In late 2020, the Year of the Dumpster Fire, my family and I resolved to plan a trip for 2021. A big trip. We all needed something to look forward to. During our discussions, one destination kept coming up: Gulf Shores, Alabama. None of us had ever been, though it had been on my radar for a number of years. We all know several people who vacation there and love it, so we decided that’s where we would go, too.
When I say “my family”, I mean my WHOLE family: my mom, my two siblings and their spouses, me, and all of our kids. Six adults and 6 children. We knew exactly what we wanted as far as accommodations: a big enough house on the beach with a private pool. Easy enough, right?
Finding a vacation rental
Searches with our specific criteria did not yield many results. I learned that properties with private pools are limited in Gulf Shores. I also learned that vacation-rental inventory was low overall as the area is still recovering from damage caused by Hurricane Sally in September 2020. We had our work cut out for us.
Eventually, we booked a property with Harris Vacation Rentals that met all of our criteria. Or so we thought. We experienced a bit of a “miscommunication” with Harris. While it was stressful and aggravating, Harris ultimately resolved the problem. We ended up booking their property, Nemo’s Grotto, a 4-bedroom, 4-bathroom house right on the beach with a private pool, for one week (Saturday-Saturday).
The house could not have been more perfect. We walked out the back door onto the deck, then down the stairs and onto the beach. When the sun and heat got to be too much, we retreated to our private pool which is actually below the house. Sounds odd, I know, and we were a bit skeptical at first. But having a shaded, outdoor space actually turned out to be a blessing.
Getting to Gulf Shores
My mom, my kids, and I made the drive down from Chicago. Check-in at the house was on Saturday afternoon. We left Chicago on Friday afternoon, planned to stop for the night somewhere in Tennessee, and drive the rest of the way on Saturday. All was going well until we got a bit past Birmingham on I-65. The interstate became a parking lot. The GPS alerted us to a couple of accidents but plain old traffic caused the rest of the delays. Traffic remained heavy for the rest of the drive and added an additional 4 hours to our trip.
Most Gulf Shores rentals are Saturday-Saturday, so vacationers try to arrive around the same time. I know how this works; I have experienced it on drives to and from Florida. My advice is if trying to get to Gulf Shores via I-65 South, break up the drive over a few days, getting early starts. If that is not an option, just be prepared for significant delays and plan accordingly.
My siblings and their families did not drive down. Instead, they flew into Pensacola, Florida, rented a car, and made the drive to Gulf Shores from there. Flying certainly is more convenient. I would have gone with that option but I wanted to see more of Alabama after our week in Gulf Shores. (My mom, my kids, and I actually road-tripped for a week through Alabama before returning home to Chicago. There will be more to come on that!)
What we loved about Gulf Shores
As I mentioned, our vacation rental was perfect. We loved having such convenient access to the beach. While the beach was always well-populated, never was it so crowded that we were uncomfortable.
A few other things we loved and appreciated:
- Non-beach/non-pool entertainment options for the kids, like OWA amusement park in nearby Foley.
- The weather. Except for part of one day, we had bright sunshine and warm breezes the entire week.
- Fishing opportunities. My brother, our brother-in-law, and I went out for a half-day trip with Captain Perry Davis of Off The Hook Charters. We caught so many fish (speckled trout) that we literally were giving it away.
- Related: so much seafood!
- Fort Morgan State Historic Site, a Third System masonry fort built between 1819 and 1833. Fort Morgan was active during four wars: the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II.
What we didn’t love about Gulf Shores
As we know, not every trip is going to be 100% perfect. There are a few things about Gulf Shores that we really didn’t love.
- It’s crowded. I mean, I know people are excited to be out traveling again, but Gulf Shores was a bit too crowded for my liking.
- Related: heavy traffic. I’m talking traffic jams of Chicago proportions. That doesn’t make for a very relaxing vacation.
- Also related: long waits at restaurants. Part of our reason for renting a self-catering home was to cook our own meals. However, we were on vacation and wanted to go out for a couple of nice dinners. We found out that very few restaurants in the area take reservations, even for groups of our size (12 people). Some places offer the option to call ahead and put your name on the waitlist, but those waits were even 2-3 hours long. Not very convenient when you have 6 kids in your party, 5 of whom are under the age of 10. (Read: MELTDOWN CITY.) The few times we did choose to dine out, we tried to arrive at the restaurants well before the dinner rush (like, 4:00 PM). Other times, our group split up with one family of 4 going out to eat and the rest of us making dinner at the house.
Would I go back to Gulf Shores?
Wait, kind of.
So, we ventured over to Orange Beach and also into Fort Morgan. Both seemed way less crowded and more laid-back. If I were to return to the area, I’d have to stay in one of those places. I probably wouldn’t be able to handle the crowds in Gulf Shores again.
One last thing…
As I mentioned, most travelers to Gulf Shores stay Saturday to Saturday. If you arrive on Saturday afternoon and plan to go grocery shopping, expect stores to be exceptionally crowded and, in some cases, the shelves bare (Walmart). I suggest bringing as many provisions as possible with you and waiting until the morning after your arrival to do your shopping. Instacart is also available at stores like Rouses Market, a well-stocked and diverse grocery in Gulf Shores.
Ok, so this really is the last thing. I can see why families return to Gulf Shores year after year. I also know at least a dozen fellow travel bloggers that have been on media trips to Gulf Shores and just rave about it. I’m not trying to counter what anyone else has shared about Gulf Shores; I’m merely sharing my experience. While I did have an awesome time with my family, it would have to take a really sweet deal to get me to return to Gulf Shores.