay a visit on your porch. Of course, there are always plenty of seagulls!
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Swim, of course! The gulf waters have waves to jump and you can even catch a wave or two with a boogie board, but these waves are much calmer compared to the ocean. This makes it the perfect place for little ones to get used to waves without it being too overwhelming – for the kids and for the parents!
We pack up our inflatable kayaks to paddle around the island (these super-portable kayaks can be found here: Intex Challenger K1 Kayak, 1-Person Inflatable Kayak Set with Aluminum Oars and High Output Air Pump). You can also get out onto the water on jet skis, pontoons, or SUPs – all are available for rent on the island!
Guided fishing or dolphin watch tours are also available if you want to sit back and let someone else take the wheel!
Just Off Dauphin Island
Near Fort Gaines you can hop on the ferry boat over to Gulf Shores. This is so cool for the kids because you drive your car right up onto the boat! Gulf Shores has lots of shops, restaurants, and activities to pack in a full day. Don’t miss lunch or dinner at Lulu’s! Jimmy Buffet’s sister’s restaurant is like an escape to the Carribbean. With great food and tons to do – a ropes course, a never-ending sandbox for the kids, and multiple stages for live bands – plan on staying for a few hours.
New Orleans is just 2.5 hours from Dauphin Island, so it makes a great day trip to the Big Easy. Walk through the streets of the French Quarter and through Jackson Square. If you want to venture over to iconic Bourbon Street with the kids, I would recommend going during the day time rather than after dark, when it’s a little more kid friendly. Make sure to stop for beignets (Cafe Du Monde is THE place to go) and for a bowl of gumbo!
Up for some real adventure? Head just over the Mississippi border and visit The Gator Ranch for an airboat tour and see the alligators!
Where To Eat
If you are lucky enough to be on the island all week, you’ll want to mix things up while you are there. With plenty of options for meals, you’ll have the chance to try a little bit of everything.
Stock Up On Groceries To Cook at Home
If you are staying at a house or condo, cooking at home at least a few times is great, especially if you are staying a full week. Be sure to stock up on what you can before you hit the island. There are a few grocery options on the island, but they can be limited.
Pro tip: if you have recipes in mind for your trip that require particular seasonings, mix ahead of time and pack them with you. Spices are car and airplane friendly and will save time and money once on the island. I can’t tell you how many jars of spices I’ve bought, only to use just a few teaspoons from the bottle.
Try the Local Restaurants
There are a lot of great restaurants on the island, and I think we’ve tried all of them over the years. While we do prefer to cook at home most of the time, we always make a point to go out at least once for fresh fried oysters and an order of crab claws.
We love to go to JT’s Sunset Grill for crab claws and po’ boys. If you want a cold beer with your fresh seafood though, you’ll have to go upstairs to the Pelican Pub for that – and leave the kids at home with a sitter, since the pub is 21 and older. (If do you get a chance for that date night, stop by the Sunset Grill, place your order and they’ll deliver it to you up at the bar.) The gorgeous views makes it a perfect place to watch the sun set!
Catch Your Own, or Pick Up From a Local Fisherman
This is by far my favorite. After watching the shrimp boats trolling the waters all day long, hit the local seafood shops to buy the day’s catch. We make a stop at Skinner’s on Bienville Blvd for a few pounds of fresh shrimp for our annual shrimp boil. It’s incredibly easy to make and is an easy way to feed a crowd.
Another local favorite to try: Royal Reds. This species of shrimp is only found in a few places – and the deep waters of the Gulf is one of them. Regulations prevent overfishing, so the supply isn’t high enough to be made available too far outside the area. Royal Reds are unlike any shrimp I’d ever had, and are more like lobster than shrimp. They are just as amazing as crab claws!
Want to catch your own? There are also plenty of crab traps for sale on the island (be sure to check requirements for fishing and crabbing permits). Add a little bait to the trap and throw in the water. The next day, you’ll find the trap full of crabs!
Make sure you check out this little piece of paradise when planning your next beach vacation! Or if you are looking for west coast beach destinations, check out this post from Henry and Andrew’s Guide on a family weekend in Santa Cruz!
What are your favorite destinations for a family beach vacation? Let us know in the comments!