I found the shoreline along Alabama’s Fort Morgan Peninsula has what many might consider perfect sand dunes – sparkling white, seemingly untouched, windblown and with thin blades of grass swaying in the wind. Add to that the squeaking sand. What? Yes, the sand actually squeaks on this stretch of the Gulf of Mexico coast, and it’s some of the whitest shorefront on Earth.
That’s because the sand from Panama City Beach to Destin to Alabama’s Gulf Shores consists of tiny quartz particles flushed down through rivers and streams from the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf during the last Ice Age, nearly 20,000 years ago. Through the millennia, the crystals that have formed the protective dunes and sandy shores have ground down to fine particles by the surf and storms, thus squeaking when rubbing against each other.
Perhaps most surprising to many is that Alabama actually has beaches – 32 miles of shorefront stretching from the Florida state line to ramparts of historic Fort Morgan on the barrier island’s edge. “In some ways we’re still a best kept secret because the vast majority of the country has no idea that we’re here,” says Kay Maghan with Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “But for others, we’re the favorite place they’ve been coming to for the last 10 or 20 years.”
Central to this stretch of beaches is undeveloped Gulf State Park with its 1,540-foot-long fishing pier, the Gulf of Mexico’s second longest. Hiking and biking paths crisscross within the park, home to RV campgrounds and lakes. And along the Intracoastal Waterway, a hot spot for visitors is The Wharf commercial district where décor shops sell sea-themed objects such as pelicans carved from driftwood and oyster shell chandeliers. Nightly light and music shows emblazon the shops, boutiques and restaurants with dancing colored lights as visitors ride one of the South’s largest Ferris wheels.
Just like other spots along the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Shores and neighboring Orange Beach are prime fishing spots. In fact, Alabama has the largest offshore reef system in the country with artificial reef structures – sunken concrete triangles, ships and cars – enhancing fishing and diving habitats. Thus it’s no surprise that the area’s mostly homegrown restaurants serve seafood caught daily – grouper, triggerfish, cobia, mackerel, amberjack and red snapper. Local seafood specialties include sweet coconut shrimp and so-called “Royal Red” shrimp caught in deep Gulf waters with a texture like lobster and crabmeat.
Fort Morgan sits about 20 miles to the west on the tip of the Fort Morgan Peninsula. The fort was the last Confederate stronghold on the Gulf during the Civil War, along the shores of where the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay took place. It’s where Union Admiral David Farragut supposedly shouted his famous command, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” when he fearlessly ordered his fleet through a line of Confederate-planted underwater mines.
Pensacola’s Blue Angels
Once leaving Alabama, I visited the 1859 Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum, the Gulf Coast’s oldest lighthouse, with views of Civil War-era forts Barrancas and Pickens. Fort Barrancas with its elongated brick walls dates back to the 18th century. The lighthouse and Fort Barrancas are on the grounds of the Naval Air Station Pensacola, home of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron with its blue jets that fly in formation. Admission is free at the National Naval Aviation Museum, the world’s largest naval aviation museum with more than 150 restored aircraft.
Destin: The Jewel along Florida’s Emerald Coast
I found more brilliantly white, squeaking sand splashed by the incredible aquamarine and green-tinted waters along the shores of Destin and Fort Walton Beach. And there’s good why the water looks so green. “The sand here is 97- 98 percent quartz and its main properties include its ability to reflect, so the sand here is cool to the touch and also has to do with the color of the water,” explains Kathy Marler Blue, Executive Director of the Destin History and Fishing Museum. “When the sunlight goes through the water and reflects off the quartz, it refracts through the bodies of the microorganisms, thus casting the color.”
Destin’s landmark, however, is HarborWalk Village and Marina with its multistory condo and hotel buildings towering over pulsing restaurants and bars. It’s from where tour operators depart on daily excursions, filling the surrounding waterways with snorkelers, kayakers and those on dolphin cruises, parasailing adventures and wave runners. The harbor is also home to the largest licensed charter and commercial fishing fleet in Florida and in North America. Destin has its own Fishing Rodeo each October.
An interesting stop for me was Destin’s Fudpucker’s Beachside Bar and Grill with its free alligator exhibit, where 100-plus gators cram a central pond beneath viewing platforms.
Other highlights include The City of Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park and Cultural Center alongside the Indian Temple Mound Museum with an actual 19-foot high earthen mound built by pre-Columbian tribes living in the area from 700-1500 AD.
SOUTH WALTON, FL – 16 Neighborhood Beach Communities
Heading east, stretching 26 miles from Destin to Panama City Beach, lie 16 beachside communities including Rosemary Beach, Inlet Beach, Seaside (where scenes from the Jim Carey movie The Truman Show were filmed), Seascape and Sandestin, to name a few. Wooden verandas skirt squeaking white sand beaches, where waters reflect the emerald glow along the Gulf of Mexico.
Narrow boardwalks curve between sparsely-grassed sand dunes. White-stuccoed walls and pastel-like facades emblazon homes and businesses not more than 40 feet high along the beachfront. “That’s part of what makes this area more appealing,” says David Demarest, Director of Communications for Visit South Walton. “This is where celebrities buy their beach homes.”
Weaving along the coast, 19-mile-long Highway 30A offers glimpses of pristine stretches of beach and winds along rare coastal dune lakes. There are four state parks with 40 percent preserved land. And visitors have wide-ranging choices of restaurants, shops and accommodations, from campgrounds and RV parks to high-end hotels, condominium rentals and beachside cottages.